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National Geographic Uses Drones/Robots to Photograph Lions

By Anthony Thurston on August 9th 2013

Lions MM7947

National Geographic has always been known for its stunning photography of wildlife and the environment. Over the last two years Nat. Geo. photographer Michael Nichols has been using technology to help him get up close and personal – so to speak – with a pride of lions.

No he wasn’t in some lion proof suit, or wearing some crazy cool camouflage; he was using drones and robots to do the dirty work. The benefit to using these devices is that no human life is is danger, but also that the Lions do not see the drones/robots as threats, which leads to them acting more natural than when a human is nearby snapping pictures.

Lions MM7947 Lions MM7947 Lions MM7947 Lions MM7947 Lions MM7947 Lions MM7947

The resulting photographs are pretty awesome, you can’t deny that they are really neat. But the wildlife photographer in me can’t help but feeling like he cheated a bit. I mean part of the allure of wildlife photography is getting out in the wild, and to a degree becoming connected with the animals you are shooting. As cool as drones/robots are I feel like you lose that experience when you use them.

UPDATE: I feel the need to clarify. When I say cheating in this case I don’t mean it in a completely negative the images should be banned sort of way. All I am saying is the photographer cheating himself out of  the unique experience of getting in with a group of animals and getting the shot. (obviously special considerations to distance must be had in the case of dangerous wildlife like lions) The experience is what I am talking about, not the images themselves. I have no problem with them at all. 

What are your thoughts? Is it cheating, or is it being smart or both? Let us know what you think in a comment below.

[via The Verge]

Anthony Thurston is a photographer based in the Salem, Oregon area specializing in Boudoir. He recently started a new project, Fiercely Boudoir to help support the growing boudoir community. Find him over on Instagram. You may also connect with him via Email.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Susan Hague

    I am so pleased that you (Anthony T) finally completed your initial statement, in which you used only the word ‘cheating’. You finally clarified with the words ‘cheating yourself out of the experience’. In the context of this discussion I would say for myself that the photographer has exercised his experiential judgement and decided that rather than waste the opportunity of getting brilliant shots in which the subjects are not disturbed by his presence, he would use the non-intrusive drone equipment. In this case he could be said to have waived the possible rush of the experience for the quality of the result. He has neither cheated himself out of something nor compromised his integrity as a first rate photography. He has simply made an informed decision. Integrity before self-gratification. That is my thought on the matter. :o)

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  2. James Friend

    As someone who has built and piloted a drone I can just say – WOW – Believe me it adds a whole new skill set and if the photographer is doing the flying (usually while watching a video feed on a small screen) as well as triggering his camera – that’s really excellent work. Much more difficult than using a long lens in my opinion and represents many many hours of work put into developing those flying skills.

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  3. DougH

    I find it amazing that a virtual nobody in the photography world would post a blog for the express purpose of stating that the photographer of some phenomenal shots is somehow less of a photographer because he wasn’t holding the camera when the images were recorded. Just how much more pretentious can one get?

    I have a suggestion, no, a request. Please write Mr. Nichols, obviously one of this planet’s truly great photographers, and ask him how cheated he feels by not being up close and personal when these photos were taken.

    Now a suggestion: remove all of your remarks about “cheating” (basically all of your text) and replace them with accolades for the images and the photograper’s creativity in acquiring them. That way more people can enjoy the photos and praise you for presenting them rather than reading your ego-based opinion.

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  4. Alan Chun

    You are correct, the use of the word cheating was not the best of choices. With such a renowned photographer you are going to find it very difficult to get anybody to agree with you I’m afraid.

    Personally I’m all for the use of technology to get the shot. And using said technology is all part of the “experience”. The notion that “he uses technology to get shots that otherwise would not be possible” is somehow cheating is a non starter. You can only cheat if you do it a different way to how it should be done, and in this case there isn’t a different way. There is just no way to get in that close and personal without also ending up on the menu!

    Now, I love your comments “it’s all about the experience” ” the experience means more to me than any picture” Really? That really makes me smile when I hear someone say that.
    So you would be happy, after spending thousands of dollars on a safari, to have got right up close to such dangerous animals, that close you can feel/smell their breath, click the shutter in the hope that the noise didn’t make them attack you and come away only to find you didn’t have your memory card in or you had left the lens cap on? I mean, as long as you got the experience that’s all that matters right? I’d love to read that blog post!

