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The art of remote controlled photography

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
The art of remote controlled photography
22 Jan
2020
Capturing the perfect shot sometimes means not having the camera operator present. Luckily, advances in camera traps and drone technology are making remote photography more and more viable, says Keith Wilson

Our planet has been explored, surveyed and photographed to such an extent that it seems difficult to comprehend that new species of flora and fauna continue to be found every year. Even as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, scientists are discovering and identifying hundreds of new species ranging from tropical plants and insects to deep-sea fish and large forest-dwelling mammals.

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In December 2013, a new species of tapir was discovered and photographed in the jungles of the Brazilian Amazon. Called the Kobamani tapir, it was the largest land animal to be discovered since 1992, when the saola, a rare type of antelope, was found in the rainforests of Vietnam and Cambodia. However, no sooner was the saola found than it was ‘lost’, with no further sightings for nearly 20 years when it was photographed in 2011 using a camera trap set-up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Vietnamese government’s department of forest protection.

The discoveries of the saola and Kobamani tapir are prime examples of how remotely-fired cameras are playing a leading role in identifying new wildlife species, as well as rediscovering animals previously thought lost to science. The most recent case of a species rediscovery occurred in November 2019 when a group of scientists and researchers led by Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) used camera traps to photograph a small species of deer previously thought extinct. The existence of the silver-backed chevrotain, also known as the Vietnam mouse-deer, was confirmed for the first time since 1990, the last official sighting when a hunter killed one.

camera trap and lion

About the size of a rabbit, the silver-backed chevrotain is one of the world’s smallest ungulates, a group of hoofed mammals which includes pigs, llamas, sheep and giraffes. However, their diminutive size and densely forested habitat meant camera traps provided the best means of proving the animals’ existence.

An international team of scientists interviewed locals in three Vietnamese provinces about possible sightings. With that local perspective, motion-activated camera traps were placed in a likely forest habitat in hope of spotting them over a six-month period. The results proved better than expected – the camera traps caught sight of the chevrotains not just once, but on more than 250 separate occasions! The scientists then set up 29 cameras in the same area, this time recording over 1,800 photographs of the animals. It is too early to say how many individuals these images represent, but it seems likely that a small, yet viable population of the little mouse-deer survives in Vietnam’s forests.

The use of remotely fired cameras by GWC and WWF has increased in recent years. Many animals have unique individual markings, so camera trap images allow conservationists to make more accurate estimates of the population density of a species when conducting surveys. They are also used for census counts of some iconic animals, most notably tigers. Photos from camera traps also provide conclusive proof of the presence of endangered, nocturnal and other rarely seen species, thereby providing campaigners with the most persuasive evidence for the resources and policy changes needed to preserve vital habitat.

camera trap

SIMPLE SET-UPS

Camera traps are remarkably simple set-ups – they consist of an automatic digital camera linked to an infrared sensor which triggers the camera shutter every time the beam between sensor and receiver is broken. The result is a flash photo of sufficient quality that allows scientists to estimate an animal’s age, study identifiable markings, determine gender and assess overall state of health.

The success of a camera trap is largely determined by its position and this depends on the quality of research conducted by scientists investigating the occurrence of animals in a target area. Usually, the cameras used are not modified in any way – many are inexpensive automatic point and shoot models available from any camera shop. When loaded with high-capacity memory cards that store thousands of images, researchers can leave the cameras in the field untouched for weeks before making the arduous return trek to recharge and reload the gear.

Setting up a camera trap is not complicated. Once a spot has been chosen, researchers look for a pair of trees – one to attach the camera and infrared sensor to, the other for the infrared laser receiver. WWF researchers usually attach their traps to the base of a tree, one to two feet above the ground, and check them on average once a month. Many are left in the damp environs of tropical rainforests for several months at a time, so the cameras are protected inside waterproof housings that will withstand heavy downpours.

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Silver backed chevrotain

HOME SCIENCE

A typical, sub-£200 kit comprises a point-and-shoot digital camera, a rigid waterproof housing, and an infrared-sensor and receiver. Other systems feature a wide-angle motion sensor that trips the shutter when movement is detected within a distance of several metres. These traps are housed in one unit including the camera, memory card and batteries. All the user needs to do is tie the device to a tree with webbing (usually supplied) and switch it on.

This ease of use means anyone can attempt to record wildlife in their home patch. Common garden birds, small mammals and nocturnal species such as bats are more likely to be photographed this way than by waiting all day – and night – in a makeshift hide. In short, setting up a camera trap at home may provide the best means for carrying out a census of your own garden wildlife.

British wildlife photographer Richard Peters uses remote camera set-ups in his back garden in Surrey to produce award-winning photos. In 2015, he was named European Wildlife Photographer of the Year for a photo of the shadow of a fox illuminated by a remotely-fired flash as it visited his back garden at night. ‘The idea for the picture came about six months before taking it,’ says Peters. ‘I knew I had foxes coming into the garden and we didn’t have a security light on in the back of the house, so I was shining a torch out the back each night. One night, this fox came out from behind the shed and walked through the torchlight and cast this really nice shadow against an outside wall. I thought that would make a really cool photo if you could get the shadow in the picture somehow.’

camera trap image

Peters used a wide-angle lens to include his neighbour’s house in the background and the night sky for context. He put the camera on a tripod, high enough to include the view over the wall to the houses beyond, but pointing down at slight angle to include the bottom of the wall. The flashgun was attached to the bottom of the tripod at ground level so that it would cast an even shadow when fired. Although the photograph was meticulously planned, the fox still had to walk the right distance between the camera and wall to cast a perfect shadow and not include any of its body in the bottom of the frame. Eventually, the fox obliged and Peters went on to win one of photography’s biggest prizes.

