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.

An Excursion to Grand Teton National Park

Mormon Row Pano: Tamron SP24-70mm G2 – 6 images at 52mm, 1/60 sec, f/16 @ ISO 400

Mormon Row Pano: Tamron SP24-70mm G2 – 6 images at 52mm, 1/60 sec, f/16 @ ISO 400

Editors Note: Membership organizations like NANPA are able to keep the costs of membership and conference registration low and to develop new resources thanks to the support of companies like Tamron, a key sponsor of NANPA’s 2019 Nature Photography Summit in Las Vegas and long-time NANPA supporter.  In addition to its full lineup of lenses and accessories, Tamron also regularly publishes informative articles (like the one below), “how to” tips and other useful information on its website and e-newsletters, and supports a number of photo contests.

Story & photos by Ken Hubbard

Encompassing about 310,000 acres in northwest Wyoming, Grand Teton National Park includes most of the area of Jackson Hole and the Teton Mountain Range. The mountain range got its name from French trappers in the early 19th century, calling them Les Trois tetons.  Preservation of the area started in the late 19th century, culminating in the designation of National Park in 1929. The park was named for the tallest peak in the range, Grand Teton, which rises to an elevation of 13,775 feet.  With Yellowstone National Park to the north and the John D. Rockefeller Parkway connecting the two, this area is one of the largest mid-latitude temperate ecosystems in the world.  Today, Grand Teton National Park, Jackson Hole and the surrounding areas are a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, from skiing to photography.

Continue reading

Super Bloom Causes Super Problems

Stories of hordes of Instagrammers descending on the super bloom attracted world-wide attention, including The Guardian from the UK.

Stories of hordes of Instagrammers descending on the super bloom attracted world-wide attention, including The Guardian from the UK. (Screen grab.)

California is in the midst of a wildflower super bloom and, along with vast fields of poppies come unruly hordes of people.  The small town of Lake Elsinore was overwhelmed by “Disneyland size crowds” of up to 50,000 tourists last weekend, resulting in traffic jams, accidents and unruly behavior.  “#poppynightmare” as one town official put it.  This kind of chaos risks placing these locations off limits to everyone, including photographers.

Continue reading

After Summit, What’s Next for NANPA Members?

George Lepp reflecting on his career in a keynote at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit.

George Lepp reflecting on his career in a keynote at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit.

Last month’s Nature Photography Summit is over.  Images from the trip have been processed.  Gear and clothes have been cleaned and suitcases put away.  Fortunately, there’s always something exciting we can look forward to.  So, what’s next on NANPA’s hit parade?

Celebration

At the Summit, NANPA announced that the next Nature Photography Celebration will be in Asheville, NC, April 19 – 22, 2020.  The previous Celebration, in Jackson, WY, in 2018, featured location shoots, workshops, informative presentations, gear demonstrations and much more.  Circle the dates on your calendar. More information will be coming.

NANPA celebrates Nature Photography Day on June 15th with a variety of events, from a photo contest to local workshops.  This annual event encourages people to explore with a camera the natural world around them, whether that’s their own backyard, a local stream or a national park.  Nature Photography Day promotes the enjoyment of nature photography and shows a wider public all over the world how images can be used to advance the conservation and protection of plants, wildlife and landscapes close to home and far away.  Stay tuned for more information.

Competition

This year’s Showcase Competition kicks off August 1st.  Exclusively for NANPA members, Showcase is your opportunity to win prizes, get your photos featured on NANPA’s website, blog and printed in Expressions, NANPA’s annual publication.  You can see the top 250 images from last year’s competition, browse back issues of Expressions, or order your copy of this year’s Expressions.  Get inspired and get out there shooting!

Education

Throughout the year, NANPA offers several Regional Events, two- to four-day field tours led by outstanding photographers with intimate knowledge of the area and photographic opportunities.  Attendance is limited.  The June astrophotography in Arches National Park workshop is already sold out but you can still register for October’s workshop in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

NANPA also hosts a webinar series, open to members.  The next webinar, VisionQuest Photography presented by Shane McDermott, will be on March 29th.  Registration is free.  You can also visit the webinar archives and view past recordings that cover a wide array of subjects.  Have a nature photography topic you’re passionate about?  Maybe you should contact us  to present a future webinar!

Advocacy

NANPA’s Ethics Committee recently released guide to Ethical Field Practices.  You can download a pdf of the guidelines or request cards pre-printed with the guidelines.  In addition to helping us ensure we follow the best ethical practices, these documents make great handouts for camera clubs, Meetup groups and at other opportunities to spread the word about ethical nature photography.  NANPA also has statements on Access to Public Lands and Truth in Captioning.