    An example of my own here, although in a completely different arena and league, is shots of water drops. Trying to get that shot of the water as it crowns is a bit hit and miss without some sort of technology to help you. You can take 100’s of pictures and only get 1 half decent result if you are lucky. However add in a drip trigger and a solenoid and the results improve rather dramatically!

    So, experience 1, without the technology = frustrated and not happy (or half eaten in this case). Experience 2, with technology = great shots and happy (and still breathing with all limbs intact) photographer. The 2nd experience is what I, and most other photographers, am after.

    Photography is about the pictures. It’s the pictures that tell the story and let others relive the experience. Your post would have been a tad boring had it not been for the pictures. If you had tried explaining the “experience” using just words you would probably have lost two thirds of your audience at the start.

    As for bullying, I think what Marcus Robinson was referring to was making sure he didn’t come across as bullying you.

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    • Anthony T.

      All I mean about the experience is that it is just as important to me as the images themselves. I go out to enjoy myself and if I get some good shots then great. Obviously my situation is different than that of a NatGeo Photographer. But I can only draw on my own experiences to formulate an opinion.

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    • Alan Chun

      In your post you said the experience was more important, glad to see you are coming round to the idea that the images are equally as important, otherwise it’s not photography.

      I think you would enjoy the experience of operating a drone out in the wilds and getting in close to get the shots, coming away with your life and some images to be proud of. It would be a new and worthwhile experience don’t you think?

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  5. Jules Ebe

    I have always had a sincere appreciation for Michael Nichols and a slew of other talented Nat Geo photographers. I think it is an interesting concept and like the way that Nichols used available technology to capture images no one else would (and be able to tell about it after).

    Use of technology has been a debate since Louis Daguerre made his presentation to the Academy of Art and Science of France in 1839. In the end, it is about the image, the emotion, and the communication between the viewer and the photograph. Definitely a smart and artistic decision by Nichols in my opinion.

    Great find Anthony =)

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  6. Dave

    Anthony – This photographer spent the better part of a year with these animals and was in very close proximity to them at almost all times. I am a novice wildlife photographer who just got into the trade two years ago, now I do work mostly for conservation NGOs and (to fund things) occasionally safari companies. In my mind whatever steps are necessary to give the most intimate look possible at these animals I am all for, they are magnificent and in serious danger of extinction well within our lifetime. I get what you’re saying, there is NOTHING like being close, a month ago I spent some considerable time with a young pride of lions in Ruaha, Tanzania. I was emotionally exhausted at the end of each day because of the non-stop adrenaline rush. You should really look more into this amazing project (if you haven’t already), it’s not like he was sitting in an air conditioned trailer in Las Vegas flying Predator Drones halfway around the world.

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  7. Ross

    It is called “Creativity” not cheating

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  8. schmitty

    Not cheating IMO. I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to die while taking a picture. I’d be happy with the experience of viewing the monitor while my drone gets mauled to death. Just sayin’

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  9. Craig

    Gear is gear. If shooting with a drone or robot is cheating then so is having multiple focal length lenses and a digital camera vs. film. Calling it cheating is simply lame.

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  10. Bill

    I guess using a 600 or 800 mm lens to get “close up” is cheating too. :)

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  11. RJW

    YES, it is cheating, but the images are great and the only one losing is the photographer. There is a peace and since of adventure when you do this type of work that you can’t possibly feel when you drop a mechanical rock in a field and wait for the movement detection system to start the camera taking pictures for you.

    This very similar to losing the hands on feel of creating your own photos in the darkroom. progress?

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  12. Ilze

    The people that get the thrill of getting close to animals or exploring danger, will still get the thrill- it isn their nature, most of the thrillseakers are not NG photographers, however in magazine business there are deadlines, and there is need from consumer, the urban human, mom , child and businessperson, who want to experience the beauty through images in NG. When we send robots in deep of the oceans to photograph depths beyond human reach, or explore sunk ships, explore space or inside of human body, or tiniest organisms, it isnt for thrill. Relying on technology, to open new horizons isnt cheating, it is progress.

