Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Life's a Balancing Act

Availability: Limited Edition Print; RM Stock (??)

In the Field

Life's a Balancing Act. Engstrom's Pond, Findlay Creek Drainage, BC, Canada. August 6, 2006.

Nighthawks are fascinating birds. Not really hawks at all, these birds are aerial specialists that pluck insects out of the air (a behaviour referred to as "hawking") using amazing aerobatic maneuvers. Nighthawks are highly specialized for flight - so much so that some other aspects of their anatomy have been "sacrificed" and can hardly perform their usual function. Their feet, for instance, are so atrophied that they have difficulty using them for support.

I watched this female nighthawk alight on this small branch. Its feet couldn't support its weight and I watched as it hung its long wings down on either side of the branch in an effort to balance itself. It took at least 30 seconds before it found its balance point and, even then, had to hang its wings slightly to maintain its position.

Photographically this image pushed the limits of my equipment. It was still before sunrise and I had very little light to work with. I could see the quickly brightening sky and some reflected trees in the nighthawk's eye and wanted to capture these. So I quickly dialed up my camera's ISO setting (which I'm normally pained to do), composed the image and shot with a dangerously slow shutter speed. Fortunately for me the bird didn't flinch and I captured this image.

Behind the Camera

Life's a Balancing Act. Engstrom's Pond, Findlay Creek Drainage, BC, Canada. August 6, 2006.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) format; ISO 400.

Nikon D2X with Nikon 200-400 mm f/4G ED-IF AF-S VR lens @ 400 mm (600 mm equivalent with digital conversion factor) supported on Gitzo 1348 carbon fibre tripod with Wimberley head. VR turned to "On" and in "Normal" mode.

1/20s @ f4; -0.33 stop compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Life's a Balancing Act. Engstrom's Pond, Findlay Creek Drainage, BC, Canada. August 6, 2006.

RAW Conversion, including first-pass sharpening, exposure compensation, and tone curve adjustment, using Phase One's C1 Pro. Multiple RAW conversions (2 at different exposure settings) to extend dynamic range of captured image, in this case primarily to restore shadow detail on the bottom surface of the bird's wings.

All further digital correction on 16-bit TIFF file using Adobe's Photoshop CS2, including compositing and masking of various exposure versions, selective saturation enhancement, and selective sharpening for web output.


Life's a Balancing Act. Engstrom's Pond, Findlay Creek Drainage, BC, Canada. August 6, 2006.

Ten percent of the revenue generated by this image will be donated to Wildsight.

Species Status in Canada*: This species is not designated as at risk.

The Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is an insect-eating bird that captures its prey in flight. These aerial acrobats are well-adapted to this task and exhibit an amazing prowess while in flight. In breeding season the males perform dazzling dives during territorial encounters - at the bottom of each dive their wings produce a loud humming sound that is audible for hundreds of metres.

This female Common Nighthawk was photographed in the Columbia Valley of the East Kootenays. While this species is not currently considered at risk, it is vulnerable to habitat loss due to logging activities. Many ecosystems within the Columbia Valley face development pressure, including pressure from logging operations. Wildsight is an effective conservation organization that protects biodiversity and promotes sustainable communities in Canada's Columbia and Rocky Mountains. Support for Wildsight, through donation or becoming a member, will help ensure that they remain effective in their efforts to conserve threatened or endangered species and ecosystems.

*as determined by COSEWIC: The Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada