Skyless Images?

I'm often puzzled by safari images posted online that have a small band of sky across the top such as the image above. The sky doesn't add any interest and is distracting. So I wonder why it is there. In many cases, it could have  been cropped out easily in post-processing, possibly by just using a different aspect ratio.

At the time of capture, it is important to think about the background and try to avoid such bands of uninteresting sky. This can often be done by getting higher in the safari vehicle by standing up (possibly on the seats) and photographing from the roof rather than lower in the vehicle.

This goes against what many people often consider as a rule of wildlife photography - "shoot as low as possible". But such "rules" should only be treated as general guidelines and not applied without thought in every situation.

Usually animals are not so close to the vehicle that it will look like a downward angle when photographing from higher up, and it may even be that they are on a slope above the level of the vehicle.

If it's an interesting sky such as a sunset, sunrise or storm clouds, then you can choose to make it a feature of your image. If the sky doesn't add interest, then think about whether re-positioning yourself, and possibly zooming in, can eliminate it. You might even be thinking about a future crop.

In many situations, I'm not only trying to avoid such isolated bands of sky at the top of an image, but also having horizons cutting across an animal. This is particularly true in strong sunlight, when you can end up with a harsh line between the bright blue of the sky and the bright yellow or green of the grass. In my opinion, this really detracts from the animal and I much prefer to see a more uniform background given by omitting the sky altogether.

However, in the earlier and later hours of the day, the bands of dark or muted colours that you get from the sky, vegetation and ground can make an interesting background that enhances the portrait of an animal. Again there are no rules. It depends partly on the situation and partly on your preference. The important thing is that you are aware of it and think of the different possibilities.

If you haven't already done so, I would suggest studying images of various wildlife photographers in books or online to see if and how they include the sky in their images. Is it a feature of an image? Is the animal above or below the horizon, or does the horizon cut through the animal? If the horizon cuts across the animal, do you think the image works? If so, why? If not, why?  Hopefully by doing this, you can become more aware of your preferences and act on them in your future photography.

Basics of Slow Panning

Note that this replaces an earlier version of the article. 

Slow panning is a technique used to capture a sense of motion in images. A slow shutter speed is used so that there is deliberate movement of the main subject during capture time. The trick is to move the camera at the same speed as the subject while you take the image so that some part of the subject is sharp. In the case of animals or people, this should generally be the head as shown in the example of the leopard below.

When it is walking, the head of the leopard stays in the same position relative to the rest of its body, while the legs are moving. So if you track the animal with your camera, keeping the focus on the head, then the head should be sharp and the legs blurred in the resulting image. The blurring of the legs creates the motion effect and is referred to as motion blur.

Since the camera is moving past the background as the image is captured, it also creates background blur.  The extent of the background blur depends on both the shutter speed and the speed of the subject since this determines how fast you have to move your camera to track it.

By controlling the shutter speed, you can choose how much blurring you want and hence how abstract you want the image to be. The final look of the image will also depend a lot on the nature of the background and the light. I took the image of the leopard above at sunset when it was quite dark but there was still a strong pinkish glow.

The image below was captured a couple of minutes later, when the leopard was moving towards us rather than parallel to the vehicle. I had the same shutter speed of 1/13 sec for both. Since my camera was not having to move so much horizontally to track the leopard, the vegetation is not as blurred in the second image as in the first. So even with the same subject in the same situation and with the same shutter speed, you can get quite different effects depending on the direction of movement.

As you can see, slow panning results in more abstract images, where the subject stands out from the background. This style of image is something people tend to either love or hate. For sure, it takes you away from the record shot into what some like to call arty-farty. I prefer to call it creative photography.

In the following description of how to do a slow pan, I will continue to use examples from wildlife photography. But the same technique can be used to capture motion in any situation where the main subject of your image is moving. For example, it is often used in sport photography to capture the motion of people or vehicles.

It is important to note before you try slow panning that it is a high risk style of photography as typically you have to take a lot of images to get a few that work and are worth keeping. Also, it usually requires a lot of practice. It’s therefore probably not something you would try the first time you see a leopard. However, if you already had lots of leopard images, I would encourage you to try it.  On safari, a good time to try it out is early in the morning or in the evening when the light is poor. The images above were taken around 6.30 pm when the sun was setting and it was really too dark to take a good standard image.

Below I discuss the camera settings before going on to give some tips on the capture process in terms of framing the subject and the panning action.

Basic Settings

Since you will want to control the shutter speed, you should set your camera on shutter speed priority (TV mode for Canon, S for Nikon) and put the ISO down to 100.

In the middle of the day, it may be so bright that your camera will not be able to set the aperture high enough to get a correctly exposed image when the shutter speed is low. As a result, your images will be overexposed. This will not be a problem as long as the highlights are not blown as you will be able to bring down the exposure in post-processing. In some cases, you might even like the high-key effect of the captured image.

