On Assignment: Studio in the Wild

Photos ©Jonny Armstrong

Jonny Armstrong is used to being stood up. In fact, in his line of work it happens most of the time. A research scientist, his work includes photographing lit portraits of wild animals in their natural habitats.

Armstrong began his lighting journey right here on Strobist, and even built his first DIY "camera trap" from advice gleaned from an off-topic discussion in the Strobist group on Flickr.

Being a scientist, he has aimed his problem-solving skills towards designing a speedlight-based portable studio that can lay in wait for his fickle subjects for many days at a time. His remote is an ethernet cable-based Pixel VM-802. In addition to the synching capabilities, it also offers him extra conductors which can be wired to the flash's "wake up" pin.

He works with a Nikon D610, which waits patiently in a power-saving standby mode until an animal trips his motion sensor. The flashes are vintage Nikon SB-2(X) series (i.e., SB-28s, etc.) because they, too, have an extremely thrifty standby mode. Also, the flashes can also fire immediately on the first half-shutter press from standby mode. This is especially important when you often get only one shot before your suprised subject is instantly somewhere in the next county.

To capture the night environment as well as a lit subject, the rule is long exposures, high ISOs and low-power flash settings. The leopard at top was shot with a key light on 1/16th power. The fill lights were set to 1/32 power.

To make matters more complex, entire setups have to be guestimated in full daylight. Because hiking out at night in leopard country is not exactly advisable.

Next, throw the animals' natural curiosity into the mix. (Nice flash. Wonder what it tastes like?) The speedlight at left was chewed apart by a hyena in Kenya. The one in the middle with the holes? That would be leopard teeth. You have to wonder if the leopard ended up tasting a fully-charged flash tube. I'd pay good money to watch that reaction.

The lens on right? Stomped on by elephants. Occupational hazard.

And gear stomping/eating aren't his only concerns. Just like us—only waaay more so—he has to worry about how he smells when on assignment. Generally, he'll go for ten days or so without checking his camera to avoid leaving a fresh human scent.

Sometimes he'll leave animal scents (i.e., fox urine) on his gear to mask his own. Which may work, or it may get him nothing except gear that ends up smelling like fox pee for awhile.

Occasionally, he'll get lucky with repeat animal visits. This allows him to dial in his setup. But 75% of the time, he'll get nothing at all. So to better his odds, he will sometimes run as many as five setups simultaneously.

First Experiences

Armstrong talks about his first successful portrait:

My first successful experience was when I set my camera on a salmon carcass that washed up on a gravel bar in Alaska. It was a really sketchy place to leave a camera, but I wanted the shot so I plopped my camera about one foot from the salmon and crossed my fingers. I came back the next day. The salmon was gone, my camera had survived, and there was an ultrawide closeup of a grizzly bear coming in for the fish.

And the thrill remains to this day whenever the camera trap gods smile on him:

It’s awesome… kind of like winning the lottery because it’s so unpredictable. When I get a new critter or nail the shot, I usually freak out and start jumping around. It’s especially cool because a lot of times it’s an animal that you have never seen in real life—like a cougar—and you’re seeing it staring back at you from a few feet away.

It can be hard to wrap your head around the fact that some amazing beast actually walked by the camera and was lit by your flashes. It’s especially crazy when the critter has thrashed the set and you discover you got a shot before the festivities began.

Armstrong works mostly with speedlights, but he has tried larger lights.

"I have an Einstein I could probably run off a car battery—lit a grizzly that way once in AK," he notes, of the photo above. "But I'm a little scared to try it because the fire danger is high and I'm worried it could maybe spark or something if a critter dragged it off."

Also, bare (bear?) lights trump soft light sources, as the latter can introduce new variables.

"Soft light mods are real tricky because they blow over or scare away critters," he says.

Rim lights? Hard to hide in the frame. It's a balance between improving the lighting versus making the set too conspicuous and spooking the animals.

Armstrong is currently doing post-doctorate work with the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship, to whom he is grateful for their enthusiastic support. The fellowship funds and works with post-docs to promote conservation science.

With that support, he is able to push the limits of natural habitat wildlife photography. Next on his list: learning to light larger environments, so he is not always dependent on the sky to carry tone in the background. Armstrong uses long ambient exposures with the flashes. So if animal break the horizon line (as in the elephant, above) the sky will bleed through.

The key to solving that, of course, is to be able to control the lighting via flash in large areas throughout the entire frame. Otherwise you end up with a sea of dark, as above.

So he is learning about diffferent techniques to create a split-second, flash-lit tapestry around the animals that will give depth to his image and evoke nighttime the way our eyes naturally register it.

For all of the things that can go wrong, sometimes there are also happy accidents. The cougar, (above) photographed on Pole Mountain in Wyoming, tripped a self-portrait further back in the frame than Armstrong was expecting. And in doing so, it was placed on the edge of the light and created a more interestingly lit photo.

Maybe the cougar had an artistic eye. Or maybe it was just offended by the fact that his anticipated key light was a Cheetah-brand soft box. Either way, Armstrong will take it.

To see much more of Armstrong's outstanding work, visit his website, shown above. Or to follow along with his ongoing exploits, check out his blog.

All photos on this page are © Jonny Armstrong, and used with permission.

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