Saving Wildlife & Land With A Digital Camera

Carlton Ward uses photography to share Gabon's biodiversity with the world
Saving wildlifeImagine having the opportunity to photograph in wildlife-rich Gabon in Central Africa. You'll be in the company of scientists, specialists in areas including entomology, botany and ornithology. Then, add the chance to create your images using high-end digital SLRs, an assortment of quality lenses and lighting gear. It sounds ideal.

Although photographer Carlton Ward experienced all this, he also contended with unpredictable weather and elusive wildlife. He faced flash floods, time constraints and agitated gorillas. Finally, he dealt with scientists who couldn't understand why he was taking so long to take a picture. Yet this complex mix of opportunities and challenges resulted in a compiled digital library of more than 10,000 photographs, 600 of which were published in The Edge of Africa (Hylas Publishing, ISBN: 1-59258-040-8), a documentation and exploration of one of Africa's most biodiverse environments.

The Digital Difference
"Digital photography revolutionized the process," says Ward, who explains that although film was used in the project, digital technology expanded the possibilities of what could be achieved. "We used it to publish weekly illustrated field notes that were distributed by e-mail around the world to collaborators and scientists who were abroad. In addition, I tethered my Nikon D1x to my laptop using Nikon Capture software and was able to instantly view the results on the screen."

The ability to quickly download and view the images served as more than confirmation that Ward had gotten the shot. The data in the software provided important technical information that allowed for adjustments in exposure, white balance and lighting. It also was a means for communicating with his scientific collaborators.

Says Ward, "This was helpful for my technique, but more importantly, it allowed the scientists to confirm whether or not I had captured essential characteristics for the identification of the animals." It turned out to be especially important because huge amounts of data needed to be compiled in a limited amount of time.

"Instantly seeing beautiful pictures was a morale booster in camp," adds Ward. "It made it possible to create engaging slideshows for the local communities."

With funding from the Shell Foundation and Shell Gabon, the Smithsonian Institution's Monitoring and Assessment of Biodiversity Program (SI/MAB) led research teams from around the world with specialties in botany, entomology, herpetology, ornithology, ichthyology and mammalogy. Ward's role was to document, for scientific record, the specimens being studied by the researchers. The images were intended for reports and publications.

Ward was inspired by the work of National Geographic photographer Michael "Nick" Nichols. Nichols' photographs in conjunction with the efforts of the Wildlife Conservation Society led to the establishment of Gabon's 13 national parks in 2002. Nichols' images had a major impact on Ward.

"For a photograph to be effective, it must capture someone's attention to affect them emotionally," says Ward. "This requires the photographer to look beyond the straightforward rendition. My goal was to capture the essence. A simple photograph can inform, but a beautiful photograph will inform and inspire."

A graduate of Wake Forest University with a degree in biology, Ward earned an internship in the photography department of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of History in 1998. It was there that he developed a relationship with Dr. Francisco Dallmeier, who, three years later, brought him on board for the project in Gabon.

Recalls Ward, "We kept in touch as I started grad school in interdisciplinary ecology at the University of Florida, and when they began their biodiversity inventories in Gabon, they invited me to participate. So I cut my summer newspaper internship short and set out for Africa."

A Journalistic Approach
Once there, the first of Ward's many challenges began. While he imagined the greater possibilities of photography, the scientists didn't hold such grand expectations. For them, photography was a tool of documentation whose purpose was simply to record data.

"From the beginning, I saw the potential to use photography to help share the special nature of Gabon with its own people and the international community," says Ward. "I sought to bring a more journalistic element to the scientific mission and gradually gained support for this approach."

Eventually, he secured his place as an official Smithsonian research collaborator, which, for the next two years, involved five more expeditions and seven months of field work. Gaining recognition for the importance of his work didn't automatically come with his new official position, however.

"It was often very difficult to gain acceptance for my journalistic approach," explains Ward. "In the beginning, I wasn't able to use the word 'journalism' in my title; I had to refer to myself as a scientific photographer and digital imaging specialist. There were often expectations for the best without understanding why I'd spend hours trying to capture the essence of a frog. Though some of the scientists, especially the program director, Francisco, wanted quality photographs, the main problem was that they didn't appreciate how difficult doing good photography could be."

Yet Ward's passion for the role of photography broke through such resistance. His work became more than just a tool for scientific research, but a means for communicating the importance of the work being done.