NANPA’s Conservation Committee has been busy, too.  They recently launched the NANPA Citizen Science initiative, a database of science and conservation projects that welcome and can use the help of a nature photographer.  Check it out.  You, too, could be a citizen scientist!  Know of a local citizen science project?  Let us know so we can add it to the database.  Coming soon is a Conservation Handbook.

Social

NANPA sponsors a number of Meetup groups which bring people in the same area together to photograph nature.  Check for one in your area and follow NANPA on the social media platforms of your choice.

NANPA Facebook Page 

NANPA Facebook Group

NANPA on Instagram

NANPA on Twitter

As you can see, there’s always a lot going on at NANPA, and we haven’t even scratched the surface of NANPA’s member benefits.  Are you taking advantage of all NANPA has to offer?  One way to be sure is to check the New Member Resource Center, for an up-to-date listing of all the benefits and opportunities that come with your NANPA membership.

 

NANPA 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award: Joel Sartore

Joel Sartore receives NANPA's Lifetime Achievement Award from NANPA President Gordon Illg at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit. Photo by Frank Gallagher.

Joel Sartore receives NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award from NANPA President Gordon Illg at the 2019 Nature Photography Summit. Photo by Frank Gallagher.

If you attended NANPA’s 2019 Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show in Las Vegas, you had the pleasure of seeing Joel Sartore receive NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award and deliver an informative, amusing, inspiring presentation about his life, family and his long-term project, the National Geographic Photo Ark.  The Photo Ark seeks to document more than 12,000 species of mammals, insects, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.  With more than half of all species on the path towards extinction during this century, the project could not be timelier.  After the Summit, we had a chance to ask Sartore a few questions.

Continue reading

2019 NANPA Environmental Impact Award: Clay Bolt

Environmental Impact Award winner Clay Bolt.

Environmental Impact Award winner Clay Bolt.

For several years now we’ve been hearing about problems with bees.  Mass die offs.  Colony collapse disorder.  Potential shortages of hives for commercial pollination.  In 2013, after hearing about the troubles bees were having, Clay Bolt started photographing bees around his South Carolina home.  After posting photos of two tiny bees online, and finding people (even entomologists) couldn’t identify them, a new project was born, which led to Clay Bolt receiving this year’s Environmental Impact Award.

Continue reading

What’s This Picture For? Different Approaches to Conservation Photography

Not all conservation photographs are taken for the same reasons and purposes. Your particular goal will determine what sort of approach you use for each shot.

Not all conservation photographs are taken for the same reasons and purposes. Your particular goal will determine what sort of approach you use for each shot.

Story and photos by Dave Huth

When people learn I’m a “conservation photographer,” they may form many different ideas about what my pictures look like.

No matter what they’re thinking, they’re probably right!

Photography can support the work of conservation in many different ways. Each makes good use of a certain kind of photograph. When I’m in the field, I try to keep in mind the particular ways my pictures might meet a conservation goal — and I set up my shots accordingly.

Continue reading

Biggest Conservation Bill in Decades Passes Senate

Conservation bill will expand Death Valley and other National Parks. Photo from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Frank Gallagher.

Conservation bill will expand Death Valley and other National Parks. Photo from Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park © Frank Gallagher.

In an exercise of bipartisanship, the U.S. Senate is just passed a major conservation bill, S. 47 The Natural Resources Management Act, by a vote of 92-8 and the White House has signaled the president will sign it.  The House of Representatives will take up the legislation later this month.

Continue reading

NANPA Member in the News: Cindy Miller Hopkins and Five Penguins

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project interviews NANPA member Cindy Miller Hopkins.

The Pew Bertarelli Ocean Legacy Project interviews NANPA member Cindy Miller Hopkins.

What’s so special about a photo of five penguins?  You could get that at a local zoo.  Certainly, during NANPA member and travel and photographer Cindy Miller Hopkin’s trip last year to the far reaches of the South Atlantic, she had plenty of photos of penguins.  But one shot, from off the South Sandwich Islands, turned out to be unique.

As she was editing and captioning her shots, Cindy noticed that there were five different species of penguins in one frame.  That seemed unusual and she brought it to the attention of an ornithologist on the tour who told her he’d never seen an image with five species in the same place, at the same time.  Further research revealed that no one else had either.

Continue reading

NANPA 2019 Outstanding Photographer of the Year: Florian Schulz

Outstanding Photographer of the Year Florian Schulz.

Outstanding Photographer of the Year Florian Schulz.

The Outstanding Photographer of the Year Award goes to an individual who has demonstrated unquestioned skill and excellence as a nature photographer through his or her past work and who has produced extraordinary recent work of significance to the industry.  That would be a pretty good description of the career of Florian Schulz, the 2019 Outstanding Photographer of the Year.

Schulz is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and teacher, specializing in wildlife and conservation photojournalism. He is a Senior Founding Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers and serves on the iLCS board. He’s been published in publications like National Geographic magazine and is an in-demand speaker.

Continue reading