Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

 
The Breakaway...Whimbrel Style

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In the Field

The Breakaway...Whimbrel Style. Central Oregon Coast, USA. April 21, 2015.

In a past life, and for at least a decade, I was a fanatical amateur bicycle road-racer. You know, addicted to the Tour de France, Paris-Roubaix, Milan-San Remo, etc. So when I captured this image of 5 Whimbrels in an apparent race up the coast to their nesting grounds up on the Arctic Ocean - with one bird either breaking away from the peloton or about to be reeled back in by a determined chase group (take your pick!) - it brought back a lot of memories. And it brought a big smile to my face! Heck, I wasn't even aware that these large shorebirds with the super-long decurved bill knew anything about the aerodynamic advantages of flying in a peloton!

What also brought a smile to my face was the quality level of this shot, especially given it was captured with a comparatively economical gear set-up. I like quality camera gear and primarily shoot with state-of-the-art gear, but this photo op landed in my lap when I was in the midst of testing out some gear that most would think of as "enthusiast" level gear (as compared to top-end pro gear). The camera was a Nikon D7200 - which at the time was Nikon's flagship DX-format camera. The lens was the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom - and the image was shot at 600mm. With the D7200 body, this means it was shot with a focal length equivalent to a 900mm lens (if one was shooting a full-frame DSLR). Total cost of the setup? About $3500. So - not chicken feed, but a whole lot less than a D4s paired up with a 800mm f5.6 VR lens (like about 1/7 of the cost!). Yet, this "bargain basement" setup (yes, I know, it's not THAT cheap) was able to autofocus on and track these incredibly speedy birds and produce a pretty decent image.

In my view - and at least from an equipment perspective - this is a great time to be a wildlife photographer. You CAN get into the game with an investment just a fraction of what it would have been even just a few years ago. I won't say that the gear I shot this with is every bit as good as the best current pro gear, but it's pretty much as good as ANY gear you could have bought at ANY price 3 - 5 years ago. Which means that most anyone (including me) is more likely to be limited by their technical skills and creativity than they are by their equipment. Which is pretty cool.

Of course, you'll still find those who will complain at length about how their camera just won't produce the results they want or expect. Of course, there's ALWAYS something that can be improved on a camera. For instance, the Nikon D7200 that I shot this image with is capable of shooting "only" 5 frames per second (14-bit raw images). Many reviewers and pundits have severely criticized the camera because of this. While of course I would prefer a faster frame rate, the reality is that I'm MUCH more likely to miss a shot because of other reasons (e.g., Because I screwed up the settings; because I happened to be looking to the left when I should have been looking to the right; because I spent so much on camera gear that I had no budget left to go on a photo tour; because I slept in too late and missed the magic hour when wildlife is active, etc.) than I am because my camera could only shoot at 5 fps rather than 8 or 10 fps. My approach is to focus on what my camera CAN do (and to thoroughly test and understand its capabilities) and not dwell on what it can't do.

Note that I'm not claiming that the D7200 is a perfect camera - it's far from it. But it's amazingly good for $1000. And...there's a whole lot more to a good "wildlife camera" than just frame rate and burst size, including the dynamic range of the sensor (excellent on the D7200), ISO performance (moderate on the D7200), autofocus capabilities (again excellent on the D7200), and overall build quality and ergonomics (very good on the D7200). Yes, I would like a D400 (think Canon 7D MkII but with a decent sensor and a better AF system!)...but I don't think that's ever coming. So in the meantime I guess I'll just have to limp along with my D4s & D7200 as my primary combo for wildlife shooting! ;-)

Here's a higher resolution (2400 pixel) version of this shot for your perusal:

The Breakaway...Whimbrel Style: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 0.8 MB)

NOTES:

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. Like all wildlife images on this website, the subject(s) is/are 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).

Behind the Camera

The Breakaway...Whimbrel Style. Central Oregon Coast, USA. April 21, 2015.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 400.

Nikon D7200 paired with Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom @ 600mm (900mm EFL) - hand-held. Optical stabilization on and in OS 1 mode. 51-point Dynamic Area AF.

1/1600s @ f8; -0.33 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

The Breakaway...Whimbrel Style. Central Oregon Coast, USA. April 21, 2015.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF Nikon's Capture NX-D (by necessity). Two raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, differing by a total of 0.67 stops in exposure (as well as differences in highlight and shadow retrieval).

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 two output files from the raw converter using manual masking techniques, selective colour saturation and desaturation, and selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.

Conservation

The Breakaway...Whimbrel Style. Central Oregon Coast, USA. April 21, 2015.

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

Species Status in Canada**: Currently not listed as Endangered, Threatened, or at risk.

The Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus) is a large migratory shorebird which overwinters in South America and breeds in the arctic. Reportedly various Whimbrel populations have several different migratory routes, not all of which are well-known - but they are regularly seen in the spring migrating along the Pacific Coast.

Prior to the signing of the Migratory Birds Convention in 1916 the Whimbrel was sought after by hunters (it reportedly was considered "good eating"). Whimbrels are still hunted for foods in some parts of South America, but the main threats to populations are now destruction or manipulation of coastal wetlands and disturbance at nest and roost sites. And, environmental contaminants are becoming an increasing threat - a recent study of Whimbrel livers (along a Chilean coast) revealed high levels of cadmium residues.

*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