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Remote photography

  • Written by  Keith Wilson
  • Published in Geophoto
Remote photography
19 Nov
With motion detectors becoming ever more sophisticated, and clearer, crisper image resolution available with even the smallest setup, remote photography is a vital tool in the geographic photographer’s kit bag, says Keith Wilson

Every household has one. Simply pick it up, point and press the button – play, pause, stop. For many of us, our knowledge of using a remote control ends there. This ubiquitous device seems to embody our point-and-shoot society in which we have become conditioned to making things happen automatically.

This conditioning also applies to photography where cameras have much in common with remotes, having evolved in just a few decades from a largely mechanical construction for controlling the quantity and path of light by manual operation, to a sophisticated electronic device that you simply have to point and press. Of course, a camera does more than just play and record, it creates images and the versatility of its use is limited only by our imagination and sense of adventure.

Photographers use remotes too – in fact, every day cameras are used ‘remotely’ from sports coverage to scientific research. In these instances, remote cameras aren’t triggered by the press of the photographer’s finger, but by the movement or action of a subject passing into the camera’s field of view. Images taken with a remote camera may imply that the photographer was right there at the time, eye to viewfinder, finger poised over the shutter button, but in reality that photographer was probably miles away from the camera, even tucked-up in bed asleep in another country. Remote photography is probably most widely seen in the ‘view from the net’ images of footballs passing through the fingers of diving goalkeepers. Obviously, the photographer is not crouching behind the back of the net at this moment, but their camera has been placed there and set-up, poised like a trap, ready to snap.

To catch a tiger

From the crowded confines of a football stadium to the forested foothills of the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, where remote cameras are used for a far less predictable occurrence than a match-winning goal. Here, the photographer’s target is Asia’s most revered and elusive predator, the tiger. The solitary nature of the world’s largest cat means that tigers have always been notoriously difficult to photograph. Now, as their numbers dwindle due to poaching and habitat loss, obtaining images of free-roaming wild tigers relies increasingly upon remote camera technology. It may be highly unpredictable and sometimes reliant on luck and guesswork, but the results can be impressive.

French photographer Emmanuel Rondeau captured one of the most striking portraits of a wild tiger in recent years when his remote camera picked up a Bengal tiger looking directly down the lens as it walked along a secluded forest path in central Bhutan. Of course, Rondeau didn’t randomly place his camera in position because he liked the surroundings. Working with a team of rangers, he had packed enough kit on his trek to set up eight still and eight video cameras. Placing them in the right position was critical to his success.

There were just 103 wild tigers in Bhutan at the last count, so Rondeau concentrated on areas that showed recent evidence of the cats – tracks, faeces, scratch marks – when deciding where to place his cameras. His goal was to photograph a tiger in its natural surroundings, so wide-angle lenses were used on the cameras, which were fixed on wooden posts in the spots deemed most tiger-friendly.

A camera trap census

With everything in place, all Rondeau could do was wait and hope. After 23 days and hundreds of false triggers by leaves and high winds, his perseverance paid off with this photo of a magnificent male tiger. The stripes and markings of tigers are unique to the individual and examination of the photograph showed that Rondeau’s tiger was one previously unrecorded in Bhutan. It was an exhilarating moment and an example of how remote cameras can enable more accurate population counts of endangered species.

Bhutan, India and Bangladesh are currently in the latter stages of their latest tiger census and camera trap photography is playing a significant role in determining the total count. During the last census in 2013-14, India counted 2,226 tigers, Bangladesh 106 and Bhutan 103. Although these numbers represented an overall increase on the previous census in 2010, they remain historically low as habitat loss and poaching continue to threaten the tigers. However, India remains confident that its figures will reveal another increase this year, good news from a country that is home to nearly 70 per cent of the global tiger population. Ultimately, the proof will be in the pictures.

That said, although images from carefully placed remote cameras can provide reliable counts, scientists insist that statistical protocols are also employed to determine how many tigers a known population is losing or gaining. The camera might not lie, but margins of error can be substantial. For example, tiger populations in the Western Ghats of southern India are known to vary from 3 to 15 animals per 100 square kilometres. According to Dr Ullas Karanth, the renowned science director for the Asia programme at the Wildlife Conservation Society, even thriving populations lose 20 per cent of their tigers every year due to fights, poaching and human conflict. These populations remain viable because tigers have high reproduction rates.

Motion sensors

So what did Emmanuel Rondeau use for his celebrated photograph? The camera was a Canon EOS 550D, which can be picked up for less than £200, and the lens a Sigma 10-20mm f/4-5.6 zoom, set at 16mm – another inexpensive piece of kit, costing around £200. Connected to the camera were two separate flash heads; both flashes and camera were connected to wireless triggers positioned opposite the camera. The flash triggers were made by Camtraptions, founded by entrepreneur and wildlife photographer Will Burrard-Lucas.

Based in Britain, Burrard-Lucas has spent nearly ten years developing and perfecting his own brand of remote camera systems, devising prototypes and trying them out in the field, primarily on location in Africa. His reasons are practical: only with camera traps is it possible to photograph nocturnal and elusive species. Rondeau’s tiger portrait is proof of the effectiveness of remote cameras, as is Burrard-Lucas’ own portfolio of African wildlife photographed under starlit skies. His Camtraptions wireless triggers are based on commonplace PIR (passive infra red) motion sensors, similar to those found in security devices. A cable connects the sensor to the camera, which is pointed in the direction of the intended subject. Sensors have a wide field of detection, sometimes wider than the lens, so it is possible for the shutter to be triggered before the subject has fully walked into frame. This can be easily modified by applying dedicated blinkers to limit the width of the sensor range.

