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When eyes aren't behind the viewfinder

Jun 2014

Copyright © 1993- Ganesh H. Shankar

I am sure you might have seen some unique images of tiger or lion made in the wild from under its nose ? You also might have rightly guessed the use of special camera triggering equipments to make such unmanned images. While attempting at making unique images of nature I ended up buying several of these devices. In this article let me share some of my experiences of using these equipements that help us do this kind of remote photography.

Broadly there are two types such devices - devices which will let you stay close but at a safe distance from your subject while the other kind of devices let you make images during your absense. Both needs very careful planning and execution to make any keepers.

Let us look at some of those equipments.

Infrared triggers

There are several kinds of remote triggering devices available in the market for most of the camera by many manufacturers. You may need to search one for your camera. Camera manufactures themself offer such remote triggering devices. Here is one by Nikon called ML-3. There are several third party companies make sophisticated devices too. The devices like this works on infrared signals. There is a receiver with a wire connected to the camera to trigger the camera and then there is a transmitter which you will hold in hand to remotely trigger the camera. Typically these devices support a range of a few tens of feet. Looks good right ? Not of much help for wildlife photography ! The main issue is the range that these infrared remote triggers support and also the line of sight requirement between the receiver and transmitter which will be very difficult to ensure in the field. I don't use mine in my work these days due to this limitation.

Next, we have radio based wireless remote triggers. They work very well and give you a working distance of a few hundred feet from the subject. Here again, you will find several such devices in the market with different capabilities. Most important feature to consider is the range it supports. Greater the range better it is for the use in the wild. This is very important since staying 50-100 feet away from your wild subject is simply not good enough. It works in some cases where our subjects are used to people but not for the shy subjects. One of the popular radio based remote triggering device used is PocketWizard. I have used it with some good success in the field. Here is the PocketWizard's transceiver (they have a newer model now). This device acts as both transmitter as well as a receiver. We would need two of those devices. They can me wired to flashes too for the remote use.

Such radio based triggers support a working distance of a few hundred feet. In field you may not actually get the ideal working distance that the manufacturer claims in the product sheet. But the range such devices support is very usable. Like PocketWizard all of such devices come in transmitter/receiver pair. The receiver is wired to the camera and the transmitter is held in the hand. When your subject shows up in front of your camera you trigger the device sitting at a safe distance.

All is well ? No, it is not as easy as it appears. There are several other challenges in this kind of photography.

More importantly working on composition and focussing is tough !!

You will realize the luxruy of seeing through the view finder before pressing the shutter when you start using such devices ! Since you can't see the subject you will end up setting the camera in a manual focus mode. Where to focus then ? Most often we use wide angle lenses in this kind of set up to get unique images. Fortunately, wide angle lenses give us lots of depth of field. This lets us keep the camera in manual focus mode. Typically using hyperfocal distance the challenge of focussing could be solved. But the challenge of composition remains ! However there are ways to solve the challenge of composition too. The cheaper solution is to remember some key positions or keeping some invisible references in the field to help with the composition and triggering the camera when your subject shows up near those predetermined points. More expensive and better solution is to buy a special device which enables remote viewing of your rear lcd screen or view finder in live mode ! There are such solutions available in the market today. Companies like Hanhel (, Phottix ( and Cameranger ( offer products that let you see remotely your live view from the camera or what you could see in the view finder. Needless to say they come at a price which may be well worth if you want to specialize in this kind of photography. The CamRanger product appears very interesting (though I have not used one yet).

Another big challenge is exposure if there is a need to dial in compensation to take care of changing light situation in the field. Once, after detailed planning I wired a setup in the field in the morning and waited till evening away from my setup in a hide for my subjects to show up. When they showed up it was late in the evening and my lens was facing the sun ! All the images got over exposed by several stops and I just got several plain white frames ! We need to plan for all these kinds of tricky changing light conditions to make successful images.

Ok, those devices and techniques help you when you have the luxury of staying close to and see your subject when they arrive near your set up. How do we make images staying at home ? There are devices available for that too ! Broadly there are two kinds of such devices - heat sensing triggers and beam cutting triggers. Here is a heat sensing passive trigger by Trail Master.

Usage of these devices are still more challenging in the field but they give us far more flexibilities. In the heat sensing kind of devices the device detects the presence of any warm blooded animal in its coverage area and sends a signal to the camera to trigger. They have a conical range of a few tens of feet infront of the heat sensor. If your subject shows up any where in that conical range it will trigger the camera. Now imagine the compostion !! You can probably use only a wide angle lens in this case. The focus has to be manual and probably using hyper focal distance. It normally takes hours to wire a camera to use it this way. Everything need to precicely imagined and set up before we leave the place. The position of the subject, focussing, exposure etc has to be clearly thought of. If your subject is very fast moving like for example bats then there is an additional challenge of adjusting for shutter lag. Otherwise you will see camera getting triggered but with empty dark frames. By the time the subject gets sensed and the mirror goes up in the camera your subject would have moved away from the frame. I have had several such failures once while trying to make images of bats at night using a device like this. If your objective is just to show a presence of a species and probably for census then heat sensing triggers could be of great use. Here is an image a bat in flight made at night when I was fast asleep at home.

