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.

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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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The Pathway to Leading Lines: Compositional Techniques to Improve Your Photography

Autumn Trail Creates a Path Into the Forest. (HDR Compilation of 5 images.)

Autumn Trail Creates a Path Into the Forest. (HDR Compilation of 5 images.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

Many methods can be employed in the quest to make photographs more engaging, or to draw more attention to the subjects within. One of the most common techniques is the use of leading lines. In the photo above, I used the lines of the log fence to draw the viewer deeper into this autumn scene in The New York Botanical Garden. It makes you feel as though you’re actually walking along the trail and heading deeper into the woods. However, technically, these aren’t really “leading lines.” They form what is more accurately referred to as a “path.” Often used interchangeably, the distinction between leading lines and paths is quite small. Generally, leading lines are like roadmaps that literally lead your eye to a specific point of interest, whereas, paths usually take you to a faraway vanishing point.

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Cruising Along The Eastern Sierras

The highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, at 14,496 feet, serrated Mt. Whitney rises among the mountains of the Eastern Sierra.

The highest peak in the contiguous 48 states, at 14,496 feet, serrated Mt. Whitney rises among the mountains of the Eastern Sierra.

Story and photos by Jerry Ginsberg

Overview

When most of us think of the spectacular Sierra Nevada range that forms the spine of east-central California, we tend to visualize the towering gray granite peaks and domes of Yosemite National Park. For a long time, my association was no different. It took several years, but eventually, I discovered the many facets of the Sierras beyond Yosemite.

Running on a north-south axis through the Golden State, the eastern escarpment of the Sierras provides a stunning backdrop to some of the finest photography in the West.

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Upcoming NANPA Webinars

Join Charles Needle for NANPA’s next webinar, "Pixels in Your Pocket: Creative iPhoneography" at 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 5. © Charles Needle.

Join Charles Needle for NANPA’s next webinar, “Pixels in Your Pocket: Creative iPhoneography” at 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 5. © Charles Needle.

As the old saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you.  With more and more of us carrying more and more capable smart phones, that camera you have with you is likely to be in a phone.  So, how can you take advantage of the amazing capabilities of your phone, minimize its weaknesses and capture your creative vision?  Easy!  Join Charles Needle for NANPA’s next webinar, “Pixels in Your Pocket: Creative iPhoneography” at 6 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, March 5. Check it out if you want to learn more about using your smart phone for photography.  Space is limited, so register now!

NANPA members can register via the webinars page in the Members Area of NANPA.org.  However, while webinars are normally available only to members, NANPA is opening up “Creative iPhoneography” to everyone, so feel free to share this link with all your friends who keep asking you how you got that shot with your phone www.nanpa.org/webinars.

Then, if you really want to hone that creative vision of yours, plan on attending the “VisionQuest Photography” webinar on Friday, March 29th at 6 PM Eastern Time.  Let Shane McDermott show you ways you can capture “more of the magic and true essence of everything you saw and felt in the moment.” Explore creative ways to approach photographing the wonders of the natural world through the lenses of your soul, as well as of your camera.  This will be the first of a two-part presentation and is open to NANPA members only.  Register through the webinars page in the Members Area of NANPA.org.

Bicycle Birding

A reddish egret dances across the water while pursuing a fish.

A reddish egret dances across the water while pursuing a fish.

Story and Photos by Budd Titlow

If you are a bird photography aficionado, I have some great news!

The proliferation of “Rails-to-Trails” conversion projects throughout our nation has created a fantastic new modus operandi for practicing your passion. Plus, it also benefits your health by providing daily exercise. I call this activity bicycle birding and here’s how it works for me.

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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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The Business of Photography: A Millennial’s Thoughts on Online Video Courses

Filmmaker Peter Hoffman on assignment in California.

A great online course offers something bigger than technical knowledge: it offers time hanging out with YOU. It offers the chance to experience your world, to join you in the field, to see, first-hand, your unique approach to the photography process. Here, filmmaker Peter Hoffman is on assignment in California.

Story and photos by Kika Tuff

The world of online education is a new frontier for nature photographers and one that can be quite lucrative. But making money isn’t as simple as building an amazing course and setting it free on the internet. Plenty of thoughtful, well-designed courses go undiscovered every day.

So, before you invest your time and energy into building a course, I wanted to offer some ideas on how to ensure you don’t get lost in the ocean of internet content.

First: know what you offer.

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Sweet Serendipity: Being Ready to Capture Life’s Unexpected Moments

Sunrise behind "The Wheel" on Steel Pier, Atlantic City Beach, Atlantic City, NJ

Sunrise behind “The Wheel” on Steel Pier, Atlantic City Beach, Atlantic City, NJ

Story and photos by F. M. Kearney

Webster defines serendipity as “the faculty of making providential discoveries by accident.” In photography, it’s more like capturing that once in a lifetime shot that could not be recreated again in a million years. The internet is full of these types of images, usually classified as “Photos Taken at the Perfect Moment,” or “Things You Have to See to Believe.” Of course, almost anything you see on the internet should be viewed with a certain degree of skepticism, and even more so when it comes to photos and videos. The old saying, “The Camera Never Lies,” has never been less true than in the digital age in which we live. However, assuming that even if a fraction of these photos are, in fact, real, they truly are serendipitous moments caught on camera.

I recently spent several days in Atlantic City, NJ shooting ocean views. Most of my visits in the past have been day trips lasting only a few hours – just enough time to grab a quick lunch, lose all my money and head back home. On this occasion, I had the luxury of time on my side – time to see the real beauty of this town, beyond the bells and buzzers, and the glitzy flashing lights within its casinos’ walls.

One morning, I took a walk along the beach to The Steel Pier – a 1,000-foot-long amusement park built on a pier of the boardwalk. Its latest attraction is a 227-foot tall Ferris wheel, known as The Wheel, which began operating in 2017. I arrived just as the sun was rising behind it. My main objective was to get the surf in the perfect position – far enough into frame to be a dominant foreground element, but not so far in that it covered up the sun’s reflection on the wet sand. I also wanted to get the rising sun directly between the spokes of The Wheel. The sun’s position changes quite rapidly when it’s this low on the horizon. I took several shots and the photo above was the only one where the sun and the surf lined up in the perfect positions. This was the result of careful timing (and a little bit of luck). However, the serendipitous aspects were the inclusion of the seagull and the woman – things I had absolutely no control over. I saw when the seagull walked into the reflection during the shoot, but I didn’t even notice the woman in the background until I was reviewing the images back home on my computer. She had walked into one of the openings of the pier directly beneath The Wheel at precisely the right moment.

Another serendipitous moment was the inclusion of the honeybees in the daylily image below. I was all set to shoot the flowers when I suddenly found myself surrounded by a small group of bees. Like little helicopters on a mission, they methodically visited each flower in the area – hovered for a few seconds, then landed to pollinate. Since I already had my camera locked down on a tripod and focused on one particular bloom, I decided to wait and see if they would pay it a visit. Eventually, two bees flew into the shot and hovered close enough for my flash to cast a catch-light in their eyes. When they landed, they went down too deep into the flower to be seen, so I was lucky to get this photo of their approach.

Honeybees “photo-bombing” daylily image.

Honeybees “photo-bombing” daylily image.

Serendipitous moments in photography are unplanned and often referred to as “lucky shots.” But you can increase your luck if you’re prepared, have a little patience and are aware of specific patterns of behavior – as in the case of the honeybees. Sometimes, however, you just get a pleasant surprise. Careful planning made the image of The Wheel a good shot. Serendipity made it one-of-a-kind.