However, if your images are too overexposed, then you need to find a way to stop so much light getting into the camera during capture. The best way of doing this is to use an ND filter, but if you don’t have one with you, there are a couple of other options that you can try.

On some cameras, it is possible to set the ISO to a value lower than 100. So it’s worth checking your manual and menu options beforehand to see if you can change the minimum value. If so, you can switch the ISO to the minimum value. In the case of my Canon cameras, I can set it to 50.

Alternatively, or in addition, you can put on a polarising filter and/or an extender/teleconverter. This will often reduce the amount of light getting into the camera by enough to allow you to set the shutter speed as low as you want.

If it is very dark, it may be that your images are too underexposed and, in that case, you can either increase the ISO or opt to use the Auto ISO setting. This is actually the only situation where I switch my camera to Auto ISO.

You should also have your camera in what I consider to be the default for action photography, namely continuous focusing (AI  Servo on Canon) and continuous shooting.

I use a single focus point (or sometimes the option available on my cameras of a single point with four surrounding active points). I think using a single point actually helps when tracking an animal as you can position the point on the head and then try to keep it there as you do the panning action. It does however require some practice if you are not used to working with a single active focus point.

Choice of Shutter Speed

The choice of shutter speed will depend on how fast the subject is moving and the effect that you want to achieve. For fast moving subjects such as a bird in flight or a running animal, you might start at 1/60 sec or 1/80 sec. This image of an eagle owl in flight was taken at 1/60 sec.

The image below of an arctic fox carrying a guillemot was taken at 1/25 sec. This was a situation where I already had my camera on slow panning settings to capture the arctic fox walking up the rocks at the bottom of bird cliffs. Suddenly, it spotted a guillemot at the water’s edge and ran really fast down the cliffs and grabbed it.

The question in such situations is whether you quickly switch your camera to another mode, or stick with slow panning. I chose to take the risk of sticking with slow panning. I ended up with lots of images to delete but a couple that I was really pleased with. As I said before, it is high risk photography, but when it works you can get something very different and special.

For a leopard walking, you might try something in the range 1/8 sec to 1/13 sec. For a very slow animal such as a rhino or elephant, you might go down to a 1/3 sec or 1/4 sec. This image below of a king penguin walking through a nursery of chicks on a beach in South Georgia was taken at 1/4 sec.

With experience, you’ll get to know what shutter speeds are good starting points for different subjects and situations. The important thing is to try different speeds.

I’ve seen tutorials where they recommend 1/15 sec as a default for slow panning, but they were assuming photographing cars in city streets. Clearly, in the case of motor sports, you would start with something much faster, say 1/200 sec.

You should take any recommended figures purely as starting points. If it’s a slow moving subject, you will have the time to try out different values and check the results. If it’s a fast moving subject, you might not have time to check your images, so it can be worth spinning the dial to experiment with different shutter speeds.

Generally, the slower you put the shutter speed below these typical values, the more blur you will create and the higher the risk. But sometimes it’s worth taking that risk and it’s certainly great fun to try a running cheetah or a flying bird at a very low value such as 1/20 sec.

Panning Action

Similar to actions such as hitting a ball in tennis or golf, you should aim for a smooth movement with a good follow through. Try to pick up the subject and lock focus on it early and then take a burst of shots as you track it. To get a smooth movement, you should move the whole of your upper body, turning your shoulders rather than just your wrists or arms. If you imagine a line between your shoulders, this means that your lens should always be perpendicular to that line.

Framing the Subject

Don’t worry too much about composition and framing of the subject while capturing. This is certainly true in the case of wildlife photography, where the movement of animals tends to be less predictable. It is common for photographers to be so focused on tracking the head of the animal that they don’t notice that the animal has moved in such a way that part of the tail is no longer in the frame. It’s better to zoom out to make sure that you capture the whole of the subject if that is what you intend. Then, assuming you get a successful pan, you can crop later to get a composition that you like. Of course, you may want to capture only part of the subject, for example the upper body of a person, rather than the whole person. But, in this case, it’s still good to give yourself some space in the frame by zooming out.

Final Remarks

Some people find slow panning easy, while others find it extremely difficult. The important thing is not to have too high expectations. Don’t expect every image to be good. Even professionals will sometimes end up with nothing worth keeping. I find I have good days and bad days.

But there are two sure things.

One is that you will improve through practice. Birds in flight are really good subjects for practising on because their paths of motion are less predictable than say cars or persons in a street.  Also species vary in the speed and way they move. So you have to learn to vary speeds according to species and to quickly react to their changes in motion.

