Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

August 2005

Question of the Month

How did I shoot this sugar glider?

Sugar gliders resemble flying squirrels, but unlike flying squirrels (which do not actually fly) sugar gliders are more aptly named, as they actually glide or voplane by extending the loose, flap-like skin between their fore- and hindlegs. Their furry, flat tail acts like a rudder. Gliders are wonderful examples of parallel evolution, as a sugar glider is a marsupial and a flying squirrel is a placental rodent, yet they eat much the same foods, are both nocturnal, and look incredibly similar.

To shoot this image I had to work in studio, as sugar gliders are native to Australia and New Guinea and the islands in that vicinity. A friend of mine loaned me his, and for over a year I've had very, very limited opportunities to work the squirrels. In my studio I set up a special glider-aviary that measured 10' by 20', giving the chipmunk size animals plenty of space, especially to glide to my baits, and also giving me plenty of space to set up my lights and beams.

Last year, I tried shooting the gliders on film, and for six rolls of effort, shot with a Canon EOS 1n RS, I got ONE usable image. Because I was shooting film, I wouldn't know immediately whether or not I had actually captured a shot, and wouldn't know until I got the film back. I used the RS camera because the shutter lag, when tripped by an electronic remote, is only 8 miliseconds, about 1/180th of a second, so when a glider broke the beam the camera fired almost immediately. In that way, I didn't have to anticipate how far it would glide between the time it tripped a beam and the camera fired -- a lag time that can be considerable, and that can result in out-of-focus images. Well, while it was great to have no lag time, the gliders were climbing on my beams and breaking them, triggering the camera, or jumping so high that, although they broke the beams, they were out of the frame when they did so. Our travel schedule aborted further work after I obtained one usable image and it was only last week, with only one week of shooting time available before our travel schedule again made this project impossible, that I had a chance to attempt the shoot again.

It took an entire day -- one I didn't feel I could afford to waste -- to set up the studio from scratch. This time, to insure that the gliders would only trip the beams at one precise spot I chose to use two beams in an X or cross beam pattern, so that the gliders had to pass through both beams virtually simultaneously to trip the camera. If a glider broke one beam the camera wouldn't fire. Only if the glider broke both beams would the system be tripped, which should somewhat insure that the subject was in the right place when it did so.

I used a digital camera this time rather than a film camera because I simply couldn't afford failure with only one week left to complete the project. My digital cameras have about a 50 ms lag time -- about 1/20th of a second, so a glider will move some distance, X, between the time it trips the beam and the camera actually fires. I, therefor, had to focus at X so that the glider would be sharply in focus. I could achieve this focus by trial and error, analyzing shots to see if the glider would be in focus, but this would be frustrating -- as a great image might be out of focus while I did this experiment. To avoid that, I swung a yardstick through the beams at a speed I felt mimicked that of a jumping glider, and I focused at the spot when my flashes fired. This worked, and I prefocused at that spot.

After I had everything set up, I was almost certain that I could risk using film and focusing on the spot where the beams crossed. Fortunately I didn't succumb, because on my first attempt I had 20 exposures, but only 1 shot of the glider. Apparently the animal climbed up on one of my beams and moved it, which triggered the system incorrectly. Had I shot film, I wouldn't have known this, and would not have made the proper corrections.

In 5 days of shooting I only made about 15 usable shots, but they worked well. For equipment I used FOTRONIX flash heads, which, unfortunately, are no longer commmercially available. I also used the PHOTOTRAPPER ( Pro-Remote Beam Controller, where I used 2 laser beams to check for crossing -- with the beams I had the transmitter and receiver as much as 12 feet apart, yet I could aim both beams so precisely that both aligned within one-half inch of each other at the point of crossing.

I have used other remote sensors, and done so satisfactorily, but the great thing about the Phototrapper, especially in this context, was that I could visually determine where the beams were crossing. With infrared sensors, this is much more difficult and trial and error, and virtually impossible to do when you're working alone and where extremely minor adjustments are going to make major differences. With a sensor/transmitter 12 feet away even a minute movement is going to change the angle off, and would make aligning extremely difficult.

I used a 1D Mark II, and I did two important things to keep the camera operating all night. One, I used the AC battery insert, and had the camera plugged into an outlet, and I also turned off the function where the camera automatically shuts down after a given period of time. Turning that to 'off,' the camera stayed 'alert' or 'armed' so that when something tripped the beam the camera was already 'awake' and responded. For that tip I must thank Irish photographer Mike Brown, who was also working with digital cameras and the Phototrapper. Thanks, Mike.

Last, about 12 Bogen Magic Arms or Articulating Arms were used to secure the laser sensors -- I double and triple-braced some so that they wouldn't shift position if a glider crawled over them, 3 Bogan AutoPoles for mounting the flashes, and a studio floorspace of 10x20. About a day and one half was involved in getting everything set up, and almost another day in making the 10x20 foot room glider-escape-proof. Couple that with the day or so involved in setting up my first, unsuccessful attempts, with film, and the time spent maintaining sugar gliders (daily feedings, maintenance, etc., and there's a lot that went into this project.

Last, for this image, I went into my image file and grabbed a full moon for a creative composite. My moon was yellowish, so I used the Channel Mixer and converted the moon to black and white, then masked this, and pulled back some of the original color -- but only slightly. Using the Transform tool I scaled the moon to the right size, and with the move tool I positioned it. All of these 'tricks' you can learn in any of our Photoshop Courses.

However, hopefully you'll agree, the time was worth the images!


Previous Questions of the Month




 Camera Techniques

 In the Field

 What is our Digital Workflow in the Lab?

Who should go Digital,
and when?

What is our initial Digital Workflow?

Is Shooting in the RAW format worthwhile?

 Can you match the Histograms?
 How do I keep track of Digital Files?

  Is Digital Manipulation - a benign alternative to interacting in the natural world?

What is DEC? 

How can you capture a sharp image and angel hair on a windy day?  

 Is the Mark II the ultimate wildlife digital camera?

  Does the Visibledust cleaning system really work?

What do we really think about digital photography?

 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?

How long will film be around? 

  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?

  How do you shoot silhouettes?

 How would you meter these challenging images?

Why should you know Manual Mode? 

How would you meter these images?

 What is the best season to do a photo safari in East Africa?

Which Mountain Park is better for wildlife - Denali or Torres del Paine?

What is the best Car Window Mount? 

  How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?

 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales?

 What is the Big Lie?
Tfhe truth about Kenya's Tourism--it is SAFE!

 Which binoculars do we just love to use?

 What is the best
Game Caller?

 What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?

 How Easy is Whale Photography?

  How do we carry our film when traveling?

What Film Lab do we use, and why? 

 How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites? 

How can you reduce contrast and the effect of wind for flower and macro photography?

 Is an L-Shaped Camera Bracket worth the Money?
You bet it is!

 Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?

 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?

  Reciprocity Failure

 What is the Best Composition?

 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?

 Hyperfocal Distance

  How do you determine distances?

 Should you have a depth of field Preview button on your camera?

 Flash and Tele-flash Techniques

 What is the most versatile remote release camera firing system?

 What the heck is a Plamp?

 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?

 How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 How did I photograph that flying wasp?

 What is the Fotronix's
Flash System?

What is the Most Important thing you can do before a Workshop?
 Is NANPA for you?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?

 Is it time for a summer NANPA Summit?

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