Go out into the great outdoors. Find a place that animals like to hang out when people aren’t around. Set up your camera to automatically take a photo of them when they do show up. Leave it there. Come back tomorrow to see if you got any shots. Repeat it all over again until you get the awesome shots you want of those shy, hard to photograph animals. Welcome to Remote Camera Traps!
In previous articles, I’ve shared the different ways I’ve used Platypods in my photography. Possibly one of the best uses I have found is in helping set up a successful remote camera trap. The Platypod adds flexibility to place your camera and lighting equipment that can make your photo-trapping endeavors much more likely to pay off with great images.
In this article, I will explain the full workings of a camera trap along with a simple setup to get you started. In Part 2 of this series, I will go into more advanced setups.
What is a Camera Trap?
Camera traps are a catch-all term for any camera remotely activated by a triggering device, using something as simple as a cable remote shutter release, but more typically a motion sensor or pressure pad that fires your camera when something comes near it or steps on it. Used widely by more than wildlife photographers, they are also employed by researchers, wildlife protection agencies, conservation organizations, and more. These systems allow you to capture images of animals, scenes, or events, which are extremely difficult to photograph in person.
Although the idea of leaving your camera out in the woods by itself overnight may not be your idea of a good time, photo-trapping is a long-established way of capturing hard to get images of skittish, hard to find, or nocturnal creatures. It is a challenging process to properly set up a photo trap and capture good images from one. It requires technical know-how, field-craft, and an ability to envision the shots well before they are made. Done correctly, you can get photos you couldn’t get any other way, and supply valuable scientific information for the people who protect and research wildlife and their ecosystems.
Elements of a Camera Trap
The most basic camera trap consists of just a few elements:
- Camera (with fresh memory cards and batteries, of course!).
- Lens, typically wide-angle in the 24mm or less range.
- Light, typically produced by a series of flashes for nocturnal animals, or natural lighting for day shots. Some traps used purely for game monitoring may rely on infrared (IR).
- Remote release, either corded, wireless, or pressure.
- Camera support, like a Platypod, tripod, etc.
Camera Traps 101 – The 5P’s: Planning, Placement, Power, Protection, Positioning
To start planning out your photo trap, start with answering two (not so) simple questions:
- What do you hope to get photos of?
- What do you need to make these photos?
Consider where you have to go to get the images you want. Is this private land or public? Will there be people nearby who could disturb or take your gear? Is there a risk of loss due to theft on public lands? Is permitting required?
In selecting your place, you can’t just pick any spot in the woods. Identify, through careful research and observation, where the animals are likely to be found. Look for food sources, water sources, likely den or nesting spots, and most importantly, signs they have been there such as game trails, scat (the technical term for poo), signs of predation (bones, feathers, blood trails, etc.), calls, tracks, or even actual sightings.
If your camera trap is going to be set up for any length of time, you have to keep your batteries full. No power equals no pictures! Have a plan in place to replace your batteries without disturbing your potential subjects, or power your camera long-term using a recharging system (like solar panels) or a high-capacity battery that will last long enough.
Tether Tools offers many external power solutions for cameras. Personally, I like their Case series that allows you to power your camera off a USB Power Bank. This will give you about 10 times more battery life than a standard camera battery, more than enough for most overnight setups.
Depending on how long you plan to have your camera trap set up, you will have to consider the chances of bad weather. Even just being out overnight can see gear drenched in morning dew if not protected.
For short-term traps, I use rain covers from Think Tank and Storm Jacket. These protect your camera from even fairly heavy rains. Check your weather forecast before setting up, you can always skip a night if bad weather is in the offing. For longer duration setups, or in situations where your camera is at more risk to the elements, many photographers create their own custom housings. In addition to completely built from scratch housings, I have seen Pelican cases, surplus military ammo boxes, and large coolers modified to hold cameras.
There are places that are too difficult to stay with a camera and shoot, there are events that are too dangerous to be around when they occur, and there are animals that are too shy of humans for us to ever get near to photograph them. Photo or camera traps are a way to capture these types of photos from a distance by remote control. Good placement is key, and probably the most important element for success with your trap.