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  13. Tobywan Kenobi

    By this standard, unless you’re using a normal lens and getting within 20 feet, you’re cheating.

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    • Anthony T.

      Not true at all, You can still be very close with a 70-200mm or even a 300mm. Too close really, in the case of Lions.

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  14. Ed Dombrowski

    I think its a sensational headline calling out NatGeo in an effort to get hits….. Other than that I see no real issue. Its no different then a sports photographer using remote cameras. Is it cheating if they are not hanging by their ankles from the rafters of Madison Square Garden to get an above the rim dunk shot? Move along, nothing to see here…well, except for awesome pictures of those lions.

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  15. Adam

    Seeing as the author has a whopping two pictures of two birds on his 500px profile, I’m not sure if he has the credibility to call what Nichols is doing cheating. It doesn’t take a genius to see the difference between photographing birds in Oregon and photographing lions in the wild. It certainly is easier to sit behind a desk and call another photographer a cheater than it is to use a drone to take excellent images.

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    • Anthony T.

      Taking what I said a little bit personal aren’t you? Not sure how the few images that I have posted on 500px have anything to do with this. I never said I have a problem with the images, just that I think the photographer loses out on the experience of it all when they use a drone/robot to capture the images. Is it cool they used drones/robots, yes for sure, but photography is as much about the experience for me as it it about the resulting images. So for me using a drone/robot or even a remote camera is cheating because you lose out on the experience of being in close with the animals.

      Yes, there is a big difference between Lions in Africa and birds/deer/cougars in Oregon but my point about experiencing it all still stands.

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    • Marcus Robinson

      There’s a atom thin line between lightheartedly debating the evolution of technology, and bullying, so I try to remain sensitive as not to throw the author of this post under the proverbial bus, but I must ask…do you REALLY suspect that a Nat Geo Photographer is losing out on an experience that you equate to standing next to Jesus? He’s a NAT GEO PHOTOGRAPHER MAN! He experiences more in his sleep than the rest of us do in our photography lives combined! The gentleman who suggested that the NAT GEO tag was used to drive hits onto the blog was square on, because I don’t feel that Anthony T is that deluded enough to honestly suggest that Mr. Nichols is missing out on an experience…..Because as a good pseudo journalist would do, I’m sure Anthony T has researched Mr. Nichols entire career by typing in Mike Nichols National Geographic into google, for the lazy here’s the link
      Whoa! Wait a second! Now I understand after reading this biography…Mr. Nichols has made a career on shortchanging “experiences” in exchange for some of the best photography ever produced…..His stint in the army, nonsense, everyone knows that military service is just a method of cheating to get out into a war zone to capture some images…..trekking 2000 KMs across Africa, that’s no experience either….Anthony T, I respect your desire to further your standing in the photographic community, but if you wish to accuse one of the great photographers of our era of “cheating” and defending your statement with ‘he’s missing out on an experience’ that you think is exclusive to people stuck in the 20th century, you really should present an exhibition of quality photos that do the talking for you. And I’m not bashing your photos, I’m merely challenging you to present a better photo acquired by your methods. Surely the experience of it will shine through in the images? Ilze, you said it just right, it’s about progress, but in the interest of progressing this conversation, I merely say this….Award winning Photographer who is employed by the most elite photographic publication in the history of the known universe vs. an unknown, untested hobbyist who thinks that people aren’t smart enough to figure out how to interpret their own enjoyment of photography….Mr. Nichols wins by one punch knockout in the opening seconds of round 1…..

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    • Anthony T.

      I’m not talking about his work overall, i’m talking about his work in this situation. For me, using technology in this manner is cheating yourself out of the experience of it all. How this post could be in any way taken as me “bullying” him is beyond me, and this has nothing to do with me trying to “further myself in the community”.

      He is a NatGeo photographer, and yes he has experience more in his time for them that I likely ever will. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t be of the opinion that some of the experience of it all is lost when you use technology like that. I see now that using the word “cheating” was not a good one to use in this case, other words could have better gotten my point across. But good lord, my work has no bearing on my ability to have an opinion on this.

