It goes against our notion of photographer as auteur, but some subjects are best captured -- or can only be captured -- when no photographer is present. The obvious examples of this are at the extremes of our exploratory reach -- the deepest ocean and the solar system -- which we probe with robotic cameras designed to withstand the extreme conditions. Some earthbound subjects are just as difficult to photograph, though. A case in point is the mountain lion: As with images from space or the sea floor, the only effective way to capture this elusive creature in the wild is with a camera that operates on its own.
It's no small task to get good pictures when you're not behind the camera, as National Geographic's George Steinmetz learned when he set out to photograph a mountain lion in the Arizona outback. Part of a project on deserts around the world, his task required the creation of a "set" incorporating wired and wireless strobes and a custom-housed digital SLR, all triggered by an infrared remote camera trap. "It was like a fashion shoot, only the action happened without the photographer," says Steinmetz assistant Nathan Williamson. As you'll see on the following pages, the highly controlled shoot was no catwalk. -Russell Hart
Veteran National Geographic contributor George Steinmetz has spent the last seven years on an epic quest to photograph all of the world's deserts. His latest stop was the Sonoran Desert, which straddles Mexico and the American Southwest. This area's semiannual rains and proximity to the Gulf of California and Pacific Ocean make it unique even within its biome. "It's one of North America's most unusual habitats," says Steinmetz, "with more biodiversity than virtually any other desert in the world." Occupying the top spot in the Sonoran's complex feeding chain is the mountain lion, which proved to be Steinmetz's most exciting photographic challenge.
Unlike its African cousins, North America's biggest cat is a solitary hunter, and nearly impossible to photograph up close in the wild. Given the mountain lion's preternatural senses, Steinmetz needed to remove all traces of an actual human presence from the shooting environment. His solution: a self-triggering camera trap that would trip the shutter each time a mountain lion (or other creature) walked though its invisible infrared beam. "The mountain lion is an elusive nocturnal animal," says Steinmetz. "The camera trap was the essential element."
Previous National Geographic camera-trap shoots had all been done with film. Steinmetz's shoot was the first time the technology had been hitched to a digital SLR. The TrailMaster sender and receiver he used are off-the-shelf units (see page 2 sidebar), but the rest of his hardware was custom-built by the magazine's Photo Engineering Shop. The shop modified a weatherproof camera case, fitting it with a tripod mount and an optical glass window for the lens. Wires connecting the infrared trigger and off-camera strobes were also gasketed to protect them from the weather.
Despite those expensive accessories, Steinmetz shot with an entry-level digital SLR, the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT, because it is small, light, and cheap. Just as important, the camera's eight-megapixel resolution was sufficient for a full National Geographic spread. And digital's instant feedback "allowed me to see what I captured and continually make adjustments," says the photographer. The Rebel XT's smooth, low-noise output at ISO 1600 was far superior to film of comparable speed, and well suited to the long exposures Steinmetz envisioned. "Most night shots with flash have no context because the background is pitch-black," he says. "The creative breakthrough here was to show the wildlife with the night sky."
Technique aside, the trick was to find a spot where a mountain lion was likely to appear. So Steinmetz took the advice of National Geographic camera-trap veteran Michael "Nick" Nichols: Go to a watering hole. That made perfect sense, given the Sonoran's harsh climate. "After the rains come incredible fields of flowers that look like a perfume commercial," says Steinmetz, who was shooting at the end of the summer dry season. "But in two months it's a dust bowl again." Standing water quickly evaporates in the brutal heat -- up to 115 degrees in the shade. Even the wariest animals come to the remaining watering holes to drink, including moisture-starved mountain lions.