Photographing what you can’t see: An introduction to high speed flash and remote photography

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What you’re about to read could open up a whole new world of  photography, or, it could get you killed. I’m referring to the world of high speed flash and camera triggers, using infrared beams, lasers, or microphones to fire a camera. This is the type of photography you’ll need to capture images of animals you’ll likely never see, or movements too fast for your reflexes and gear.

While some of this type of work can be done unmanned, don’t think it’s not true photography, for the art is in the set-up — the lighting, focus and gear placement.

For camera triggers, I usually use a flash to obtain specific exposure and depth of field and in many cases to insure I’m stopping action. I use manual flash mode at least 90 percent of the time. That way I don’t have to worry about the size of my subject in the frame, or the background, as the light output is constant for a given distance. Also, I can dial down the flash to a lower power ratio, like 1/16, for a brief flash duration to stop action, analogous to a fast shutter speed, while using up little battery power.

Many inexpensive second market flashes only work on manual but still provide variable power ratios. For multiple flash setups, these cheap units work just fine.

I usually use more than one flash to provide even lighting, generally having one or two key lights — the main light source and either a backlight, if I’m not concerned about the background exposure, or a background light, when I am. For example, an ocelot at night will look better with a backlight, creating a hair light effect, while a hummingbird needs a background light to avoid the unnatural look of a hummer flying about at night. Understanding the relationship between flash and natural light is important to determine what role you want the ambient light to play. To avoid “ghosting” (the double image resulting from recording both a flash and a natural light exposure), I usually completely underexpose the ambient light via ISO, aperture, or shutter speed, and use the flashes as my only light source. If I wish, I can expose so that the natural light is only a stop or two underexposed.

I can set up an unmanned camera at a bait station, trail, or feeder and use a camera trigger to shoot. While game and trail cameras work similarly, the image quality is poor. My set-up, which includes a triggering device to shoot, allows me to use a good single-lens reflex camera. I use the Range IR (, a little black box barely larger than a pack of cards. It emits an infrared beam that when broken, triggers either a camera or a flash. With two, and an accessory unit called a StopShot, I can cross-beam the Range IRs for a precise triggering point (at the X), or program the StopShot so that the camera will fire only if beam A is broken before beam B, or vice versa, to insure a particular direction of travel.

I carry a small kit comprised of three flashes (with manual power ratio capabilities) and one Range IR. I’ll have a tripod — often a small one for ground level work, but for the flashes and Range IR I often use threaded ¼-20 metal rods that I either stick into the ground, strap or lash to a tree, or jab into the ends of bamboo to make a MacGyver light stand on the spot. I’ll aim the Range IR at my target area, focus and adjust the flashes for, typically, two key lights and a backlight. The camera is wired into the Range IR, and the flashes are fired by a couple of inexpensive Phottix triggers, with a master on the camera and “slaves” for each flash.

So how can this get you killed? This work opens up some exciting possibilities that could get the sloppy or incautious photographer in trouble. Catching a .357 bullet in flight, a diamondback rattlesnake striking, or jaguars prowling in the Pantanal poses risks. On a recent trip, after checking my rig at dawn, I decided to rearm the system for the morning and see what I’d catch. At noon I returned, to find that minutes after I rigged the setup a jaguar walked by and may have been watching me the entire time I was there. ♦

Joe McDonald’s latest book, “Creatures of the Night,” is now available. He also teaches a flash and remote photography course at his studio in central Pennsylvania. Visit his website at for more information.

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