Remote Wildlife Photography From My Basement

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A couple of weeks ago it was -30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) and I was intent on photographing a pair of Red-backed Voles that seem to have established themselves in the backyard of my home in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. Before I got myself a new gadget, I probably would have suited up in my heavy duty Canada Goose parka, some long underwear, snow pants and about four hand warmers and camped out for a morning to get a few shots of these cute little guys.

But now I’m a bit older and maybe even a bit wiser and I do so love my technology. And one of those technological gadgets allows me to get me shots without having to worry about freezing any of my favourite appendages right off. What’s the gadget I’m talking about? It’s called the CamRanger and it allows me to operate my camera anywhere that I’m within WiFi range (~35m indoors and ~100m outdoors).

CamRanger_SetupThe CamRanger itself is a little white plastic box measuring about 3.5” x 2” that you connect to the USB port of your camera via a USB cable. The device itself is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery. Once the CamRanger is plugged into your camera it sets up its own WiFi network. Connecting a device to that WiFi network (like an iPhone, iPad, Android device, Mac or Windows computer) allows you to wirelessly control your camera from that device.

In my case, I used my iPad to connect to the CamRanger attached to my camera. I set the camera up on a tripod with the lens pointing at the holes in the side of a snow bank that the voles were using to access the world outside their lair. Once set up, I could scurry into my own lair which in this case was my home office in our basement.

I activated the Live View feature to keep an eye on what the camera was seeing. I’d been watching these voles for a few days (they set up camp under one of our bird feeders) and I knew that they came out for about an hour each morning just after sunrise. Sure enough, not long after getting everything set up and waiting for my glasses to defrost, the voles started making their appearance.

From my position warmly tucked away in the basement I could consult the live histogram and make adjustments to the exposure (Shutter Speed, Aperture and ISO) to make sure that my exposure was perfect. I turned on a feature in the software app called “Focus Peaking” that allowed me to clearly see what was, and wasn’t in focus and I fine-tuned that focus via controls in the app.

With all that set up, it was just a matter of waiting for the voles to get themselves into a photogenic position and then I’d tap the remote shutter button on the CamRanger app and take a shot. The voles usually spend their time cautiously emerging from their lair, then darting out to find one seed or another, and quickly returning to the shelter of their tunnel entrance to safely eat the seed. If they got a particularly good seed, they’d retreat further within the tunnel, presumably to stash it away.

Northern Red-backed Vole - © Paul Burwell Photography

Northern Red-backed Vole – © Paul Burwell Photography

During these breaks in the action, I used another feature of the CamRanger to download the full resolution images to the iPad so that I could magnify them to check for critical sharpness. There is a bit of lag between what you see on the app’s Live View display and what is happening in the “real world” along with a slight delay between when you press the shutter button on the app and when the signal arrives at the camera to make the photograph. It isn’t long (think milliseconds) but it can be enough that by the time the photo is made the fast little critter isn’t where you thought it should be, and focus is off or the composition isn’t great.

I use my CamRanger a lot and love its ability to remotely initiate photography and video sessions. It also has a built in intervalometer to make time lapse photos and can do advanced bracketing of exposures for HDR type applications. Another favourite CamRanger feature of mine is its ability to provide very precise focus control for macro photography and it can even perform automatic focus stacking to provide enhanced depth-of-field images by running them through some third party software.

Northern Red-backed Vole - © Paul Burwell Photography

Northern Red-backed Vole – © Paul Burwell Photography

A few years ago I’d dreamed of the possibility of having remote operational control of my camera at a distance and now, with the help of the CamRanger, that’s a reality. My toes and fingers are eternally grateful! CamRanger is widely available and sells for about $300 US dollars.

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Paul Burwell is a professional photographer, writer, educator and enthusiastic naturalist with over twenty years experience working with and educating adults. In addition to being the owner of the Burwell School of Photography, he is a contributing editor and regular columnist with Outdoor Photography Canada Magazine. Paul has been a finalist in the Veolia 'Wildlife Photographer of the Year' worldwide competition in 2009, 2010 and 2013 and was named a 'Top Wildlife Shooter' by Popular Photography Magazine in 2010.

  • Dan

    or if you have a Canon 6D you can do this for free with its built in wifi and app. when the weather gets nicer I am setting up my camera on a tripod near my bird bath to get some nice closeup photos!

  • Paul Burwell

    Dan, I definitely agree that it is a great feature of the 6D. Unfortunately neither my 5D Mark II or 1Dx have that feature.

  • Bill Bentley

    Great idea Paul, and I will be trying the same thing this spring. But I feel compelled to share that this can also be done for under $50 (including modem, app and OTG cable). http://www.dslrfilmnoob.com/2013/12/11/tp-link-tl-mr3040-wireless-field-monitor-dslr-controller/

  • Paul Burwell

    Bill, that is an option but the CamRanger works for both Canon and Nikon cameras.

  • Bill Bentley

    Yup. Just another reason to feel sorry for Nikon shooters. 😉

  • Bob

    What’s up with all the strange characters in the posts lately?

  • Leif Sikorski

    It’s also the same unit the camranger is using – they’ve just put their own label on the camranger. So for canon users it’s the best way I think.

  • Bill Bentley

    I’ve noticed that too. If DPS are reading this then I’m using Chrome. It might have something to do with the last Chrome update.

  • eeps

    Snap

  • eeps

    It works with Nikon DSLRs too. Just another reason to feel sorry for Pentax DSLR users.

  • eeps

    I was an early adopter of the CamRanger system because I couldn’t find a hack for the TP router. Glad to see it’s finally out. Is there a DSLRController app out for iOS?

    I’d also like to point out that CamRanger has upped the game by adding a motorized head that you can control from your iOS or Android device, but I’m sure the community is at work on figuring out a hack for that too.

  • Bill Bentley

    Yes, I just came back here to post that there is an Android app available for Nikon shooters similar to DSLR Controller, so both camps can do this for under $50 now. Not sure about an iOS app, but used Android tablets are cheap enough anyway. Maybe better for field use than an expensive iPad anyway.

    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.dslr.dashboard

  • George

    Ha, I thought it was just me regarding the characters.

  • stevenet150

    I use Yongnuo RC-603c shutter/flash remote (cheap on ebay) for my remote bird shots, great value and very useful

  • Chris Moody

    I’ve had a fair bit of success just sat indoors looking out the window and using a wireless remote. I can see the benefit of not needing direct line of sight with the camranger, but I’ve found that being able to see animals approaching the camera/frame is handy to get ready to press the shutter button, as opposed to only seeing what the camera would see.

  • sama

    I know what you mean, Keith. Some of my friends and I find ourselves
    either sharing costs, or taking turns picking up the tab. We do the
    same thing with photography magazine subscriptions. We each subscribe
    to one or two and then pass them along to the next person on the list
    when we’re done with them.
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  • tras

    I’m so stupid, I bought a variable ND filter that fits only my 35mm lens. Should have bought a wider one that doesn’t screw on the lens to be able to use with different lenses.
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  • Sean Reese

    Paul, how did you leave your live view on without killing the batteries? I know mine don’t last long at all.

    Thanks!

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