Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

It's a Family Affair - Coastal Gray Wolves

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In the Field

It's a Family Affair - Coastal Gray Wolves. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. August 29, 2023.

While the Great Bear Rainforest is more widely known for its Brown Bears, Black Bears, and Spirit Bears, it is also home to what appears to be a thriving population of coastal Gray Wolves. The presence of the wolves is no secret, but because of the secretive and elusive nature of them, historically they've been seen and photographed much less than the bears in the region. In recent years we've found locations (and we've possibly become better at finding them) where we now have a half-way decent chance of encountering the wolves on my photo tours. It seems like in some areas of the Great Bear the wolves are a little less terrified of humans than they have been in the recent past. There are lots of possible explanations for this slight reduction in their shyness, including the possibility that the ban on grizzly hunting in BC (which went into effect in late 2017) has reduced the number of hunters visiting the Great Bear Rainforest which, in turn, has reduced the frequency that hunters shoot at wolves in the Great Bear (in BC any licensed hunter can shoot wolves on sight - there's no species-specific hunting tag needed for them, the "open season" on them in near year-round, and in many regions there is no bag limit on wolves).

Anyway...we encountered this small family group (AKA "pack") of wolves early one morning in late August of 2023 while they were scavenging and frolicking in some tidal flats during low tide. There were a total of 5 wolves in the family, and based on their behaviour (which included a lot of playing and chasing) it appeared as though the 3 standing wolves in this shot were the youngish offspring of the much more laid back parents. Even though the wolves didn't allow close approach (this image was shot with an 800mm focal length and is a pretty aggressive crop) it was still a magical encounter - while watching the wolves from our Zodiac we had a black bear wander along the shoreline, several Great Blue Herons feeding in the intertidal zone, Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes calling, salmon churning up the water right around our Zodiac, and Steller Sea Lions catching and feasting on fish not far away. Just a spectacular experience...

As mentioned above, this image was captured with an 800mm focal length - a Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S combined with a Z TC-2.0x teleconverter. I know some will be instantly thinking "Oh...too bad you didn't have a Z 800mm f6.3S with you - you would have gotten a better shot." wouldn't have - as it turns out the Z 400mm f2.8 plus 2x TC is slightly "stronger" optically than the Z 800mm f6.3S...and one third of stop faster!

How do I know this? the autumn of 2023 I was in a fortunate position where I had all 7 "Z pathways to 800mm(ish)" in my possession and was able to extensively test them against one another under identical field conditions. In case you're wondering, here's the list of those 7 Z pathways to 800mm(ish):

Z 600mm f4 TC VR S with built-in TC engaged = 840mm
Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S paired with Z TC-2.0x = 800mm
Z 800mm f6.3 VR S = 800mm
Z 600mm f6.3S paired with Z TC-1.4x = 840mm
Z 400mm f4.5 VR S paired with Z TC-2.0x = 800mm
Z 180-600mm f5.6-6.3 paired with Z TC-1.4x = 840mm
Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 paired with Z TC-2.0x = 800mm

At the time of this writing (29 Nov 2023) I'm planning to produce a detailed report on how the overall performance of these 800mm(ish) pathways compare to one another on several fronts - optical performance (including central region AND edge sharpness, quality of out-of-focus zones), usability (including "hand-holdability" and VR performance), and AF performance.

But I can let the cat out of the bag on ONE of these variables right now - image sharpness. If we limit the discussion to overall image sharpness (considering both central region and edge sharpness) it turns out the 7 Z pathways to 800mm(ish) rank exactly in the order listed above, with the Z 600mm f4 with its built-in TC being the sharpest and the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 being the least sharp (as in "very soft").

But wait...there's more! The progression from "Sharpest 800mm(ish) lens" to "Softest 800mm(ish: lens" is not linear at all. Instead, there are 3 clusters of lenses where the lenses within each cluster are very similar in overall sharpness to one another - and quite different in sharpness from the other clusters.

The first cluster I'll call the "Professional's Choice" cluster - it includes the first 3 lenses on the list, so the Z 600mm f4S with its TC-engaged, the Z 400mm f2.8S with the Z TC-2.0x, and the Z 800mm f6.3S. The difference in sharpness between these three lenses is minimal and very nuanced - and it varies with aperture used, distance to subject, etc. And, anyone good at post-processing (and in particular, in image sharpening) could reduce the sharpness difference to virtually unnoticeable. It's also notably that these 3 options have the largest maximum apertures (f5.6 to f6.3) of the 7 pathways (which makes them a little more "usable" in a field setting.

