Capturing the Big Cat

National Geographic's George Steinmetz takes the wildlife camera trap into the digital age.

Capturing-the-Big-Cat

Capturing-the-Big-Cat

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.

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 MadThe 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.

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-A-dress-rehearsal-with-Stei

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-A-dress-rehearsal-with-Stei

A dress rehearsal with Steinmetz as stand-in.
Capturing-the-Big-Cat-A-shot-of-an-interloping-ba

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-A-shot-of-an-interloping-ba

A shot of an interloping barn owl.George Steinmetz With Nathan Williamson
Capturing-the-Big-Cat-The-final-image-shot-with

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-The-final-image-shot-with

The final image, shot with the Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT and an EF 17-35mm f/2.8L lens, at ISO 1600 in RAW mode, with an exposure of 30 seconds at f/2.8 and off-camera flash.George Steinmetz With Nathan Williamson
Capturing-the-Big-Cat-Steinmetz-tests-a-second-ca

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-Steinmetz-tests-a-second-ca

Steinmetz tests a second camera trap location, on a path near the watering hole.George Steinmetz With Nathan Williamson
Capturing-the-Big-Cat-Steinmetz-and-a-mountain-li

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-Steinmetz-and-a-mountain-li

Steinmetz and a mountain lion trade places at the second camera trap location.George Steinmetz With Nathan Williamson
Capturing-the-Big-Cat-A-mountain-lion-at-the-seco

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-A-mountain-lion-at-the-seco

A mountain lion at the second camera trap location.George Steinmetz With Nathan Williamson
Capturing-the-Big-Cat-The-National-Geographic-Soc

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-The-National-Geographic-Soc

The National Geographic Society's own Wildlife Motion Detection Camera
Capturing-the-Big-Cat-The-photographer-s-diagram

Capturing-the-Big-Cat-The-photographer-s-diagram

The photographer's diagram of his shooting setup.George Steinmetz
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