Is This The Ultimate Image Composite?
Scavengers Tell The Story

"The Scavengers," a layered composite image.
Photos © 2003 Robert Inouye, All Rights Reserved

When we first received this amazing image we thought it was (merely) an interesting assemblage reminiscent of Rousseau's Animal Kingdom. Our curiosity piqued, we contacted the photographer, Robert Inouye, and asked him to describe how he made it. We were in for a surprise, and thought we'd share his amazing tale with you.
--Editor

This single frame captured the immature bald eagle, and became the background layer onto which all other animal cutouts were layered.

It was a chilly February afternoon with only patches of snow left--a good day for riding through the woods. Our horses startled when a bald eagle took flight from the low branches of a ponderosa pine. We explored a bit and came across an elk carcass. Later that evening a larger bald eagle circled high over the same site. It took a few days to formulate a plan, but by midweek I had a fixed camera set up to record the scene every three minutes, from dawn to dusk, unattended. During that one day of shooting a number of visitors stopped by to feed--and have their portraits taken. Overlaying some of those frames yielded this composite image.

The finished "Scavengers" composite is one of my favorites because it tells a story over time. It's a primal event, in a natural forest setting, and all of the participants were wild creatures. Granted, the visitors it shows were not all there at the same instant, but each did stop by sometime during that day, and each appears in exactly the position it occupied during one of the many shutter clicks.

The bobcat was selected from this individual frame and then pasted on top of the background layer.

Capturing 180 Individual Frames
The camera assigned to this duty was an Olympus E-10: it's well suited for the task because it can take photos automatically every few minutes while unattended. Another plus is its almost silent operation. The E-10 stood mounted on a black tripod, about 15 ft from the deceased elk. The shot was framed to include the elk (cause of death unknown) plus space for visiting feeders. The camera would have to run from dim dawn through bright noon and into shadowed evening, so I fell back on the flexibility of the Program autoexposure setting and automatic white balance.

Focus mode was not an easy choice. Manual would have done a better job of locking focus for smaller birds which appeared off to one side, but I used autofocus to accommodate visitors who might be standing at varying distances. The subtle noise of the autofocus had one unanticipated benefit: its quiet warning caused some visitors to turn and face the lens just in time for the exposure.

Power management is always an issue in cold weather, and this was a morning that started out at 19ÞF. Rechargeable Ni-MH cells don't perform well when chilled, so I preheated the E-10 and its four 1850 mAh AA batteries in front of the wood stove. For storing the images, the E-10 accepts a 1GB Microdrive, but with repeated power ups and downs the spinning Microdrive would have been an energy drain. Instead, I plugged in a solid-state 256MB CompactFlash memory card. All LCD options were set to minimize power use. An external battery pack would also have been a good option.

The adult bald eagle was one of the last visitors to arrive--and also one of the last layers to be pasted in, since he had stood farthest to the front.

Format Choice
Another decision was between shooting raw format and JPEG. With such widely varying light conditions, the extra latitude that raw capture gives would have lent a processing advantage, but raw E-10 files occupy about 7.4MB each vs. some 2.3MB for highest-quality JPEG files. Since the project would require up to 200 shots with no memory swapping, it was clear that raw storage just wasn't "in the cards." On the other hand, the 256MB CompactFlash card could hold enough JPEGs to record an image every 3-4 minutes, so the E-10's timer and file type were set accordingly.

A 10-Hour Shoot
On shoot day, the camera ran for almost 10 hours, taking 180 shots. With the ISO set at 80 the Program auto mode selected exposures that varied from 1/13 sec at f/2.4 to 1/200 sec at f/3.6. The E-10 gives better depth of field at these f/stops than traditional 35mm-type film, so these choices were adequate. The AA Ni-MH batteries lasted, the camera stayed in place, and a helpful cast of visitors made their entrances and exits. First to appear was the immature bald eagle, posing for many of the exposures during three midday hours.

Next, and most amazing to us, was the young bobcat who hung around for 43 minutes. In our 10 years here, we've never before or since spotted this reclusive creature.

Later in the afternoon the lone adult bald eagle showed up. He was a standout for 16 short minutes, seemingly mugging for the camera. Ravens came on stage numerous times, sometimes in groups. The evening show closed with a last return engagement by the immature bald eagle.

