Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

The Pecking Order

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In the Field

The Pecking Order. Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 25, 2017.

Most wildlife photographers can recognize an adult Bald Eagle - the snow-white head and tail are dead giveaways. But there is a high-degree of variation in the plumage and other physical characteristics of sub-adult and juvenile Bald Eagles, with the diagnostic adult plumage not appearing until the eagle is between 4.5 and 5.5 years of age. This shot shows one sub-adult Bald Eagle with NEARLY adult plumage (odds are it's a 4-year old bird) and one younger immature bird likely in it's second year (most experts would classify this one as being in the "Sub-adult I" plumage phase). Both the differing plumages and the nice diagonal flow of the shot (from the almost-adult bird in the upper left and then along and down the beautiful green bough to the younger bird) caught my eye and motivated me to capture the shot. Of course, and as the title of the image suggests, I liked how the "pecking order" metaphor played out here with the older (and possibly dominant) bird in the "king of the castle" position...

When I looked at a preview of the raw image (first in Lightroom, and then in Capture One Pro) later in the day I was immediately struck by how the D850 had captured the subtle tones and hues of the scene, especially on the bough of the Sitka Spruce that the eagles are perched on. To my eye the scene was rendered FAR closer to how it appeared in the field than most shots (with other cameras) are. Virtually all the tonal gradations from almost pure white on the upper eagle's head through to near black in the lower left of the frame (as well as on the lower tail of the younger eagle) have been retained, without any obvious "blocking up" of tones or colors.

For reasons I won't go into here, when I shot this image (which was shortly after the release of the D850) I was most interested in how the D850 stacked up against the D500 in the field. This is one of the shots that has biased me heavily towards the D850 (and away from the D500) as being the "best complementary camera" to pair with my D5 for wildlife shooting. While I DO think highly of the D500 (and before the release of the D850 I found it to be the best camera to pair up with the D5 for wildlife shooting) I have found it to be on the "harsh" side from a contrast perspective - even at low ISO's the D500 can exaggerate contrast. And, to my eye anyway, you can lose some tonal range (especially the dark-on-dark tones that the D850 shows so vividly). And, when you have harsh sunlight I have learned to pretty much put my D500 away. In chats with other wildlife photographers I've found that others have noticed this same "harshness" (in some conditions) with D500 images.

At this point I can't really explain WHY the D850 and D500 differ in this respect. If you check out some of the objective lab tests done on the two cameras (such as those performed by you'll find that at the ISO this image was shot at (ISO 1000) the D850 and D500 have nearly identical dynamic range, tonal range, and colour sensitivity (if you check this out yourself on make sure you examine the Screen values in their graphs, not the print values...the latter have undergone differential resolution reduction). But somewhere in the image capture and in-camera processing pipeline that leads to our raw files the D850 files pick up some magical characteristics! ;-)

Here's a larger (2400 pixel) version of these two young eagles:

The Pecking Order: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 2.2 MB)


1. This image was captured during my autumn"Into the Great Bear Rainforest" Instructional photo tour in the summer 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 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

The Pecking Order. Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 25, 2017.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 1000.

Nikon D850 paired with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E. Hand-held from floating Zodiac. VR on and in Sport mode.

1/400s @ f5; -1.33 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

The Pecking Order. Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 25, 2017.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One's Capture One Pro 10. Three raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, with the variants differing in only slightly in exposure settings (0.2 stops total) and shadow recovery settings (4 "units").

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2017. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the three output files from the raw converter, selective curves (contrast) adjustment to emphasize feather detail on the upper bird, and final selective sharpening for web output.


The Pecking Order. Great Bear Rainforest, Northern BC Coast, Canada. September 25, 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).

These Bald Eagles were photographed in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest. While Bald Eagles are currently not under the threat of extinction, they do, of course, require suitable breeding habitat to continue to thrive. 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