Traer Scott's Creatures of the Night

A photographer captures dozens of nocturnal animals using and not much more than a DSLR, a hot-shoe flash, and a DIY cardboard studio

Sloth

Sloth

Traer Scott caught the slow-moving animal with her Nikon D800 with 24–70mm f/2.8G Nikon ED AF-S lens at 24mm, 1/60 sec at f/11, ISO 400.

I’m fond of saying that the idea for this series, Nocturne, came to me just after midnight. But in truth my inspiration came from daily life: reading about the moon with my young daughter, watching a silly cartoon about vampire bats, and contemplating some moths I happened to spot. I became smitten with the concept of presenting a sort of family album—a collection of intimate portraits featuring species ranging from bugs to big cats, all with one common denominator: their nocturnal behavior. I wanted my night-loving subjects to appear on black, as if they were emerging from darkness after having been encountered by the viewer. It took me just over two years to complete the project—the results were published in a book, Nocturne (Princeton Architectural Press), this past fall.

My first test subjects were luna moths. They were ideal for experimentation—they are small, can be handled, and lived in my house for a few days, giving me some time to achieve the aesthetic I wanted. Watching those beautiful bright green creatures emerge from their cocoons and pump their wings for the first time was nothing short of glorious. They were patient subjects too, sitting perfectly still until after dark, when the night called to them and they felt the urge to fly. Having nailed down the look I wanted, I reached out to friends in the animal world, asking for introductions and referrals. Soon I began to build a portfolio of a menagerie of nocturnal species.

Almost all of the animal keepers and handlers I worked with were concerned that I not bring too many lights or other gear. When strangers offer an introduction to an insular world like that of zoos and wildlife biology, inconspicuous, quiet, and unobtrusive always wins over big, loud, and showy. That suits me just fine, as I am a minimalist when it comes to equipment. (A preference born of necessity: When I was starting out, I learned to make do with what I could afford. It turned out that’s not such a bad thing.)

Shooting Nocturne, I found myself in cramped spaces. The behind-the-scenes areas in the back of exhibits in zoos tend to be small—often big enough only for one or two people. Likewise, in the tiny one-room wildlife clinic where I shot several subjects, I set up on top of a freezer while dead mice, birds, and other food thawed beside me. There was never room for strobes or umbrellas or an assistant. I worked alone, usually with only the animal’s keeper, and used a Nikon D800 body, three lenses (a 24–70mm f/2.8G Nikon ED AF-S, a 60mm f/2.8G Nikon ED AF-S Micro, and a 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6G Nikon ED VR AF-S), a Speedlight SB-800 flash with diffuser, and my little black box.

The little black box was a vitally important creation that my husband assembled in about half an hour. It saw me through shoots with tarantulas, kangaroo rats, owls, bats, and even snakes. The LBB was just a simple open-top box, about 3 feet long by 2 feet wide, with tall sides made out of black foam core and gaffer’s tape. It had hinged, cut-out windows in various places for my lens to poke through. From a purely logistical point of view, the genius of the LBB was that it was lightweight, inexpensive, and disposable and provided a perfect black studio backdrop. I could carry it in one hand, fit it into small spaces, and build another one for about $10, so there was no feeling of loss when I had to chuck it after it was pooped on one too many times.

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the little black box was the effect it had on the animals. I was dealing with night-dwelling creatures, but shooting during the day. The odd hour, coupled with the fact that most of these animals are not used to close encounters with people, often made for nervous subjects. Plucked from their cozy habitats just as they had drifted off to sleep, the critters were understandably jarred by the light—and by me, standing there aiming a huge camera at them. But once we placed them in the LBB, their heartbeats slowed and they seemed much more at ease. The only significant light came from my bounced flash down through the LBB’s open top. The flash created a spotlight effect without popping harsh light directly into the animals’ eyes. The LBB also created a less threatening situation for the animals that in turn allowed me to capture more honest moments.