Note the generous cropping to include background behind the bobcat, using a feathered lasso, so the edges will blend into the background layer. The right border can have a hard edge, since it will be fully hidden behind the adult bald eagle.

Assembling Selected Frames Into One Composite Image
Having been gifted with a wealth of individual frames, the next challenge was to combine them in some fashion that would tell the day's story. A panel of numerous individual frames would have worked, but my preference was for one single image. The solution was to pick one frame for the background, and then overlay the visitors one by one. Within that approach, I wanted the result to be as true to life as possible, so I took care to place each visitor in its exact original position.

With the help of ThumbsPlus image browsing software, I began the selection process by choosing frames which had good focus and subject placement. Then this set was narrowed down, with the help of a sketch pad, to pick just those visitors who would overlap each other in a pleasing fashion. Finally, the order of overlay was chosen so that visitors standing stage front would be in the top layers, and those captured stage rear would be in the lower layers.

With the individual frames and layer order selected, it was time to start the Photoshop work. The only entire frame used in the final image was the one that had captured the immature bald eagle, including a raven in the top right. This became the background for the entire composite. Then the other individual visitors were copied as small segments from their individual frames, and added (pasted) in as successive layers over the background file.

One of the first visitors added as a new layer was the middle bobcat, because he'd later be covered partly by the large adult eagle. The bobcat work began by opening its source frame and using the Lasso tool. Accurately selecting out a furry animal from a variegated background can be extremely challenging; but here the job was much easier because the bobcat copy would be placed on the background frame in exactly its original position--thus any nearby twigs included in the bobcat selection would simply overlay the exact same twigs in the background layer. This meant that I could lasso the bobcat plus a fair margin of forest, rather than meticulously cutting a precise edge around each bit of fur. It also helped to set the lasso's "feather" option to around 40 pixels, so that the included duplicated twigs would easily blend with the underlying background layer.

Once the bobcat was lassoed, and that selection copied, I switched back to the background file and pasted in the bobcat as a new layer.

The mature bald eagle can also be cropped with a wide feathered border, except where its edges overlay another bird or bobcat. For the animal to animal edges, I zoomed in and used the selecting tools with care.

Moving And Pasting
The next task was to move the pasted bobcat precisely into position. It's easiest to do if you can see both layers at the same time, so I set the new layer's fill slider to 50 percent. For final minute adjustments I used the keyboard's arrow keys (rather than the mouse) to make tiny pixel by pixel moves. Then I returned the new layer's fill slider to 100 percent. (An alternate method would be to copy the entire bobcat frame and paste it as the new masked layer, counting on frame alignment to give a precise automatic match up. However, this only works if there is absolutely no movement of the camera during the entire day. In the forest environment, you'll get pixel-sized moves due to wind, melt, or the occasional bird perching on the lens.)

Once the first bobcat layer was nudged into place, I used the same process for each additional visitor and layer. In some later layers, the selecting process did get a bit more complicated where one animal overlapped another, since the animal to animal overlap seams had to be carefully selected (rather than loosely feathered). Photoshop's Mask tools can be useful here because they allow any selection errors to be erased easily and redone.

This tripod-mounted E-10 camera took photos all day long.

After each visitor was selected, copied, pasted in, and moved into place, the collage needed some fine-tuning of exposure by layer. You might think that taking the original shots in Program mode would yield a long series of identically illuminated frames, but over the course of a day you'll see a progression of variations in light intensity, saturation, color, and shadow. I went through the layers one by one and clicked on Image/Adjustments /Levels and used the sliders to get a fine-tuned match. If necessary, I did a bit of burning or dodging on edges, and some saturation adjustment, so that no one visitor stood out too much.

At this point I examined overlap areas closely on screen at both Actual Pixel and Fit On Screen zoom levels. After making any final adjustments, I applied a bit of Unsharp Masking and saved the finished composite without flattening the layers. Sure, this unflattened file took up more space on the computer's hard drive, but it preserved the ability to fine-tune individual elements further if the need later became apparent.

If you have any questions or comments about this composite, Robert Inouye's e-mail address is robert@inouye.org.

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