Time Lapse

Over the past century, wildlife photography has become a bridge between art and science, thanks to a few ingenious inventions.

1877: Stop-Motion

Movies were born the day a man bet horses could fly. In 1877 landscape photographer Eadweard Muybridge wanted to see if galloping horses ever lift all four hooves at once. In a first-of-its-kind experiment, Muybridge placed rapid-exposure cameras around a racetrack, each coupled to a tripwire that opened its shutter for 1/500th of a second when the horse ran past. The resulting series, "Sallie Gardner at a Gallop," proved that horses indeed go airborne, if only for milliseconds at a time. To wow audiences, Muybridge invented the zoopraxiscope, a backlit rotating glass disk that blurred his freeze frames into a moving image; he presented some 100,000 of his black-and-white images—including the flying eagle seen here—on the same contraption during a 15-year world tour. The zoopraxiscope went on to serve as the foundation of motion-picture projectors and, thus, all modern cinema.—Becca Cudmore

1900: Film

Cherry and Richard Kearton wrote the book on wildlife photography. Really. The two Englishmen took the first picture of a bird’s nest with eggs, in 1892, the first of many they would publish in some of the earliest known volumes of bird photos. (Here they are in 1900, attempting the feat again.) In fact, the Keartons’ book With Nature and a Camera, which is focused almost entirely on birds, is partly to thank for popularizing the entire field of wildlife photography. A reviewer in the October 1898 issue of The Auk heralded the authors for their use of a “lens camera,” then a relatively recent technology that seemed poised to give pencil and paper a run for its money. “[Photographs] not only furnish a record of facts which the worker with brush or pencil cannot hope to equal,” the reviewer wrote, “but many of them possess a beauty rivaling the best productions of the natural history artist.” We couldn’t agree more.—Raillan Brooks

1968: Strobe

By our count, it took at least four engineers to make this strobe-flash photo of a Northern Parula, an early stop-motion image. There was Harold Edgerton, who designed the first stroboscopic flash—a burst of light that added softer, more natural light to a scene than conventional flash attachments—and who taught the photographer to jerry-rig his own 1/10,000th-of-a-second exposures. Then there were the scientists at Strobo Research in Milwaukee, whose early model electronic bulbs replaced the artist’s single-use analog versions. And it didn’t hurt that Crawford Greenewalt, inventor of a motion-sensing shutter-trip device, lent his contraption to the man behind the camera.

The photographer himself, Eliot Porter, was trained as a chemical engineer and doctor, professions he left to become one of the preeminent color photographers of the 20th century. His 50-year career bears all the marks of his scientific training—precision, patience, and the kind of techno-wizardry found in this 1968 portrait of a parula mid-flit. Before strobe photography, getting the perfect shot of wildlife was mostly a matter of luck. These days, though, it’s as easy as screwing in a light bulb.—R.B.

2005: Camera Trap

The African Wood-Owl keeps a low profile. It sticks to the shrubbery and dense trees of sub-Saharan forests, emerging only to pluck beetles and moths out of the African wilderness. Without camera traps—whether live feeds or the motion-triggered one-snap variety that caught this individual in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley—you would have only the owl’s syncopated hoot to help track it down. When National Geographic published the world’s first trip-wire images of deer, in July 1906, two of the magazine’s board members left their seats in disgust. But the response from readers was so positive that it spurred Geographic to become the photojournalism-driven outfit we know today.—R.B.

2010: Digital

Macaws love company, but even they need a bit of personal space. For famed bird photographer Andrew Zuckerman to approach this Red-and-green Macaw, a resident of the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, digital photography’s precision at long distance was key.

Digital imaging was already well established when Zuckerman began photographing birds in 2007. NASA had begun using it in the ’60s to turn signals from space probes into maps of the lunar surface. The technology was then turned over to spy-satellite programs and, finally, adapted by Kodak in the ’70s for commercial use. The first digital print, in 1986, contained 1.4 million pixels; in 2014 a print of the moon’s north pole was 500,000 times bigger.—Purbita Saha

2011: Aerial

Even just one Lesser Flamingo is camera candy. But if you don’t want to miss several hundred thousand of the birds in giant rose eddies, as seen here at their breeding grounds at Lake Bogoria, Kenya, then you’ll want to take to the skies.

This picture is from 2011, but the history of aerial photography starts in 1858 with French balloonist Gaspard-Félix Tournachon’s hot-air-enabled photos of Paris. For a century the technique was used mostly for military reconnaissance, like the CIA’s surveillance pigeon program (its details remain classified). But today aerials are both a standard for landscape photography and for tracking migrations and surveying habitat. Now scientists are shooting even higher: The number of satellite imaging jobs in the U.S. is expected to grow by 8,300 between 2012 and 2022.—R.B.

2014: Macro

That we can still make out this feather’s every ripple and fiber at five times its size is a marvel of modern computing. Digital macrophotography is the process of stacking or combining extreme close-up photos of the same object taken at multiple focal lengths, creating crisp canvases at mammoth magnifications. It’s a big help to scientists, who are usually obliged to alter specimens in some way to achieve this level of detail (the only other technique as powerful, electron microscopy, not only requires coating the sample in gold but also distorts the subject’s true color). It’s a boon to artists, too: With such powerful tools at their disposal, every cilium and strand becomes an unexplored universe.—R.B.