Of course, there were many animals that were just too big to fit in the LBB, so in those cases I made a studio out of whatever space was available. Pickles the porcupine is a good example—he is a hand-raised porcupine who is extremely affectionate and loves people, but he is almost 4 feet long. Constructing such a big box would obviously negate its immediate benefits, so with him and other larger tame animals (such as the bush baby and some of the owls), I brought along a black background cloth and hung it with gaffer’s tape wherever there was space. It was a DIY approach, but it got the job done and, like the box, had the added benefit of being both inexpensive and highly portable. Where the LBB afforded me almost complete control over lighting and positioning of subjects, the black-cloth DIY studio meant a little less of both. With the latter, the animal had more room to move and I had more room to light, but I still used my DSLR, three lenses, and a similar shooting approach.

Unfortunately, some animals I wanted to include in the series were either too dangerous or too feral to gain intimate access. No one deemed it safe to let me crawl in next to the big cats or romp with the hyenas; in most of those cases I was given access one layer closer than the public. For instance, with this zoo-dwelling cougar, there was a large, fenced enclosure and then another fence separating the public from the enclosure. I could get past the first fence and put my lens right up against the inner wire-fenced area, and even that made the keepers cringe. To get a good capture I had no choice but to use a telephoto lens, natural light, and whatever behavior the animal chose to exhibit that day. These were by far the most challenging shots, because I had no control over any element of the photo except for framing and exposure. In some cases, I opted to do tight close-up shots to eliminate unwanted backgrounds, but other times I removed the background digitally. Sometimes problems just couldn’t be solved any other way.

In most cases, I was still able to connect with these animals despite the physical barrier. Animals can tell when you are interested in them and will quite often return the interest. Each time you are kind to them, their trust extends a little further. With wild animals, kindness often means something different than it does to dogs or cats. Usually, it means being still and quiet, respecting their boundaries, and knowing what is irresistible to them. Understanding what piques the animals’ interest is essential in order to successfully photograph them. Crows are fascinated by trinkets and shiny things; beavers really like fruit; moths are drawn to light; raccoons love finger food—know these things and you will know how to speak your subject’s language.

They say you have to be interested to be interesting, and with animals, it’s no different. The more you know about their behavior, habitat, and preferences, the more able you will be to communicate with them and, hopefully, get that perfect shot that breaks down barriers between species.

Traer Scott is an award-winning photographer and the bestselling author of five books. Her work has been featured in dozens of national and international publications and exhibitions. See more at traerscott.com.

Eastern Screech Owl

Eastern Screech Owl

A black back-drop was the makeshift studio for this owl, which is actually being held by one of its keepers. Same gear as the python; 1/60 sec at f/16, ISO 250. Photo: Traer Scott
Raccoon

Raccoon

This animal loved dog food, and posed obligingly; Scott caught it with her D800 and 24–70mm f/2.8G Nikon ED AF-S lens set to 58mm; 1/60 sec at f/13, ISO 500. Photo: Traer Scott
Ball
 Python

Ball
 Python

Shot in Scott’s little black box, this snake was captured with a Nikon D800 and 60mm f/2.8G Nikon ED AF-S Micro lens; 1/250 sec at f/13, ISO 400. Photo: Traer Scott
Indian Flying Fox

Indian Flying Fox

It took Scott six visits to this animal, which cannot be handled by anyone, to get this shot. Shot with a Nikon D800 and the 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6G Nikon ED VR AF-S lens set to a focal length of 70mm; 1/60 sec at f/7.1, ISO 400. Photo: Traer Scott
Cougar

Cougar

When animals were too large or dangerous for close encounters, Scott had to shoot from a safe distance. Shot with a Nikon D800 and the 70–300mm f/4.5–5.6G Nikon ED VR AF-S lens set to 300mm; 1/125 sec at f/9, ISO 2000. Photo: Traer Scott
Hedgehog

Hedgehog

This cutie was shot against a backdrop—and bit the photographer! D800 with 60mm Micro; 1/60 sec at f/13, ISO 400. Photo: Traer Scott
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