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As wildlife photographers, we are continually trying to take unusual and original photographs of our subjects. In recent years this has meant going to ever increasing lengths as more and more photographers continue to push the boundaries with fantastic photographs.
A year ago, from our small garage in London, we started working on an ambitious project to photograph African wildlife from a unique perspective. We wanted to get our camera extremely close to dangerous and unpredictable wild animals and photograph them with a wide angle lens. We booked our plane tickets to Tanzania and had a few months to design, build and test a contraption that would allow us to realise this aim.
Traditionally, these sort of photographs have been taken using camera traps – stationary cameras triggered when the animal breaks an invisible infrared beam. The problem with this method is that it requires a great deal of time, patience and luck. We wanted something a little more proactive and thus BeetleCam was conceived; a DSLR camera mounted on top of a four-wheel drive remote control buggy.
Designing BeetleCam posed several challenges. The vehicle needed to be capable of traversing the uneven African terrain with a heavy payload of camera, lens and flashes. It had to be reliable in the harsh, dusty environment and would need to operate for long periods without being charged. Ideally it would do all this while remaining stealthy and camouflaged.
Through several refinements and redesigns, BeetleCam was honed into a sturdy, resilient and slightly schizophrenic contraption capable of periods of brilliance, interspersed with the odd period of unsolicited autopilot. We decided that would do fine.
We stuck our trusty Canon EOS 400D on top of vehicle chassis and constructed a split ETTL flash cord that allowed the camera to control the output of two flashes depending on the light conditions (this would be important for filling in the shadows cast by the bright African sun). A few days before our departure, BeetleCam was ready to be let loose in the wild!
Our primary destination was Katavi National Park, a quite and remote park in South-West Tanzania. We didn’t hold high hopes of returning to the UK triumphant; the chances that BeetleCam would be trampled, mauled or inadvertently driven into a river seemed rather high. On the first day we gave our 400D a fond pat and said farewell.
We thought that Elephants would be a simple enough subject for BeetleCam’s first outing. We were wrong. We quickly learned that Elephants are wary of unfamiliar objects and, due to their highly sensitive hearing, are almost impossible to sneak up on. We eventually developed a technique which involved positioning the camera well in front of the elephant and then waiting for it approach in its own time. With this technique we enjoyed great success later in the trip and managed to get some incredible photos of these wonderful creatures.
After obtaining our first photographs of Elephants we were buoyed with optimism and decided to make lions our second subject. In hindsight this was a foolish idea; BeetleCam was promptly mauled and carried off into the bush. A long recovery mission ensued and we were extremely lucky to retrieve an intact memory card from the mangled Canon 400D body. On downloading the images, we were delighted to find that BeetleCam had performed its duty admirably, and we got a great series of images from the encounter.
Remarkably, although the 400D sustained irreparable damage, the rest of BeetleCam proved very resilient and, with a few pieces of string and bits wood, we were able to patch it up. We replaced the 400D with our only other available camera – a Canon EOS 1D MK III. Obviously lions were off the menu for the rest of the trip!
To our surprise it was Africa’s second most dangerous animal that proved to be the most cooperative subject: the notoriously bad tempered Cape Buffalo. Adult males who are too old to compete for females collect together and form small bachelor herds. Despite their reputation for being unperdicatble and aggressive, we found these old brutes were totally unconcerned by the small robot and some even showed mild curiosity!
Upon returning to the UK, we were thrilled with the photographs that we had managed to take during our two-weeks in the field. We have already started work on BeetleCam Mk II and plan to return to Africa this summer to take more photographs.
If you would like to see video clips of BeetleCam in action and more of the resulting photographs, please visit our website at http://blog.burrard-lucas.com/beetlecam/ .