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.

Spring Cleaning for Photographers

Spring is here, and as the earth springs back to life so, too, do many photographers.  It’s an exciting time, fresh with the promise of colorful blooms, impossibly green grass and leaves, gushing waterfalls and cute baby birds and animals.  It’s also a time when you can’t turn on the TV or pick up a magazine without seeing stories about spring cleaning.  So, it seems like a good idea to do a good spring cleaning of our photography gear as we prepare for a lot of time in the field, shooting the glories of spring.

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In the Frame of Things: Using Natural Frames to Emphasize Your Subject

Snow-covered branches frame urban landscape of Central Park, New York, NY.

Snow-covered branches frame urban landscape of Central Park, New York, NY.

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Making a subject stand out is the primary goal of all photographers. There are a number of ways to accomplish this and your subject matter will usually dictate the best method. Common techniques may include special lighting, subject placement, extreme angles or contrasting colors. If you delve into the world of digital imaging, your choices will be virtually unlimited. But, if you prefer to keep your images looking as natural as possible, you may want to stick with the in-camera methods.

One of my favorite ways to highlight a subject is to place it within a natural frame. This might consist of leaves, flowers, bushes … just about anything nearby that you can find to encircle your subject. In the opening photo above, I used the snow-covered branches to frame the distant buildings in this Central Park winter scene. Besides serving as decorative foreground elements, they were a great way to cover up the dead space of a white, featureless sky.

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Five Reasons You Should Be at the Nature Photography Summit

Still debating whether you should come to NANPA’s Nature Photography Summit and Trade Show, February 21-23 in Las Vegas?  Here are five compelling reasons to pull out your credit card and start making reservations.  And, hey, there’s still time to get pre-conference pricing . . . but only ‘till midnight, Sunday, January 20th.

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Photographer Arrives.  Gear Doesn’t.

Gate checking photography gear when flying.

Having to gate check check your photography gear is a traveling photographer’s nightmare.

Have you heard about the award-winning professional photographer who lost $13,000 worth of photo gear while flying from Chicago to DC?

Gate agents at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport insisted that photographer Michelle Frankfurter gate check her carry-on roller bag, which was full of her equipment.  After arguing and pleading her case, and against her better judgement, she complied.

Somewhere between leaving the gate at O’Hare and arriving at Reagan National Airport in Washington, DC, the bag disappeared and has not been found.

Most US airlines cap baggage liability at $3,500.  What’s even worse, Frankfurter’s photographer’s insurance had lapsed!

We’ve all heard horror stories about lost luggage or damaged contents.  There’s even been a You Tube music video about an airline breaking a musician’s guitar!  How can you prevent it happening to you?

We all have our own strategies for traveling safely with our gear, and there is a whole range of roller bags and backpacks designed specifically for air travel.  I have a photo backpack that’s compatible with airline carry-on size limitations.  While I’ve seen gate agents requiring passengers to check bags, I’ve never seen them make people check reasonably-sized backpacks.  I have frequent flier accounts and airline credit cards with the two carriers I most often use, which allow me to board before overhead bin space gets scarce.

But what do you do if you have more gear than can fit in a backpack, or if your gear is too heavy or bulky?  What’s your travel strategy?

One other thing: Insurance.  Pro photographers rely on their gear to make a living.  No gear equals no income.  Losing your equipment can be catastrophic for amateurs, too.  Do you have insurance on your gear?  Are you aware that your homeowner’s policy may not cover all your gear?  Did you know that NANPA members can get special rates on equipment, professional, travel and health insurance?  Sign in to the members’ area to learn more.

Being a little OCD about insurance can be a life saver in a situation like this.

From the Archives — Which Lens Should I Bring?

Ed. Note:  Today, we offer another blog post from our archives.  Hank Erdmann prepared a good discussion on how to choose a lens when headed out for a photography session in the field, and it’s nicely illustrated with his photographs.  This post originally appeared about two years ago.  DL

 

"Peninsula Snow Sculpture" © Hank Erdmann Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin (90mm lens for 4x5)

Peninsula Snow Sculpture © Hank Erdmann Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin (90mm lens for 4×5)  

Story and Photos by Hank Erdmann

“What lens should I bring (into the field) with me?”  This is a question I hear many, many times a year while conducting tours, classes, and workshops. While I joke about this, often saying: “well, all of them.” To an experienced photographer, the question on the surface seems silly. To be truthful however it is a very valid question, on more than one front. While I usually address the issue up front in classes before we hit the field, I and other experienced photographers should be more aware that this is not as obvious as we think it is. Continue reading

Which Lens Should I Bring?