The second sure thing is that you’ll have fun!

canon menu for basic settings of DLSR

Setting up your DSLR camera

There’s always a sense of excitement when you take a new camera out of its box. After charging and installing the battery, you probably switch on and go through the quick guide to set up your camera. Many of the default camera settings are ones that a lot of users will never need to change and, generally, the manuals do a good job of taking you through the various settings and describing the options. However, there are a few important things that some people seem to skip over that I think it’s worth highlighting.

The normal sequence is to first set up the language and then the date and time. Since many photographers organise their images based, at least partially, on date and time, it is important to set these up accurately. It really will make your life easier in the future when you want to find images or just check when something happened. You should also remember to change the date and time setting to the local time when you go on a trip. I was once on a safari in Africa with someone who had two cameras with them – one set  at UK time and one set for an Australian time zone. Later, he was able to alter the dates and times in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom so his images could be organised by day and ordered by the capture time. But it was a painful experience for him and one that ensured that he’ll not forget to reset these in the future.

One of the next settings is picture quality. The main decision to be made here is whether your images will be captured in raw format or in JPEG. Camera manufacturers have their own formats for storing image data as captured by the camera’s sensor. For example, Canon’s raw format is CR2, while Nikon’s is NEF. If your images are captured in raw format, they will need to be processed later either using some general image processing software such as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or the software provided by the manufacturer of your camera. Alternatively, images can be processed in the camera at the time of capture and stored in JPEG format. This means that the camera automatically performs some colour processing, sharpening, contrast boosting and noise reduction. It will also compress the data so that the resulting file is much smaller than the raw format and hence requires much less space on your memory card. Since JPEG files are a standard format, you will be able to send them to friends or post them on a website directly. Because they have already been processed in your camera, a JPEG version of an image will also tend to look much better than the raw equivalent when first uploaded onto your computer. However, the down side of capturing images in JPEG rather than the raw format is that the data originally captured by the sensor is lost and the types of processing that you can do later will be limited. For example, if you capture the image in raw format, you will have full flexibility in adjusting the white balance later in a photo editing tool such as Lightroom so you can choose to simply leave your camera on the automatic white balance setting (AWB).

I would strongly recommend that you capture as much data as possible and hence set the picture quality to the largest raw format available. I’ve read one photography book that recommends JPEG unless you are a really keen photographer prepared to spend time sitting in front of a computer processing images. The problem with this advice is that it doesn’t allow for your growth as a photographer. I used to travel and take snapshots, and only became interested in photography after, somewhat accidentally, ending up on a photographic trip to the Arctic. I now look rather sadly at the images from my first DSLR camera taken on trips to Botswana and the Antarctic as they were captured in JPEG. Even though my processing skills have improved dramatically, there is little that I can do with them as the original data is lost. I think the purchase of a DSLR shows that you are at least thinking about photography as a hobby and something more than simply taking snapshots. Leave yourself the option of spending more time on processing images in the future by capturing raw. In the meantime, you can always do minimal processing which really requires only a few clicks or slider adjustments before exporting your image as a JPEG ready to be printed or posted online.

Two other things to check when you set up the camera are the beep and card reminder settings. Cameras are often set up to beep when they focus on a subject. Apart from being annoying to fellow photographers, the beep can be problematic when photographing wildlife or events such as concerts. It is therefore best to switch it off when you take the camera out of the box and always leave it at that setting. If your camera has an integrated flash, you might also consider switching off automatic firing of the flash to avoid it going off unexpectedly in situations where flash is not allowed or could cause problems. I remember a young bull elephant once getting rather upset when someone’s flash went off unintentionally! The card reminder setting controls whether the camera allows images to be taken if there is no memory card in the camera. You might ask why this should even be possible and the simple answer is that it allows someone to try out a camera in a store without their image actually being stored. It is important to check that the reminder setting is activated. I knew someone who spent a Christmas taking lots of family photos with a new camera given to her by an ex-husband, only to discover later that there was no memory card in the camera. Of course, the ex-husband was blamed.

Last, but not least, is a setting that comes as a revelation when people find out about it later down the line. Next to the viewfinder eyepiece, there should be a dioptric adjustment dial that allows you to adjust the setting for your eyesight so that the information displayed in the viewfinder is sharp. I once attended a photography workshop for beginners where many people said this was the most useful discovery of the day. I’ve also had a fellow photographer pass their camera to me to check something and I couldn’t read anything in the viewfinder as it was totally blurred. When I asked if it was really adjusted to their eyesight, it turned out that they didn’t know it could be adjusted. They were amazed at how much easier everything became once they could easily read their camera settings in the viewfinder. You should remember to check this periodically, as the dial can sometimes be knocked accidentally and the best settings may vary according to specific eyewear and contact lenses.

These are all general settings that you can leave in place. The next thing is to learn about the basic settings used to capture specific images and I hope to share some tips with you for settings used to take wildlife images in future articles.