Action-Sequence Panoramas

How to capture time and space in a single frame

Four sequential images of a single sandhill crane demonstrate the secrets of its flight over the grasslands at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. Once Lepp mastered the sequential action-panorama technique, he looked through his files for rapid-sequence captures that could be re-created as panoramas, and this opportunity showed up.

We see action before us as a blur of movement that often passes by in a linear progression. The spectator standing on the sidelines of a horse race watches his favorite charge by and turns his head from one side to the other in concert with the animal's passage through time and space. How do we tell this story in photographs?

Baboons don't like water, and this adolescent tried just about everything to keep from getting wet as it crossed a stream swollen by flooding in Botswana's Okavango Delta. The eight frames per second capture rate of Lepp's Canon EOS 7D gave him 13 images to choose from when he created this seven-layer composite panorama.

There are several options. Slow-motion video capture might provide the most complete rendition of the horse-race episode, with the result being projected or viewed on a monitor, but in my opinion this is the least interesting portrayal to archive and see again at will. With our still cameras, we can stop the action in a single frame or in a series of frames, which when printed or published side-by-side convey a sense of the animal's progression; the viewer sees a snippet or several small pieces of the story as the horse's stride is captured at various intervals. Another option is to capture the animal's progress in one or two seconds across a single frame, through multiple exposures, while the camera remains stationary. You may have seen a variation of this with images of a somersaulting skier or motorcycle in a number of positions, presented in a single image frame, the result of imaging-editing software or multiple electronic flashes firing against a dark background.

What if you want your viewer to follow the action over an uninterrupted, extended time and distance, all visible in one panoramic image? That's what I call an Action-Sequence Panorama, but others may have different names for the technique. Here, the camera is panned with the subject and fired at specific intervals, capturing the movement and the changing background at the same time. The overlapping captures are stitched together to portray the subject in a series of stop-action images moving across an uninterrupted panorama.

The Action-Sequence Panorama technique isn't particularly difficult if planned out ahead of time. Several factors are critical to success, however:

1 The subject should be sharp and the action frozen in each frame.
2 The subject should be portrayed at regularly placed intervals across the sequence and not overlapping.
3 The background must stitch together in a seamless panorama.
4 As always, composition counts.

The Capture
You want to stop action, so attain a very fast shutter speed by choosing a large ƒ-stop such as ƒ/2.8, ƒ/4, ƒ/5.6 or a higher ISO, which will help to capture the subject crisply at each position. Combine this with a steady panning motion, achieved either with a panning head on your tripod or with good hand-held technique, and the action should be frozen in every capture. A large lens opening also will offer the possible benefit of rendering the background out of focus due to a shallow depth of field.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

1. Seven images are displayed and selected in the Raw Converter. The highlighted image is active on the screen for optimization, and any adjustments made to it will be applied automatically to the remaining images.

The optimal firing interval depends on how fast the subject is moving and the maximum capture rate (frames per second) of the camera you're using. This can vary greatly. You may need 10 frames per second to capture a running cheetah. If that cheetah is in the wild, you're unlikely to get a second chance to recalculate your capture rate, so let it rip. If on the fast pass, the capture rate renders overlapping images of the animal, you'll later choose every other, or even every third, frame to correctly space your subject against the background.

A hot-air balloon moves slowly as it approaches, passes and then drifts away, requiring a number of seconds between captures. But even with slow-moving subjects, the images have to be precisely timed, so I incorporate an intervalometer that will automatically fire the camera at preset intervals. For the hot-air balloon sequence, the time between captures was fairly long; I set the camera to fire every eight seconds and ended up using every third image. It's better to have too many images than not enough because more images give you a variety of spacing options for your composition.

As with all kinds of composite panoramas, it's important to set your camera for a manual white balance, usually daylight, and manual exposure, or all the images may not match from frame to frame.

2. A close-up of the Photoshop work area showing the nearly completed composite's multiple layers, layer masks and cropping.

