In Your Eyes – Interview with Jacqui Burke – Japan 2023
30th April 2023
Tell us a little more about your photography journey. How long have you been taking photos?
Thank you so much for asking me to tell you more about myself and my photography as I consider it an honor, and I am pleased that my photography has progressed to the point at which I am asked to share my photos. My interest in photography grew from my interest in wild animals. From the time I was a child, I was intensely interested in wildlife. I passionately read every child’s magazine and then every adult magazine about wildlife that I could find, and watched every available documentary on television. I finally began to be able to travel to see animals in the wild about a decade ago. At first I was content to see the animals through binoculars and to revel in the moment, but then I saw other participants on the trips and the photos that they were getting, and I wanted that for myself as well. I bought my first DSLR as an end-of-the-year present to myself in 2014 and began my photographic journey in earnest. I still only photograph wildlife and other nature subjects, but as I think about my upcoming retirement I may branch out into other aspects of photography as well.
What are you passionate about besides photography? What do you do in your free time?
My other major passion in life has been horses. I got my first horse when I was twelve years old, and except for a few years when I was in veterinary school I have owned a horse continually ever since. I have competed in horse shows, eventing, and dressage. Unfortunately, it was necessary to retire both horses last year due to infirmities of old age, but horsekeeping still takes up a lot of spare time.
I am an avid reader and have an extensive library. Most of my reading is about natural history subjects, often about the animals I hope to see on future trips. I also enjoy the card game of bridge as it is an intricate and intriguing game requiring decades to really master.
Finally, I recently became a full-on vegan due to having an elevated cholesterol level, and I have discovered a long dormant interest in cooking. I have eliminated all animal products, refined sugar and grains, and added salt from my diet. Foods have a great flavor now and I love experimenting with recipes and making my own creations.
What drew you to visit Japan?
I was particularly intrigued by seeing photos and videos of the snow monkeys in the hot springs. I found it hard to fathom that monkeys would voluntarily go into a hot spring and I dearly wanted to see these monkeys of the snow and ice for myself.
What camera gear did you use on your tour?
I have recently switched to the Olympus micro 4/3rds system, and I am loving it! The micro 4/3rds cameras have a sensor that is only half the size of a full frame camera, so the entire camera and lens is much smaller and lighter than my previous full-frame Sony. My small 100-400 mm lens offers the same field-of-view as a 200-800 on a full frame body with a much smaller form factor, making transport for international trips easier, and making it easier to hike with the camera and to hold it up for extended periods. The Olympus camera also offers some advanced features not found on other brands. Perhaps my favorite of these is ProCapture. ProCapture allows photos to be saved to the buffer but not written to the card when the shutter button is half pressed. When it is fully pressed, the camera then writes those images to the card, as well as new images if the shutter is continued to be held down. I find this really useful in getting flight shots of songbirds leaving perches as it eliminates the reaction time of pressing the shutter as well as the delay in the camera itself. Other unique features include in-camera focus stacking, a live neutral density filter, and live composite. Live composite is an extended shutter time feature in which a baseline photo is taken, and then only NEW light is recorded afterwards. It is great for capturing things like the light of fireflies at night or fireworks. Once the image looks “done” on the LCD screen, you press the shutter again and the image is cooked!
What were your first impressions of Japan for photography?
Japan was great for photography as the sightings are “guaranteed”. The cranes, snow monkeys, whooper swans, Stellar sea eagles, white-tailed eagles, and Blakiston’s fish owl are all fed, guaranteeing that they will be present at given times to be photographed. This allowed multiple attempts at flight shots, and allowed time to try some creative techniques after the standard portraits had been obtained.
What surprised you about your trip there?
The above. I guess I had not considered that most of the wildlife that we would see would be fed at particular sites, and rather anticipated a more safari-like experience.
What were your frustrations on your trip?
I was disappointed that the weather was too warm at the snow monkey site. I had anticipated obtaining photos of the monkeys with ice clinging to the fur around the face and seeing them in the fresh snow. Unfortunately the area around the hot tub used by the monkeys was mostly clear of snow and was actually muddy. Fewer monkeys were in the water than would have been the case if it had been colder, and the long anticipated shot of ice in the hair was not obtained. However, I still obtained many nice photos of the snow monkeys in spite of the weather conditions.
Of all the wildlife you have photographed, do you have a favourite destination you prefer to photograph?
No, I am intensely interested in all wildlife. Each species is unique and valuable in its own right. I try to return from each trip with a varied portrait of all the species I saw on the trip, rather than trying to get “wallhangers” of the charismatic megafauna only. I rarely return to a destination as I still have many places of interest to go for the first time.
Aside from the photography, what other aspects of the tour did you enjoy?
I really enjoyed the snow! Immensely! We have not had any snow where I live for the past two years, which until recently was quite unusual. It was great to be in Hokkaido for the majority of the trip where the ground was covered in snow. It snowed just enough each day to keep the snow on the ground looking clean and fresh without making driving or other conditions difficult.
I also immensely enjoyed the Japanese baths, or onsens. After a brief moment of reticence of being nude in a public bath on the first day, all sense of modesty quickly departed and I came to love the relaxation of the hot tub with fellow trip members after a long day of photography; and it was great to finally be rid of the snow boots and parka for the day!
What have you learned from your tour of Japan?
On every trip, I continue to learn more about my camera and make strides in improving my photography, and the trip to Japan was not an exception. I also learned a great deal about Japanese culture and cuisine as I had little familiarity with it previously.
Do you have any advice for photographers visiting Japan?
Travel light. Two camera bodies and two lenses ranging from a full frame equivalent of 24 mm to around 600 mm is enough. There were no opportunities for wide-angle greater than 24 mm and no opportunities for macro. I used a 12-100 (24-200 full frame equivalent) and a 100-400 (200-800 full frame equivalent) on the trip. Two bodies are essential as you do not want to have to change lenses outside if it is snowing.
Are there any images that are particularly special to you?
I love the high-key image of the two red crowned cranes in flight. My photographic tendency is naturally towards a more documentary style, and I love when I break free of that and create something more artistic.
Why did you enjoy these images so much?
I love looking at the images as it brings me back to the moment of being at the site taking the photograph. Although I love photography very much, the animals themselves still are the most important thing for me, and thus the photographs for me have been souvenirs rather than works of art. I am actively endeavoring to create art and a souvenir at the same time now, however, as my photography progresses.
Would you return to Japan for photography?
I would love to return to Japan for photography after I complete my bucket list of other wildlife-rich sites. I read Mark Brazil’s wonderful book on the natural history of Japan before I went on the trip, and was truly amazed about the large variety of wildlife there as most islands are limited in their biodiversity. Not so Japan! Although I dearly loved going there in winter, perhaps I would go at a different time of year for a completely different experience.