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First Digital Camera Traps

National Geographic photographers have been using camera traps to take wildlife pictures for years. But in 2006, George Steinmetz brought the reliable technique into the 21st century when he became the first photographer to use digital camera traps.

Photo: Cougar Camera Trap
Photograph by George Steinmetz with Nathan Williamson

In 2006 Steinmetz was on assignment for National Geographic, photographing mountain lions in Arizona's Sonoran Desert. North America's biggest cat, the elusive mountain lion is a solitary, nocturnal animal that is wary of humans. Steinmetz couldn't get the shot in person, so he arranged a digital camera trap near a watering hole frequented by the desert's wildlife. There, the photographer and his assistant set up TrailMaster infrared remote camera traps; an entry-level, eight-megapixel Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT camera housed in a weatherproof camera case; and Nikon SB-28 Speedlight strobe lights. The plan? A mountain lion would cross the trap's invisible infrared beam, tripping the camera shutter and triggering the strobes, capturing—Steinmetz hoped—the perfect candid shot.

After a few days, the sought-after mountain lions arrived—along with bobcats, wild pigs, barn owls, and anything else within a few miles. After several more weeks of waiting, Steinmetz finally got his shot: a crouching young mountain lion at water's edge staring up at the strobe it had triggered with the starry night sky in the background. National Geographic published the photo in its September 2006 story "Sonoran Desert."

A Long Tradition of Camera Traps

Although going digital with the traps was a first for the magazine, it was hardly the first time it used camera traps to get wildlife photos. Photographer and wildlife-enthusiast George Shiras pioneered the field of camera traps when he experimented with remote-control flashlight cameras in the late 1880s. In 1906, National Geographic published his photos of deer and other wildlife in Whitefish River, Michigan, the world's first trip-wire photography.

More recently, photographer Michael Nichols took Shiras's concept and ran with it—to India, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In each of these locations, Nichols used camera traps to capture stunning, candid images of tigers, crocodiles, leopards, gorillas, elephants, and hyenas.

The camera traps used by Nichols and other photographers are simply ordinary cameras set up with infrared sensors that trip the camera's shutter and flash when they detect movement. By switching to digital, Steinmetz increased the camera's memory capacity (from about 36 photos to about 500), and received instant feedback (rather than waiting to develop film) that allowed him to constantly adjust the setup for best results.

Today, camera traps are a critical tool in wildlife studies, used by scientific and conservation organizations across the world. The technology allows these groups to track populations of endangered animals, identify species in a given area, assess population estimates, monitor wildlife behavior, and draw animal distribution maps. Thanks to Shiras, Steinmetz, and other pioneers in the field, camera traps aren't just photographing beautiful wildlife—they are ensuring that there will always be beautiful wildlife to photograph.

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