"Peninsula Snow Sculpture" © Hank Erdmann Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin (90mm lens for 4x5)

Peninsula Snow Sculpture © Hank Erdmann Peninsula State Park, Door County, Wisconsin (90mm lens for 4×5)

Story and Photos by Hank Erdmann

“What lens should I bring (into the field with me)? Is a question I hear many, many times a year while conducting tours, classes and workshops. While I joke about this, often saying: “well, all of them”. To an experienced photographer the question on the surface seems silly. To be truthful however it is a very valid question, on more than one front. While I usually address the issue up front in classes before we hit the field, I and other experienced photographers should be more aware that this is not as obvious as we think it is. Continue reading

UAVs AND AERIAL PHOTOGRAPHY

Story and photography by Ralph Bendjebar

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), otherwise known as drones, have been in the news a lot lately, not always on a positive note. Reported sightings near airports, sport stadiums and large crowds or urban settings have caused alarm and consternation from public officials and the FAA, which has led to negative and (sometimes) alarmist coverage from news organizations. Of course, the problem lies with inexperienced and reckless users rather than with the exciting technology these UAVs offer for the gathering of unique and useful images and footage.

Tanzania-31503

Using a drone in Tanzania.

As an avid landscape and wildlife photographer with a background in commercial aviation (my day job), I became intrigued with the possibilities of utilizing UAVs. They can be fitted with stabilized cameras to record images and footage not otherwise obtainable except at great expense with manned fixed-wing aircraft or rotorcraft. The rapid technological advances that enabled adaptation of this technology to small UAVs from their larger military cousins have produced capabilities that rival ground-based camera systems. The latest is the DJI Phantom 3, which allows stabilized 4K footage and 12 MP DNG files. It also provides full camera control through a controller-mounted tablet. The DJI Inspire 1 Pro is fitted with a MicroFourThirds (MFT) sensor that takes 4K video, 16 MP stills and has the unique feature of interchangeable lenses. Thus the capabilities for capturing exciting and memorable footage and images have become a reality.

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Beyond the Perfect Portrait

Story and Photography by D. Robert Franz

Alaskan brown bear © D. Robert Franz

Alaskan brown bear © D. Robert Franz

 

 

Text and Images by D. Robert Franz

For many aspiring wildlife photographers capturing beautiful portraits of their favorite birds or animals in the wild is often their primary goal. This is certainly an understandable and a worthwhile endeavor. When I began photographing wildlife over thirty years ago, I was inspired by the striking wildlife photos of Leonard Lee Rue III and Erwin Bauer. I carefully studied how they used the light, controlled backgrounds, and placed their subjects in the frame to create pleasing wildlife portraits. I pursued the perfect wildlife portrait relentlessly and over time accumulated a large collection of. As time passed I became less and less satisfied with my wildlife photography. I desired more evocative images with impact. I felt as though I really needed to elevate my images to a higher level. I will discuss some of the methods I’ve used to achieve that goal and continue in my evolution as a wildlife photographer. Continue reading

Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Lens Field Review

Story and Photography by Aaron Baggenstos

I was recently given the opportunity to field test the new Nikon AF-S 600mm f/4E FL ED VR Lens in Alaska, one of my favorite places for wildlife photography and a place where I lead several photography tours each year.

I am extremely impressed with this lens. I’ve demonstrated a few of my favorite new features in the video review below including images, video, and time-lapse. Thank you for watching and I hope you enjoy this review.


About Aaron Baggenstos:

Website: www.AaronsTours.com
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AaronsPhotoTours
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/NaturePhotoTutorials

Aaron Baggenstos is an Award-winning professional wildlife photographer from Seattle, Washington. Aaron specializes in leading photography tours and workshops in Alaska, Yellowstone, and the Pacific Northwest including Canada.

His photographs have been recognized by National Geographic, Nature’s Best, and the Audubon Society. Most recently, thirteen of his images were chosen for the final round in the prestigious 2015 BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

Aaron’s new limited edition coffee table book Pacific Northwest Wildlife is available at retailers ranging from Barnes & Noble to Costco and on Amazon.com. His two previous books Wildlife of Juanita Bay and Wildlife of Lake Washington were instant regional bestsellers and all display Aaron’s awe-inspiring wildlife images.

In the Fall of 2011 Aaron co-hosted two episodes of the hit PBS television Series “Wild Photo Adventures” with Doug Gardner which aired internationally on PBS.

Along with guiding tours and instructing photography workshops over 100 days a year, Aaron also enjoys public speaking and presenting slideshows. To date he has spoken at multiple Audubon chapters and birding groups, National Wildlife Refuges, book stores, and other local interest groups.

Through his work Aaron hopes to inspire others to photograph, enjoy, and take action to protect, local and worldwide ecosystems.