Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Sunrise Swallow

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In the Field

Sunrise Swallow. Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. May 7, 2015.

I'm fortunate enough to live in a rural area that is, quite literally, teeming with wildlife. And, as the servant of two demanding Portuguese Water Dogs, I'm forced to take daily hikes in the woods and hills around our property. Which means I can encounter wildlife on virtually any given day - and that wildlife can be anything from one of about 200 species of birds right up to large mammals, including the full array of carnivores (coyotes, wolves, a couple of flavours of bears, cougars, and more). Add all this up and it's probably pretty obvious why I'm perpetually in search of a photography kit that is very capable and suited to shooting wildlife but still very portable. While I have tried mirrorless systems, there's always some factor that makes them less than suitable for my needs (it might be a lack of lenses, or "iffy" autofocus for wildlife, or compromised image quality or ISO performance, etc.). I haven't had a problem finding a suitable DSLR - both Nikon and Canon have enough models to make anyone happy! BUT...finding a highly portable lens for wildlife shooting is challenging - especially if you're as anal as I am about image quality. The Nikkor AF-S 80-400mm zoom comes close, but no matter what body I pair it with, it's STILL a lot of weight to put on my hip (where it's needed for quick access) and hike around.

And then the new - and diminutive - Nikkor AF-S 300mm f4 PF VR lens showed up on my doorstep in early May of 2015. And now I'm a REAL happy camper (or dog servant) - I can easily carry this new lens - complete with a pro or semi-pro body on my hip and also bring along a few teleconverters. Presto - I can now carry top-notch professional wildlife photography kit on every walk...

And on that note - I took my two masters (my dogs) out for a very early walk this morning (early May of 2015). Just as we were returning at sunrise I saw a pair of Tree Swallows atop gorgeous lichen-covered perches (at my eye-level!) near a natural cavity. Presumably they were deep in early breeding season nirvana and had other things on their mind as they seemingly ignored me as I approached them quite closely. I pulled my camera (Nikon D750 with 300mm f4 PF VR lens) out of my hip holster, quickly mounted my TC-14EIII teleconverter (which was also in a case on my waist) and in seconds was ready to shoot. One swallow was being caressed by beautiful side-light and was in front of a shaded Douglas Fir tree. The brightness (dynamic) range of the scene was off-the-charts, but I knew if I under-exposed a LOT and filled a LITTLE with flash I'd have a digital file I could work with., click, click (and a few more) and I had 5 exposures, and in each of which the bird posed beautifully. Best of all, when I backed off BOTH birds were still on the perches and enjoying the morning sun. Now that's what I call a perfect encounter!

Of course, returning the gorgeous light and overall scene to what I saw in the field took a LOT of post-processing work...but for me even the post-processing is a whole lot of fun. This one was more challenging than most (and involved the use of complex luminosity masking techniques in Photoshop, among several other things), but by 8:30 AM I had this image fully processed and in the can...a heckuva start to the day!

The detail on this one is pretty scrumptious - so here's a higher resolution (2400 pixel) version of this shot to feed to your eyes:

Sunrise Swallow: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)


1. 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!

2. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject(s) is/are fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my presence, nothing has been done to intentionally alter or affect the ongoing behavior of the subject and, of course, there has been no use of any form of bait or other form of wildlife attractants (including vocalizations).

Behind the Camera

Sunrise Swallow. Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. May 7, 2015.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 110.

Nikon D750 paired with Nikkor 300mm f4 PF VR lens plus TC-14EIII (1.4x) teleconverter, for a total focal length of 420mm. Hand-held with VR ON and in Normal mode.

1/250 @ f7.1; -1.7 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting, flash-fill using built-in flash (with -1.3 stops of compensation on the flash).

At the Computer

Sunrise Swallow. Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. May 7, 2015.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One's Capture One Pro 8. Five raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, differing by a total of 1.7 stops in exposure (as well as differences in highlight and shadow retrieval between several variants).

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2014 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the five output files from the raw converter using manual and automated masking techniques (including luminosity masks), selective contrast control via curves adjustment layers, selective colour saturation and desaturation, and selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


Sunrise Swallow. Findlay Creek (East Kootenays), BC, Canada. May 7, 2015.

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

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

The Tree Swallow (Tacycineta bicolor) is a common insect-eating aerobatic specialist found across much of North America. Tree Swallows nest in abandoned cavities in trees or in nest boxes provided for them by humans. The breeding range of the Tree Swallow is expanding southward and until very recently their populations appeared to be increasing.

This Tree Swallow was photographed in the Columbia Valley of the East Kootenays of British Columbia, Canada. While this species is not currently considered at risk in this region, virtually all of Canada's aerial insectivores (to which the Tree Swallow is a member) have been exhibiting steep population declines in recent years. While the cause isn't fully understood, many believe that changes to the seasonality of their insect prey (including changes to when they are available in large numbers as prey) is thought to be the proximate cause of the decline. Many believe that this change in the seasonal abundance of their prey is being driven by climate change.

*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