Tips for Photographing Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Park in Japan

tips for photographing snow monkeysJigokudani Snow Monkey Park is one of Japan’s most popular tourist attractions, for observing and photographing snow monkeys at close proximity.

Tourists, nature lovers and photographers regularly head to the park near Nagano for a closer look at the animals officially known as Japanese macaques, particularly in winter months when they descend each day from the snow-covered mountains to warm up in a small hot spring and drink from a nearby creek.

Their endearing personalities and social interactions make them entertaining photography subjects, particularly through the mist of the hot springs in the dramatic snowy landscape.

tips for photographing snow monkeysI recently visited the park before venturing further north to Hokkaido for a ‘winter wildlife photography’ adventure with Ade Photography.

The photos I took of the snow monkeys were amongst the favourites of my time in Japan, but the experience itself was mixed. Although this is fantastic opportunity to enjoy a wild encounter with snow monkeys in their natural habitat, the popularity of the park as a tourist attraction has both pros and cons for photographers.

I’ve shared these tips – based on a winter visit – to help you set realistic expectations, get the most out of your time in the park and return home with a great collection of photographs.

 

WHEN TO GO

Get there early

If I only offered one tip this would be it, as the park can get very crowded, especially around the small hot spring. In winter, the park opens at 9am and arriving at this time gave us an hour or two without the crowds. There is a 2km walk from the car park to the main entrance, which takes approximately 30 minutes based on your level of fitness, so give yourself enough time to reach the entrance for opening time.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

Head to the hot spring first

There are generally four areas from which you can photograph the monkeys: the hot spring, a creek, a small bridge separating the two and the path from the park’s entrance. As the hot spring is most popular and offers the best opportunity for the dramatic misty shots most people are after, it’s worth heading there as soon as you arrive and make your way to the other areas after the crowds arrive. It’s a relative small location so it’s not difficult to keep switching between vantage points, depending on the conditions and movement of the monkeys.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

Don’t be distracted by the first monkeys you see

It’s likely that you’ll see monkeys on the path as you head to the entrance. Don’t be distracted by them, you’ll see plenty after the entrance and you’ll see more on your walk back.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

 

WHAT (AND HOW) TO PHOTOGRAPH

Shoot a variety of compositions

The hot spring offers the irresistible portrait of a monkey reflecting in the water, surrounded by mist. But the opportunities don’t stop there. The different vantage points offer views of youngsters wrestling with each other, families huddled together, monkeys descending the cliffs of the mountains, jumping across the creek, playing in the snow, climbing trees and walking on the paths. Shoot close to create stunning portraits and shoot wide to create a sense of place.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

Shoot at eye level

This applies to all wildlife photography as shooting the subject at eye level where possible helps create an intimate connection, instead of a feeling of being on the outside looking it.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

Over-expose for the snow

Photographers shooting snowy landscapes for the first time are often disappointed to see the magical white scene in front of them morph into a dull, grey colour in their shot. Without getting too technical, this is a result of your camera’s in-built metering system. To combat this, over-expose by 1-2 stops, reviewing your histogram to perfect.

 

WHAT TO BRING

Lenses

I carried two bodies with me to avoid changing lenses in the snow/rain and used my 100-400mm for probably 85% of my shots. The 24-105mm was my second lens, used when I wanted to shoot wide with the landscape. I wouldn’t have changed this combination, as it worked well for me and also kept my backpack light for the 2km walk to the entrance.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

Food and Drink

As there are no food or drink facilities in the park itself (there is a café/vending machine near the car park), you’ll need to bring some along if you plan on spending the day in the park. But remember the monkeys are curious and if they see an open bag or food in your hand, they’ll try and grab it – and not only does this make you go hungry, it’s forbidden to feed them and not healthy for them. There are lockers at the entrance, where you can leave anything you don’t need for photographing the monkeys.

Waterproof cover

Be prepared for snow and rain with a rain sleeve or waterproof cover for your camera.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

Backpack

Carrying your gear in a small backpack makes the walk to the entrance easier and allows you to leave some items in the lockers (such as food and drink) whilst having others (equipment) in your pack with you. Just remember to keep you pack closed when not using it as the monkeys are curious little things.

 

WHAT TO WEAR

Layers

Although you may warm up on the 2km walk to the entrance, you won’t be moving around much after that and standing in potential sub-zero temperatures for hours gets cold. ‘How cold’ depends on your own disposition to cold weather. Following the ‘layers’ approach of a thermal base, warm mid-layer and waterproof outer layer is recommended. You’ll also appreciate a warm hat covering your ears, thin thermal gloves whilst using the camera and a second warmer pair for keeping warm whilst not shooting.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

Shoes

Warm and comfortable shoes with a grip sufficient for walking in the snow is a much better idea than the high heals I saw one person arrive in (true story!) The path to the entrance is a winding uphill walk through the forest, and although it is relatively easy the path can get slippery, especially later in the day.

tips for photographing snow monkeys

WHAT ELSE?

Don’t touch the monkeys. It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I heard one of the rangers reprimanding someone for doing this.

Bring a 100YEN coin for the locker if you plan to use one.

 

Have you photographed snow monkeys at Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park?  What tips would you add?

 

Kellie Netherwood Travel and Photography

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Kellie is a traveller and photographer who is most at home when exploring the world beyond it. Through the intersection of her travel, writing and photography passions, she shares her experiences to inspire others to create there own. The desire to live life instead of existing through it has introduced Kellie to inspirational locations throughout seven continents and from this a passion for landscape and wildlife photography has evolved. She feels a particular connection to the polar regions and Africa. You can see more of her photography at www.kellienetherwoodphotography.com

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In Pictures: Photographing Snow Monkeys at Jigokudani Park, Japan
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