Wildlife photography isn’t just about frantic action shots and animal portraits. An important area of the genre is capturing a sense of place – images that show the subject in the landscape.
Photographing animals in their environment is a critical area of my work because such images serve to further the cause of environmental conservation, which is a driving force behind my work. The primary cause of decreasing wildlife populations is habitat loss, so revealing the beauty of the land in which animals make their homes is, for me, an important aspect of my storytelling.
In many ways, the standard camera format (an aspect ratio (AR) of 3:2) isn’t an ideal tool for capturing this vision. Using a telephoto lens will show the animal large in frame but the narrow angle of view restricts how much of the scene is revealed, while reduced depth-of-field blurs and de-emphasises background (environmental) detail and optical compression distorts spacial relationships between subject and background.
A solution is to use smaller focal length lenses, e.g. an XF16mmF1.4 R wide-angle or XF35mmF1.4 R standard lens, which I’m not adverse to but getting close enough to the wildlife is often impractical without causing distress, especially if you have limited time.
Panoramic Drive Mode
Much to my delight, the FUJIFILM X-T2* has a near-perfect solution: Panoramic Drive Mode. This setting is found on the Drive Dial on the X-T2 and is set by turning the selector switch to the panorama icon.
In panoramic mode, the camera takes multiple images as you pan the camera either vertically or horizontally. As it’s taking the individual frames, it aligns and stitches them to create an in-camera high-resolution JPEG image with an aspect ratio of between 3:1 and 6:1. The beauty of this elongated format, with its super wide angle-of-view, is that, without losing the benefits of magnification I get with a telephoto lens, I can create an image of an animal in its environment while keeping far enough away so as not to disturb it. The perceptual extension of image length also helps to enhance the feeling of wide-open space, which, compositionally, augments the environmental aspect of the story.
In practicing panoramic photography of this kind, there are technical aspects to consider and skills to master.
Setting Angle and Direction
Switching to Panoramic Drive Mode instantly reveals two option settings. The first, Angle, sets the angle-of-view (left Selector Button). M gives an angle-of-view of 120-degrees, while L gives an angle of view of 180-degrees. In the L setting the camera records more images and, as the photographer, your panning motion covers a wider arc.
In terms of image size, with Angle set to M you get an image of 6,400 x 1,440 pixels in horizontal mode (AR 4.4:1), and 6,400 x 2,160 pixels in vertical mode (AR 3:1). In the wider L setting, image size is 9,600 x 1,440 pixels in horizontal mode (AR 6.5:1), and 9,600 x 2,160 pixels in vertical mode, (AR 4.4:1).
Which option you choose partly depends on how much detail you want to record. A quick scan of the scene will tell you whether there is sufficient interest in a 180-degree arc to warrant shooting in the wider L mode. This may be true of a city scape but often, for wildlife, I found it covered too wide an area and detracted from my composition.
Aspect ratio is an important consideration too. I found the 6.5:1 AR a little unnatural and aesthetically hard on the eye, while the 4.4:1 and 3:1 AR’s were much more appealing. If you want the larger (9,600 pixel) image but not the 6.5:1 AR, one option is to set the direction mode to vertical (top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top) and then turn the camera so you’re shooting vertically (the additional battery grip is useful when handling the camera this way). This creates a “horizontal” image of 9,600 x 2,160 pixels, a 4.4:1 AR.
Four options are available under the Direction setting (right Selector Button): left-to-right, bottom-to-top, top-to-bottom, and right-to-left. Whichever option you choose determines the direction of panning. With wildlife, I found it best to start the panning motion in the direction of subject-to-open space. This ensured that any movement of the animal after I began shooting happened out of frame. For example, in the shot of the perched eagle, I started at the top of the tree and panned downwards. If the eagle had flown while I was panning, it wouldn’t have affected the final image because it was no longer in frame.
Getting to Grips with Panning
Your panning technique is critical to a successful result, especially if you are hand-holding the camera. For horizontal shots, I found it best to stand facing the object that marked the half-way point of the panning arc. With my feet slightly apart, I then turned 60-degrees (or 90-degrees for a wide L shot) at the hips to the start point of my image. After pressing the shutter, I used my hips to make a smooth motion through the complete arc, keeping my arms still and tight into my body.
For vertical shots, the technique is similar and even more critical that you use your hips to make the panning motion rather than your arms, as it’s very easy to get out of line when using arm movement. In both cases, I found it better to frame the image using the EVF rather than the LCD display. If there’s time, it’s worth making a few practice runs before taking the “live” image and during shooting, the camera will automatically warn you and stop exposing if you’re panning too slowly or too fast.
There is an electronic guide in the viewfinder, a yellow line with a white crosshair at the centre. During panning, the aim is to keep the two aligned. The closer the alignment the easier it is for the camera to align and stitch the successive images for a more accurate final image.
I did find some situations where the camera struggled in the alignment process. Most notably when I was on a moving platform, in this case a RIB (a rigid inflatable boat). Otherwise, the software performed admirably, even when aligning and stitching scenes with large amounts of fine detail, such as leaves and branches of a tree.
If the situation permits, I would suggest using a tripod with a fluid head, as this will smooth the panning process, especially in the vertical mode.
The main technical consideration is exposure. Panoramic shooting works in all exposure modes but I preferred to use either Aperture-Priority AE or manual, depending on the brightness range in the scene.
Where contrast was minimal, I used Aperture-Priority to maintain a consistent depth-of-field, setting and locking my exposure from a mid-tone object. When the brightness range exceeded 4- or 5-stops, I switched to manual exposure and set an exposure value for the average, avoiding burning out bright tones.
I never use auto-ISO but if you do, for consistency I would advise turning it off for panoramic shooting, to avoid variations in levels of noise across the final image.
I said at the start of this blog that the X-T2 has a near-perfect solution. My one gripe is that in-camera panoramic photography can only be done in JPEG file mode, with the camera automatically discarding the original files, retaining only the final output as a high-resolution (Fine) JPEG. This limits my ability to post process the image, to fine tune colour and tone and potentially resize for gallery-size prints. Of course, I can achieve the same thing manually, shooting in RAW file mode and aligning and stitching the images in computer-based software later, but that means even more work sitting at a computer when I’d much rather be out creating photographs.
That aside, the perspective presented by Fujifilm’s Panoramic Drive Mode opens a whole new door on wildlife photography and will be a tool I return to time and time again.
* Other X Series cameras with the Panoramic Drive Mode include X-T2, X-T20, X100F, X-A3 and X-A1. View the manual to find out how to access the Panoramic Drive Mode for each model.
More from Chris Weston
More about FUJIFILM X-T2
Find out more here.