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.

Beneath the Surface: Photographing Texas Wildflowers

Bluebonnets, Terry Hershey Park, Bee

Bluebonnets, Terry Hershey Park, Bee.

Story and photos by Theresa DiMenno

In the natural world, beneath the surface speaks to what is concealed or goes unnoticed. It bestows a sense of wonder, reverence or deep connection. In photography, it refers to moving in closer and being intimate with a scene. Observing a monarch butterfly emerge from a chrysalis is a transformative experience. Watching a bee extract nectar from the wing petal of a bluebonnet is an exquisite example of the interconnectedness of life. Look closely at the veins of a flower petal. Notice the gentle arc of prairie grass swaying in the late afternoon light.

I’ve been aware of the power of nature since I was a three year old, lying on my back in the gravel driveway of our San Antonio home, watching clouds pass across the sun. I knew with certainty when the daylight changed its tone that it would return with a profusion of light sweeping across the landscape. I didn’t know why, I just knew the light would return. I’ve been watching clouds and light ever since those very early beginnings.

Continue reading

How I Got the Shot: Gilded Flicker and Bees Pollinating Saguaro Cactus Blooms

Gilded Flicker and Bees Pollinating Saguaro Cactus Blooms

Gilded Flicker and Bees Pollinating Saguaro Cactus Blooms

Story and photo by Wendy Kaveney

The Giant Saguaro Cactus (Cereus giganteus) is indigenous to the Desert Southwest and blooms in the spring.  Saguaro flowers bloom for less than 24 hours, allowing only a little time to be pollinated. During the flower’s short life, it provides food for bees and birds during the day, and for bats during the night. They, in turn, pollinate the flowers.

Continue reading

Sinking to Their Level: Shoot Spring Flowers From a Different Perspective

Looking up through a tulip bed. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY. (Digitized from film.)

Looking up through a tulip bed. New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, NY.
(Digitized from film.)

Story & photos by F. M. Kearney

If you’ve had your gear packed away since the final vestiges of colorful foliage faded from the landscape last fall, now is the time to dust off the cobwebs. Spring is finally here – bringing an abundance of subject matter. Fresh flowers are popping up everywhere and demanding attention. But, you don’t want to fall into a habit of taking the same types of pictures year after year. A change in perspective is a good way to view an old subject in a new light.

Many photographers tend to shoot from an eye-level perspective. Let’s face it… it’s a comfortable position and the path of least resistance. However, it’s not always the best angle when shooting flowers. To capture more unique compositions, you will need to get on their level – often necessitating getting on your hands and knees (or even lower). Of course, none of us are getting any younger, and if the thought of this conjures up visions to the chiropractor, there are a few things you can do to make your life easier. I always carry a pair of gardening kneepads in my bag. They come with velcro straps, so they’re very easy to put on and take off. They come in very handy when I’m shooting low on rocky surfaces. Not only do they spare my knees, they keep my pants relatively clean and dry in dirty or muddy environments. Other helpful aids are right-angle finders (periscope-like devices that screw onto your viewfinder) and adjustable flip screens. These objects make it easier to view low-angle scenes without having to get too low yourself.

The opening photo of this article is about as low as you can go. I shot it 25 years ago with a film camera and a 16mm fisheye lens. I placed the camera flat on the ground, with the lens pointed skyward, in the middle of a tulip bed. After setting the self-timer, I quickly stepped away. Although I couldn’t see what I was shooting, I wasn’t completely flying blind. I was able to get a fairly good idea of my composition by looking at the reflection on the large lens surface. I didn’t have an autofocus lens back then, but even if I did, I certainly wouldn’t have trusted it in this situation. I used a tape measure to determine the height of the tulips, and then pre-focused the lens.

Daffodils in direct sunlight (left) versus daffodils partially blocking the sun (right).

Daffodils in direct sunlight (left) versus daffodils partially blocking the sun (right).

Low-angle shooting doesn’t need to be that extreme in order to make an impact. Simply shooting at the level of the flowers will make your images stand out, because it’s an angle most people aren’t used to seeing. This angle also makes it easier to include the sun. I shot the two photos above in a field of large-cupped daffodils with a right-angle finder. The inclusion of the sun adds a lot more interest, but it can also raise a few safety concerns. Obviously, this wasn’t a factor in the opening shot because I wasn’t looking through the camera. In this case, I was looking right at the sun, but I was using a 28mm wide angle lens. This kept the sun relatively small in the frame, so I wasn’t too concerned. Nevertheless, I shot the majority of these images with the sun partially hidden behind the flowers (as seen in the shot on the right). That significantly cut down on its intensity and made it much easier to see what was going on in the viewfinder. I did that purely for creative purposes. Had the focal length been longer, I may have done it for safety precautions.

