Olympus mentor Rob Cottle shares his fascinating experiences capturing the stunning landscapes, wildlife and culture that Japan has to offer.
When we last spoke, you were writing Safari on a Budget. What have you been up to since?
I had to quickly look up when we last spoke and it was back in March 2018, which amazed me, so it’s a little embarrassing that I’m still writing Safari on a Budget! It’s taken something of a back seat to a few other things, and just needs editing and a few more images to complete. You never know, I might finish it one day. Geraint Radford and I were also forming ‘Natureship’ and have since run several workshops, along with a few for Olympus – including Olympus takeovers on Instagram – and had our first exhibition in Cardiff. I have carried out several talks, which surprised me, being more of a writer, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed putting my slant on things. I’ve also become an Olympus mentor. Of course, the biggest event has been the Japan trip.
How did the trip to Japan come about?
It was very much out of the blue, that’s for certain, and it made for a whirlwind couple of months. After being contacted in June about the possibility of a project (I didn’t know what), I found myself flying out in July, chosen to photograph and write a brochure about the Akan Mashu National Park in Hokkaido for the Ministry of the Environment of Japan, through a lovely company called Wondertrunk and, of course, the equally lovely Olympus UK and Olympus Japan.
Had you been to Japan before? If not, what were you most excited to see?
I hadn’t, but it’s always been on the agenda. It’s one of those places that was put to one side, partly because of cost and partly because there were many other places demanding my attention. Originally, there was only going to be a brief stopover in Tokyo, but I managed to manoeuvre a few things around to be able to spend a few days there, as I thought it was too good to miss. I wanted to travel to Shibuya, crossing where the whole world seems to walk in the same place at the same time, and the night is lit up by LCD screens and neon lights. The weather wasn’t great at that time of year – in fact it was raining for most of it. If it hadn’t been 30 degrees, I would have sworn I was still in Wales! I managed to grab a few shots, along with some at a few beautiful shrines and Japanese gardens. The main trip was to Hokkaido, which most will recognise as a winter destination to photograph the red crowned cranes and the sea eagles. However, after researching the area, I soon realised the wildlife and scenery is out of this world all year round, so I was itching to be outside in those surroundings. It was a huge buzz just to be involved, and to be photographing nature in such stellar surroundings was the icing on the vegan cake (no cherries on top, can’t stand them).
For such an exciting trip, packing the right camera gear is essential. What did you take with you?
Being predominantly a nature photographer, there was quite a different thought process involved in what to pack into my camera bag. Even though I didn’t know exactly what I was going to capture, I knew there would be landscape and, of course, travel work along with the nature images. First in the bag was my trusty wildlife combo of the OM-D E-M1 Mark II with the M.ZUIKO 300mm f/4 PRO lens, or on a few occasions the M.ZUIKO 40-150mm f/2.8 PRO. I also took the OM-D E-M1X, as I know this has a couple of serious tricks up its sleeve. I had a meetup with Geraint and Australian visionary, ‘the wandering lens’ Lisa Michele Burns, who was visiting our shores a few days before in the Brecon Beacons for a get-together. I was able to have a play with the E-M1X and its amazing live in-camera ND filter on some of the waterfalls and scenes. It was this initial fortuitous fumbling that gave me a few ideas prior to leaving, both for landscapes and travel shots. I took the M.ZUIKO 7-14mm f/2.8 PRO for those wide vistas, and the multitasking M.ZUIKO 12-100mm f/4 PRO, which is a brilliant travel lens and, together with the E-M1X, gives the ultimate in stability. While in Tokyo, I was able to capture quite a few long exposures over a few seconds handheld, which was exactly what I had in my head. I also took along the M.ZUIKO 60mm f/2.8 MACRO and the M.ZUIKO 45mm f/1.8, both of which fit in my pocket and add no real weight to the camera bag (always a huge factor). I’m glad I did as I used them both. I can remember previously when travelling with other systems I would look at little-used lenses and think ‘too heavy’ and leave them at home, promptly regretting it on touch-down.
What did you get up to in Japan?
Besides the few days in Tokyo, I travelled around Hokkaido with representatives of Wondertrunk, and on occasions the National Park Visitor coordinator, over an exhausting but exciting five days. The goal was to capture images of the stunning landscapes, wildlife and culture with one of the main objectives to share and document my experience as a traveller and photographer during the summer season. It was a wonderful place, with so many photographic opportunities – you felt like wildlife was around every corner. We were taken to astonishing lakes, active volcanos, mountain tops, many viewpoints, canoeing and even a hot footbath or ‘onsen’, which came as a relief after our hike.
Olympus Japan also had me shadowed by a videographer for the whole time, which was fun, and our chaperones and I had a great time. We had up to eight people travelling each day, including my assistant (who also doubles up as my wife and Geraint Radford substitute), so it was like I was gigging again – in fact I liked to call them my band.
What was your most memorable experience of the trip?
