Nat Geo Travel sent Carlton Ward to photograph the elusive Florida panther. Learn about Ward’s planning, setup, and what he ultimately captured.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with camera traps for the past 15 years. They are invariably a ton of work, usually quite frustrating, and sometimes produce great photographs. For this assignment, I’ve got the hard work and frustration covered, but I am still waiting for the great picture.
The assignment: Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, one of ten parks I visited for a story on Florida parks. The picture: a Florida panther—and that’s where the fun begins. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Florida woods but have never seen a wild panther with my own eyes. There are fewer than 160 spread across millions of acres, cautious to avoid people and moving mostly at night.
I’ve been successful at camera-trapping leopards in Gabon, elephants in Mali, and black bears in the Northern Everglades. This assignment was the excuse I’d been waiting for to pursue the even more elusive Florida panther.
Like other National Geographic photographers, the camera trap I use is not the sporting-goods-store variety that you simply strap to a tree to grab grainy images of anything that walks by. My system relies on an infrared beam that acts like an electronic trip wire set at a specific height for a specific size animal in a specific place on a trail where my camera is focused and flashes are aimed. The beam and the wiring harness to connect my camera and flashes were supplied by TrailMaster, but the rest of the setup is custom-made, including waterproof enclosures for three flashes, a waterproof housing for a DSLR, plus numerous brackets, anchors, and supports.
The first and most important step is finding the right place to install the camera. For this, I always work closely with local researchers, who know the most about where animals are likely to be moving. As it turns out, panthers often use jeep trails to move through forests and swamps. Although good for panther movement, these trails are not great places to show native habitat. So we entered the swamp to show a game trail inside the forest, where the panthers live.
In addition to photographing a panther in its habitat (the Panther Refuge protects part of the largest flooded swamp forest in North America), I was seeking to provide a glimpse of what it might be like to be a Florida panther navigating a swamp forest, and I wanted the photo to capture the eyes of America’s most endangered cat. That meant upping the ante and trying to guess which way a panther might be walking along the trail. I knew I would really be testing my luck: There was as much of a chance that the camera would see a tail as a face.
Alex, my assistant, and I worked for two straight days to identify a location and install a camera trap—lots of time on our hands and knees in the dirt and mosquitoes to set, test, and camouflage sensors, cameras, and lights. The end result was a relatively well hidden studio in the swamp.
One month later, we went back to the site. Thankfully the camera system was still working when we showed up to change the batteries and download the card. What was on the card can be summarized by the email I sent my editor that night: “cooperative bear; frustrating panther.” The one bear that came down the trail faced the camera and refrained from destroying it like many bears do. The one panther that came down the trail was walking in the opposite direction, showing its tail. A palmetto frond also fell in front of the lens, fortunately not obscuring the frame entirely.
Now, as long as vegetation doesn’t creep up, a tree limb doesn’t fall in the way, rodents don’t chew any wires, bears don’t get too curious, the slough doesn’t flood, the enclosures don’t leak, and the batteries don’t die, it’s just a matter of time until a panther crosses the log at the right time of day in the right light and with the right pose to make a compelling self-portrait.
Photo Tip: Select an actively used wildlife trail, place the camera at a height that gives proper perspective for the animal(s) you’re targeting, and make sure the background isn’t distracting but provides a sense of the animal’s habitat. Seek even lighting, either full sun or full shade, to avoid blown-out highlights.
Photographed with a Nikon D7100 camera, Rokinon 16mm, f/2.0 lens. Camera settings and flash: f/5.6, 1/100 sec, ISO 800, aperture priority mode, -1 1/3 exposure compensation, SB-800 flash center set to 1/16 power, SB-28 flashes left and right set to 1/8 power, ¼ CTO warming gels on all flashes. TrailMaster 1500PS active IR trail monitor, set to signal 8 photographs over 4 seconds with each break of the beam.
Follow Carlton Ward on Instagram @carltonward.