Natural Art: The Photography of Brad Hill

Seal on a Stick

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In the Field

Seal on a Stick Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), BC, Canada. October 7, 2015.

View additional Harbour Seal images beginning here: Harbour Seals

I'm presenting this shot for a couple of reasons. First, I want to prove to the folks who shoot mostly birds that they don't have exclusivity to the "...on a stick" theme. Even though I'm a huge fan of Harbor Seals (in their own right, and as photographic subjects - I love their big eyes, whiskers, and almost human-like face), in this particular case I think I like the texture and colours of the "perch" this seal is on almost as much as I like the seal itself! Nice stick, eh?

The second reason I'm posting this shot has to do with the topic of subject isolation. Right now (as of November and December of 2015) I'm in the midst of doing a lot of head-to-head testing of a number of lenses, and the things I'm really trying to tease apart are the subtle differences in performance between the Nikkor 200-500mm f5.6E VR, the Sigma Sport 150-600mm, and the Nikkor 80-400mm f4.5-5.6 VR. A lot of people know I'm doing this testing, and they're sending me a lot of emails asking what my results show. Probably the number one question I'm getting is this:

"With having a maximum aperture of only f6.3 at the longer focal lengths, can you effectively isolate the subject from the background with the Sigma Sport 150-600?"

Here's my answer:

Yes - almost ALL of the time. Anyone who has spent time in any genre of photography that is "subject-based" (so portraiture, wildlife photography, most sport photography, etc.) will know that the most effective way to isolate a subject from the background is to control a couple relative distances, specifically the distance between the camera and the subject AND the subject to the background. If the distance from subject to background is at least 2 or 3 times greater than the distance from camera to subject, it's pretty darned easy to isolate the subject, even if the lens doesn't have a particularly large aperture. Reverse that relationship (with the distance from subject to background less than that from camera to subject) and you have real challenges in isolating the subject from the background, regardless of the lens in your hand. And, here's the critical part: In any given year I use the "trick" (which should really be called a technique) of controlling the relative camera-subject & subject-background distances FAR more often to isolate my subject than I do it via shooting with large apertures.

Now let's go back to the shot above. I captured this image using the Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR lens with the aperture at f3.2 and it is one of the few instances in all of 2015 where I used a very large aperture on a telephoto lens to isolate the subject from the background (and throw that background into soft focus). In other words, this is one of a handful of shots I captured in 2015 where I could NOT have produced the same (or even very similar) shot using the Sigma Sport 150-600mm zoom.

The take-home lesson? High-end, fast prime super-telephoto lenses DO give the wildlife photographer some options/possibilities that telephoto zooms can't provide. But in almost all cases there are ways that the thoughtful photographer can isolate their subject from the background without paying the penalty in price and size/weight of owning a fast super-telephoto lens. Yep, a few times per year you might not be able to get the same shot with your "ultra-zoom" lens, but at the end of the day you have to ask yourself if that really matters to YOU. And NOT buying that uber-expensive prime might save your marriage (husbands get SO annoyed when their wives come home from a shopping spree with a 400mm f2.8 prime lens!) ;-)

Here's a higher-resolution (2400-pixel) version of this beautiful stick (along with a big-eyed beast hitch-hiking along) for your perusal and downloading pleasure:

Seal on a Stick: Download 2400 pixel image (JPEG: 1.0 MB)


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 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.

3. This image was captured during my autumn "Into the Great Bear Rainforest" photo tour in October of 2015. 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 various boreal owl species and wildlife of Canada's Arctic. Details about these trips can be found on the Photo Tours page of this website.

Behind the Camera

Seal on a Stick Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), BC, Canada. October 7, 2015.

Digital Capture; Compressed RAW (NEF) 14-bit format; ISO 320.

Nikon D750 paired with Nikkor 400mm f2.8E VR. Hand-held from floating Zodiac inflatable boat. VR on and in "Sport" mode.

1/400s @ f3.2; -0.67 stop compensation from "recommended" matrix-metered exposure setting.

At the Computer

Seal on a Stick Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), BC, Canada. October 7, 2015.

RAW Conversion to 16-bit TIFF using Phase One's Capture One Pro 8. Four raw variants (different versions of a single raw capture) processed, with the variants differing in exposure (1.3 stop total difference between the variants), colour saturation, and shadow retrieval settings.

Further digital corrections on resulting 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe's Photoshop CC 2015 and Light Crafts Lightzone. Photoshop adjustments included compositing (blending) of the four output files from the raw converter, minor exposure tweaks, selective desaturation (of the background colours) and final selective sharpening for web output. Final tone-tweaking performed using LightZone's "tonemapper" tool.


Seal on a Stick Great Bear Rainforest (central BC coast), BC, Canada. October 7, 2015.

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.