"Photography serves a crucial role in connecting people with their vanishing natural heritage," he says. "It celebrates the wonder and points out the problems humans create. Good pictures are difficult to ignore."

Working In The Field
Along with his film cameras and digital SLRs, Ward's equipment included lenses ranging from 20mm to 600mm. He also used 60mm, 105mm and 200mm AF Micro-Nikkor lenses for creating high-magnification images in his "studio," which consisted of a black velvet background and two to four diffused electronic strobes. To maintain flexibility, he configured varied power supplies that used 110/240-volt current, AA batteries or a 12-volt car battery charged with solar panels.

"Controlling the setting allowed me to systematically document the wide variety of animals that researchers were recording across the varied landscape," he says. "I was able to make pictures of many species never before photographed alive, including some completely new to science. The resulting library is the largest of its type for Central Africa."

However, even with such technology, the photographs were rarely achieved without some difficulty. "Many forest animals are elusive or nocturnal, making them extremely difficult to photograph by traditional means," explains Ward. For this purpose, he used remotely triggered cameras. Although infrared beam triggers had been commonly used by scientists, their photographs were less than aesthetically pleasing. In such photographs, even an underexposed photograph was considered successful if it provided enough information to identify the animal.

"To produce high-quality results, I reconfigured TrailMaster camera trap systems to my Nikon cameras and strobes," explains Ward. "Working with custom-built camera traps is tedious, labor-intensive and filled with risk. I had setups drowned by floodwaters, smashed by fallen branches and bashed by gorillas. But in the end, they produced photographs that otherwise wouldn't be possible."

Lighting in the field also was a challenge, as the sun in Gabon shines just one out of three days. Good lighting is a blessing when it comes, but the weather changes rapidly and is difficult to predict. The typical dim lighting requires the use of heavy tripods and fast lenses. In additional, the rain forest animals are very elusive—even enormous hippos and elephants are difficult to locate. And when that's mixed in with high humidity, constant rainfall, salt air and wind-driven sand, it makes getting a good photograph difficult, if not near impossible. Says Ward, "Patience becomes a necessity."

Creating The Book
The production of the book also provided its share of obstacles. Produced in only seven months, The Edge of Africa wasn't meant to be just another coffee-table book.

Says Ward, "The Edge of Africa was designed as more than just a showcase. It was designed as a tool to celebrate Gabon's biodiversity. We could have waited an additional year to publish the book, but we wanted to influence perceptions of Gabon at a pivotal time in the nation's development. The first problem was the focus of the book itself. The publisher at first wanted something generic, which didn't focus on the place. This to me would have been a major mistake. The reason for making the book was the place, to celebrate the unseen biodiversity of Gabon and promote its protection."

The publisher was concerned with the risk of limiting the potential audience by making Gabon the focus, however. Ward wrote them a letter sharing his vision for the book, which helped. But it wasn't until they obtained outside funding from Shell in the form of advance sales that they were able to move forward.

All the work was accomplished in a total digital space with text contributions sent from New York and London to his workspace in Washington, D.C. Says Ward, "It was a real challenge editing, digitally preparing and color-calibrating all the images. I worked with picture editor Marnie Brigg, who brought a second set of eyes and a lot of experience of how to structure a book. Michelle Lee did an amazing job of pulling together the text and managing the translation with little time. The workload was enormous."

Essential Gear
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"The book was a publishing experiment for me, combining digital originals with drum scans and desktop scans made from film. In the end, you can't tell the original medium. I love shooting slides and I'm somewhat loyal to film, but now I find it difficult to make the rational argument in its favor."

The release of the book was greeted enthusiastically not only by the scientific community, but especially by the people of Gabon. "With the help of our book, the country's biodiversity is being celebrated at the highest levels of Gabonese government." says Ward. "We had a wonderful exhibition for the book release in Libreville, with the highest levels of government in attendance.

"In September, Jean Ping of Gabon became president of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and during the opening reception, 40 of my framed photographs were on display. As President Bongo greeted visitors, I saw several heads of African nations looking at my pictures and through the book. One young woman walked up to me and told me the book made her proud to be Gabonese. That's all I could ever ask."

You can see more of Carlton Ward's photography at For more information on the Smithsonian Institution MAB Program, visit

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