Monday, February 14, 2011

Winter Photography in Gunma 群馬, Japan

Winter Photography

With the end of the winter season in the northern hemisphere regions, I am sharing my first experience with snow as well as some tips for Winter Photography. Although it may sound strange to some that my first contact with snow was when I was 26 years old, it is absolutely normal to people who lives near the equator, in hot and humid countries such as Malaysia and Singapore. Snow is a big deal to us!! A lot of people here live their entire life not seeing snow except in TV. So, I consider myself very lucky.

My first contact was in January 17, 2010. It happened in Minakami Okutone of Gunma Prefecture, Japan. It was a last minute call when my Japanese colleague invited me to join them for a skiing trip to the famous skiing resorts in Niigata Prefecture of Japan. He said he will be driving and an American colleague is going together. I made my intention clear, that I am there for my first contact with snow and to photograph winter!!

Winter Photography

So, how did we ended up half way in Gunma instead of Niigata? (A little bit of Geography lesson here. Gunma Prefecture is located north of Tokyo, in between Tokyo and Niigata Prefecture)

In the car, I was so excited to see snow around me!!

Our car got stuck in frozen road. It was snowing heavily in Gunma and our dear Japanese colleague had only regular tyres on, no snow tyres, no chain. So this was what happened.

Frozen Road
A car stopping by to put on the chain on their tyres
We can't move forward
Pushing the car to the road side 
The car slided sideway, dangerous!!
We finally got the car parked at the road side

With the car parked by the road side, we had no choice but to walk downhill to look for chain for the tyres. I was actually excited to be able to get down the car and start photographing. The snows were so soft and gentle, a lot softer than I thought. But the frozen road was so slippery that every step I made must be with full attention to avoid slipping and potentially breaking my camera!!

Walking downhill and the beginning of my Winter Adventure

Let me share some of the winter photography tips before I continue.

Tip#1: Wear gloves
Most of the time, holding your camera means exposing your hands to freezing or even below freezing temperatures. Be smart, be prepared. Wear enough and put on a pair of gloves. They will keep you warm enough for more photographing actions. I know wearing gloves means losing your finger sense. There are some gloves specially designed to overcome this where there are openings at the finger tips of the glove, just enough for you to sense your shutter button. Check them out if you are serious about photographing in winter.

Tip#2: Keep your feet dry
One of the worst thing that could happen in winter photography is to accidentally stepped into melted icy water and got your feet wet. Once they are wet, your feet will be so cold that you won't be able to last long outdoor. One of the solution is to be extra careful and carry a pair of spare socks and shoe. Another way is to put on water proof footwear.

Tip#3: Carry a plastic sheet to protect your camera and lens
Snow that dropped onto your camera and lens will melt quickly, forming water on top of your expensive gears. Protect them with a sheet of plastic cover or at least bring along a dry cloth to wipe off the waters on your gears.

Tip#4: Carry extra batteries
Batteries drain faster in colder environment. So, carry extra batteries as backup. Also you can keep the camera inside your winter jacket, close to your body when not in use to keep the camera warm.

Tip#5: Use Positive Exposure Compensation Setting
The white snow can trick your camera into thinking that the picture is over-exposed, causing it to choose a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture and resulting in under-exposed picture. One way to overcome this is to set your camera's Exposure Compensation setting to a positive value (example +1EV) and then set your camera to expose the snow. Fine-tune the exposure compensation value until you get a correctly exposed picture.

Tip#6: Shoot in RAW
Like mentioned earlier, winter photography involving snow can be tricky. If not treated correctly, you will get home with a bunch of over-exposed or under-exposed pictures. Shoot in RAW. You will then have ample space to increase or lower the exposure with your post processing software as RAW file carries more light information than a JPEG file.

Tip#7: HDR is a friend to Snow Photography
Although HDR post processing is not always perfect for snow photography, I find that most of the time after converting the picture to a HDR picture (often from one single RAW file), the picture looks a lot more attractive as the HDR technique is able to bring out the details of the white snow. See below two pictures for comparison.

Picture with snow without HDR treatment
Picture with snow in HDR

As we continue our journey downhill looking for help, I kept my camera's shutter working, taking pictures of the winter wonderland. The snow was falling gently onto me and everything was covered by snow! Every sight was breathtaking to me.

A house covered by snow
Vending machine buried by snow
A local restaurant
Winter Wonderland in Gunma
A bridge covered with snow
Bamboo trees in snow
Everything in snow
We started seeing a small village
Small village in Gunma
Winter Wonderland
Some houses
Houses covered by snow
House covered by snow
House covered by snow
Exploring the area
Exploring the area
Car covered by snow
Car covered by snow
They found a local ski area and they were excited
The skiing zone was packed with cars
People getting ready to ski

As we were looking for help, we found a local ski area - Okutone Ski and Snowboarding Zone. My two colleagues were excited. Three hours later, help arrived from a car towing company and we managed to get the chains to the tyres. The car was driven to the ski zone and they started skiing while I kept photographing.

Stay tuned to my next posting, as I will share with you more pictures taken when we got up to the skiing zone in this remarkable and unforgettable winter photography trip.

I hope you benefited from my winter photography tips too.

Update: Winter in Gunma - Part 2 is up. Just click here to access the new posting.

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