- Start by analyzing the place you have chosen
- Imagine where the animal is likely to come from, appear in your image, and leave the scene, then position your camera so that you can realize this.
- Take lots of test shots. Review these shots and see what needs to change.
- Is the background too close or cluttered? Are the lights aimed the right way? Do you have the right lens and other equipment for the place you have chosen versus what you hope to get?
- When positioning your camera and lights, think of a triangle
- Because camera traps are often used to capture images in low light, and flash fired from your camera’s position will cause red or steel eye, it is important to not have the light source pointing directly at your subject, it must be coming from an angle.
- Moving your flashes out and pointed at about 45-60 degree angle to the subject eliminates this issue.
- Consider the height of your subject
- Ideally, you want your camera to be near the animal’s eye level. Lights should to be at or above their eye level.
- Use your Platypod to attach your cameras and flashes to natural features in the area like trees or rocks. This will help them blend in with the surroundings more. Platypods give you more flexibility in placement and angling.
- Place flash(es) so they have an unobstructed line to your subject when they fire
- Any objects in the way will throw large unpleasing shadows across the scene and your subject.
- Your flash placement is usually the most flexible part of the setup. I often use a Platypod Ultra to mount the flash up higher than the animal I’m photographing, and angled down to fill an area with light and avoid casting shadows.
- Place your tripod away from the middle of the trail
- While it’s tempting to get that shot of an animal walking toward you, if your camera is on a game trail it may get disturbed, stepped on, or even knocked over.
- Many animals are curious, especially predators. They will investigate something new. A camera right in the middle of a trail just invites problems.
- Look for natural bends in the game trail, and place your camera just off the side. You’ll still get that direct shot, without obstructing the trail and/or attracting unwanted attention.
The Simple Set
This is a good start for capturing shots of your backyard birds or other creatures that you know will be at a specific place, like bird feeders or bird baths. In my article “Wildlife Photography and Video with the Platypod Ultra”, I cover using this combination at a backyard bird feeder and water drip. It is also the same setup I have used as a finish line camera at my son’s track meets, to capture every runner as they cross the finish line. The “Simple Set” is also a good way to experiment with setting up a trap and seeing what works before you invest in lots of accessories and decide to leave your camera out overnight in the woods.
- Platypod Max or Ultra set up for ground or tree mounting. I have used both for camera support, generally using the Max for my bigger lens and camera combos.
- Camera with various lens lengths. For backyard birds I use a larger lens, 300mm or more, to be able to get the out-of-focus backgrounds that I often prefer. You can also use a wide-angle for more environmental shots, you will just have to place the camera very close to perch locations.
- Remote Release, wired or wireless. If using wired, you will either need to sit in a blind or use a long remote shutter extension cable to give your backyard birds and other creatures enough space to feel comfortable venturing out of cover. In the “Days of Yore,” before wireless was reliable and affordable, I used a 25′ Remote Shutter Extension Cable, it’s still an inexpensive and reliable alternative to wireless.
- Flash (optional) Because you can use this for daytime setups, a flash is not always necessary. A lot of my backyard creatures are out in the midday sun. Often the flash fills in shadows to lower contrast and smooth the harsh look of direct sunlight at high noon. I mount the flash to a Platypod Ultra so that I can put it just about anywhere.
If you are ready to go further with your camera traps, check out part 2 of the article, “Get Ready to Remote, Part 2: Advanced Camera Traps“, for more advanced techniques.
- Canon 5D Mark III
- Canon 5D Mark IV
- Tamron SP 15-30mm f/2.8 Di VC USD Lens
- Tamron SP 70-200mm f/2,8 Di VC USD Lens
- Tamron SP 150-600mm f/5-6.3 Di VC USD
- Platypod Ultra and Platypod Max
- Phottix Mitros TTL Transceiver Flash and Odin II TTL Flash Trigger Transmitter
- ExpoImaging Rogue FlashBender
- Gitzo GT4543LS Tripod with Really Right Stuff BH-55 Ball Head
- Storm Jacket
Like this article? Follow this link to read more of my photo tips and techniques. Jason’s Articles at Photofocus
You can find out more about Jason, including his photo workshops, at HahnNaturePhotography.com.