Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill


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In the Field

Harlequin! Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary, northern BC coast, Canada. June 2, 2014.

While the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary is most famous for its bears, there are lots of other "not-a-bear" species found there too! And what you're looking at here is one of my favorite feathered "not-a-bear" species - a male Harlequin Duck in full breeding plumage. Because the narrow Khutzeymateen inlet is bordered by steep, forested ridges and mountains the surface of the water almost always contains rich and vibrant green hues. Which means that you end up with some pretty sweet backdrops for anything that might be on or near the surface of the water - like a swimming bear or a duck in flight! ;-)

I captured this shot using a Nikon D4s camera. At the time I was still (at least mentally) in "test-mode" with the camera. One of the new features of the D4s is an autofocus (AF) mode called "Group Area AF" where 5 of the "normal" AF brackets are grouped together, and function, as a unit. Another of the new features of the D4s is that there is a new custom function (function f19) that allows you to toggle between any the AF "area" settings (single, any of the dynamic area modes, group area) by using buttons on the lenses of selected super-telephoto lenses (as described by in the 9 April 2014 entry of my blog). Well, about one second before I captured this image I WAS in single area AF mode. The second I noticed the bird swimming alongside our zodiac I lifted my lens, depressed and held the AF activation button (which shifted me into Group Area AF mode) the bird took flight...knocked this shot off (along with about 20 other similars!).

I've noticed a lot of chatter online about how much better the AF system of the D4s is compared to the D4. Most of the comments are anecdotal - things like "holds on to focus better when there are distracting elements" (but with no comparative data to how the D4 managed the same task). Similarly, I've personally heard pro sport shooters say "Man, first AF system where I could lock onto a gymnast's head on a balance beam and hold it as they did a back flip away from me". Apparently this is easy to do with a number of cameras if the gymnast is flipping towards you, but only the D4s can do it when they're flipping AWAY from you (and the sample sizes in your comparison with the same situation with a D4 is ???).

Personally, I've been hard-pressed to find any real difference in the AF performance of the D4 and D4s when using MOST AF settings - both are unbelievably good. What I think I have noticed (but admittedly still lack data on) is that there are a few advantages in some situations when using the Group Area AF mode (over Dynamic area of the D4 or D4s). Here's what I've noticed:

• If you're trying to lock the AF system onto a subject which is already moving (bird already in flight; mammal already running), the Group Area AF seems to acquire initial focus a LITTLE faster (don't ask me to quantify "a little").

• Once you're locked onto a moving object - and are panning on it - the Group Area AF seems to ignore background objects better than Dynamic Area AF does (i.e., Group Area AF stays locked on better - it loses focus less often). It is entirely possible this is true with foreground objects that overlap the subject too, but I can't confirm (or deny) this yet.

• If a subject is moving very erratically (think swallow in flight, or Rob Ford in a bar), then it appears easier to hold the subject in focus with the Group Area AF system (no surprise on that one).

Note that I have not done a comparative test of the common "gymnast-flipping-backwards-on-a-balance-beam" protocol yet! ;-)

Here's a higher resolution (2400 pixel) version of the image that should give you a better handle on the accuracy of the focus...

Harlequin! Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.6 MB)


1. This image - in all resolutions - is protected by copyright. I'm fine with personal uses of it (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 is 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).

3. This image was captured during one of my "Grizzlies of the Khutzeymateen" photo tour in the spring of 2014. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as one to photograph aquatic 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 boreal owl species and wildlife of Canada's Arctic. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Behind the Camera

Harlequin! Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary, northern BC coast, Canada. June 2, 2014.

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

Nikon D4s paired with Nikkor AF-S 400mm f2.8 VR - hand-held from floating Zodiac. VR on in Normal mode. Group Area AF mode.

1/2000s @ f5.6; -1.3 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting (to preserve highlights on white portions of the duck).

At the Computer

Harlequin! Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary, northern BC coast, Canada. June 2, 2014.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF, including first-pass/capture sharpening using Phase One's Capture One Pro. Four raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, differing by a total of 1.7 stops in exposure.

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 four output files from the raw converter, additional minor exposure tweaks, and selective sharpening for web output. Final tweaking of tones performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


Harlequin! Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary, northern BC coast, Canada. June 2, 2014.

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

Species Status in Canada**: Special Concern (May 2013).

World-wide there are only 4 populations of Harlequin Ducks. In Canada, there are two populations of them - a western population along the Pacific Coast, and an eastern population along the Atlantic Coast. The western population appears stable and healthy, whereas the eastern population has been recently re-assessed and is now listed as a species of Special Concern.

The adult male Harlequin in this image is from the western population which is not considered at risk. However, the region this image was shot in is, at the time of this writing (July 16, 2014), facing a new and potentially catastrophic threat. There is a proposal to bring oil super-tankers through the narrow and treacherous channels of the Great Bear Rainforest. Any mishap - such as the one that sunk the Queen of the North ferry on March 22, 2006 - could result in an oilspill with disasterous consequences.

*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