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Wildlife Camera Traps Tips And Techniques
For several summers, a pair of foxes denned near our field camp. Unlike the skittish foxes I’ve encountered in the Lower 48, these animals were bold and easy to camera trap. I used a longer focal length than normal, 55mm on a crop sensor, to frame the fox against a mountain backdrop as it roamed the shores of Lake Nerka, Alaska.
Wildlife photography is defined by a single overarching challenge: getting close to critters. The elusive nature of our subjects is what makes wildlife photography unique and exciting, but also immensely frustrating. The solution to capturing our skittish subjects traditionally has been the use of telephoto lenses, which allow us to photograph animals from a distance. While this technique is practical and clearly yields beautiful results, it also can limit creative options in terms of the species that we can photograph and the ways that we can portray them. Traditional techniques require finding animals during the daytime and prevent us from using the focal lengths and lighting techniques available to other types of photography.
If you want to take shots that don’t have the compressed perspective of a spotting scope, or if you want to photograph nocturnal carnivores, traditional techniques simply aren’t effective. In these instances, remotely triggered cameras provide a powerful tool for capturing unique images of rarely seen wildlife.
My friend Jason Ching (right) and I built our first camera traps from scratch; we went through a lot of trial and error to get our systems working and to find animals. This image shows the results from one of our first sets in the Washington Cascades. Composited together are our test shot, a coyote, a deer mouse and a spotted skunk. Neither of us has captured an image of a coyote since, except on the trail cameras we use for scouting.
In my photography, I use motion-activated “camera traps” to capture lit portraits of carnivores and other wildlife. Though I’m not there to press the shutter button, camera trapping provides me with much greater creative control than I ever had with telephoto techniques. I now can carefully compose a scene and even control how light spills through the environment and onto my subject. I work like a studio portrait photographer, yet my subjects are elusive wildlife that I may never actually see with my own eyes. For example, I’ve never encountered a mountain lion, but I’ve photographed many of them and spent lots of time thinking about how I want my rim lights to reflect off their shoulders.
Camera trapping requires specialized gear that can be tricky to figure out. The good news, however, is that it won’t cost you nearly as much as a 600mm lens or a safari. If you want to give it a try, you’ll need the following gear.
Camera and Lens
Forget about fancy autofocus and frames per second; your camera only needs two features: a wired shutter release and a sleep (i.e., standby) mode. The shutter release allows you to hook up the camera to a motion sensor, and the sleep mode prevents the camera from burning up its battery while you’re waiting for a critter to show up. For some reason, mirrorless cameras often fall short for one of these criteria and don’t work for camera trapping even though their small size would be a real asset.
For lenses, I prefer an ultrawide-to-normal zoom, such as a 10-20mm for a crop-sensor camera or a 17-40mm on full frame. This range of focal lengths gives me extra depth of field that helps keep the subject in focus and provides a range of useful perspectives for environmental portraiture. Since you’ll be shooting stopped down, even cheap kit lenses will perform just fine. The only lenses I specifically avoid are those in the Canon STM line because they have issues with taking pictures immediately after the camera wakes from standby.
A young grizzly bear triggers a camera set on a streamside game trail. While I was doing my PhD research in Alaska, I’d be out in the field collecting data all day, but there was enough light that I could go out after dinner and set camera traps until midnight on the streams near our camp.
I set this camera on a game trail frequented by mountain lions. A trail camera set in the area revealed multiple cougars had traveled through the area, but none came close enough to trigger my camera. Instead, my camera captured a long-eared owl, framed against the lights of sprawling suburbs and airliners headed to Denver International Airport.
There are many sensors out there, but in terms of commercially available options for camera trapping, you’re limited to active infrared (AIR) or passive infrared (PIR). AIR sensors create a narrow beam between two units (similar to a garage door sensor) and trigger the camera when something intercepts the beam. In contrast, PIR sensors are one-piece units that detect changes in heat across a broad area. The advantage of AIR sensors is that they can more finely control where an animal will trigger the camera, giving you more control over composition. The advantage of PIR sensors is that they’re easier to set up, don’t require the animal to be in a specific spot and generally are less expensive. I’d recommend PIR sensors for people new to camera trapping.
Leaving a camera outside may expose it to precipitation, insects, frisky critters and theft. The protection needed for a specific camera trap set varies. At a minimum, you’ll probably want a rain cover. For full protection, a sealed hard-bodied housing is needed. I build my own from Pelican cases and assorted plumbing supplies. If you don’t want to build your own housing, Camtraptions offers a simple, portable shelter, and TRLcam provides custom-made fully protected housings. Many camera trappers lock their cameras to trees or other structures, but I just set up in remote areas and cross my fingers. I’ve yet to have a camera stolen.