      Lastly, I already made the point that I find the experience to be more important to me than the final photo. Being out in the wild, in close proximity to the wildlife, taking it all in. That is worth more to me than almost any picture I could get with a robot or done. I respect Mr. Nichols and his achievements, but his priority is the images… mine is the experience of it all. Maybe if I was a NatGeo photographer and had already seen it all I wouldn’t mind using drones to get shots I couldn’t have gotten otherwise… but I am not and so to me the experience is still tops.

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  16. MaryBeth Dailey

    Not cheating! And love that we can enjoy these images!

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  17. J. George

    Try selling your theory to NASA, Google, NOAA, or USAF, CIA, FBI. You really have a problem with great photography being gathered without killing yourself? Seriously? Really? I say as long as you respect the privacy of another person…..go for it. However I do feel that how a photograph is obtained does have a bearing on it’s value when comparing it to another of the same subject. I mean think of it…. a family portrait with a landscape of Mars in the background is a lot less valuable photoshopped than if you actually were standing on MARS. (cause you would have to have a Mar-shun snap the shutter? Or use the remote self timer? Hmmmmmm…. something to think abut.

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  18. Yvon

    this is beautiful that you show city people that there is still real nature. And that it should continue. This is a survival lesson. Yvon from city Amsterdam :-)

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  19. Marcus Robinson

    Back when I was a younger lad in 1816, a group of my friends who were quite skilled at drawing lions said to me ” Egad, did you hear of this monstrosity they are calling a camera which will allow non-drawers to capture a life like image of a lion? We’ll be out of business!”
    Some Chick named Megan then piped in with some boring droll about how since they were using pencils, they weren’t really drawing anyway, they should have been applying real skill and using charcoal and a canvas of stone cave, that if you were going to use pencils, you might as well use a camera….after all, using pencils to draw a lion doesn’t take any skill at all, everyone can do it and everyone can do it well…aforementioned lion then eats Megan, because he has a healthy appetite for nonsense. He soon regurgitated her as Lion’s don’t care for people who think they are skilled just because they reject pencils…to reject the evolution of craft doesn’t make you a better artist, it makes you a bitter fossil of an age past….

    So now, in my second youth, I am still subject to a now age old prattle about proper skills and what does it all mean when technology does the work for you…..The skill of an artist isn’t always about execution, it’s about transfer of emotion….my opinion is that if you don’t care for the fact that drones and robots were involved, then bust out your charcoal and a stone canvas, shut the door on electricity and see how talented and skilled you are at transferring emotion and documenting beautiful moments in time….I in the meantime will be celebrating these fabulous pictures of Lions taken with the assistance of Drones while sipping on some Starbucks and eating some pancakes…..Mr. Nichols has made Lions a much more enjoyable subject manner, and, maybe if we’re lucky, those who are now ANTI DRONE, will attempt to go out and capture these same images just to prove they can because they’re so skilled..

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  20. Dan Brady

    It’s progression of technology. Embrace it and move on.

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  21. Megan

    If this is “cheating” then every photographer who tweaks their photos in Photoshop or any other editing program is also cheating. Those images aren’t what you get out of the camera and from your own skill. It’s what you get when you process them through a computer. No different than what the Nat Geo photographer is doing in my estimation. It’s using technology and calling it photography.

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  22. Denis Germain

    ? why would that be cheating?
    Photographers have been using Cable release forever…. then wireless controllers to trigger multiple camera during sporting events (remember the last Olympic games?)
    Motion/Light/Noise sensors, Cameras on choppers or on drones or on remote controlled devices…
    Someone has planned the shot or triggered it!

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    • Anthony T.

      The difference being with a cable release or wireless trigger you are somewhat close to your camera. Still within range of the lions. With a drone or robot you are not, and thus you aren’t getting the full experience – at least, that’s how I look at it.

      There is something to be said for a wildlife photographer that risks his life to get close to dangerous animal.. or even not dangerous ones. I am an experience junky, to me you lose out on that special unique experience of being close to the animals when you use devices like drones or robots.

      That said, the images are amazing. No problem with them at all.

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  23. Jo Bryant

    If he is still technically pressing the button I don’t see a problem. It is no different than using any type of remote with your camera. And these are such impressive images that we wouldn’t have seen without this type of technology that I think it gives him a free pass.

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