Photographing Wildlife With a Home-Made DSLR Camera Trap

Renous, River, New Brunswick (August 2007).

Renous, River, New Brunswick (August 2007).

Story & photos by Phil Riebel

A favorite hobby on my woodland property.

As a nature photographer I feel very fortunate to own forestland.  I regularly visit one of our properties on the border of the Renous River in Northern New Brunswick, about 35 minutes from where I live.  This is quite a wild area, dominated by forest with few people.

There are many nature photo opportunities here, including several species of mammals such as Moose, White-tailed Deer, Coyotes, Black Bear, Red Fox, Weasel, and Bobcat, just to name a few.  However, because they often avoid humans, it’s a challenge to get good photos of some of these species.

My small trailcam has allowed me to capture some photos and see what is around, but the quality of the photos is not great, especially when compared to a high-resolution DSLR.  That’s when I got the idea of building a DSLR camera trap based on discussions with colleagues and a bit of research.

There are great ready-made system available, such as those by Cognisys, but I already had an old DSLR body, lenses and one flash just lying around not being used much and I realized I could make my own camera trap without too much effort. An Internet search for “DSLR Camera Trap” will produce several articles and videos you can review.  For example, see this one.

Black Bear, Renous, New Brunswick (September 2018).

Black Bear, Renous, New Brunswick (September 2018).

The home-made camera trap

Warning!  This camera trap is not bear proof.  Although I have several photos of Black Bears, I think I have been lucky that none of them haven taken a swipe at the equipment. The housings keep stuff dry and clean, that’s about it.  There are more sophisticated and sturdy camera traps that can be built using hard Pelican cases, but they are also more costly.

Here are the main components I used:

  • Canon EOS Rebel XSI (450-D) DSLR with 18-55 mm Canon EFS lens,
  • 2 Canon Speedlite 580EX flashes (Nikon SB-28 flashes have been recommended because they hold their charge well, even when sleeping),
  • 2 E-TTL cables for Canon about 10-15 feet long (Vello brand),
  • Vello Freeware Stryker lightning/motion infra-red sensor + 10-foot cable to connect to remote port on camera,
  • 2 battery packs for each Canon flash, each one holding 8 rechargeable AA batteries,
  • UV filter 86mm diameter and lens cap for the housing that will hold the camera (doesn’t have to be exactly 86mm – but in that ballpark. A larger diameter is even better),
  • Twin flash hot-shoe mount (Andoer brand),
  • Two tripod heads,
  • Screw and washers to hold camera in place in housing,
  • Tupperware / plastic housings for camera, flashes and IR sensor,
  • Wooden poles and brackets for flashes,
  • Rope, fasteners and bungee cords,
  • Wood shimmies,
  • Camo paint, and
  • 24 AA batteries and 2 AAA batteries – all rechargeable (I recommend Panasonic Eneloop Pro).

Many of the above components are available at Amazon.  The cost will vary based on what you need but I consider this a very basic system in terms of sophistication and cost.  Depending on what spare equipment you have lying around it can cost anywhere between $400 to over $1,000.

Camera Trap, Renous, New Brunswick (March 2018).

Camera Trap, Renous, New Brunswick (March 2018).

First you need to find housings that will fit the camera, flashes and IR sensor.  I purchased plastic containers with lids at a local hardware store and modified them to fit the components and cables. You may have to hunt around to find what fits best.  You will need to drill holes for cables and tripod mounts (Photo 5).  In my case, I made holes with an old soldering iron because I found that melting the plastic worked better than drilling which cracked the plastic.

The trickiest part is fitting the camera housing with a UV filter. You will need to cut out a round hole and carefully fit the filter.  Check out this video to see how. I fixed mine in place with “Shoe Goo” and found that this worked well.  While I was working with the filter, I covered the glass with paper (held in place with scotch tape), so that none of the materials I was working with could smear the glass.  I also fitted the camera housing with an overhanging second lid (attached with Velcro) to prevent rain and dirt from touching the lens.

