Steinmetz and his assistant, remote-camera expert Nathan Williamson, scouted locations in Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The best spot turned out to be a two-minute walk from a park road: a watering hole with a rocky beach facing a ten-foot cliff. They mounted the TrailMaster units on tabletop tripods tied to rocks at the water's edge; the housed camera was mounted on a larger tripod under the cliff. Also on tripods were amber-gelled Nikon SB-28 Speedlights, which hold their charge even when they're "sleeping." The main light was placed on the cliff and hardwired to the camera; the fill-light was placed at the base of the cliff and fitted with an optical slave. With Steinmetz playing the part of the mountain lion, the duo found the best beam position, focus point, trigger delay (half a second), flash power (1/16th for the main and 1/64th for the fill) and exposure time (30 seconds). They also placed a second setup on an adjacent trail.
The mountain lions showed up after a few days. "So did everything else within ten miles," says Steinmetz, including a bobcat, wild pigs, and even a barn owl . But the hit rate was low, so the project took weeks of waiting. Steinmetz and Williamson traded watch duty, camping or staying in a motel each night, then checking their results in the morning. "It was like a fashion shoot," Williamson says jokingly, "only the action happened without the photographer!"
Although the team never got the exact photograph they planned -- a drinking cat mirrored in the dark water -- the results exceeded their expectations. The image that National Geographic ultimately ran was sublime: a crouching mountain lion, her huge eyes staring into space, with the Milky Way glowing above. Of course, the viewer doesn't see the photographic technology involved -- nor the object of the cat's attention. It isn't the moon but the whine of a strobe that she herself has triggered.
Doing It Yourself
Trigger Happy Infrared trail monitors are used routinely by biologists to inventory wildlife populations. These self-triggering systems keep a tally of passing animals. They can be used as camera triggers, but the TrailMaster TM1550-PS ($360, shown here connected to a 35mm compact) has special photographic features. It consists of a beam-emitting transmitter and computerized receiver; the latter, which is hardwired to the camera, controls the shutter delay, total shots per event, and the interval between consecutive shots. You can place the two components as far apart as 150 feet. Visit trailmaster.com.
Tiger, Tiger, Hopping Mad
The World Wildlife Fund, which routinely uses infrared camera traps to document and count animal populations, reports that three camera traps it had placed in Sumatra's Kerumutan Wildlife Reserve were destroyed -- all by the same tiger. Read more about it on the State of the Art blog.
An expensive camera trap isn't an absolute necessity for successful remote photography of wildlife. The National Geographic Society's own Wildlife Motion Detection Camera is available in 35mm and VGA-quality digital models for $70 and $80 respectively, at shop.nationalgeographic.com. Both sense heat and motion to capture passing animals automatically, even in your own backyard. Keep these tips in mind.
1. Let your subject get used to the camera. For backyard wildlife photography, leave the camera or its enclosure in place long enough for animals to grow accustomed to its presence. Remember that a bird is committed to protecting its nest and may be more tolerant of a nearby camera once its chicks are hatched. Other good places for the camera include a bird feeder, birdbath, or small pond. Self-triggering setups are not essential; if you're shooting during the day, try placing your camera a short distance from your house, and tripping the shutter using a remote release.
2. Use a digital SLR with a "live view" LCD. If you're shooting with an Olympus, Panasonic, or Leica D-SLR with "live view" capability, you can flip up the mirror and view your subject on the LCD screen instead of in the optical viewfinder. For remote shooting, connect a long video extension cord to see the live image on any TV, then trigger the camera with a long remote release cable.
3. Time your shot with a remote video image. The ingenious Pro-View WRD-100 Wireless Remote Display (about $475) uses a tiny video camera attached to your D-SLR's eyepiece to wirelessly transmit the viewfinder image to a handheld remote control with 2.5-inch color display. You see what your camera sees; then use a remote release to trip the shutter.
4. Use binoculars and a radio remote. Steinmetz uses this approach for remote shooting by daylight. To photograph a great blue heron on an island in the Gulf of California, for example, he placed a camera right by the bird's nest. Floating nearby in a rowboat, he monitored the action with binoculars, then triggered the camera wirelessly with a PocketWizard radio release.