Jonny Armstrong Photography » Specializing in camera trapping, underwater, and conservation science photography

In pursuit of America’s big cat

Like most camera trappers in the West, one of the first animals I dreamed of photographing was a mountain lion. There are too many reasons to be fascinated by these critters: they’re an apex predator, they’re America’s only big cat (not counting the handful of jaguars along the Mexican border), and despite their abundance, they’re rarely captured in photographs or film. There are countless amazing photos and video of Africa’s lions; yet there are very few of America’s lion. Anyone can go on a safari and see cats in Africa, but it’s extremely difficult to see the cougars that live all around us in the West.

My first camera trap photo of a lion came as a complete surprise. I set my camera in a steep, brushy canyon in Montana, hoping it would act as a funnel for animal movements.  My light stands and tripods were in use on another project, so I found a nice boulder to set my camera on and secured my flashes to a tree and on a rock pile.

When I went to check the camera a while later I had a huge surprise waiting for me.


The mountain lion posed for three shots and then likely snuck by as my camera took a programmed 5s pause. The Canon Rebel Xti (400D) that took this picture failed shortly afterward (dead shutter); so I nearly missed my first big cat shot.

On a calm day last November I found cougar tracks following a rocky ridgeline in SE Wyoming. When I returned with my camera trap I learned just how nasty it gets in these sorts of areas. It was a sunny day in Laramie, but 40-60 mph winds had created a fog of blowing snow in the mountains. I needed bare hands to set my camera; but the wind chills were below zero, so I had to work in 30s intervals and then spend long periods warming my hands. I dialed in the shot using the 10s delay feature on my camera and quickly striking some cat poses, like this gem below. Any fur-trapper would do a face-palm if they saw this shot, as I’m polluting the set with my human scent, which is a deal-breaker for skittish critters like wolves or coyotes.


I let the camera sit for a couple weeks and then went to check it with my friend Jake Goheen, who works on carnivores in Africa. As we got to the ridge I saw my camera in the distance and started to get excited about what might be on it. Then I noticed a patch of melted snow 100 ft. or so in front of the camera. It turned out a cougar had killed an ungulate (probably a mule deer) just down the ridge from my camera, and then dragged it off somewhere. To my disappointment, I didn’t manage to capture any of the action on my camera. It wasn’t a total bust though, because we found lots of cougar tracks that gave us hints into how the cats traveled the ridge line. Jake found a nice path through some rocks and suggested we set there; he even struck a sweet cougar pose to help me dial in my camera (Canon 50d/Tokina 35mm f/2.8) and flashes (two Nikon speedlites).

I need to learn how to look cool and composed like The Goheen when I dial in my camera traps. I’d encourage Jake to leave science for a career in male-modeling, but he’s doing pretty well using his brain.

Bright conditions like this are actually horrible for setting camera traps, because you can’t see the effects of your flashes. The sun is doing all the work lighting Jake; my flashes add only a tiny bit of fill light in the shadows. At night, my flashes will be the only light available; they will make-or-break the image. Luckily I’ve spent enough timing camera trapping (and reading David Hobby’s incredible lighting blog) that I can fairly accurately guess how different lighting setups will look at night. In this case I duct-taped my key light to dead tree at camera right, and placed a fill light on a boulder to the left.


Weeks went by and I got some great mule deer shots, but no cougar.



I knew the cats were traversing the ridge, so I began to worry that they were wary of my camera setup. In my experience, once an animal makes your set and decides to avoid it, your odds of getting them become slim.

I came back in April with one of Jake’s graduate students, Brendan Oates, who studies moose. We checked a different camera on the way up to the ridge and got a big surprise: a partial shot of a cougar. The cat was so big that it didn’t fit in the frame! I’m guessing it was a dominant male. My colleague who used to work on cats in the region said they once captured a 200 lb. tom that patrolled this area, perhaps this is one of his offspring.



We huffed it up the ridge to check the 2nd camera and found another big surprise: a cougar had visited that set as well; and this time we could see its face. I loved how my key light was off-axis enough to cast a shadow on the right side of its face, but I still managed to light both its eyes. Small details like this are very hard to get right when you’re camera-trapping. Also, my fill light keeps the shadows from going completely black, so you can still see detail on the animal’s right side (camera left).



As a bonus; it wasn’t just a single cougar, but instead an adult female with two teenage offspring (one of them pictured below).



On our hike out at dusk, we stumbled upon a narrow line of deer hair headed straight down the hillside. We followed it 100m or so to find a fresh mule deer carcass stashed in a draw.



Cell phone snap of Brendan doing his wildlife biologist thing and investigating the kill:


I thought the cats were done feeding on the deer, because they hadn’t buried it and most of the meat had been picked over. I came back the next day to set a camera on the scraps and in hopes of getting a scavenger. I discovered that the cats had actually came back during the night and reduced the carcass to a few bones. It’s fun to think that they were probably bedded down nearby when Brendan and I stumbled upon their kill.

About a week later I snapped this fox cruising up the draw.



Hopefully I’ll be posting more cougar pictures as winter returns and I begin moving my camera traps back to this spot.





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