The second cluster? Includes just the Z 600mm f6.3S paired with the Z TC-1.4x and the Z 400mm f4.5S paired with the Z TC-2.0x. I'll call it the "Pretty Darned Good" cluster. The difference in sharpness between these two 800mm(ish) options is extremely minor, but both are noticeably less sharp than the lens in the first cluster (when viewed at 100% magnification on a quality editing display). A LOT of folks would be absolutely pleased with the sharpness of the lenses in the second 800mm(ish) cluster. But...keep in mind these two 800mm(ish) pathways have a maximum aperture of f9...which can limit their usefulness in a field setting.

The third cluster? The two zooms plus TC's - so the Z 180-600mm f5.6-6.3 plus Z TC-1.4x and the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S plus Z TC-2.0x. I'll call this cluster the "Reality Sucks, eh?" cluster. Realistically these two options are very noticeably softer than the lenses in the second cluster (and WAY less sharp than the 3 lenses in the first cluster). And, they have maximum apertures of f9 to again negatively impacting on their usability in the field. That all said, those looking for ID shots of birds or just wanting to document what they see in the field may be perfectly happy with these two 800mm(ish) options (that are, not surprisingly, the most economical ways to get to 800mm(ish).

Anyway...Here's a little larger version (2400 pixel) of this happy wolf family for your perusal:

It's a Family Affair - Coastal Gray Wolves: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.4 MB)


1. These images - in all resolutions - are 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 photographs on this website, these images were 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.

3. This image was captured during my Summer in the Southern Great Bear Exploratory Photo Adventure in the late summer of 2023. Each year I offer trips into two different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well as two tours into the Khutzeymateen Grizzly Sanctuary (to photograph grizzlies, of course!). Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Behind the Camera

It's a Family Affair - Coastal Gray Wolves. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. August 29, 2023.

High Efficiency* Compressed RAW (NEF) format; ISO 3600.

Nikon Z 9 paired with Z Nikkor 400mm f2.8 TC VR S @ 800mm (paired with the Z TC-2.0x). Hand-held from floating Zodiac. VR on in Sport mode. 3D-tracking AF area mode with subject detection on "Animal".

1/400s @ f6.3; -0.7 stop compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

It's a Family Affair - Coastal Gray Wolves. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. August 29, 2023.

Initial noise reduction and capture sharpening on the .nef (raw) file using the DeepPRIME XD algorithm of DXO PhotoLab 7 Elite.

Subsequent adjustments to the adjusted linear DNG file (exported from PhotoLab 7) and conversion to 16-bit TIFF file (and JPEG files for web use) - including all global and selective adjustments - made using Phase One's Capture One Pro 23. In the case of this image the only global adjustment was a tweak to the white balance. Selective local adjustments performed using Capture One Pro's layers and masking tools. In this case small adjustments were made on 3 separate layers, with one or more highly targeted and selective tweaks to brightness (mid-tone exposure), clarity (mid-tone contrast), blacks, and shadows. There were no enhancements to the colour saturation of this image during post-processing.

Photoshop modifications were limited to the insertion of the watermark and/or text.


It's a Family Affair - Coastal Gray Wolves. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. August 29, 2023.

Species Status in Canada*: Only Eastern Wolf listed as species of "Special Concern" in May, 2001. Other populations not listed as Endangered or Threatened.

Species Status in the United States: Western Great Lakes population removed from list of Endangered and Threatened species on January 29, 2007. Proposed delisting of Northern Rockies population on January 29, 2007. Both actions are a direct result of a successful recovery plan. Congratulations! Wolves in other areas of the lower 48 states (including the Southwest wolf population), remain on Endangered Species list.

Probably no species alive today has suffered as much direct persecution from humans as has the Gray Wolf (Canis lupus). Once extremely widespread in North America, the Gray Wolf was virtually extirpated from the contiguous 48 states of America and now is regularly found within only a fraction of its historical range in Canada. While the Gray Wolf is currently listed as endangered in most of the 48 lower states of the United States and enjoys the privileges associated with such status (if lack of persecution and abuse can be thought of as a privilege), it is still official policy in much of Canada to rid the countryside of this magnificent keystone predator. As an example, in British Columbia, there is virtually NO closed season on the wolf in most hunting jurisdictions and opportunistic slaughter is encouraged by policy (it is the ONLY fur-bearing species for which NO hunting license is required in British Columbia!). Conservation of wolves presents a puzzling paradox. Reduced to the most basic principles, wolf conservation is simplistic: we need only to stop persecuting this species in order for it to survive. Yet accomplishing this invariably proves incredibly difficult - it's as though wolf persecution has been institutionalized directly into government (and societal) bureaucracy.

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