The modern world of wildlife photography is saturated with thousands of talented photographers producing a huge number of incredible photographs. As a result it is difficult to produce original shots without really pushing the boundaries and striving for new perspectives. Often, this means putting the camera into places that may at first seem impossible.
With this in mind, we were driven to embark upon an ambitious project to photograph African wildlife from a new perspective, one that would involve getting close to potentially dangerous animals and photographing them with a wide-angle lens. Traditionally, this has been achieved using camera traps – stationary cameras triggered when an animal breaks an invisible infra-red beem. The problem with this method is that it requires a great deal of time, patience and luck. We therefore decided to invent something a little more proactive! And so BeetleCam was conceived; a DSLR camera mounted on top of a four-wheel drive remote control buggy.
I booked a trip to Tanzania and set about designing, building and testing BeetleCam. The first step was to get up to speed on the necessary robotics and electronics that would be required to build such a vehicle from scratch. Having conducted some research, I sourced components from around the world. Construction then began in earnest with sawing, soldering, sewing and super gluing taking place around the clock in my garage.
BeetleCam’s primary challenge would be getting over the uneven African terrain with a heavy payload of camera, lens and flashes. I therefore ordered the most powerful motors I could find and large off-road tires. BeetleCam had to be able to operate for long periods without being charged, so I stuffed the vehicle with the biggest batteries I could squeeze in.
I constructed a split ETTL off-camera flash cord that would allow 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).
After much deliberation, I figured out how to get the camera (my trusty Canon EOS 400D) to interface with the same controller used to drive the buggy. The finishing touches were to camouflage BeetleCam and seal the camera gear and internal mechanisms to protect them from the dusty African environment.
The prototype was finished with a month to spare but proved to be catastrophically unstable! An emergency redesign was undertaken to lower the centre of gravity and, a few days before our departure, BeetleCam was ready to be let loose in the wild!
Our destinations in Tanzania were Ruaha and Katavi National Parks, both in the South West of the country.
We thought that Elephants would be an easy 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, they are almost impossible to sneak up on! Over the course of the trip, we learnt that the best way to photograph an elephant was to position the camera well in front of it and then let the animal approach in its own time. With this technique we enjoyed great success and managed to get some incredible photos of these colossal creatures.
After obtaining our first photographs of Elephants we were buoyed with optimism and decided to make our second subjects Lions. 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. This increased the stakes massively and obviously meant that lions were off the menu for the rest of the trip! Over the next few days we nervously drove our beloved 1D MK III in front of various unpredictable beasts and prayed it would come back intact!
To our surprise it was Africa’s second most dangerous animal that proved to be the most cooperative subject, the African Buffalo. Adult males that are too old to compete for females collect together and form bachelor herds. Despite their reputation for being bad tempered and aggressive, these old brutes were totally unconcerned by the small robot. Some of the buffalo even showed mild curiosity and would amble up slowly to investigate.
Upon returning to the UK, we were thrilled with the photographs that we had managed to take during our two-weeks spent in the field. We have already started work on BeetleCam Mark II and plan to return to Africa this summer to take more photographs. To receive news about BeetleCam’s future escapades, and to be the first to see the resulting photographs, please subscribe to our free email newsletter (or subscribe to our RSS feed).
Update: Read the next instalment of this project here: BeetleCam vs the Lions of the Masai Mara