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