Wildlife Panoramas

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


Hundreds of sandhill cranes and a vigilant bald eagle are revealed as the sun rises over Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. The five-image panoramic format yields an image of substantial resolution, enabling a print that does justice to the birds and their environment.
Canon EOS-1DS Mark II, 100-400mm at 340mm, ISO 400

Readers of Outdoor Photographer Magazine and students at my seminars and field workshops know I love to create panoramic images. It's all about the way we see: As our eyes sweep across a scene, our brain stitches the series of images together to form a single vision. Many outdoor photographers have mastered the composite landscape panorama by merging a linear set of images of unmoving scenery; with a bit more effort, the technique also can be applied to live subjects. A panoramic study of a group of birds or animals—a wildlife panorama—conveys to the viewer a set of ongoing actions across time and space, because capturing a sequence takes time, and moving subjects will alter their positions during the photography. The more movement within it, the more complicated the capture and compositing of a panorama becomes, but the results are very rewarding.

A row of anything shouts "panorama" to me, but when presented with an opportunity to photograph a panoramic array of zebras, for example, many photographers will rely on a wide-angle lens and a fast shutter speed to stop action and capture the entire scene at once. The wide-angle approach is limiting in several ways. The subjects are small, perspective can be distorted, and extraneous and unwelcome details above and below the line of subjects must be cropped away to attain good composition. Some of the animals in the scene may be optimally positioned, while others may be in awkward positions that work against the story. The reduced file lacks sufficient resolution to be printed at significant size. Solutions to all of these problems are found in a composited panorama.

Too Close, Or Too Far?
It really is possible to be too close to a gathering of wildlife subjects—too close for their comfort, too close for your safety or too close to capture them all in one shot. An example of this is when you're confined to a vehicle on a road in a reserve, and you encounter a small array of animals. You aren't allowed to leave your vehicle, and even if you could, you shouldn't. The group would dissolve in a heartbeat. So rather than snap a wide-angle photograph, attach a medium telephoto lens to your DSLR (a focal length that accommodates the individuals in the group vertically) and, using your car window frame for stability, take a quick series of handheld overlapping shots. Try to maintain a consistent horizon, and repeat the process for as long as your subjects are willing to pose. When the individual captures are composited, the resulting high-quality panorama will encompass the entire group. The same general concept applies to any situation where the photographer is relatively close to the line of subjects and unable to move back: at a zoo, for instance, or when photographing from a kayak on a bay or lake.

Likewise, if you're photographing a group of animals from a great distance, capturing them in segments with a long lens gets you up close to them without really getting close and gives you the detail and quality you need for a significant image. In this case, you can use a tripod to minimize camera movement and facilitate a smooth and consistent transition between segments.


More than 100 elephants graze on a plain in the Okavango Delta in Botswana. The immensity of the scene could only be captured with 15 horizontal images.
Canon EOS-1DS Mark III, EF 100-400mm at 200mm, ISO 200

 


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.

 

In Tanzania, a curious giraffe stands still just long enough for Lepp to take seven horizontal captures to be combined into an image file that can be printed life-sized.
EOS-1N, 100-400mm at 100mm, ISO 100

Horizontal Vs. Vertical?
Capturing a line of animals as horizontal images is faster because the horizontal format covers more length per shot. But if you have plenty of time, try a series of vertical captures, which will give you more pixels from top to bottom and more images, giving you a bigger composited file and better quality. Keep in mind that for some subjects a vertical panorama could be appropriate. Think "giraffe" or "ostrich." In these cases, a number of horizontal shots from head to toe add up to a very large file and, possibly, a life-sized print.

Stitching A Wildlife Panorama
A variety of software programs can be used to assemble panoramas. If you've photographed a relatively motionless group with consistently placed overlapping areas, you might find that the Merge functions of Photoshop Elements and Photoshop CS will accomplish the composition. But because wildlife subjects are usually in motion, you'll probably need to assemble the panorama manually in Photoshop so you can choose where the edges of the images are joined within the overlap. Automatic software will select the most obvious merge point, and that's not always the most effective or logical. We don't want two-headed giraffes.

You can see more of George D. Lepp's photography, find out about workshops and seminars, and purchase books and prints by visiting his website at www.georgelepp.com.

Assembling Your Panorama Step-By-Step

Constructing a panorama manually in Photoshop is a basic skill that involves working with Layer masks. Here are the steps.

1 Start in Bridge by selecting the images that will comprise your panorama, and open all of them on the Photoshop desktop.

2 Select Window > Arrange > Float All in Windows, and all the elements to be assembled will be displayed. Calculate the approximate combined space the images will occupy when they're assembled side-by-side, and create a new white background file of that size on the desktop. Make sure that all the images and the new background have the same bit depth and resolution.

3 Move all the images in order from left to right onto the new background; each one forms a new layer. Then close the individual images still in view to remove them from the desktop, leaving only the new white background with the dropped-in segments that will be composited to create the panorama.

4 Add Layer masks to all but the first and the base layer in the Layers palette.

5 Work from left to right. Reduce the Opacity of the second image to 50%. Position the second image overlapping the first image, matching features in the overlapped area. Once done, bring the Opacity of the second image back to 100% and click on the Layer mask to be sure it's selected. Select the Brush tool (0 Hardness) and black as your foreground color, then paint away the top image on the Layer mask to make a good transition between the two images. If you don't like the result, switch the background color to white (click the X key) and paint back the area; then try again by switching back to black. Repeat this process with each layer to the right until all the layers are matched and blended. If there's some variance in exposure, color or contrast on one of the layers, you can use a Smart layer to modify that layer to match those around it.

6 Finish by cropping the assembled composite and then Flatten the composite to make it a single image. Any additional optimization, such as improving detail in highlights and shadows, can now be done to the entire image at once in Photoshop.


Seven African White Pelicans paddle toward the photographer in a pond in Tanzania. Three quick images captured the action in panorama format.
Canon EOS-1Ds, EF 500mm ƒ/4, 200 ISO

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