From a distance

by World Press Photo

Usually, a photo is made while the photographer holds the camera, looks through the viewfinder, and pushes the button to release the shutter.

Most awarded photos at World Press Photo were made this way. Some pictures, however, came about while the photographer remained at some distance from the camera, releasing the shutter by remote control or having the subject itself release the shutter inadvertently.

Sports photography

In sports photography, it is quite common to place a camera in an inaccessible spot—perhaps in a swimming pool or on the arena’s ceiling—to get pictures from a particular angle. Multi-awarded photographer Adam Pretty, for example, made many of his most spectacular pictures from the pool’s bottom. The first to be awarded for a picture exposed by remote control, however, was Ken Regan in 1975. During the legendary ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, the fight between heavyweights Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Regan had attached one of his cameras to the ceiling. “Although the exposure was triggered off by remote control,” the 1975 World Press Photo jury wrote, “the result is technically brilliant and captures the climax of the fight in an original way.”

The use of remote cameras at sports tournaments also result from the organizers’ wish to limit the movement of the press during the race or game. At the 2000 Syney Olympics, Sports Illustrated photographer Bill Frakes and his assistant David Callow placed 27 remote cameras in the area of the finish line of the 100m finals. They made their remarkable picture of Marion Jones winning the race by using a slide camera. This camera did not have a shutter but the film was moved with an external mechanism to match the speed of the subjects.

In 2012, the roofs of the 2012 London Olympic stadiums proved to be like those of impregnable fortresses. Due to safety regulations and the construction design, photographers were not allowed on the catwalks or to put up remotely activated cameras. To get the aerial angle nonetheless, Getty Images developed a robotic camera that photographer Chris McGrath could operate through a computer and a joystick, resulting in his 2013 prize-winning series. A year later, Kunrong Chen sent up a drone to photograph people taking their daily exercise, which earned him a prize in the 2014 contest.

Camera traps

In wildlife photography, and certainly in wildlife research and conservation, remote camera techniques have become increasingly important as well. Camera traps, also known as trail cameras, have allowed scientists since several decades to observe and track wild animals, often endangered species, in some of the remotest locations on earth and almost without consequences for the animals’ fragile habitat or the researcher’s safety.

In 2010, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC released more than 200,000 camera trap images, showcasing their wildlife research. The first camera traps were already used as early as the 1890s. In 1906, National Geographic published the images of George Shiras, one of the pioneers in the field. His cameras were equipped with trip wires that would trigger the camera and the attached flash bulb when an animal stepped on it. Since the 1990s, camera traps are activated through a motion sensor or infrared sensor.

Wildlife photographers such as Michael ‘Nick’ Nichols do not only use camera traps to give a beautiful, intimate view of wild animals that are otherwise rarely seen, but also to raise awareness for wildlife conservation and environmental issues. Nichols first used camera traps during his project about the Ndoki River in central Africa, published in National Geographic in July 1995. But the experience was not very rewarding at first due to exploding batteries, melting flashes, equipment being eaten by animals, and many false hits with empty frames due to an over-sensitive sensor. He did get a picture of a leopard, which is in the winning story as well, although the leopard had cropped himself somewhat unfavorably. Later projects proved to be more successful and Nichols became an expert. In 2006, he used a digital camera, to portray a serval cat on the banks of the Salamat River in Chad that won him a first prize in the 2007 contest.

Elusive animals

With the advent of digital camera traps around 2005, photographing and studying wildlife through camera-trapping increased enormously. Digital techniques also allowed wildlife photographer Steve Winter to make an extensive story for National Geographic about the very shy Central Asian snow leopard in 2007 and 2008. He and his team set up 14 remote cameras high up in the mountains of Northern India and made 30,000 frames over the course of 10 months in pursuit of this elusive animal. The cougars of North America that Winter photographed in 2013 live perhaps in less barren surroundings than the snow leopard but are just as elusive. Camera traps helped Winter there as well to capture this animal on camera.

Camera traps protect animals from too much human interference with their habitat, but they also protect photographers from being attacked, as wildlife photographer Christian Ziegler experienced while making his story about the Southern cassowary in Australia. Being attacked more than once for accidentally getting too close to one of the chicks, Ziegler created his winning picture by using a remotely controlled camera, which he set up under a fruiting tree that he knew the bird visited frequently.

Adam Pretty

Ken Regan

David Callow & Bill Frakes

Chris McGrath

Kunrong Chen

Michael 'Nick' Nichols

Michael 'Nick' Nichols

Steve Winter

Steve Winter

Christian Ziegler