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Page 1 Norbert Schuster

Written By onci on Tuesday, March 2, 2010 | 7:05 AM



Gray Seals on the Island of Helgoland by Norbert Schuster

Helgoland is a small German island in the southeastern corner of the North Sea. It consists of the main island (0.4 sq mi) and an even smaller one (0.27 sq mi) which is called the “Düne” (dune).

Gray Seals (Halichoerus grypus) had disappeared from this region for quite some time but returned to the “Düne” of Helgoland in 1989. Since the first pup was born in the winter 1996/97 the number of the newborns increased continually to more than 70 in 2009/10.
The time from mid November to end of December is a very interesting time to photograph Gray Seals. During this period of year the females give birth and are nursing their pups for approximately three weeks while the bigger males arrive to the beaches and start fighting for the females. At the end of the nursing time the females mate again.

All the images were taken with a D700 and the AF-S VR 4.0 200-400mm sometimes with the TC-14E II or the AF-S 4.0 VR 600mm lens. Because most of the time the sky was rather cloudy I decided to go for a rather high ISO setting from 800 to 1250 to obtain the short exposure times which are needed to photograph the fighting and mating.

I save the images as NEF (RAW, 14 bit, lossless compressed). Therefore my workflow starts with Capture NX 2. I deselect sharpening and noise reduction and save the image as 16 bit TIFF file.

Sometimes the exposure was critical because the seals were in front of a rather bright background (the beach or the water) which resulted in underexposing the seal or overexposing the background. I decided to accept some underexposing, which I find in general easier to handle than overexposing. For such images the D-Lightning (HQ) in Capture NX 2 is quite helpful. It lightens mainly the darker parts (in this case the seal) of the image.
Then I continue in Photoshop (CS3). After masking the seal noise reduction (with Neat Image) will be applied to the background only and Levels, Curves and Hue/Saturation will be adjusted. Finally I sharpen only the seal with Unsharp Mask, resize the image for the web and save as JPEG. Sharpening/resizing is done in steps.

Following the rule that images should be taken from a position close to the height of the animal’s eye I had my camera and lens some 30 cm above the ground on a tripod. Under the windy, wet and sandy conditions which I mostly encountered my equipment got full of sand and I had to clean the camera and lenses carefully every evening. The minimum protection one should use is the lens hood but for the next time I will make sure to have some better camera and lens protection.

And probably I will go there again during the next winter time!
It was cold, windy, wet and sandy but so much fun to watch and photograph the Gray Seals.

Norbert Schuster



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