Then we have beam cutting kind of camera triggers. The principle of working of them is very simple. We have a transmitter and a receiver. A narrow beam goes out of the transmitter. The receiver is correctly aligned to receive the infrared light coming out of the transmitter. It is setp up in such a way that the beam would cross the possible path of your subject in the field. When the beam gets cut due to your subject coming in between the transmitter and the receiver a signal will be sent to the camera to trigger it.

Disadvantage of this compared to the heat sensing one is you need to accurately know where your subject shows up. You probably need to find its narrow path in the wild. The advantage however is this provides a greater control over composition and enables much professional imagery. Here are couple of such devices available in the market ( &

Both of them work in a similar way however the Phototrap has an additional very useful mode where the transmitter and the receiver can be kept side-by-side. The receiver will use the reflected beam off the subject instead of cutting the beam between the transmitter and the receiver. These camera triggers can also be programmed. For example the Trail Master devices (both passive and active) can be programmed to send multiple trigger pulses. The sensitivity of the infrared beam could be changed in PhotoTrap trigger. This below image of the moth in flight is made using Phototrap using it that way at night ! You may note that it is a single moth in flight and I wired the flash in repeat mode during a fairly long exposure to get the moth 3 times in the frame during the single exposure to show its flight path.

Normally you may end up leaving the beam-cutting or heat sensing set up for days together in the field. This poses additional challenges related to battery life of your camera equipement and flash. Before buying any of these remote triggers you may need to make sure they don't keep your exposure meter/focus sensors activated always which might drain the battery on the camera and flashes very fast.

Other challenges

The remote photography needs lots of time and patience. There are other related challenges too. Our subjects in wild are very shy are shrewd. They get alarmed by a foreign object in their habitat and they may not come near your setup if you don't adequately camouflage them in the field. In the image above you see my camera set up camouflaged inside a fiber mould. While the unsuspecting egret walked in front of it the pond heron became suspicious and decided to walk behind it ! Another issue is larger animals may harm your expensive setup unattended. Young ones may play with your lens and cameras ! I got a few camouflaged fiber moulds done to secure my equipments. They work great. Unfortunately you can't order them on the net. You may need to work with someone to get such boxes done. Always put a filter on the lens to protect it. Be prepared for a lots of failures. If you can accuarately predicts paths of your subjects getting one good image in a week may be a good success rate ! Before leaving your set up always make sure you have it in manual focus (for most of the cases unless you have a remote live view), your exposure setting is good for all shooting conditions - day or night, front light or back light, make sure you have enough battery power left in your camera, flashes and the remote triggering device. Last but not least, make sure you have switched on your camera and flashes before you leave the set up ! Often it takes hours to set up, you may want to conserve battery and may turn off these devices in between. I have had this disppointing scenario a few times in the field. Setting up the remote trigger is a very interesting activity by itself. I really enjoy doing this in field.

In a related note in the context of remote/unmanned photography I have heard people complaining about "camera making images" and not the photographer. Those are very uninformed views. It takes lots of effort to pre-visalize a composition and successfuly make images using remote triggers compared to the luxury of seeing through the view finder and pressing the shutter release. It is photographer making the image, more so in this kind of photography compared to the luxury of standing behind the camera, looking through the viewfinder and releasing the shutter.

Summary being, lots of it is imagination, applying science and art and ofcourse lots of good luck :) One of the important point to note is you need freedom in the field and several days at a stretch to experiment. Remote photography needs dedicated effort and time and is not a technique to be used at an unknown place during a weekend safari. However, When you make an image that will be a very satisfying experience. That unique image may be more interesting than your usual photo safari attempts.

Honestly, I could not dedicate more than a week at a stretch is do these experiments. I would have done much better if I could spend more time in the field. At the end (for me) it is all about balancing the job, family commitments and this wild passion of nature photography!! I hope to find lots of time someday in future to realize some of the planned new visions.

Wish you all the success if you want to attempt at unmanned nature photography !!

Here are some images made using one of these devices.

The above two are made using the camera mounted on a monopod while on a Gypsy and boat safari and triggering the camera using wireless trigger. The device like Camranger will be very useful here. I used pocket wizard (Camranger/Hanhel were not available when I made this several years ago). We now have more sophisticated devices which can help us compose too remotely before releasing the shutter.

Failures are the norm in these experiments. Here I tried to gently use flash to render the background darker to emphasize the subject in the foreground. But my calculations went wrong and the bird got over exposed.

The first thing is to compose and focus! I often use myself as the model of the animal to compose and focus and hope to replace myself with the animal! (see the above image).

Most of the images will end up in trash - often some precious ones (like this one abovewhich ended up in trash due to wrong exposure calculation. I composed this in the morning when light was against and the bear showed up in the evening. I did not realize what this would mean to the pre-calculated exposure - simple silly errors !!

Again, simulating and calculating the flight path of the bat and testing the setup using waving hand.

Hope this is useful! Good luck if you want to try these techniques !