Flash heads should not be positioned too close to the camera, in order to make shadows appear more natural and reduce any red-eye from the animal. Burrard-Lucas recommends setting the flash to TTL (through the lens) mode and the camera’s exposure mode to aperture priority. For a large amount of depth of field, to ensure maximum sharpness in the background and surroundings, the aperture should be set to f/8 or f/11. A high ISO setting of around 1000 will also place less reliance on the flash to illuminate the scene, thereby conserving power. All DSLR cameras have autofocus, but for this type of photography, focus should be set to manual and the camera focused on the area within the frame that you want your subject to be when it triggers the motion sensor. Finally, set the camera’s drive mode to continuous to keep taking pictures as long as motion is detected.

Tree-top perspective

As well as removing the need for a photographer to spend hours waiting for a subject that might never appear, remote cameras can also be deployed in locations a photographer may find almost impossible to reach. In the Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Borneo, scientists led by Dr Cheryl Knott of Boston University place remote cameras high in the rainforest canopy to record the life and behaviour of the park’s orang-utans. Orangutans spend their entire lives in the tree tops, rarely venturing to the ground, so obtaining photographic records is not a straightforward exercise.

 Tim Laman Wildlife Photographer of the Year Grand title winner Tim Laman's photo of an orangutan, captured by a GoPro, won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2016

Knott, a biological anthropologist who established the Gunung Palung Orangutan Project in 1994, is married to wildlife photographer Tim Laman, whose remote-camera photo of a young male orangutan climbing up a tree gained worldwide attention in 2016 when it won the coveted Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. Laman spent three days climbing up and down a tree by rope to place several GoPro cameras 30 metres above ground which would trigger remotely when orang-utans came to feed on the fruit of strangler figs entwined around the tree. Compared to other images of orang-utans, Laman’s photo provided a new perspective, showing a wide‐angle view of the forest below and a view of the orang-utan’s face from above.

A GoPro makes an ideal remote camera because of its compact size and versatility. The model that Laman used for his award-winning image, a GoPro Hero 4 can record both stills and video, as well as time-lapse images. It has a high 30fps frame rate and is also waterproof, ideal in a tropical rainforest.

Remotes on wheels

Back down to Earth, remote cameras have been developed to move and follow their subjects. Researchers and scientists, as well as photographers, are beginning to utilise a mobile remote camera called the BeetleCam, another invention from Camtraptions. It is basically a remote-controlled DSLR camera on wheels, which Burrard-Lucas developed to obtain low-angle stills and video images of animal behaviour, such as lions feeding.

BeetleCam’s movement can provoke the natural curiosity of its subjects. Responses to BeetleCam’s presence have varied from gentle pawing and playing to serious attempts at eating its contents. Unsurprisingly, some prototypes in Africa were ‘lost’ in development to the attentions of lions, but today’s BeetleCam housings are resolutely ‘tooth and claw’ proof. Something that reassures insurance companies. 

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MOBILE: BeetleCam
This 4WD remote-controlled camera ‘buggy’ has been designed to mount both a GoPro and a DSLR for mobile remote imaging. The strong, lightweight shell has been extensively field tested to offer maximum protection for cameras. Remote control range is 500m, including the capacity to make changes to the camera tilt angle. Wireless live view options are also possible and the rechargeable battery provides enough power for a full day’s shoot. BeetleCam is agile and can rotate on the spot. Popular with wildlife film-makers.

useEOS 550D

CAMERA: Weather-sealed DSLR
There’s no need to use the most expensive or sophisticated DSLR when adapting a camera for remote use. A low-cost model such as the Canon EOS 550D (£200) is more than adequate. This cropped sensor model features an 18MP CMOS sensor, 3.7fps continuous drive and an ISO range up to 6,400, more than enough for low light conditions. At 530g, it is remarkably lightweight and the compact dimensions mean that it is easy to house and position when out in the field.


COMPACT: GoPro Camera
The Hero 5 (£250) can record both 4K video footage and 12MP RAW image files. It employs a 2 inch LCD touchscreen for easy operation, is WiFi and Bluetooth compatible, has a built-in GPS and is waterproof down to ten metres. Prices have dropped recently as GoPro prepares to launch its 7-series.

DO’s and Dont’s

• Choose your location carefully. Your chances will be greater if you have a definite idea about where and when your intended subject can be found.

• Use a wide-angle lens with your remote camera. The shorter the focal length the greater the depth of field, so the more likely that your subject will be in focus when the shutter fires.

• Select a high ISO setting. This will reduce reliance on flash to illuminate the scene and create a more natural looking mix of ambient light with flash.

• Position the flash heads too close to the camera. Flash to camera distance needs to be far enough to avoid red-eye and unnatural looking shadows.

• Choose a lens focal length with too narrow angle of view. Motion sensors have a wide field of detection, so try to use a wide-angle lens with an angle of view that matches the range of the motion sensor.

• Leave the autofocus on! AF will cause the camera to ‘hunt’ back and forth for any movement, even a falling leaf, and risk an out of focus image when your intended subject shows up. Focus manually on the part of the scene you expect your subject to appear and let the motion sensor do the rest.

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