A year later, it was another remote camera shot, this time taken with a GoPro in a tree 30m above the ground, that won the 2017 NHM Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Tim Laman, devised a set-up for a wide view looking down on a male orang-utan climbing a tree to reach the fruit of a strangler fig high in Borneo’s rainforest canopy. The backdrop of the verdant rainforest was an important element to Laman’s composition, providing the context of the orang-utan in his environment. Of course, the photographer could not be in the desired position – his presence would have completely deterred the orang-utan – so Laman spent three days climbing up and down the tree to place several GoPro cameras which he could trigger remotely. The greater depth of field provided by the wide-angle lens of the Go Pro ensured the whole scene from the face of the orang-utan to the jungle below produced an image of enormous detail and sharpness.

camera drone whale image

REMOTE FLYING

In the past two years, camera drones have become a hugely popular addition to many photographers’ kit bags and have produced award-winning images. Cristobal Serrano was named 2018 European Wildlife Photographer of the Year for his image of flamingos on Kenya’s Lake Bogoria. Serrano used a DJI Inspire 2 fitted with a 24mm wide-angle lens. As well as the distinctive pink plumage of the flamingos, the aerial perspective also revealed the variety of colours of the terrain around the lake. ‘Because of the dry season, minerals and salts from the volcanic subsoil are highly concentrated, creating an explosion of rich colours that is visible from the air,’ he says. This observation would not have been as obvious to the eye had Serrano photographed from a conventional standing position by the lake shore.

Arguably, the most dramatic example of remote aerial camera work is the footage shot by the BBC Natural History Unit. In the past decade, drones have added a new perspective to the filming repertoire of the programme’s cameramen. This was especially true of the footage shot for Jungles, the third instalment of the six-part Planet Earth II in late 2016. With 90 per cent of jungle animals living high in the treetops, getting images at eye-level to the subject previously required production teams to construct scaffolds and hides – and cameramen to be expert in climbing and abseiling – to get to the necessary shooting height. But the arrival of drones brought a new aerial perspective to wildlife film-making, bringing viewers eye-to-eye with previously elusive species. Ultimately, that is the most valuable contribution this type of photography can make to humankind’s growing understanding of life on Earth.

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EQUIPMENT CHOICES

NatureView HD Live View
CAMERA TRAP
Bushnell is a leading maker of camera traps and the recently released NatureView HD Live View (£260) features an image sensor that captures 14MP images and 1080p high-definition video. It’s powered by AA batteries and images are stored on SD media cards, within a compact body designed for any location. The kit includes two close-focus lenses with minimum focal distances of 46cm and 60cm, ideal for retaining clear depth of field, even when the subject gets really close. The automatic sensor is motion-activated to a distance of 18.3m, meaning animals are left completely undisturbed.
Click here to order via Amazon


Nikon D5
DRONE
The DJI Mavic Pro (£900) features a 12MP camera, 4K video resolution at 30fps, maximum flight time of 27 minutes and a brisk top flying speed of 65km per hour. It also boasts obstacle avoidance technology that senses potential hazards up to 15m away, thereby reducing accidents. A three-axis gimbal ensures the camera remains stable during high-speed motion for smooth video footage and sharp still images.
Click here to order via Amazon


Tamron 70 200mm VC USD A009jpg 1347349157
REMOTE BUGGY
Developed by British inventor and photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, the BeetleCam (£2,000) is a four-wheel-drive camera ‘buggy’ designed to carry both a GoPro and a DSLR for mobile remote imaging. Remote control range is 500m and the rechargeable battery provides enough power for a full day’s shoot. Wildlife film-makers are among its biggest customers.
Click here to order via Camtraptions

DOS and DON’TS

DO...
Look for a suitable place to secure a camera trap – trees are ideal – and set it at a height that is likely to see the infrared beam broken: low down for ground dwelling animals, higher for perching birds.

• Plan the flightpath of your drone before take-off and use binoculars to check for obstructions such as power lines and overhead cables.

• Always check that everything is fully operational – so whether it’s a camera trap, GoPro or drone, make sure batteries are charged, a fresh memory card is loaded, the housings are locked and attachments are firmly fixed.

DON’T...
• Hang around for too long after setting the camera trap. Go home and don’t keep coming back every few hours ‘just to check’! A camera trap left undisturbed for at least a week is more likely to be tolerated by wildlife as part of their habitat.

• Try to fly longer than the battery life of the drone. Flying time is rarely more than 20 minutes on most models, so keep track of time and land the drone with a minute or two to spare, in order to avoid it falling out of the sky like a stone.

• Always expect a wonderful set of flawlessly composed images. Remote camera photography is full of variables beyond your control and animals don’t always behave in the way you want. You may need to change the position of a camera trap or make many drone flights before getting satisfactory results.

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