Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Glance Worthy?

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In the Field

Glance Worthy? Johnstone Strait Region, Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 10, 2015.

After decades of persecution and intentional population reductions, Harbour Seals are finally back to "normal" numbers on BC's coast. But despite their current abundance and how "commonplace" they've become, I still love to photograph them. So if you're ever with me on the coast, you'll probably notice how I'm always watching for absolutely every chance I can find to shoot them. And, even with a collection of thousands of seal shots, there's still a minimum of ONE seal image that resides ONLY in my head (and that I haven't been able to execute on yet)...but I'll keep the details of THAT image to myself until I eventually capture it!

Why the attraction to seals as photographic subjects? A lot of reasons. First, I love their huge eyes - seen up close (and in the right light) they almost have a deep magenta colour to them. So haunting! Second, their bushy whiskers are attractive in themselves, and become even more so when water droplets bead up on them. Third, if you can find them in calm water you are often presented with great visual bonuses - like interesting ripples or reflections, and both soft and rich foreground and background colors. Fourth, seen in the right light, the species shows a wide (and beautiful) range of coat colours. And, last but not least, they have an interesting habit of knowing just when you're about to trigger the shutter - and habitually dive below the surface only milliseconds before you get your shot; so they're a great challenge to work with!

When I first saw this seal it had popped to the surface close to our Zodiac and began swimming by us on a line parallel to our direction of drifting. At first it was swimming on boring (and image-ruining!) bright water that was reflecting the bright sky, but then it swam into some much darker-colored water that took on the deep green colors of a background forest. When it was right beside us it turned its head at us for a very quick glance, which is exactly when I nabbed this shot. Nice to rate as "glance-worthy" to a seal! Even though the head turn lasted only a second or so, I noticed (and loved) how the small leading wave and reflection "converged" on the seal (and functioned as lines leading one's eye to the seal). And I also loved how this seal totally mistimed its escape - instead of diving under milliseconds BEFORE my shot, this time it dove down milliseconds AFTER my shot. Gotta love those mix-ups!

This is the type of shot that lead me to decide on keeping the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom and "liquidate" my Nikkor 200-500mm zoom. This image was captured at 600mm - a full 100mm beyond the range of the 200-500. That extra 100mm IS important to me. And, while I was generally happy with the overall sharpness of the 200-500 at most focal lengths, I have found the Sigma Sport to be just a tad sharper. And, this extra bit of sharpness is particularly noticeable when you shoot both lenses at their maximum focal length - in my experience the Sigma holds its sharpness better at the long end of the focal range than the Nikkor 200-500 does. The Nikkor 200-500 IS a good lens (and incredible value), but the Sigma Sport 150-600 meets my mix of needs just that much better so that it won out over the Nikkor zoom.

Here's higher-resolution (2400-pixel) version of this shot for the seal lovers out there:

Glance Worthy? Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.1 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. This image was captured during my "Humpbacks, Orcas, Sea Lions & More" Marine Mammals photo tour in August of 2015. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as one to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes near the northern tip of Vancouver Island. And, in selected years, I also offer photo tours to locations to capture other highly sought-after subjects, such as various owl species of the boreal forest and wildlife of Canada's Arctic. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

3. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject(s) is/are fully wild and completely unconstrained. Besides the potential impact of my/our 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/luring devices (including vocalizations or other sounds).

Behind the Camera

Glance Worthy? Johnstone Strait Region, Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 10, 2015.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 1600.

Nikon D4s paired with Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom @ 600mm. Hand-held from floating Zodiac. Optical stabilization on and in "OS1" mode.

1/1250s @ f8; -0.33 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Glance Worthy? Johnstone Strait Region, Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 10, 2015.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One's Capture One Pro 9. Four raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, with the variants differing in exposure (0.5 stop total difference between the variants) and shadow and highlight retrieval settings, and in white balance settings.

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2015 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the four output files from the raw converter, minor exposure tweaks, and final selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


Glance Worthy? Johnstone Strait Region, Northern Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. August 10, 2015.

Ten percent of the revenue generated by this image will be donated to The Raincoast Conservation Foundation.

Species Status in Canada*: Most Harbour Seal populations in Canada are not listed as Threatened or Endangered. The Lac des Loups Marins landlocked population of Quebec (Ungave Peninsula) currently listed as Endangered (most recent assessment update - November 2007).

The Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina) is found on both the eastern and western coasts of North America. They tend not to make long migrations and in many areas they are present year-round. When foraging Harbour Seals normally dive to between 30 and 100 metres in depth and stay below the surface for 5 to 6 minutes. On occasion they have been known to dive to depths of over 450 metres and have stay submerged for almost 30 minutes. Harbour Seals have a diverse diet, including cephalopod, crustacceans and a variety of fish such as herring, eulachon, pollock, and salmon.

Historically bounty programs were used in both Canada and the USA to reduce populations of Harbour Seals. In more recent times seals have become protected over much of North America and some populations have rebounded strongly (it is estimated that over 150,000 seals now occupy the coast of British Columbia). There is a land-locked and freshwater sub-species of the Harbour Seal found on the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec. This population is now down to an estimated 100 individuals and is listed as Endangered by COSEWIC.

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.