Using SLR Camera Traps to Photograph the Unseen
Text and Images by Sebastian Kennerknecht
How do you photograph an animal so elusive that the biologists studying them have never even seen the species themselves? The answer is simple: SLR camera traps. Photographing wildlife with a camera trap seems easy in concept. Place a camera trap in the wilderness, let it sit there, and have it take amazing pictures while you relax at home. This isn’t quite the case. One of the hardest parts about camera trap photography is getting your set-up to work like you want it to. The camera and flashes have to be ready to take a picture at a moment’s notice, but it also needs to conserve batteries enough to last for an extended period of time. And then everything has to be safe in a serious down drench.
I have traveled to six countries to capture photographs of small wild cat species using my own customized home built camera traps. Many times the species had never been photographed with high resolution cameras. Though a daunting task, it’s not only an exciting challenge, but introducing the world to these amazing animals is the only way to protect them.
Take for example the Borneo Bay Cat. Haven’t heard of it? You aren’t alone. Less than thirty percent of the locals that live in the rainforests of Borneo know that this 3-4 kg (7-13 lbs) cat exists near their homes. In fact, by 2004 only twelve specimens had ever been found of this animal, and direct sightings (known to the outside world) could be counted on one hand. Time is running out for the Bay Cat as less than 2,500 remain and its habitat is disappearing by the day.
I brought five SLR camera traps to Borneo and teamed up with Andrew Hearn, a researcher who has been studying the cats for the last seven years. Though Andy has thousands of low-resolution trail camera pictures of the wildlife that roams the jungle in Borneo he had only a few of the Bay Cat – none ever at the same location. Then, his luck seemed to change as he had gotten four pictures of the same cat at the same camera location. We knew where we had to place our SLR cameras.
Two of them went right along the cats travel path, another one sixty feet down the trail and another near a nice buttress root (I figured we may as well go for a pretty picture). When you set up SLR cameras, some of the challenges become apparent quite quickly, some you learn the hard way. The first difficulty is of course determining where to put the camera trap; as you can see from the above, knowing good travel routes is a great way to go. Then you have to secure the equipment to the ground or trees or branches, while being able to adjust everything carefully to your compositional needs. You also have to have measures in place to avoid moisture that could cloud your lens and ants and rodents that want to chew your cables. The hardest part is setting your exposure. Sure, it’s rather easy to set for the moment you are there, but the light of course changes dramatically throughout the day and into the night. Using aperture priority or manual mode (if you are gutsy) in combination with external flashes you can manipulate the light to your specific needs.
After three weeks we checked the cameras. Besides finding the cameras covered with mold (due to the extreme humidity) there were no cats on the cameras. A very disappointing start. My confidence diminished, my optimism grew slim, but at least we had gotten a few pictures of the other wildlife in Borneo.
I ended up needing a second trip to Borneo, to again work with Andy, putting the camera traps in the same spot as months before and then, after two weeks we finally got the picture. It was a moment of pure exhilaration, one only possible because of the teamwork with Andy and because of the camera traps. It is the only high resolution photograph of a wild Bay Cat in existence. This picture allows the world to see an animal most people have never heard of. Without my knowledge, the image even made it to the front page of yahoo, exposing a huge audience to this beautiful wild cat.
See more of Sebastian’s work at http://www.pumapix.com.