As a former film shooter, I can attest to how difficult it was to shoot high-contrast shots like these years ago. Film just didn’t have the dynamic range (the ability to record details in shadows and highlights) that modern digital cameras have today. High-end models have features that can actually boost the dynamic range to varying degrees. Nikon has Active-D Lighting and Canon has Auto Lighting Optimizer. I shoot with Nikon, so I set the Active-D Lighting to “Extra High.” Although I used a flash to remove the shadows from the flowers in the foreground, the added dynamic range helped to prevent the shadows in the background from blocking up.

Cloudy days can offer many opportunities as well. If you don’t want to include a large expanse of featureless, white sky in the shot, all you need is a longer focal length and a change of composition. I shot the group of triumph tulips below at a low-angle at 200mm – making it easy to exclude the sky.

Triumph tulips shot at level. Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Triumph tulips shot at level. Brooklyn Botanic Garden.

Although the tulips in the foreground stand out, there’s really nothing unique about the shot. Try to look for something different – something a bit out of the ordinary. Tulips are usually planted in tight clusters. Sometimes, a tight shot of their stems can be just as intriguing as the flowers themselves. Below is an example of what you might find when you shoot slightly under the average level of the group. The shorter tulip surrounded by tall stems creates a much more interesting perspective of the scene.

Triumph tulips shot slightly below level.

Triumph tulips shot slightly below level.

Shooting flowers in the field is fun, but it can also be very physically tasking. You may find yourself in some pretty uncomfortable and/or unusual positions. Years ago, I had my mother accompany me on one of my flower shoots. At one point, I had to lay flat on the ground to get the shot. She thought it was one of the weirdest and craziest things she had ever seen. For decades afterwards, whenever I told her I was going out to shoot something (no matter what it was or what the season), she would always ask, “Are you gonna lay on the ground with the flowers again?” My mother is no longer here, but that image of me left a lasting impression in her mind. If you take the time and effort to get the shots that many others might deem “too difficult,” the images you create will make a lasting impression as well.

F. M. Kearney began his photography career as a photojournalist for New York City newspapers. His focus soon shifted to capturing the beauty of the natural world. As an award-winning nature photographer, Kearney’s images have been widely published. A slight departure from photography, his recently published horror novel, “They Only Come Out at Night,” about supernatural happenings in the New York City subway (partially inspired by his travels as a photojournalist), is available on Amazon. To see more of Kearney’s work, visit http://www.starlitecollection.com.

Copyright Controversy

Perhaps you’ve heard about the controversy swirling around The Vessel, a massive “sculpture” in the heart of Hudson Yards, a huge real estate development in Manhattan? It’s been described as an M. C. Escher drawing come to life and instantly became a favorite Instagram background for visitors to New York.  You can learn more about it in the video above.

When you snag a ticket for admission to The Vessel, as in so many things in life these days, you agree to various terms and conditions. Nobody reads them, right? Well, someone did and found that, by buying a ticket, you were agreeing to terms that essentially gave ownership of your photo to the real estate development. The original terms stated that you were giving the company “the irrevocable, unrestricted, worldwide, perpetual, royalty-free, sublicensable, and transferable right and license to use, display, reproduce, perform, modify, transmit, publish and distribute such photographs, audio recordings or video footage for any purpose whatsoever in any and all media (in either case, now known or developed later).”

Continue reading

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.

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

Viva Las Vegas: Snapshots from the NANPA Summit

Left to right: Joel Sartore, John Shaw and George Lepp receive NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Left to right: Joel Sartore, John Shaw and George Lepp receive NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Photo by Frank Gallagher

Visitors to Las Vegas were surprised by a rare snowfall that delayed some flights and snarled traffic but excited photographers at NANPA’s 2019 Nature Photography Summit.

Pre-Summit activities included an evening trip out to Nelson Ghost Town for a light painting workshop, sponsored by B&H and led by Chris Nicholson and Gabriel Biderman.  After an enjoyable couple of hours lighting up old cars and abandoned buildings, the snow started and accompanied our intrepid photographers back to the conference hotel.

Yesterday, Summit attendees participated in Super Sessions presented by Todd Gustafson and Kathy Adams Smith, sat down with great photographers, editors and publishers for portfolio reviews, checked out the exhibit hall for new gear, greeted old friends and made new ones.  Meanwhile, first-time Summit attendees got to know each other in a meet and greet.

Yesterday’s activities were capped by the opening general session.  Three iconic photographers, George Lepp, John Shaw and Joel Sartore, received NANPA’s Lifetime Achievement Award.  Sartore then delivered a fabulous keynote about his career and his Photo Ark project.

During the rest of the information- and education-packed weekend, we’ll be hearing from more world-renown photographers, learning new skills, checking out new gear, making new friends, applauding top photographers from NANPA’s Showcase competitions, seeing the work of NANPA’s Summit College Photography Scholarship Program, and having a grand time.

There’s a buzz in the air and that special feeling of camaraderie you get when you’re among friends.  Coupled with the excitement of learning from the best and growing your own photography knowledge, there’s an electric atmosphere in the Summit rooms that can match anything glitzy Las Vegas can offer.

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