Behind the Frame: Forest King

Morkel Erasmus All Authors, Morkel 6 Comments

How often do you get to see and photograph a lion in a forest? Most people who’ve been on safari in Africa see them either on grassy plains (think Masai Mara), in arid semi-desert (think Kalahari) or in thick bushveld (think Kruger Park). This photo was taken in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe. What you may not perceive from this photo is how it was made.

King of the Forest


Given the panoramic presentation showing the habitat, you could be forgiven for thinking I captured this photo with a 70-200mm lens and cropped to taste.

Look closely…do you notice the depth-of-field separating the lion from the background? If you’ve used a typical 70-200mm focal length lens before, you would know that this kind of separation is hard to achieve if you don’t shoot at f2.8 which renders the DOF quite shallow.

I opted for a different approach here:

1. I wanted to place the lion in its unique habitat and environment. As those who join me in Mana Pools in July on our Wild Eye safari will realise, photographing in Mana is as much about the context as it is about the subject. I wanted people to SEE where this was taken. But I didn’t want to do that in a way that diminishes the subject and makes the environment “compete for your attention” as it were. It needed to be subltle. Though I did have my Nikon D7000 with the 70-200mm at my side, it didn’t give me the results I wanted.

2. I wanted to have a really high resolution file that I could use for printing large format canvas and fine art prints of this image. The D7000 has 16megapixels of resolution and my D3s has 12megapixels (I’ve since obtained a D800 which gives me 36megapixels of high-quality files). So I opted to go for a panoramic stitch.

3. The lion was lying still for quite a while, which allowed me to explore a few options. In the end, I reached for my Nikon D3s which was fitted with a 500mm fixed telephoto lens and a 1.4x teleconverter. This would give me very shallow DOF with great separation from the background, while allowing me to get great sharpness on the subject.

4. I then proceeded to shoot 19 frames in portrait mode. I find that photographing telephoto-panoramic shots in portrait mode gives you better image aspect ratios, as shooting these in landscape format often makes it too wide and not high enough in the final ready-for-print file. Luckily the lion was lying still. Light was low (you can just see the sunrise light filtering through the trees in the background, so I had to shoot wide open at f5.6 with a slow shutter speed of 1/250 (on a 700mm focal length – beanbag was needed!) which gave me an ISO of 2500. The key to shooting these types of images is to shoot the frames so that there’s plenty of overlapping details between each frame.

5. Once at home, I stitched the images together using Photoshop’s “merge-to-pano” option, and followed my normal processing workflow from there. The end result is a file that is over 9000 pixels long, a full 37megapixel resolution. I am preparing to print this one large for my home and cannot wait to see it hanging!

(PS: anyone who wants a print can contact me – LOL)

I hope this post has encouraged you to think a bit out-of-the-box and explore all your options if your subject allows you and is cooperative. I don’t think the blog aspect ratios will do this image justice, but then again neither does anything below HD resolution (upwards of 2000 pixels on the long edge). I am including a link to a 1400px wide version for your enjoyment…though I had to watermark it heavily for obvious reasons as I don’t normally place files larger than 1024 pixels on the longest edge on the internet.

To view this large file best – click on it

King of the Forest

Shoot what you see, and remember to try and “see” your shot before you shoot as well!

Morkel Erasmus

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Comments 6

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  1. rudy erasmus

    Morkel , mooi verduideliking , dit is altyd n spesiale plek om te gaan. Ek vra net en op my rekenaar voel ek net die leeu is effens te naby aan die onderkant van die raam , die Engelse se net n “tad” se v oorgrond , maar dan is daar sker te veel uit focus area ook . Nogtans die beste van Mana wat ek nog gesien het Groete

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      Morkel Erasmus

      Hi Rudy. I knew this would come up sometime – the lion was lying next to the road, and I wanted to exclude as much of the road as possible. I know it’s unconventional…but still feel it works. Thanks for your compliment and question!

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