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Feature: Wildlife shooter Scott Linstead captures slices of time
Thursday, November 17, 2011 | by Eamon Hickey
Slices of Time: Scott Linstead
Canadian photographer Scott Linstead knew, of course, that he was choosing a provocative title for the book of wildlife photographs he published last year. Part monograph and part how-to for wildlife photographers, the book is called Decisive Moments: Creating Iconic Imagery.

Linstead was willing to take the chance of echoing the title of Henri Cartier-Bresson's classic 1952 book because he believes most people will see that he isn't comparing his own work to the French master's.

"I thought that the type of photography I do [i.e. wildlife] was distinct enough that I wouldn't be coming off as arrogant, which was definitely not my intent," he says. "I hope people will see it's such a universal concept in photography. You can actually produce the moment in question in the type of photography you do."

The book features more than 50 of Linstead's color wildlife images, which indeed comprise almost nothing but critical moments, from the instant an osprey grabs a rainbow trout to a jumping spider—creepily, some of the little beasts are fantastic leapers—with its hairy legs in full forward stretch just before it lands on the front element of Linstead's macro lens.

Osprey: Nikon D3, 300mm, ISO 400, 1/6400, f/4. Click to enlarge (Photo by Scott Linstead)

Giving in to creativity

Reinforcing the concept of instant slices of time, many of the book's images were captured with high-speed flash units triggered by camera traps. Linstead generally uses infrared or laser beam camera traps, which trigger his cameras and flashes when an animal breaks the beam. They allow him to freeze animals in motion at precise moments of high drama—a frog in mid jump or a barn owl just before landing, prey in beak, for example.

Linstead has been photographing wildlife seriously since 2007 when he finally completed a slow process of giving in to his creative side. In college, he studied mechanical and aerospace engineering and took hobbyist pictures of airplanes as a pastime. After college, he began teaching school, which he did for about six years, but he wasn't very happy with it. "Nine to five and me just weren't working out very well," he says.

Meanwhile, he'd been "running around southern Quebec shooting bad landscapes" and dabbling in bird photography. Finally, he bought a Nikon 500mm f/4 lens and quit his teaching job to try the difficult path of wildlife photography as a career.

Trapping an image

At first, Linstead shot a lot of birds with his supertelephoto lens, but he found that those mostly static images don't sell very well in natural history markets. He had more success packaging pictures and text together into stories for photography magazines. He continues to write and photograph for magazines such as Popular Photography and Outdoor Photography Canada.

In 2008, he made a fortuitous discovery when he competed in the Images for Conservation Fund's Pro-Tour, a month-long wildlife photography tournament. "I placed ninth in that tournament," he says, "but I noticed that everybody who placed in the top three had at least two or three camera trap images in their portfolios."

So Linstead bought a Phototrap, a popular infrared camera trap, and saw his sales jump immediately. "The very first image I produced with the Phototrap is still widely published," he says. He can use the Phototrap outdoors with larger wild subjects like barn owls and bats, or in indoor studio setups designed to simulate natural habitats. Later, he added a StopShot, a laser-triggered camera trap with a very precise beam that makes it ideal for photographing insects in the studio.

For his studio work, Linstead tends to use a Nikon D300 camera, often with an AF-Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D macro lens or a Sigma 150mm F2.8 EX APO DG HSM Macro. For non-studio work, Linstead's main camera is a Nikon D3.

The flash he uses for studio camera trap photography is a MicroFlash Pro, made by Highspeed Flash in the UK. It can achieve a flash duration of 1/28,000 at 150 watt-seconds, allowing Linstead to completely freeze ultra-fast motion such as a chameleon's tongue darting out to snatch a cricket. For outdoor camera trap work, he uses two or more Nikon SB-800 Speedlights.

Studio creatures

In the studio setups, Linstead will build a simulated habitat for whatever subject he's shooting—a fake pond with vegetation, in a large plastic tray, to shoot a frog, for example. He shoots in the studio when the difficulty of getting the shot, or the difficulty of traveling to the real habitat, is overwhelming.

"It's not studio for the sake of studio," he says. "Ideally, I like to go into the studio only when the technology for shooting the picture the standard way can't produce the result that you want. And economically, it's a lot more feasible than going to Madagascar to get a chameleon image." He has also found that the studio images are more marketable. "A technically sound image taken in the wild is tougher to sell," he says.

Chameleon: Nikon D300 + AF-Micro Nikkor 60mm f/2.8D, ISO 250, 1/250, f/14. Click to enlarge (Photo by Scott Linstead)

As a former mechanical engineering student, Linstead had no trouble learning to use the camera traps. Learning how to light scenes artistically was a bigger challenge but a big step forward in the evolution of his studio camera trap work. His camera trap images, Linstead says, were strongly influenced, especially early on, by the British photographer Stephen Dalton, the well-known pioneer of high-speed camera trap photography of wildlife.

Though he has had great success with the camera traps, Linstead is wary of becoming known for only one kind of image. "If you get addicted to one technique, you risk getting pigeon-holed," he says. "These tools are to be used creatively and pragmatically. When they're needed, let's call on them. When they're not, let's not."

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On Location: The outdoor setup, left, used to capture the common poorwill photo, right. Click photos to enlarge (Photos by Scott Linstead)

Modifying behaviour

The studio camera trap images require captive animals, of course, an ethical consideration, or controversy—pick your term—in wildlife photography circles. In his book, Linstead is candid about the various techniques he has used in his wildlife imagery career, including using live bait mice to attract owls in the wild, capturing wild rodents, and acquiring insects and reptiles in the pet trade market in order to photograph them in the studio.

Linstead addresses ethical questions in his photography on a case by case basis, he says. "There is very little that can be produced in natural history photography that doesn't require some degree of modifying the behaviour of the animal. I evaluate each situation based on the reaction of the creature. As the brain gets larger, the negative reactions to a stressful situation get worse.

"When it comes to insects, they seem uncomplicated enough that you can recreate their habitat and have no perceivable change in their behaviour or shortening of their lifespans. Some lizards and reptiles do very poorly in captivity, and you can research that beforehand. Once you're aware of what does well [in captivity], it makes it easier to choose subjects that you won't accidentally kill."

A tough market

Linstead is hoping Decisive Moments, which he has published himself, will both help photographers learn some of the secrets of producing saleable wildlife imagery and also extend his own marketing efforts. The book is part of his strategy to build a good career in a radically changed wildlife photography marketplace.

More than anything else, the virtual death of stock photography as a viable income source has altered the landscape. The days of being able to make a good living sitting in a blind shooting pretty portraits of wild animals are largely over, Linstead says.

"I've met a lot of [pro wildlife photographers] who were active long before I was. Many of those who were active in that golden age of the late 1980s through the late 1990s have had to abandon stock and take on speaking tours and teaching workshops," he explains.

A series he did on jumping spiders with his camera trap, capturing remarkable and rare or previously nonexistent images of the tiny arachnids in mid-air, offers an instructive example of how he hopes to make a living in a diminished field.

"The jumping spiders was a more complete project," Linstead says. "It was all-encompassing coverage of the species but also showed some scenes that nobody had seen before. When you can show an amazing behaviour, it strikes people. Assuming the market is going to continue to get tougher, I'd like to continue to produce highly unique material so as to continue to sell imagery."

A gallery of Linstead's photographs is on the next page, as well as links to his website and blog.
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