In a trip that was so full, it’s difficult to answer, but one stands out: reaching the top of Mount Mashu. First, I hadn’t hiked that far in ten years and I won’t lie, I did sweat a little but it was so worth it. Upon walking on to the summit and looking around, it was like seeing the world for the very first time. You could see for miles in all directions, and yet some areas were also mysteriously shrouded in low mist and cloud, trying not to give away its secrets. Several pallid swifts and a few black kites flew over us, and as we looked down, on one side was Lake Mashu and on the other was a massive crater, like ‘the land that time forgot’ – it really was an extraordinary sight.
Were there any particular challenges while shooting?
Most of my local wildlife work is part-planned and is very reliant on early and late light, but here I had multiple selected locations to visit in a very short space of time. I also had to factor in the weather as Hokkaido is bizarrely similar to Wales in that it is affected by the mountain/volcano ranges and the seas, in this case the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Japan, which meant mist and cloud could roll in at any moment. Consequently, we found ourselves to-ing and fro-ing between parks to try and catch dry periods and the light, but with the number of locations to visit we rarely married up light to a place, so I found myself having to think of a few other ways to make things interesting. The other challenge was the sheer number of destinations and, with early morning rises and late days, it was full on.
How did you find shooting travel and street images?
I’ve been extremely fortunate to have travelled to a few places over the years and have always documented trips for personal use, and I think years of wildlife photography has improved all other aspects of my photography as it’s quite a tricky genre; you need to know a few things. I used to quite enjoy the odd bit of landscape work (not that I see myself as a landscaper), but because I liked photographing wildlife so much I would either think that the landscape is missing an animal in it, or I could be capturing a critter shot somewhere else. Street style is not really my thing and I suppose I tackle it from a slightly different angle in as much as I try not to include any recognisable humans in the images. In both instances, I like to pick out details and also try and have a sense of movement, a little like my wildlife photography.
What camera features were of most use and were there any lenses that you favoured?
I had great fun with the live neutral density feature, which I don’t think Olympus shouts out about enough. This enabled me to get flowing water, make humans disappear and capture moving trees, all handheld and often in the middle of the day, which would be nigh-on impossible without filters and, of course, without using ‘the devil‘s tool’, the tripod (even though I took one with me, as I nearly always do and I never, ever use – never again, you pesky tripod!).
The live ND with the bonkers stabiliser was an amazing combination.
In terms of lenses, the 12-100mm is a fantastic travel lens, and it was so handy when composing on the go, knowing that it is sharp throughout its full range. The 300mm f/4 PRO is my go-to wildlife lens and it didn’t let me down. In combination with the OM-D E-M1 Mark II, it allowed me to capture several lovely shots of foxes and deer in very dim light at 1/40sec; nicely sharp.
Did you come away from the trip having learnt anything new about your photography?
I think I came back with a little more confidence in other genres, as wildlife was just a small part of the trip, but also that I was able to work under a bit of pressure where necessary and my sense of humour didn’t flee for the hills under taxing circumstances. Capturing movement has always played a part in my wildlife photography and a few scenarios gave me some new ideas for achieving that, which I aim to put to good use this winter.
Why should photographers consider visiting Japan for their next photo trip?
I only touched the surface of Japan, but can see how you could spend years here and not remotely capture it all. It’s a place where photographers of all genres will not only find an abundance of subject matter, but subject matter that is extraordinary. Depending on your photography style, you could spend months in Tokyo alone. From street life to serene shrines to waves of humans milling around ‘ant-like’ in the main shopping areas. My main visit, as I mentioned, was to Hokkaido and the Akan Mashu National Park, and even while flying in over the Hokkaido landscape I couldn’t help but smile at the prospect of photographing the stunning scenery below – it simply made me itch to get out and capture images upon landing. It felt like entering a nature lover’s playground, with wildlife around every corner. Wherever the eye wanders it finds spectacular vistas, cobalt blue lakes with crystal waters, volcanic mountains as though asleep exhale steam from the depths of the earth, and emerald forests that entice you in, to be embraced by Mother Nature. I had very little time to explore in the way I would have liked, especially when a lot of my wildlife work comes down to patience and light. But, in that brief magical time, I felt at home – and I want to go back, pronto.
And lastly, have you got anything else coming up?
Yes, there’s a whole cornucopia of happenings. Firstly, there is to be an exhibition documenting the Japanese trip at the After Nyne Gallery in London and, of course, the whole reason for the trip – the brochure – will be published soon. I am also looking into the possibility of running photographic guided trips to Hokkaido. You may well see me popping up on social media with my Olympus friends. Coming full circle, I am off to Kruger National Park again where, besides capturing some more images and hopefully finally having enough for the book, I can’t wait just to be immersed in the African bush again. For me being there is wonderful; the sights, the smells and those oh-so wonderful sounds. Follow me on social media as, signal depending, I will be taking you along with me.