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  • Roberta Winchester

George Shiras, Wildlife Photographer

The cover of National Geographic magazine featuring the nighttime photographs of George Shiras, III

We'll tell you today about George Shiras, III, who was a photographer and a pioneer of night wildlife photography. Even though photography was barely out of its infancy by 1900, Shiras was out in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at all hours of the night making photos of wildlife. He used baited trip wires stretched across wildlife corridors which, when tugged by an animal, tripped a camera shutter, setting off a flash. He also mounted his camera on the bow of a canoe and floated around in the dark taking photographs whenever he heard a sound on shore.

George Shiras, III, pioneer wildlife photographer, photographing wildlife at night.
George Shiras, III, pioneer wildlife photographer

As you can see from the samples we've attached, not only did he document wildlife, he did it by creating fine art photographs, any one of which could grace a gallery wall. They are well composed, sharply focused, and full of detail. They won prizes in art shows in Paris and the Grand Prize at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. They were also important photographs because Shiras made them at the dawn of the modern conservation movement. By 1906, when the photos were published in National Geographic Magazine, Americans were increasingly aware of and worried about declining wildlife and habitat. Hunters and naturalists led the movement. When President Teddy Roosevelt saw the photographs, he wrote Shiras, encouraging him to publish them in a large format book. Shiras was invited to join the Boone and Crockett Club, an organization devoted to conservation causes founded by Roosevelt. Nearly 30 years later Shiras took Roosevelt's advice and published a book containing 950 of the 2,400 photographs he donated to National Geographic.

A practicing lawyer for most of his life, Shiras the third was also a member of Congress for one term from 1903 to 1905. While there, he introduced the first act in Congress that eventually resulted in the Migratory Bird Act, which protects more than 800 species of birds to this day. We take bird song and bird photography for granted now, but that was by no means the certain outcome when the United States and Canada began discussing conserving birds in the early 1900s.

A photo of a bobcat by George Shiras, III
A photo of a bobcat at night by George Shiras, III

Another thing we modern photographers take for granted is reliable electronic flash units. That wasn't the case when Shiras made his photographs. He used a ribbon of magnesium, which was ignited by a jolt of electricity and which then exploded. That method had been invented shortly before 1900 by Robert Bunsen, the inventor of the Bunsen Burner. The other method involved placing a combination of shredded explosive metals in a trough that the photographer held above his head while he ignited it and tripped the camera's shutter. That method was invented by Joshua Lionel Cowen whom we mention only because he was the inventor of model toy electric trains, the first of which was Lionel trains; still sold today. By 1890 Shiras the third picked up his rifle and his fishing rod less, and his camera more. He could be eloquent. He wrote, “To this secluded place (a small lake near Marquette, Michigan) I have returned for more than sixty consecutive years, first as a boy and later often accompanied by relatives and friends. The natural beauties of this woodland haven, and the interesting wildlife inhabiting the surrounding forest undoubtedly had a governing influence in developing my career as a sportsman-naturalist. It was there that, as a youthful hunter, I shot my first deer. There I took my first daylight and flashlight photographs of wildlife, and there I became an observing field naturalist."


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