For the flash housings, I cut out an area of the container and glued a piece of see-through plastic (from a pop plastic bottle) so that the light from the flash could exit.  I also used Shoe-Goo to do this and covered the plastic to avoid smearing some on it.  On the DSLR and flash housing I added 2 U-bolts on each side in case I wanted to fasten them to trees.  I used a flat piece of aluminum I had laying around to re-enforce the area where the U-bolt was fixed, since the plastic housings are not that solid.

In order to adjust the width and reach of the IR sensor beam I cut a slot in the bottom of the housing so that I can slide the sensor back and worth – sliding it back into the housing helps narrow the beam.

There was quite a bit of trial and error involved, and I did ruin a few containers!  My last step was to put a few coats of camo paint on the housings.

See here for photos of the housings and set-up.

Enjoying a winter outing on a beautiful day - Renous, New Brunswick (March 2018).

Enjoying a winter outing on a beautiful day – Renous, New Brunswick (March 2018).

The Set-up

Typically, I need to carry this set-up by walking through the woods or snowshoeing, so it has to be portable.  In my case, I use a camera bag to fit some of the components, and the rest goes into a cloth bag that I carry or strap on top of my camera bag.

I usually look for animal tracks or trails and areas where the animals may be walking towards the camera trap or passing in front of it.  I strap the camera housing to a tree and the two flashes and IR sensor are mounted on my homemade poles and brackets.  I drive the poles into the ground ahead of time using the back of an axe.  I always carry a small axe to clear branches which I then use for camouflage if needed.  I position one flash on each side of the camera and point them at the target area (where the animal will hopefully be!) at about a 45 degree angle.

The next step is adjusting the camera and flashes.  Here are some typical settings I would use:

  • DSLR: F14 with speed of 1/200 synchronized to flash; ISO 400; Manual focus; Burst mode (or continuous drive).
  • Flashes: Manual mode set anywhere from 1/4 to 1/16 power.  In the winter, the snow provides a lot of reflection so I can reduce flash power to 1/16.

I set the camera focus manually before securing it in the housing.  I always put a bit of tape around the lens so that I don’t accidentally change the focus while handling the camera.

Finally, I set the IR sensor to point at the spot where it will trigger the system.  This is probably one of the most critical parts because it will be the first few shots that will be the most important.  You don’t want the system firing off while the animal is too far or too close.

One of the disadvantages of this system is that it scares certain species due to the clicking and flash – but some  obviously don’t mind, like Raccoons!  An insulated housing, like a foam-lined Pelican case, would reduce noise significantly.

North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor), Renous, New Brunswick, Canada.

North American Raccoon (Procyon lotor), Renous, New Brunswick, Canada.

Lastly, turn on the camera and sensor, make sure the flashes fire and try to camouflage it as best you can with branches and leaves.  To stop the clicking and make adjustments, just turn off the sensor until you are ready to leave the trap.

I find that my batteries can last 2 weeks or more, especially in the spring, summer and fall.  In the winter, not so long.

Like anything, there are continual improvements, but to date I have had a few photos I am proud of.  In some cases, it may be a common species but I could never approach them to get a similar shot, like the Raven.  I would love to get shots more uncommon species like Bobcat, Marten or Fischer.  I know they are around…but also very elusive.

For more camera trap and trailcam photos go to: https://philriebel.smugmug.com/Camera-Trap.

Phil Riebel is an environmental consultant and avid nature photographer who lives in Miramichi, New Brunswick, Canada where he owns 200 acres of forest on the Cains and Renous Rivers.  He spends many hours on his forestland fly fishing, exploring and photographing birds, mammals and nature in general. Some of his photographs can be seen at https://philriebel.smugmug.com.   You can also connect with him on Facebook and Twitter or reach him by email at phil@priebelconsulting.com.