PHOTO CREDIT:© Burrard-Lucas Photography Cam
A curious lioness, shortly before she carried the BeetleCam into the bush (capturing photos as she carried it away). For more, see www.burrard-lucas.com.

A Handy Wildlife Photo Gadget


SEPTEMBER 02, 2010

By Holly Stuart Hughes

Necessity is the mother of invention, and it was the need to get unexpected wildlife stock photographs that gave birth to the BeetleCam, the remote-controlled camera rig invented by nature photographers and brothers Will and Matt Burrard-Lucas.

Most close-up photos of animals in nature are typically shot at a distance using a telephoto lens. Close-ups taken with a wide angle lens that show the surrounding environment are "the Holy Grail" of wildlife shooting, says Will Burrard-Lucas. He and his brother Matt particularly wanted to get wide shots in Africa, "where the wildlife is so impressive. There's nowhere else that compares in the diversity and size of the animals there. Photos taken from this angle and perspective isn't (aren't) something you see everyday."

Some photographers use camera traps, which trigger automatically when an animal passes in front of an infrared sensor. Traps, however, require a lot of luck. "You need to leave them in place for a long time, and you to have several traps on the go to achieve any usable images," says Will. He and his younger brother had booked a trip to Tanzania in August 2009 that would last only two weeks. To set up numerous traps would be expensive, he says, and "We would need extensive knowledge of the trails the animals would use." Instead they wanted a way to spot animals, and then get a camera closer to the subject.

Their solution was the BeetleCam, a rig they built which carries a DSLR on four rugged tires powered by a motor. The photographers can maneuver the contraption by remote control from a distance of 50 meters, then use a second remote channel to fire the flashes and capture a photo. "It was a way to increase the chances of getting the shots we wanted, by first finding the animals, then getting the camera into position."

They originally discussed the idea of crafting their own remote-controlled rig over the Christmas holiday in 2008, but they first had to familiarize themselves with robotics. "We did our research on the internet," Will recalls. "We ordered a robotics kit that we customized, and we had to research the parts that we needed." Last Easter, when Matt, a student at Oxford, was home during a school break, they roughed out some designs.

Because the BeetleCam would have to go over rough terrain, they decided to use wide tires and a powerful motor with several gears, Will adds. To counter bright sunlight in Tanzania, they wanted to add two on-camera flashes. They split an ETTL off-camera flash cord to control both lights remotely. They also covered the camera body in camouflage cloth—more to keep out dust stirred up by the wheels than to fool any animals.

At least one early design had to be scrapped, Will says. "We originally had a tilt mechanism. That raised the camera a couple of inches, but it tipped over." In their final version, the camera rests right above the wheels, and the entire BeetleCam is only about 9 inches high. Without a tilt mechanism, they figured they would adjust the angle of the camera by hand, taking into consideration the height of the animal they wanted to photograph, before sending the BeetleCam into action.

After they arrived in Tanzania, they first tested the camera when they spotted a herd of elephants. Getting out of their car, the brothers adjusted the 17-40mm lens, then wheeled the BeetleCam into position at a distance from the herd. With their acute hearing, Will says, "The elephants could hear it when it was driving," so instead, "We would drive it in their path, and then leave it still."

 For their first outing, the brothers chose not to use a laptop or any other kind of remote previewing to see what the BeetleCam was capturing. "We wanted the first one to be as simple as possible. Certainly the next time we would [use a laptop]," Will says. That night, when they downloaded the photos from the day's shooting, they could see that their contraption had successfully captured photos of elephants.

Reassured that the BeetleCam worked, they moved on to testing it with lions, which proved to be more curious about the device. Too curious. "They probably thought it was something to eat. A lioness picked up the camera in her teeth. Her canine teeth went into the back of the camera," Will says. When the pride had left the area, the photographers were able to recover the lens and the memory card, but the body of the Canon 400D was out of commission.

"We had to decide if we'd continue with the project we had staked so much on," Will says. They took a risk, and mounted a more expensive Mark III they were using for general photography on the BeetleCam. "This raised the stakes," he adds.

Their next subject was an animal known for its aggression, the water buffalo, but again the BeetleCam worked. "The breeding herds are very skittish, but we found older buffalo who were very relaxed," Will explains. Again, they downloaded photos of animals going about their routine oblivious to the wheeled BeetleCam.

Back in England, they processed all the pictures and prepared to post them on the Web site, www.burrard-lucas.com, where they license their stock images for commercial and editorial use. To build interest in the work, the brothers first posted on their blog, blog.burrard-lucas.com, a video made up of footage they had shot with the Mark III showing the BeetleCam in action. "We knew this project would get attention, and bring more traffic and [newsletter] subscribers," says Will. "We decided to release the video online and link it to Facebook a week before the photos' release to build up anticipation."

In addition to generating stock sales, the BeetleCam has been featured in The Telegraph, Wired.com and numerous science and technology blogs. The brothers were asked to create a print exhibition at London's Heathrow airport this spring and included several BeetleCam photos.

For now, they have no plans to sell the device. "You have to be responsible with it, to make sure you're not harassing the animals," Will notes.

Crafting a gadget was fun, he says, but that's not the point. "We enjoyed the technical aspects of it, but it comes from working out the kind of photos we want to get, and then filling that need."

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