Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Layin' Low

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In the Field

Layin' Low. Barkley Sound, SW coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. 5 April 2019.

I've probably said this a zillion times before, but I have to admit I find marine mammals absolutely fascinating (and under-appreciated by many wildlife photographers). Much of this fascination is probably because I'm a biologist and find the array the adaptations they use to survive in a very cold (and "heat-sucking") environment quite mind-boggling (and cool!). But I also find that as a photographer I find them incredibly challenging to photograph well. Why? Lots of reasons. Because in most cases they're best approached by boat so that, by default, pretty much excludes the use of tripods. And, besides the "normal" uncontrollable variables you have with all wildlife photography performed in a natural setting (especially light) you also have an additional and unique uncontrollable variable - the state of the water. And, believe me, nothing impacts on the success of the image of a marine mammal more than the state of the water. Which explains why after photographing marine mammals for over a decade I still just jump at the chance of photographing ANY marine mammal species (even the ubiquitous Harbour Seal) when they're in calm, smooth water!

Over the late summer and early autumn of this year I've been posting shots captured on the various photo tours we ran in 2019. Many folks who have been viewing the images know that I own a Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF and a Nikkor 180-400mm f4E (among a slew of other lenses). And apparently at least a half dozen have noticed that I post a lot more images shot with the 180-400 than with the 500 PF - and I've been asked several times why this is..and specifically if it says anything negative about the quality of the images captured with the 500mm PF. Nope, not at all - the 500mm PF is a GREAT lens (and the shot you're looking at right now was captured with my Z7 paired up with the 500mm PF). As a matter of fact, if you compare images shot with the 180-400mm f4E at 500mm (i.e., with the built in teleconverter engaged) to those shot with the 500mm PF you'd see virtually no difference between them. But...given that you have about 378 more focal length options with the is MUCH more versatile than the 500mm PF. And, given that on many of my photo tours I have weight restrictions on my camera gear (imposed by the carry-on regulations of the airlines) I almost always "gravitate" to lenses with more versatility. Bringing BOTH my 180-400 and my 500 PF on photo tours is a bit if it comes down to gear "triage" when I'm packing...well...the 500 PF gets pulled out of my pack before the 180-400 does.

But don't get me wrong - if I am going somewhere that imposes no weight restrictions on me, or if I'm going to be hiking up a mountain to photograph wildlife, my 500 PF WILL be in my pack (and if I'm hiking far enough or high enough the 180-400 WON'T be in my pack!).

One final comment on this image. When I post low-level shots like this with the subject in water (and there are several more "like this" in my Bears Gallery) I am often asked if I am actually IN the water with the subject. just LOOKS like that. Why? Well...largely because of the amount of foreground I include in the shot - which creates the illusion that I am right down at eye level with the subject. Just another trick! ;-)

Here's a considerably larger (2400 pixel) version of this very curious seal (with just GREAT eyes!):

Layin' Low: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)


1. This image was captured during our early spring "Pacific Rim Explorer" instructional photo tour in April of 2019. Each year we offer photo tours into several different parts of the Great Bear Rainforest as well trips to photograph marine mammals and oceanscapes in locations on 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

Layin' Low. Barkley Sound, SW coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. 5 April 2019.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 720.

Nikon Z7 paired with Nikkor 500mm f5.6E PF telephoto lens. Hand-held from floating Zodiac. VR on and in Sport mode. Single Point Area AF mode.

1/400s @ f7.1; -1.0 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Layin' Low. Barkley Sound, SW coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. 5 April 2019.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit PSD file (and JPEG files for web use), including all global and selective adjustments, using Phase One's Capture One Pro 12. Global adjustments to this shot were limited to exposure and contrast (via Levels) adjustments. Selective local adjustments performed using Capture One Pro's layers and masking tools. In this case adjustments were made on 9 separate layers and included one or more tweaks and/or local/selective editing of (or adjustment of) colour balance, highlight detail, shadow recovery, noise reduction, and exposure.

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


Layin' Low. Barkley Sound, SW coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. 5 April 2019.

Species Status in Canada*: Most Harbour Seal populations in Canada are not listed as Threatened or Endangered. The Lac des Loups Marins landlocked population of Quebec (Ungave Peninsula) currently listed as Endangered (most recent assessment update - November 2007).

The Harbour Seal (Phoca vitulina) is found on both the eastern and western coasts of North America. They tend not to make long migrations and in many areas they are present year-round. When foraging Harbour Seals normally dive to between 30 and 100 metres in depth and stay below the surface for 5 to 6 minutes. On occasion they have been known to dive to depths of over 450 metres and have stay submerged for almost 30 minutes. Harbour Seals have a diverse diet, including cephalopod, crustacceans and a variety of fish such as herring, eulachon, pollock, and salmon.

Historically bounty programs were used in both Canada and the USA to reduce populations of Harbour Seals. In more recent times seals have become protected over much of North America and some populations have rebounded strongly (it is estimated that over 150,000 seals now occupy the coast of British Columbia). There is a land-locked and freshwater sub-species of the Harbour Seal found on the Ungava Peninsula of northern Quebec. This population is now down to an estimated 100 individuals and is listed as Endangered by COSEWIC.

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