Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

The Original Big Gulp

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In the Field

The Original Big Gulp Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 27, 2016.

Watching a Humpback Whale surface feeding is something that should be on any avid wildlife photographer's bucket list. I've seen it dozens and dozens of times, but I'm still as excited to watch and photograph it as ever. So much action and drama! And I'm still blown away by how such a massive beast (measuring up to 13 meters - or 40 feet - in length and almost 40 tonnes in weight) can meet its energy needs by eating such tiny fish and krill.

In this shot you're looking at a single humpback midway through a feeding lunge (it had come up from beneath a large school of "baitfish"). This whale had corralled the fish in a bubble-net it had created by swimming below the baitfish in a circular pattern while exhaling bubbles from its blowhole. The lower jaw is level with the water and the upper jaw (showing both its palate and its fibrous baleen "plates") is almost vertical. And, in this shot you can see just the tip of its right pectoral fin (with a few barnacles on it) near the lower left corner of the frame). And, you can also see some lucky (any tiny) fish who have - through either good management or luck...or both - managed to live for another day! If you were under the water you could also see the massive pleated throat of the humpback stretched and distorted by the massive volume of water (and quite a few fish!) trapped in its mouth by the feeding lunge.

I captured this shot way back in September of 2016 during a photo tour I was leading in the Great Bear Rainforest. So why am I posting it now? Well, in March of 2018 I posted a blog entry on this website entitled "The BEST Nikon DSLR for Wildlife Photography?". In that piece I argued that "camera speed" (including both frame rate and burst depth) can be an important variable in assessing how good any particular camera is for wildlife photography. This image is a good "case-in-point". This image is #52 in a 76-frame sequence of shots captured at a frame rate of a 12 frames per second (so the action took a total of about 6.5 seconds). And, it was captured with a Nikon D5 DSLR.

As it turns out, this is one of my favourite shots of the sequence. It is the ONLY one of the 76 images that included all the elements described above (including a clear, good look at the escaping fish and the involvement of the pectoral fin in the feeding behaviour). The shot immediately before this one doesn't show the escaping fish very well, and the shot immediately after this one doesn't have the pectoral fin in it at all (it had just slipped below the surface of the water).

Could I have captured this shot with either of Nikon's other "good for wildlife" cameras (the D500 or the D850). Possibly. With a D500 you would have had a sufficiently "deep" burst to get all 76 shots (like with the D5 you can shoot 200 consecutive 14-bit compressed RAW's at the D500's fastest frame rate). But, at 10 fps (vs. 12 fps on the D5) you've reduced the probability of capturing the EXACT right instant to get all the elements I've discussed above. It COULD happen, but it's less likely.

What about with a D850? Like with the D500 you have a slower maximum frame rate than with the D5. If you're running a D850 with NO battery grip and without the EN-EL18 batteries of the D5 you have a maximum frame rate of 7 fps (it goes up to 9 fps with the battery grip installed and if you're using the EN-EL18 battery). So, the probability of catching just the right instance is now lower than the D500 and proportionately lower again than with the D5. And, of course, there's another issue to deal with if you're using a D850 - burst depth. If you were shooting 14-bit compressed raws at 9 fps you'd have only 25 shots in your burst and you'd be slowed down to snail's pace of captures by the time this exact moment happened. In fact, if you wanted to shoot at 9 fps with a D850 the only way to get the burst depth "deep" enough to capture this shot would be to shoot 12-bit compressed RAWs in DX format. There ARE other ways to extend the burst depth with the D850 (like slowing down the frame rate), but the key point is that ALL of them reduce the probability (relative to both the D500 and the D5) of you capturing this exact shot.

So, if YOUR wildlife photography includes shooting extended bouts of action, no Nikon does it better (at least for now!) than the D5. Of course, some may never need a camera that's as fast as the D5...and that's fine too! ;-)

Here's a larger (2400 pixel) version of this ravenous Humpback for your perusal:

The Original Big Gulp: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.0 MB)


1. This image was captured during my "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional photo tour in the autumn of 2016. Each year I offer photo tours into several different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well trips to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes in locations on the northern portion of Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as Dall Sheep, Bald Eagles, and more. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

2. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of them (including use as desktop backgrounds or screensavers on your own computer), but unauthorized commercial use of the image is prohibited by law. Thanks in advance for respecting my copyright!

3. Like all wildlife photographs on this website, this image was captured following the strict ethical guidelines described in The Wildlife FIRST! Principles of Photographer Conduct. I encourage all wildlife photographers to always put the welfare of their subjects above the value of their photographs.

Behind the Camera

The Original Big Gulp Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 27, 2016.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 640.

Nikon D5 paired with Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom @ 150mm. Hand-held from sailboat. OS on and in "OS1" mode, with OS1 stabilization customized to Moderate View mode; AF customized to Fast Priority AF.

1/1600s @ f8; -1.0 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

The Original Big Gulp Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 27, 2016.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF, including all global and selective adjustments, using Phase One's Capture One Pro 11. Selective local adjustments accomplished using Capture One Pro's layers and masking tools. In this case adjustments were made on 6 separate layers and included local/selective editing (or application of) exposure, colour saturation and colour desaturation, shadow recovery, and highlight retrieval.

Photoshop adjustments were limited to image re-sizing, conversion of Prophoto RGB colour gamut (to sRGB), final sharpening for online display, and insertion of watermark.


The Original Big Gulp Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 27, 2016.

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

Species Status in Canada**: Threatened - North Pacific population (May 2003).

Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeagnliae) are active, acrobatic whales that can throw themselves completely clear of the water (a behaviour known as breaching) and will swim on their backs with both flippers in the air. Humpbacks are large (up to 14m - or 46 feet - in length and 40 tonnes in weight) and with huge flippers.

Humpbacks are found in tropical, temperate, and sub-polar waters around the world. They are found on both the east and west coasts of North America. The North Pacific population has been estimated at between 6,000 and 8,000 individuals, but only a few hundred of these are found in the waters off the coast of British Columbia.

While Humpbacks are recovering from the damage done to their populations by commercial fishing, the are still subject to a variety of threats from human activities, including becoming entangled in fishing nets, noise and chemical pollution and habitat destruction.

*The Raincoast Conservation Society (and Foundation) is an effective and efficient organization that has been fighting for protection of this unique habitat. If you are looking for a meaningful way to contribute to the conservation of this amazing ecosystem, Raincoast will provide maximal "bang" for your conservation dollars.

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