Tripwire Photography and the Outdoor Studio

By Scott Linstead Back to

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As a creative medium, photography is resistant to change. Every new technique that comes along is embraced by some and adamantly rejected by others. In the case of tripwire photography, the absence of a human being present at the decisive moment to trip the shutter might be regarded as another automated step with the perceived abandonment of artistic control.

Many iconic images are the result of pure serendipity, but just as many are staged or at least anticipated. Consider the original clouded leopard images produced by National Geographic in 2000. They were camera trap images and they looked the part; the subject was flashed straight on, the retinas glowing with reflected flashlight. The images were nonetheless iconic because they represented the first time that the species was documented to celluloid. But “documented” is the word that worries the purist. The clouded leopard was rendered in the same way that a hunter renders a 12 point buck with a trail camera. A document was produced to confirm the existence of something elusive. But artistic control seemed as lost to the wildlife photographer as it is irrelevant to the hunter.

Almost a decade later, Steve Winter of National Geographic tackles the snow leopard of the Himalayas with camera traps. The results exhibit creative and atmospheric lighting, serendipitous snowflakes and the clever mixing of ambient and flashed light. The images win awards, are published extensively and their massive production efforts are documented in TV specials. The world gazes in awe at the most unique renditions of the wildest of creatures and the critics grumble about the appropriateness of camera traps in the most prestigious of photo contests.

The occurrence of the unexpected produces a stunning image. The photographer carefully chose focal lengths, lighting approaches and camera positions just like any other photographer would. His images were no more defined or limited by the camera trap than by any other piece of technology.

Barn Owl and Mexican Free Tail Bat–Nikon D3 with 60mm Nikkor Macro lens and four flashes.

The technology that I employ is somewhat different than the simple trail camera. I am not limited to tripping a camera when a large subject goes lumbering by. Using the Phototrap, I can photograph not only the elusive, but also the unimaginably quick. The Phototrap is a device that interfaces with either your camera or your flash. In the most basic sense, the trap is intended to trigger the shutter of your camera when the photographic subject passes through a defined position in space. The two most obvious cases where the trap is essential is when the photographer cannot be there to trip the shutter or when the event occurs so quickly that it is beyond the practical reaction time of the photographer.

Unlike the majority of what is currently available on the market, the Phototrap employs a diverging, infrared beam, as opposed to lasers to define the trigger point in space. An infrared emitter and detector face each other. As soon as activity breaks the beam, the camera shutter is tripped. The unit has variable sensitivity, and the working distance between the emitter and detector is 42″ maximum. (More technical information is available at www.phototrap.com.) Suffice to say that the approach affords the user a degree of user-friendliness and intuitive operation that betray any preconceived notions of the excessively technical nature of this kind of photography. I overcome the limitations of human reaction time and endurance for photographing phenomena that occur once a day and on no particular schedule. This is the domain that is popularly known as high-speed photography.

Barn Swallow–Nikon D3 with 150mm Sigma Macro lens and three flashes.
Moth–Nikon D3 with 150mm Sigma Macro lens and two flashes.

During a five-week shoot in South Texas, I made extensive use of the Phototrap. Shown here are a handful of images revealing “behind the curtain.” The barn owls on the ranch build nests in any man-made structure that they can get access to. My first effort involved installing a 60mm macro lens inside a turkey hunting blind to photograph the barn owls from the inside-the-nest perspective as they returned from their nocturnal hunts. Thinking in terms of flash as the singular source of light takes some getting used to. Two flashes were positioned outside the blind: one overhead and a lower-powered flash fired from below to avoid letting the undersides of the owl to fall into complete shadow. An incoming owl trips the beam on the way into the blind and effectively creates a self portrait.

The initial results were as expected: multiple returns with a myriad of prey items. Most of them were rodents in various states of mutilation, many of which were headless. Among the images that made the final cut was one in which the rodent appeared to still be alive and in relatively good condition. But the real treat was an event that I could not take credit for, at least no more credit than any photographer who happens to be at the physical and temporal dimensions we call “right”. A wayward bat, perhaps looking for a roost at the end of its nightly bug hunt, flew towards the entrance to the blind and tripped the camera at the moment that one of the barn owls was peeking out.

At a deer hunting blind, where one of those windows had been left open, a barn owl couple used this entrance to set up a nest inside. In this case, I installed a 24mm lens at the opening and tried not to include the edges of the window in the final image. Two flashes, set up identically to those used in the turkey blind, were triggered as the owl flew in. To avoid the black backgrounds that plague night photography, I left the shutter open for another 30 seconds after the initial flash exposure. This allowed traces of the available light to creep in and produce an image with greater depth, showing the deep blues and subtle oranges of the night sky.

The deer mouse image was conceived out of the desire to tell a story about this crafty rodent. Four deer mice were captured in non-lethal traps and then released into an elaborate set with hope of recounting the story of a deer mouse and its attempt to obtain some dried, discarded corn. Props from around the barn were used, including the tip of an axe handle from which the mouse would have presumably climbed up and launched itself. A speedlight coupled to a homemade soft box provided the frontal lighting and a snooted speedlight provided the backlighting. Finally, a third flash was used at a low setting to light the barn wall and further clarify the location and avoid a black background.

Barn Owl with Rat–Nikon D3 with 60mm Nikkor Macro and four flashes.
Leopard Frog

The barn swallow was purely an exercise in time saving. Other images took priority over this rather commonplace species, and I simply left the camera in place for a day and then culled the results to find a suitable pose. A similar approach was employed to produce the moth-to-a-bulb image. Leaving an asthetically pleasing bulb hanging in space with the invisible beam extending vertically and to the left of the bulb produced a variety of poses, some out of focus. But an illuminating albeit rhetorical question is to ask how the results may have differed if I had been there to trip the shutter myself.

The leaping leopard frog was a matter of recognizing a scene that always occurred outside the reach of a camera. In daylight, the frogs are next to impossible to approach and invariably leap into the pond well before I could get within camera’s range. Capturing a number of frogs and building a convincing pond set seemed only somewhat less daunting than stalking the frogs endlessly and perhaps fruitlessly. The pond was a four by twelve foot affair, lined with garbage bags and sprinkled with the local sand. Front lighting was accomplished by the soft box and the snoot provided the backlighting to illuminate the semi-transparent extremities of the amphibian. It turned out that placing the frog on the muddy shore and waiting till it felt the need to jump was a much more reasonable exercise in patience than the hopeless stalking of the frogs at the real pond.

Surely the camera trap and high-speed photography are not for everyone. Admittedly, my initial foray into high-speed photography was largely motivated by economics. It seemed frugal to produce captivating images close to home rather than constantly traveling to exotic locations. Now, the trap follows me to locations exotic and otherwise. From a commercial perspective, the Phototrap helps me to further distinguish my work from the masses. But from an artistic perspective, it tears down the walls put in place by technological and practical limitations.

Product Resources: Cameras: Nikon D300, D3; Lenses: 60mm Nikkor Macro, 150mm Sigma Macro; Lighting: 4X Nikon SB- 800 Flashes; Tripod: Manfrotto 090 and 486 ballhead; Software: Adobe Photoshop CS3, Nikon Capture NX2; Phototrap.


About the Author

Scott Linstead
SLinstead
Scott Linstead is an internationally published, freelance wildlife photographer/writer who worked as an aerospace engineer and a high-school teacher before moving on to professional wildlife photography. His clients include Natural History Magazine, Hewlett Packard, Ranger Rick Magazine and a number of wildlife publications in North America and Europe. His column on the techniques of bird photography appears in every issue of Outdoor Photography Canada.