Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Walking the Plank

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In the Field

Walking the Plank. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. September 1, 2023.

This image was captured during one of those "I can't believe this is happening" moments. The scene evolved in what is becoming one of my favourite inlets in the southern end of BC's fabulous southern Great Bear Rainforest (and we plan on visiting this inlet again in 2024 during both my Spring In The Southern Great Bear Instructional Photo Tour and my Summer in the Southern Great Bear Exploratory Photo Adventure). Anyway...we saw the bear emerge from the forest about 50 meters upstream from this log and head in our direction (and towards the log). I remember whispering to our bear guide "Wouldn't it be great if it came all the way down to the log and walked out on it?". And then...he did! And the rest is history (and now immortalized in this slice of time).

I captured this image using a Nikkor Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S with its built-in teleconverter engaged - so at "almost 600mm" (560mm to be exact). I've been asked many times how well the Z 400mm f2.8 performs with its built-in TC engaged. The answer is very simple - it's absolutely top of the best ways to get to 600mm(ish) with a Nikon Z camera - and with a very fast f4 aperture.

How can I say this with confidence? the autumn of 2023 I was in a fortunate position where I had all 6 "Z pathways to 600mm(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 6 Z pathways to 600mm(ish):

Z 600mm f4 TC VR S = 600mm
Z 400mm f2.8 TC VR S with TC engaged = 560mm
Z 600mm f6.3 VR S = 600mm
Z 400mm f4.5 VR S paired with Z TC-1.4x = 560mm
Z 180-600mm f5.6-6.3 = 600mm
Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 paired with Z TC-1.4x = 560mm

At the time of this writing (2 Dec 2023) I'm planning to produce a detailed report on how the overall performance of these 600mm(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 right now I can spill the beans on how these different 600mm(ish) options compare in one aspect of optical performance - image sharpness. If we limit the discussion to overall image sharpness (considering both central region and edge sharpness) it turns out the 6 Z pathways to 600mm(ish) rank exactly in the order listed above, with the Z 600mm f4 being the sharpest 600mm option and the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 with the Z TC-1.4x being the least sharp or softest. Note that these comments (and those below) are based on systematic field tests at 3 different distances and over a wide range of apertures (from wide open for each lens to f11).

As it turns out, the progression from "Sharpest 600mm(ish) lens" to "Softest 600mm(ish) lens" is not linear. Instead, there are 3 clusters of lenses where the lenses in each cluster are very similar in overall sharpness to one another and quite different from the other clusters.

I'll call the first cluster the "Professional's Choice" cluster - - it includes the first 3 lenses on the list, so the Z 600mm f4S, the Z 400mm f2.8S with its built-in TC engaged, and the Z 600mm f6.3S. The difference in sharpness between these three lenses is both very minimal and very nuanced - and it varies with aperture shot, 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 the two of these three options have the largest maximum apertures (f4) of the 6 pathways (which makes them a little more "usable" in a field setting).

The second cluster? It includes just one lens - the Z 400mm f4.5S paired with the Z TC-1.4x. I'll call it the "Pretty Darned Good" cluster. This lens/TC combo is only a VERY SMALL step behind the 3 lenses found in the "Professional's Choice" cluster described just above...but that difference in sharpness is noticeable on a good editing display (when viewed at 100% magnification). be clear...I think many (if not most) discerning wildlife photographers would find Z 400mm f4.5 VR S plus Z TC-1.4x to be sharp enough to please them. I know I wouldn't (and don't) hesitate to shoot this lens/TC combo in the field.

The third cluster? The two zooms - so the Z 180-600mm f5.6-6.3 and the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6S plus Z TC-1.4x. I'll call this cluster the "There's No Free Lunch" cluster. Realistically these two options are very noticeably softer than the Z 400mm f4.5 VR S plus Z TC-1.4x (and WAY less sharp than the 3 lenses in the first cluster). But I do want to be clear about a couple things. First...the 180-600mm is extremely sharp (edge-to-edge) at almost ALL its focal lengths - it only softens up in sharpness as it approaches 600mm. And it's still in no way "bad". So please don't go away thinking I said this lens was a "soft lens" - it absolutely is not. It's amazingly sharp (edge-to-edge) at all focal lengths except at the very long end of its focal length range.

Second, and almost like the 180-600mm, the Z 100-400mm f4.5-5.6 is very sharp through most of its focal range too...and it only softens up as you approach 400mm. And, when you pair it with the Z TC-1.4x it performs well up to 500mm. does soften significantly when you zoom the lens/TC combo out to its maximum focal length - so at 560mm you're a big step behind the top 4 lenses in image sharpness. Usable? Yes...but not if your shot is highly dependent on image sharpness to be successful (and not all images are!).

Anyway...Here's a larger version (4800 pixel) of this very cooperative Black Bear:

Walking the Plank: Download 4800 pixel image (JPEG: 4.2 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

Walking the Plank. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. September 1, 2023.

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

Nikon Z 9 paired with Z Nikkor 400mm f2.8 TC VR S @ 560mm (built-in TC engaged). Hand-held from floating Zodiac. VR on in Sport mode. Single-point AF area mode.

1/1000s @ f6.3; -1.0 stop compensation from matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Walking the Plank. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. September 1, 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 4 separate layers, with one or more highly targeted and selective tweaks to brightness (mid-tone exposure), clarity (mid-tone contrast), highlights, blacks, shadows and hue (using the Color Editor tool). 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.


Walking the Plank. Great Bear Rainforest, British Columbia, Canada. September 1, 2023.

Species Status in Canada*: Not currently listed as Threatened or Endangered.

This black bear is a member of the subspecies "Kermodei" (Ursus americana kermodei). This subspecies is unique in that the population is characterized by having an unusually high proportion of a recessive gene that produces white coat colour (found on the "Spirit Bears"). Because the Black Bear is not considered under threat as a species, both the Kermodei subspecies and the very rare Spirit Bear suffer from having the same conservation designation (it should be acknowledged that in British Columbia - the jurisdiction of greatest Spirit Bear abundance - hunting of these white-coated bears is not permitted). For reasons that are not fully understood, the Spirit Bear occurs with greater frequency in a relatively small geographic area within The Great Bear Rainforest of the central and northern coast of British Columbia. In this area 10 to 30% of the bears possess white coats. Many of the black-coloured Black Bears in this region carry the gene for white coats, so allowing hunting of ANY Black Bears in this region can reduce the frequency of the gene for white coats. Thus, to protect the Spirit Bear, it is necessary to prohibit the hunting of ALL Black Bears in this region. And, very unfortunately, the globally unique ecosystem that contains the Spirit Bear is under development pressure, especially from the forestry industry. If this unique environment is altered, we may lose the wonderful genetic anomaly known as the Spirit Bear forever.

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