• Facebook

    500 K / likes

  • Twitter

    1 M / followers

‘Studio’ Wildlife Portraits Captured with Camera Traps and Flashes

Comment

PP_11_grizzly2

Photographer Jonny Armstrong‘s portfolio is filled with some of the most remarkable wildlife photos you’ll ever see: many of the portraits have a studio-like quality to them, and they’re often taken from just a few feet away.

The secret to Armstrong’s work is that he’s a master of camera trap photography, using remote cameras and triggers to catch creatures off guard when they’re going about their business.

By day, Armstrong works as an ecologist who has spent a decade studying ecosystems in Alaska. After first getting into long lens nature photography, he began dabbling with lighting, portraiture, and camera traps.

Pacific fisher and old growth Ponderosa pine.
Pacific fisher and old growth Ponderosa pine.

“I was becoming increasingly interested in lighting, I was constantly fiddling with electronics to build research equipment, and folks around me were using trail cameras to monitor wildlife,” Armstrong tells PetaPixel. “The net result was that I got the idea to build a camera trap to take lit portraits of wildlife.”

His first camera traps were all built from scratch using microcontrollers and sensors. After some trial and error, Jeff Dale of TRLcam taught him how to build a good camera trap that can last for a few weeks in the field “without 80 pounds of batteries for the trigger and flashes.”

8. The seven camera trap housings that I brought on a trip to Kenya to camera trap wildlife with ecologist Jake Goheen.
“The seven camera trap housings that I brought on a trip to Kenya to camera trap wildlife with ecologist Jake Goheen.”

Armstrong uses a number of Canon and Nikon DSLRs in homemade waterproof housings. “It’s scary at first to leave expensive full frame cameras in the wild, but the high ISO performance is important for much of my work,” he says. “I stop down to f/8 or beyond for depth of field, which makes my flashes weak and prevents me from pulling ambient light out of a dark scene.”

“Being able to use high ISO mitigates these challenges, allowing me to burn in moonlight or light subjects at low flash powers that freeze action–you’d be surprised how fast small carnivores move.”

"I love the surreal feeling of images lit with a mix of twilight and flash. "
“I love the surreal feeling of images lit with a mix of twilight and flash. “

“One really demanding aspect of camera trapping is that you have to work hard to get your gear working, work hard to get yourself in a position to ‘trap’ a critter, and then not lose sight of the photography,” says Armstrong, “it’s easy to rush through the camera setup end up with a disappointing image.”

So, he forces himself to slow down and set up his traps carefully with lighting and composition in mind. Then, it’s all up to chance.

A black-backed jackal in Kenya.
A black-backed jackal in Kenya.

“Now I don’t just need a critter to show up, but they have to be a specific species, come from a specific direction, and even arrive at a specific moon phase as absurd as that sounds (for long exposure night shots),” Armstrong tells us. “I don’t have a lot of success, but I love the process of camera trapping and how rewarding it is when things occasionally work out.”

10. An example of one of my more specialized pictures. Here I needed the leopard precisely placed to block my rim light, and I needed a specific level of moonlight to light the background but not allow it to compete with the flash and render the cat see through.
“An example of one of my more specialized pictures. Here I needed the leopard precisely placed to block my rim light, and I needed a specific level of moonlight to light the background but not allow it to compete with the flash and render the cat see through.”

His favorite photo so far is one of a cougar eating from a deer carcass. He traced cougar tracks back to the carcass, set up his gear in temperatures far below zero degrees Fahrenheit, and returned to his camera to find that the cougar returned to its kill a couple of hours afterward.

A cougar tears into a deer carcass on a frigid night.
A cougar tears into a deer carcass on a frigid night.

“I like the composition with the deer’s face in the foreground, I like how the lighting preserves the sense of night, but doesn’t feel underexposed, and I love the ecological story—the spilled dirt and snow show how the cat dragged the deer into the ravine and then buried it,” Armstrong says. “The lighting adds to the story by illuminating the steam from the cat’s breathe, showing both how cold it is and how hard the cat is working to rip apart the frozen carcass.”

Here’s a selection of other photos from Armstrong’s amazing portfolio:

"My PhD adviser Daniel Schindler scouted this bear scratching tree before I joined him in the field. He then climbed the tree and secured my camera trap with about a half a roll of Gorilla Tape."
“My PhD adviser Daniel Schindler scouted this bear scratching tree before I joined him in the field. He then climbed the tree and secured my camera trap with about a half a roll of Gorilla Tape.”
A gray fox under a full moon sky, Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon.
A gray fox under a full moon sky, Siskiyou Mountains, Oregon.
Ground squirrels are fun camera trap subjects but challenging to capture sharp photos of due to their small size and frenetic movement.
Ground squirrels are fun camera trap subjects but challenging to capture sharp photos of due to their small size and frenetic movement.
"I had a blast climbing way up this yellow fever tree to set my camera trap. For several days I got pictures of monkeys and then on my last night in Kenya this leopard dashed up the tree and triggered a single image. I used a visual and scent lure to pique the cat’s curiosity as it passed the tree on a nearby game trail."
“I had a blast climbing way up this yellow fever tree to set my camera trap. For several days I got pictures of monkeys and then on my last night in Kenya this leopard dashed up the tree and triggered a single image. I used a visual and scent lure to pique the cat’s curiosity as it passed the tree on a nearby game trail.”
A mule deer and winter snow in Wyoming.
A mule deer and winter snow in Wyoming.
Members of the weasel family, including this American marten, love to hop on top of camera traps and are difficult to photograph because they move incredibly fast.
Members of the weasel family, including this American marten, love to hop on top of camera traps and are difficult to photograph because they move incredibly fast.
A blonde grizzly bear on the shores of Lake Nerka, Alaska.
A blonde grizzly bear on the shores of Lake Nerka, Alaska.
In less than ten minutes this camera recorded a stampede of cattle, a Masai herder, and then this pair of jackals.
In less than ten minutes this camera recorded a stampede of cattle, a Masai herder, and then this pair of jackals.
Pacific fisher have been eliminated from most of their historic range in Washington, Oregon, and California. They are currently being considered for listing by the Endangered Species Act.
Pacific fisher have been eliminated from most of their historic range in Washington, Oregon, and California. They are currently being considered for listing by the Endangered Species Act.
A black bear cub makes a surprise appearance on a set made for gray fox.
A black bear cub makes a surprise appearance on a set made for gray fox.

You can find more of Armstrong’s photography on his website and on Flickr.


Image credits: Photographs by Jonny Armstrong and used with permission

Comment