The photographer needs to leave enough space around the subject in each image so the backgrounds will overlap from 25% to 40%. This is the seamless panorama part of the equation; that is, the images will be stitched in the background areas showing between the sequential representations of the subject. It's easier to stitch a background that's blurred from the panning movement or out of focus from a large aperture with a resulting shallow depth of field; this effect also helps to separate the subject from the setting. But if you want a sharp background, choose both an extremely fast shutter speed and a smaller lens opening.

Post-Capture Digital Darkroom
While I use several panorama-stitching programs, they won't help you here. Basic Photoshop Layer Mask skills will be necessary to assemble your Action-Sequence Panorama. Just a few years ago, before the Photoshop Merge function and other stitching programs became available, Photoshop Layer Masks were the only way to composite panoramas! If you didn't learn it then, I'll show you how I do it now, and bear in mind that there are lots of different ways to accomplish the same thing in Photoshop.

First, make sure that your version of Photoshop supports Layer Masks. Then, bring all the images being considered for inclusion in the Action-Sequence Panorama into the Photoshop Raw Converter. Select them all. Choose a representative image and optimize it with basic sharpening, color and contrast correction. If all of the images are selected, they will be optimized in the same way due to the sync process. You'll optimize the composited image again later in Photoshop, but this gives you a good start.

This Article Features Photo Zoom

3. In Photoshop, all of the images to be used in the panorama are floating above the working panorama canvas. Here, the first image has been placed, and the second image (Layer 2) already has beenpositioned at 50% opacity by matching the background elements of the two layers.

Next, open all the images on Photoshop's desktop. Select Window > Arrange > Float All in Windows. Make the images small on the desktop so you can see them all at one time.

Create a new blank image file with a white background in the size you estimate the finished panorama will be. You always can enlarge it later. Click on the Move tool, then click and hold on the first image and drag it into position at the left edge of the blank canvas. I prefer to start on the left and work right, but you don't have to do it this way if right-to-left makes more sense to you.

Now, use the Move tool to bring the second image of the sequence onto the canvas. It will be added automatically to the file as Layer 2, obscuring the first image. Line up features in the first image, such as a background tree, with the second by reducing the latter's opacity to 50% so you can see through it. Once aligned, bring the second layer back to 100% opacity and add a white, default layer mask. Select black as your foreground color. Choose a brush with a soft edge, make sure that the layer mask is active, and paint away (erase) the areas of the second image that you want to remove, revealing the important parts of Layer 1. Be sure you're painting with black as the foreground color.

4. The Action-Sequence Panorama, with seven layers, is nearly complete and ready to be cropped, flattened and optimized.

Now, at 100% opacity, a layer mask has been applied to the second image, and unwanted areas are being erased with a soft-edged brush to reveal the important elements of Layer 1 beneath. Observe that the baboon shown in the first image is still partially obscured. When this process is completed, two complete images of the baboon will be composited.

Repeat the process by bringing the third image into the panorama file (it becomes Layer 3), reducing its opacity to 50% and positioning it by matching features in the second image. Bring opacity back to 100%. Add a Layer Mask to Layer 3 and paint away the part of the third image you don't want with the soft-edged brush using the foreground color black. Repeat this process with each new image until you've completed your Action-Sequence Panorama composition.

When you have all the layers in place, check carefully for any mismatches in the composite because you must fix these before you go any further. Adjust the position of subjects if necessary by returning to the layer on which they appear and eliminate any areas that don't line up. Flatten the panorama, crop it and then optimize it in Photoshop, assuring that the images are merged seamlessly. The more you practice, the better you'll be, and what you learn in post-capture will help you to plan better for your next photography session in the field.

The finished Action-Sequence Panorama, with its seven component images displayed across the top.

George D. Lepp shares his far-ranging photography expertise in his regular Tech Tips columns and in articles like this. Visit


    You can produce action panoramas the easy way George describes of do it the hard way. Georges’ technique is a great way to create a WOW images. I will use it for aircraft approach to land sequences. Thank you George and OD Photography.

Leave a Reply

Main Menu