Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Landing Gear Deployed!

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In the Field

Landing Gear Deployed! Chilkat River, Alaska, USA. November 27, 2017.

What wildlife photographer doesn't love shooting bird-in-flight (BIF) shots? ;-)

Over the years I have shot thousands of action shots of all types - grizzlies sparring, BIF shots of all sorts of birds, running wolves (and dogs!) and more. I've done a lot of it while systematically testing the AF system of cameras and lenses, and it's been fun (and somewhat satisfying) to have my own skill at it improve AND result in a much higher "keeper hit rate" in my captures. Of course, technical improvement in our gear has also helped this hit rate go up.

Overall I would say that the single biggest "skill" (if you can call it that) needed to capture accurately focused flight shots is knowing which AF area mode to use in a given situation. Of course, most camera manuals are woefully inadequate in supplying a photographer with the knowledge he or she needs. Fortunately, especially for Nikon shooters, there are some good 3rd party resources available that provide pretty decent advice.

Do I have any advice on which AF area mode to select? Yep. Over the last few years I have found the OVERALL best and most reliable Nikon AF area to use for action shots (and especially BIF shots) is the standard Group Area mode (this is the mode that looks like a diamond of focus points in your viewfinder). With this mode the enclosed focus points (which vary in number depending on the camera you are using) acts as ONE big focus point, and priority is given to the closest object within the "diamond". I find - more often than not - what you want in focus in MOST action shots (and most BIF shots) is the closest point on the subject. Think of a grizzly charging you (while you calmly switch area modes) - you want its head (nose through eyes) in focus, not it's chest. And if that bear is charging you the closest thing to you is the head.

This isn't to say that Nikon's Group Area mode is perfect or right for all situations. If you're photographing a bird that is flying perpendicular to your direction of view (i.e., going across your field of view) using Group Area mode may mean you pick up and focus on the wing closest to you (and the head may be out of focus). And, there is no true subject tracking with Group Area AF - if the subject leaves the "diamond" of focus points and the distance that subject changes it WILL be out-of-focus. There ARE times when one of the Dynamic Area modes (9-point Dynamic Area mode on the D5 and D850 is my "default" focus mode for ALL manner of shooting on those cameras) may be more appropriate. BUT, more often than not, I get the best results when using Group Area mode for my BIF's and actions shots.

This shot? Group Area mode with the "diamond" centered in the eagle's upper chest.

Here's a larger (2400 pixel) version of this adult Bald Eagle about to land for your perusal:

Landing Gear Deployed! Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.6 MB)


1. This image was captured during my "Kluane-Haines Explorer" Instructional photo tour in late autumn of 2017. 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 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

Landing Gear Deployed! Chilkat River, Alaska, USA. November 27, 2017.

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

Nikon D5 paired with Sigma 500mm f4 Sport super-telephoto. Panning while hand-held. OS on and in "OS2" mode, with image stabilization customized to Moderate View mode; AF customized to Fast Priority AF. Standard Group AF area mode ("diamond" cluster of AF points).

1/2500s @ f5; +1.0 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Landing Gear Deployed! Chilkat River, Alaska, USA. November 27, 2017.

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 9 separate layers and included local/selective editing or application of white balance, colour saturation, contrast (via several curves layers) and minor shadow recovery.

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.


Landing Gear Deployed! Chilkat River, Alaska, USA. November 27, 2017.

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 Bald Eagle was listed as "Endangered" in the contiguous US states from 1967 to 1995. In 1995 it was downlisted to "Threatened". On June 28, 2007 Bald Eagles were removed from the list of endangered and threatened species - a true American conservation success story.

The Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) is a very large bird of prey with broad wings. Adults possess characteristic white ("bald") heads. It takes Bald Eagles a full five years to attain their characteristic adult plumage (including their nearly pure white head and tail). In the years prior to the development of their adult plumage they are easy to confuse with Golden Eagles. Being very broad-winged Bald Eagles are able to use an energy-efficient flapping-soaring style of flight. While many people like to think of the Bald Eagle as a fierce hunter, in reality they hunt only as a last resort. More commonly they scavenge for their prey. Additionally, they often klepto-parasitize other weaker species such as Osprey, commonly stealing the other species hard-earned prey items. The Bald Eagle is, of course, the national emblem of the United States (Benjamin Franklin argued against this - his preference was for the Wild Turkey).

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