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Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Wildlife Panoramas

Try composite panoramas to get a wider view of wildlife while keeping the animals prominent in the frame

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Nervous impalas drink at a water hole in South Africa. The composition lends itself to a panorama, and the drinking animals didn't move for several seconds. The upright, watchful female on the right gives a counterpoint to the rest of the herd.
Three scanned images, Canon EOS-1N film camera, EF 500mm ƒ/4L, ISO 100
Composition Counts
The foremost reason for capturing wildlife panorama-style is that their positioning relative to one another and their surroundings lends itself to a long and narrow horizontal or vertical composition. As with any still life, the juxtaposition of the subjects needs to be harmonious, but panoramas also need to tell a story with a beginning, a strong center of interest and an ending. In most cultures, we read from left to right, and a viewer moving through a panoramic image typically will "read" the image in the same direction. So the animals at the left end of the arrangement need to welcome the viewer to the story with a strong statement. Typically, a great wildlife panorama doesn't begin with a butt shot or an animal that's looking away from the camera or the group.

The flow of action and interest should be strong in the central areas of the panorama. Qualities such as intense design elements, a concentration of subjects or even humor can carry the viewer from one end of the panorama to the other. But you have to end with an exclamation point or at least a good solid period. Ideally, the animals positioned to the right of the scene will finish and contain it. They shouldn't be running out of the edge of the image.

Bison move across a geyser basin in Yellowstone National Park. The expanse of the area lends itself to a panorama, and the wide spaces between the animals made assembly of the final image simple.
Canon EOS-1D Mark II, EF 100-400mm at 280mm, ISO 100
Say Cheese!
But wait! These are wild subjects, right? How do you get them all to cooperate with your grand design? As with all wildlife photography, patience and luck count. If you have the time, consider each segment of the panorama as a separate image. Frame a few animals, then wait for them to lift their heads, look at you or interact with each other before you capture that scene and move on to the next segment. Try to overlap your captures in areas of the scene that don't contain wildlife subjects; that is, don't cut animals in half, because if they move even slightly, it may be difficult to put them back together later. By shooting the same sequence several times from the same position and focal length, you may be able to choose the best rendition from among several captures of a particular group of subjects within the panorama. While I oppose adding animals that were never there to any image, I'm not averse to using cropping to create space at one end or the other, or the removal of improperly positioned subjects. (I already know that some of you think it's silly not to add if you can, and some of you think it's wrong to remove anything, so you don't need to tell me again. It's your choice.)

If the animals are moving quickly before you, you need to work fast or you'll miss segments of the background. A telephoto lens helps to keep the background out of focus, making it easier to match. As an alternative, reshoot the background after the subjects have moved past it; that way, you'll be able to insert any missing areas during the compositing of the panorama.

Wildlife Action Panoramas

Typically, we think of a wildlife panorama as a pleasing composition of a group of animal subjects. Another approach is the action-sequence panorama that tells the story of a single moving subject. (This technique was discussed in greater detail in the George Lepp article "Action-Sequence Panoramas" in the February 2012 issue of OP.)

Action-sequence panoramas are a bit complicated, but with today's rapid-capture DSLRs, they're quite often a possibility. A basic example is the situation where a bird is flying past the photographer with a consistent sky as the background. Following the bird with the camera sequencing at its fastest capture rate will record a set of images with the bird's wings in different positions. That's the action part. When several of the images are placed side-by-side and composited into a panorama, you have an action-sequence panorama that illustrates the bird's flying motion across the sky for a short segment of time. Complete a few of these composites with single, rhythmic subjects against a simple background, and you'll be ready to take on more complicated action-sequence panoramas of erratic or rapidly moving single or multiple subjects with complex landscapes as a backdrop.

This action-sequence panorama tells the story of a subject in motion in a single panorama. The compositing technique is relatively easy to master.


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