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
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
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."