A Pacific fisher crosses a stream using a natural bridge, an old-growth ponderosa pine log. Fishers are members of the weasel family, somewhere in between a marten and a wolverine. Due to habitat loss and rodenticide poisoning, fishers are candidates for listing by the Endangered Species Act.
Many animals are active at night or during twilight, so you may need to use artificial light. Most camera trappers use Nikon flashes because of their excellent standby function, which enables them to run for weeks on their internal batteries. If you want to use other brands, it’s best to run them off of external 6V batteries. If you’re shooting during twilight or daytime, a single flash mixing with ambient light works great. However, at night, you’ll probably want at least two flashes: a key light that illuminates and shapes the animal, and a fill light that adds detail to the shadows cast by the key light. Lighting night scenes is the most difficult element of camera trapping.
Before I was a camera trapper, I lusted over big white lenses I couldn’t afford. Now I lust over grip gear, which is fortunately much less expensive. A big challenge of camera trapping is getting your camera, flashes and sensor to hold securely in place on rugged terrain. You sometimes can get away with a tripod and light stands, but often you’ll need to attach gear to trees, rocks and other structures. I use a variety of gear, including clamps, magic arms, flexible tripods and tie-down straps.
Because the odds of success can be quite slim, I often deploy multiple camera trap rigs at a time. I use a hodgepodge of cameras and lenses, on both Canon and Nikon platforms.
Cameras: Canon EOS 6D, Canon EOS Rebel T3i, Nikon D610
Lenses: Canon EF 17-40mm ƒ/4L USM, Canon EF-S 10-22mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 USM (destroyed by an elephant in Kenya), Canon EF-S 17-55mm ƒ/2.8 IS USM (destroyed by cows in Kenya), Tokina AT-X 10-17mm ƒ/3.5-4.5 AF DX Fisheye, Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 18-35mm ƒ/3.5-4.5G ED
Housing: Pelican 1150 Case and custom lens port by TRLcam
Flash: Various Nikon Speedlights
Flash Trigger: Camtraptions wireless radio trigger or homemade wired sync with Ethernet cables and Pixel RJ45 adapters
Flash Grip: Camo-painted Avenger C-Stand, JOBY GorillaPod SLR-Zoom, A-clamps with mini-ballheads bolted to them, LumoPro compact lightstand, cam straps and lots of camo gaffer’s tape
To Mount A Camera To A Tree: Manfrotto 244 Magic Arm, MeFOTO ballhead, Avenger F301 baby female wall plate, cam straps
So you have your gear and you’re ready to go. Now what? Time to think like a fur trapper. Go out in the woods and try to figure out how your local species travel across the landscape. Walk game trails and look for signs, such as tracks and scat. Then think like a landscape photographer and try to find a scene that would make for a compelling photograph. Lastly, confirm that people are unlikely to find your camera.
Once you’ve found your spot, camouflage your gear with natural items like sticks and brush, but try not to leave too much of your scent around—don’t drop your sweaty jacket on the ground, if you can avoid it. You can try using fur trapper techniques such as visual and scent lures, but nothing works as well as finding a natural travel route and waiting.
How long to wait depends on the area, but I generally leave my sets for 10 to 30 days at a time. Frequent checks are good when weather and frisky critters threaten your gear, but the more you visit your set, the less likely wary critters are to give it a visit.
In terms of camera settings, I use manual focus and try to anticipate how far the animal will be from the camera. For example, I may set parallel to a game trail and focus on the near edge of the trail. I generally set the exposure mode to manual, stopping down to ƒ/8 or more for depth of field and selecting a shutter speed that’s slow enough to sync with flash and provide the amount of ambient light I want. I may use ISO 3200 if I need lots of power out of my flashes or ISO 200 if I anticipate a daytime shot and need to worry about overexposing ambient light.
Your first camera trap sets may be disasters—mine sure were. It takes a while to get the gear working right and get the hang of lighting, but if you persevere, the occasional successes make the frequent failures well worth it. Camera traps provide an incredible tool for exploring your local outdoors and discovering photographic opportunities you never knew existed. If you want to take close-up photos of exotic carnivores, you don’t need thousands of dollars for big lenses or trips to Africa; all you need is a camera trap and some new skills.
• • •
Jonny Armstrong spent the last decade researching the ecology of coastal Alaska watersheds, using photography not only as a creative outlet, but as a way to communicate science and engage public audiences. He recently started as a professor at Oregon State University, and his future camera trapping largely will focus on rare carnivores of the Pacific Northwest. See more of his work at jonnyarmstrong.com.