As a rapacious species, humans impinge relentlessly on the animal world with determined destruction of their habitat and invasion of their territory. Camera Traps permit a privileged glimpse into private worlds where the animals and their habitat are left none the worse for it. However, this year’s announcement of the winner of the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has re-opened comment, some thoughtful, some ill-informed on the ‘legitimacy’ of camera traps.
Let’s dispense at the outset with trivialization. Unfortunately, some commentators are determined to give the mistaken impression that it is merely a case of buying a camera trap, leaving it and coming back with competition-winning shots in the bag. Yes, I know that I made slightly ‘flippant’ comments in a recent post on Convolvulus Hawks about setting up and waiting with a glass of wine for convolvulus hawkmoths to take their own photos…But, believe me, what guarantees successful camera trap/triggered photography is detailed study and observation. Serendipity plays a part in all nature photography but first you narrow the odds by being well-informed.
I had the privilege to chat over dinner with Steve Winter, he of snow leopard fame, when we both appeared at Wildphotos 2008. Steve is an entertaining person – a laconic and highly intelligent man, motivated by a deep commitment to what he does. As we chatted, it was evident that his winning picture of a snow leopard was obtained after an exhaustive study of the animal, with numerous failures and real hardship on Steve’s part. It took months in bitterly cold temperatures, camping in the mountains (at – 40℃) and walking exhausting miles day after day to check results. True, having the resources of the National Geographic behind you helps but it was no assignment for those who want instant gratification.
‘Real’ – what’s that?
Some people seem to regard camera trap photography as being somehow ‘unreal’ since no-one was there to press the trigger. Fair point, but before waxing philosophical, some commentators might ponder what constitutes ‘real’ in digital photography.
In short, we have long imagined a one-one relationship between bundles of light energy and molecules of silver salts on film where, in effect, a point on the subject directly corresponds to a point on the final image. With sensor sites (mistakenly called pixels) there is no one-to-one relationship, for each sensor site does not directly contribute one pixel to the final image (whatever some writers mistakenly say). A digital image is literally ‘assembled’ using weighted data from a sensor site and its near-neighbour sites to create each pixel in the final image. You might well ask how ‘real’ this is and then consider what the human eye does. At one stage it was imagined that the eye lens focused light on the retina and the light sensitive cells (rods and cones) converted each ‘point’ into a tiny electrical impulse and sent that via the optic nerve to the brain. More recent work suggests that, even at the retinal level, there is extensive ‘image processing’ to do with colour and contrast so what gets to the brain is already modified before any further data interpretation takes place in that organ…’reality’, as we perceive it, is far from simple.
What about the business of being present in corporeal form to make the taking of a photo ‘genuine’? Consider press or sports photographers – do they knowingly capture a particular action when they put a finger on the shutter release and make a long burst of shots in anticipation? One of those shots might well turn out to be ‘the moment’ but they were not precisely conscious of it because it occurred outside the range of human reflex. Only later, when looking at the files, is the choice made…when they hope ‘the shot’ is there.
I am deliberately splitting hairs for the question is where, exactly, do we start? How long does the time delay have to be between an ‘action’ and the triggering of the shutter to avoid ‘cheating’? Is it milliseconds, seconds…days? This is a human value judgment and, thus there will never be universal agreement. If the argument is “but the sports photographers follow the action” the minor difference is that camera traps are fixed at points on a trail, or near a water hole, for example, where there may later be ‘action’. We could view this as another aspect of ‘anticipation’ with a larger time delay and the added forethought of the naturalist/photographer.
Impact on the subject
A valid objection to camera traps might be their potential effect on the animals. For example, there is currently some conjecture that suggests bears have become angered by camera traps fixed to trees and have destroyed them.
We react strongly to a flashgun – many creatures do not. They might be slightly bemused but the duration of a flash is very short (milliseconds and less) and it is not like looking at the sun. It’s a silly thing to do but we have all done it as kids – where you see a ghost image of the sun, and remain dazzled for a while through persistence of vision. I have seen how, when photographing insects, close up (especially flies) they react to flash and use front legs to ‘clean’ the eye. Sources of bright light flashes in nature are few – there is lightning and maybe sudden bright light as a bird flies out of a wood into the sun’s glare but not a lot else. I have seen other pictures in the series of snow-leopard shots and the animal (one of the shyest in the world) did not appear disturbed at all, just intrigued. Probably, natural selection in evolution has not hard-wired in a fear/flight response to a millisecond burst of light.
Far more likely with most animals, is a strong reaction to the slightest of sounds that an alert animal can distinguish from the background audio spectrum or, indeed, to alien smells, since their olfactory sense is much keener than ours. I have noticed that even some of the larger butterflies and moths are far more influenced by a sudden loud sound from a shutter firing than from a flash. Long ago my daughter Hannah asked, in the ‘delightful’ way children do “Daddy why does the butterfly suddenly fly away before the flash goes off?” The cameras I used then were loud…
I would certainly be tempted to consider first the shutter noise or the high frequency whine from the inverter in the flash system and then the scent of the person(s) who placed (and then re-examined) the camera traps…before drawing conclusions about camera traps ‘angering’ animals. The bears in question in the comment I read have notoriously poor eyesight so using better sound proofing and choosing less (or even more) ‘malodorous’ field workers might be the solution to damaged traps.
When humans are involved, nothing is ever black or white and it is naïve to pretend otherwise. Perhaps there should be a separate competition category for results obtained ‘in absentio’ without a finger on the shutter release? Currently, camera trap pictures are almost a fashion since it is all much easier with digital cameras and this process produces exciting results for those who have studied the creatures and know where to place the traps. No-one should pretend it is the only way to take pictures…it is a tool, one of a bag of tricks for behavioural investigation and imaging diversity.
Moving from snow leopards to closer to home, I know that just in the terrain around our home in Italy there is another world. We are offered occasional glimpses and other signs such as tracks left in snow and mud, snuffles and snorts at night, or the cautious reaction of our two ‘brave’ cats. My purchase of an IR flash trigger was primarily made to enable me to glimpse that world without impinging upon it. I feel a strong responsibility to that self-contained community that existed here before I moved in and started shifted stones.
Steve Winter obtained images to win the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year mantle in 2008 and Jose Luis Rodriguez in 2009 that, arguably, could have been obtained in no other way simply because the photographers were not present. Human scent was not in the air and they entered the private world of the animal with, as far as anyone can ascertain (not being snow leopards or wolves) no measurable impact upon it. Surely, we must applaud that?