Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Red Squirrel Harvesting the Cone Crop

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In the Field

Red Squirrel Harvesting the Cone Crop. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 31, 2022.

In late December of 2022 Nikon Canada was generous enough to lend me a brand new Z 600mm f4 TC VR S (production model) for a few weeks of intensive testing. Although particularly aggressive winter weather prevented me from traveling to wildlife hotspots to test the lens, I was able to get in a lot of shooting of my local wildlife and was successful in putting the lens through its paces. In my neck of the woods we're having a bumper crop of Douglas Fir pine cones (AKA a "mast" year) and that meant our local Red Squirrels were busy harvesting the cones, leading to a lot of "candid" photo ops. And let me tell you, with its two "built-in" focal lengths of 600mm and 840mm the Z 600mm f4S is an absolutely ideal lens for shooting small mammals and small birds! Of course, that's not to say it doesn't perform well on larger "charismatic megafauna" as well, but for the "little guys" this lens (particularly at 840mm) is just superb (giving the photographer - and the subject - enough working distance to not interfere with each other's behaviour!).

I like this hand-held 840mm shot as a "sample shot" for the Z 600mm f4S. Why? Several reasons. This image was captured at f5.6, which is "wide open" when the built-in TC is engaged, and the shot is amazingly sharp where it should be (you should examine the 4800-pixel image linked directly below if you want to see what I mean). And, equally as important, this shot has an array of "objects" at different distances from the focal plane, which really nicely shows how both near OOF (Out-Of-Focus) zones and more distant OOF zones render with this lens. Simply put - just excellent bokeh (if anything is going to look ugly in near OOF zones it's conifer needles!).

Now I am going to join this squirrel and go out on a limb here - between images like this and what I learned from my more systematic optical performance testing I'm already willing to say that the Z 600mm f4S is, when shooting static subjects, Nikon's optically strongest Z lens in the 800mm focal length range. This is true at all distances - from closest focus right through to distant subjects. And, to be clear, in making this statement I am referring to how the Z 600mm f4S stacks up optically against both the Z 800mm f6.3S and the Z 400mm f2.8S combined with the Z-TC 2.0x (OR if the Z 400mm f2.8S is shot with its internal TC engaged and with the Z-TC 1.4x). And please note that when I say "...optically strongest Z lens" I am referring here to both image sharpness and the bokeh (i.e., quality of the OOF zones) - both are very slightly better than the two other 800mm options mentioned above when shooting static subjects.

Just to avoid being vague (and being taken out of context), all 3 of these 800mm options are very, very good and, depending on the situation, I wouldn't hesitate to use ANY of them. For that matter, even the Z 400mm f4.5S plus Z=TC 2.0X 800mm combination is very good optically, though its maximum aperture of f9 when the 2x TC is attached can be very limiting in a field situation. But if I wanted the absolute sharpest image possible of a static subject at any aperture and any distance, I would grab for the Z 600mm f4S and flip its built-in TC "on".

Here's a larger version (4800 pixel) of Red going out on a limb in search of cones:

Red Squirrel Harvesting the Cone Crop: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 5.0 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.

Behind the Camera

Red Squirrel Harvesting the Cone Crop. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 31, 2022.

Lossless compressed RAW (NEF) format; ISO 2000.

Nikon Z 9 paired with Z Nikkor 600mm f4S @ 840mm (built-in TC engaged). Hand-held. VR on in Sport mode. 3D-tracking AF area mode with subject detection on (in Animal mode).

1/800s @ f5.6; no compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Red Squirrel Harvesting the Cone Crop. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 31, 2022.

Initial noise reduction and sharpening on the .nef (raw) file using the DeepPRIME XD algorithm of DXO PhotoLab 6 Elite.

Subsequent adjustments to the adjusted linear DNG file (exported from PhotoLab 6) 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. Global adjustments to this image included a tweak to overall contrast using the Levels tool. Selective local adjustments performed using Capture One Pro's layers and masking tools. In this case selective adjustments were made on 5 separate layers and most were under the general umbrella of "exposure balancing", with one or more selective tweaks to brightness (mid-tone exposure), blacks, clarity (mid-tone contrast), highlights, and the whites.

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


Red Squirrel Harvesting the Cone Crop. Findlay Creek, BC, Canada. December 31, 2022.

IUCN Conservation Statu**: Species of Least Concern.

The Red Squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus) is a medium-to-small squirrel that occupies year-round exclusive territories from which they will aggressively repel intruding squirrels. They are widely distributed across much of North America almost everywhere conifers (and the cones the squirrels feed on) are found, except on portions of the west coast where they are replaced by Douglas Squirrels (AKA "Chickarees").

Red Squirrels have adapted well to the presence of humans and have the IUCN conservation status of a species of Least Concern. In many urban areas in North America the Eastern Gray Squirrel (Sciurus carolinensis) have been introduced and ecologically replaced Red Squirrels. In North America this hasn't seemed to impact much on rural Red Squirrel populations, but in Britain the introduction of the Eastern Gray has had a major impact on the native Red Squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris), with the invasive grays replacing the native reds over much of their historical range.

*as determined by the IUCN: The Internation Union for Conservation of Nature - see