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.
single frame captured the immature bald eagle, and became
the background layer onto which all other animal cutouts
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
bobcat was selected from this individual frame and then
pasted on top of the background layer.
Capturing 180 Individual
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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