Jason Ching: Remote Photography in Remote Alaska

A Feature on Camera Trap and Remote Trigger Photography
By Jason Ching

A Note from the Editor

I had the pleasure of meeting Jason Ching (http://www.jasonsching.com/) in Aleknagik, Alaska, while participating in scientific research on salmon. Aleknagik is in Bristol Bay – the heart of wild Alaskan salmon. The summer we were there was a record run, with millions of fish passing by our eyes and lenses. Jason’s photography instantly struck me as being unique – he managed to take striking and professional photos while completely removed from the location of his subjects. Through motion-sensor camera traps and remote triggers, Jason has taken away the “scare factor” that human presence has on wildlife. We are left with spectacular and dreamlike images that are windows into the private life of wild Alaska. – Nirupam Nigam (Editor)

Wild Alaska

Alaska is well deserved in its reputation for being large, remote, and wild. Yet contrary to popular belief, Alaska is not always a theme park with large animals around every corner. Most of the time it is cold, wet, quiet, and expensive. This can introduce many challenges to the wildlife photographer. Animals can be far and few between – accessible only by air, boat, or other eccentric methods of transportation. Budgets can be wiped out in mere days of searching for the right shot. There are two things a photographer can do to remedy the situation – 1. Find the food. 2. Don’t search at all. Wait for the animals to come to you. 

Jason does both. Alaska’s annual salmon run attracts copious amounts of birds and mammals to feed in salmon flooded streams – plenty of photo opportunities. During these runs, Jason finds locations with predictable wildlife and sets ups motion-sensor camera traps to wait for the opportune moment.  

Camera Traps

A Brief History 

I would like to begin by recognizing Jonny Armstrong (jonnyarmstrong.com) as the master of camera trapping, and the person who really introduced me to it. Together we dialed things down, but he was the one who had the original idea and figured everything out.

I started camera trapping in 2012 with Jonny in Bristol Bay, Alaska while I was working as a research technician, and he was a graduate student in the Alaska Salmon Program. It took us another 2 years or so to really figure things out. Even now it seems that our methods can be plagued with issues. 

Go Wide or Go Home

I think what I like most about camera trapping is the ability to use a DSLR and wide angle lens. You get a perspective of wildlife that you just don’t see anywhere else. While the majority of wildlife photos are taken with long telephoto lenses from dozens of yards away, camera traps provide a wide angle, close-up perspective. This to me is more personal and awe-inspiring. Add a couple of external flashes at creative angles, and the shot really crosses into a different territory altogether. Strobes are helpful in balancing exposure throughout the day (and night). But rather than just placing a light behind the camera, I can really get creative and essentially build a glamour studio in the middle of the woods. 

Luck, Patience…

After setting things up, the rest is up to patience and luck. In order to get a semblance of a photo, the animal has to come into the frame and not be spooked away by the camera in a big box and two strobes. If by chance it is bold enough, I still can’t count on the animal composing itself in the right way. 

…..And Equipment 

Everything is dependent on whether or not your gear is actually working. It’s not uncommon for a motion sensor to misfire on leaves or branches blowing in the wind and fill up an entire memory card in a few hours. I’ve also had it go the other way when a pack of wolves came into my set (picked up on a trail camera pointed at my camera trap set), but the motion sensor never tripped my camera’s shutter. 

Size Matters

You also have to be mindful of what size of critter you’re trying to capture. You might set up for a big grizzly bear to come into a frame, only to have a much smaller red fox wander in and look tiny in the wide angle perspective. Alternatively, a moose might trot through and all you get are its ankles. 

Mishaps

Sometimes critters get a little too involved – I’ve now lost two DSLR rigs to brown bears trampling them into streams. I’ve also lost another rig to a flood. 

It’s a major investment to both create a setup and run the camera trap itself. Losing a camera or strobe can be heartbreaking and damaging to your bank account, but the rewards can be mind-blowing. 

The Thrill 

There is a special thrill in hiking out to a spot that has promising signs of wildlife and a good balance of foreground and background elements; envision what critters might come though; and bring what is in my head into the composition. Letting a camera trap soak in a spot for up to a month and returning is like I’m hiking to a treasure chest. Often times I get nothing from either hardware failure or a lack of wildlife. Sometimes I get a critter but maybe it didn’t do exactly what I wanted so I reposition and try again. Occasionally I get that amazing shot where everything just comes together. It’s addicting to get that perspective that really captures people’s attention. I love the reactions I get, especially from folks that think that I was there hand-holding a camera 3ft away from a grizzly bear. Sometimes people joke that I must carry around stuffed animals. That’s how I know it’s working.

Remote Underwater Photography

What to do if your fish has anxiety

Salmon swim upstream for one purpose only – to reproduce. At this particular life history stage, they have no extra desire for curiosity or even food. Moreover, assassinations are constantly attempted by their vast list of predators. These factors result in the some pretty anxious fish. Fish that want nothing to do with you. 

Photographing salmonids in streams can be much harder than taking photos of reef fish on scuba. It is more difficult to move, and there is a constant current. The water can often be too shallow or too deep. But most importantly, the fish will move to the opposite end of the stream if they see a mere body part. Sometimes the only remedy for this is to stick a camera in the water, and use a remote camera trigger to take the photo while you stand on the bank of the stream or float away from the fish.

A Brief History

I bought my first underwater setup in 2010 – a Canon SD960 point and shoot. Later in 2013 I moved to an underwater housing for my Canon 5D Mark II, and I stepped up to a Canon 5D Mark III in 2014. Now I shoot a Sony A7R II in an Ikelite housing. 

My snorkel buddy, Morgan Bond (www.morganhbond.com), and I both use remote triggers (made by Retra) in about 50% of the stream photography we do. Unsurprisingly we have found that fish seem less afraid of the housing by itself than if we were to hand-hold, allowing us to get close shots of our subjects. Remote triggers are also especially useful in certain locations where the stream depth might be too great to snorkel in while hand-holding a housing to the bottom. There might be no other option to us than to use a remote trigger. 

The Struggle

While there are clear advantages to using a remote they aren’t without their set of disadvantages. Obviously once I set up the camera, it is necessary to stick with the angle and position or risk chasing the fish away again to manage the housing.

Just a few weeks ago I was photographing spawning redband trout in the Klamath Basin, and a female seemed to stay just outside of the frame of my camera no matter how many times I adjusted the angle and position of my housing. When she did finally spawn I just barely missed having both the male and the female in the frame. It would have been great to be able to hand-hold. However, in this particular spot the water was about 5 ft deep and it would’ve been too difficult to both hold position in the stream and hold my camera deep enough to get any shot. Sometimes remote triggering might not be the most ideal solution but a necessary one, and sometimes it’s the best solution resulting in amazing keepers.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Ching has worked as a research scientist with the Alaska Salmon Program for close to 10 years. It’s while working for the program and consequently in remote locations in Bristol Bay’s watersheds that he developed a passion for nature photography. In Alaska he has been fortunate to bump into other photographers, notably Jonny Armstrong and Morgan Bond, who have really helped him get on his feet in underwater and wildlife photography – two of his favorite specializations. Within these specializations he likes to use creative techniques to capture captivating and informative visuals to engage people in research, the environment, and our natural resources. http://www.jasonsching.com/

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