Using Trail Cameras to Photograph Elusive Animals

Photo of a fisher, a small member of the weasel family, walking across snow-covered ground at night. Behind it is a pile of tree limbs laying on the ground. The elusive fisher is hard to find and photograph. © Mark Hendricks
The elusive fisher is hard to find and photograph. © Mark Hendricks

By Frank Gallagher, NANPA Blog Coordinator

Trail cameras, also known as trail cams and camera traps, can be a great way of capturing images of elusive animals, as well as candid photos of more common critters. Getting started requires a fair amount of gear, but it doesn’t have to be expensive. And, like almost anything in photography these days, there’s a bit of a learning curve. I recently spoke with Maryland-based nature photographer Mark Hendricks about how and why he uses trail cams.

NANPA’s 2022 Showcase nature photography competition kicks off in August and contains special recognition for the best “non-traditional captures.” That includes images from trail cams, as well as drones, adventure cameras, phones, and more. For another example of using trail cams, see Phil Riebel’s article about how he uses them in rural, northern New Brunswick, Canada.

Hendricks got into trail cams in an effort to capture images of fishers—small, forest-dwelling members of the weasel family. They used to be widely spread throughout northern forests but were hunted to near extinction for their pelts while, at the same time, logging destroyed much of their habitat. With the end of trapping in the 1930s and a slow expansion of forests in eastern North America, fishers are gradually increasing in numbers. Seeing one in the wild, however, is exceedingly rare.

Photo of a bobcat walking from right to left across snow-dusted leaves covering the ground. It appears to be night and flash illuminates the bobcat. © Mark Hendricks
Flash illuminates a bobcat. © Mark Hendricks

He started by buying a few, used Canon Rebels, which cost very little. Then he modified a Pelican case to create a weather-proof housing. Add a couple of speedlights from eBay and an infrared sensor and Hendricks was in business. He likes Nikon SB 26 and SB 28 speedlights, because they have a great standby mode that conserves battery power (they can last up to a month) and will wake up instantly. He has a wireless transmitter on the cameras to communicate with the speedlights, and he uses a passive sensor that reacts to body heat and movement to trigger his set up. It’s not as precise as an active sensor, but it’s easier to use and you can program it for small or large animals.

The sensor’s beam covers a wide, conical-shaped area and you can wind up with a lot of photos of blowing leaves. To increase the possibility of capturing an animal rather than random movement, Hendricks takes a section of PVC pipe and duct tapes it over the sensor to narrow its beam.

He’ll generally place the camera and housing on a tripod that’s low to ground. Sometimes he might just secure his camera to a piece of wood, instead of a tripod, but that only works on flat ground. Hendricks uses tent stakes and lines to tie down a tripod and will, if he has to, tie it to a tree. He uses old Tupperware containers to make housings for his speedlights, which he secures with small, inexpensive tripods, like an Ultrapod 2, that are easy to find online. Sometimes he’ll use velcro straps to secure flashes to a tree limb, occasionaly augmented by cammo-pattern duct tape or zip ties.

He uses manual focus and zeroes in to where he hopes the animal will be. Using a wide-angle lens gives sufficient depth of field and “provides a very different look than you get from the typical telephoto shots of wildlife.”

Photo of a opossum climbing over a downed log coming straight towards us. Taken at night, the opossum and log are illuminated by flash. Not everything captured by the trail cam was exotic. Opossum are common visitors. © Mark Hendricks
Not everything captured by the trail cam was exotic. Opossum are common visitors. © Mark Hendricks

His gear isn’t very heavy. After all, he says, “You’ve got to schlep all this stuff miles out into the wilderness.”

He learned a lot of what he knows from online communities of trail cam aficionados and do-it-yourselfers in places like camtrapper.com and HagsHouse.com, which was started by two guys who built their own trail cams. If you prefer a high-quality, off-the-shelf system, companies like Cognisys, a past NANPA Summit sponsor, sell a variety of options.

Photo of the front half of a black bear with its head looking towards us. The ground is covered with dead leaves and there are trees in the background. Curious bears have a habit of knocking trail cams around. © Mark Hendricks
Curious bears have a habit of knocking trail cams around. © Mark Hendricks

“There’s a pretty steep learning curve,” Hendricks says, “but you can learn fast. Things will go wrong. Stuff will fall over. Your flash might not work. A storm will blow through and knock stuff over.” The first time he set up his gear, an ice storm the very next day knocked everything over.  He’s also had a curious and playful bear destroy a trail cam setup. “Bears are notorious for examining, playing with, and sometimes destroying gear,” he said.

“You have to think like an old mountain trapper or think like the animals you’re hoping to see. So, I look for game trails, tracks, scat, and other signs an animal uses an area.” Hendricks spent a year learning camera tracking before he went after photos of a fisher. He found some prime habitat in two spots on game trails with fisher tracks and red squirrel tracks. (Fishers prey on squirrels.)

He started checking his trail cams about once a month. “It’s a good idea to change batteries on a regular routine like that,” he says. “Many of the batteries are really good and able to last month or more, but why chance a dead battery just when you need it?”

“You will fail most of the time, but do get winners every now and again,” he says. “One flash might misfire. You might only get a part (usually the wrong part) of the animal. Failure makes you think harder, work harder, get better. And that helps you be a better nature photographer.” Sometime, even an apparent failure can be useful, as in the case of a deer photo where one of the flashes fired and the other didn’t. The end result wasn’t what Hendricks imagined or planned for, but he liked it.

Photo of a female deer walking towards the camera over snow-covered ground. There are trees in the background and light is coming from the left, partially illuminating the animal and trees. The deer photo mentioned above, where one flash fired and the other didn't, leading to an unexpected but pleasing image. © Mark Hendricks
The deer photo mentioned above, where one flash fired and the other didn’t, leading to an unexpected but pleasing image. © Mark Hendricks

Male fishers go through their territory every ten days or so, but it still took Hendricks three winters to get his photo. Now he’s recorded five fisher shots, two of which he’s really happy with. The others have the fisher facing the wrong way (there’s not much of a market for photos of fisher butts.) And he has a bunch of photos of leaves blown by the wind. But “seeing it all come together for those two shots was awesome!”

Hendricks follows NANPA’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices. Trail cams are “a non-intrusive way to get photos without disturbing an animal with my presence,” he says. He will not use bait, though he has seen some who do. “One guy put out a can of dog food. It may not harm the fisher but it’s not natural food and it’s not the way fishers behave.”

The images of fishers he captured weren’t just for his own edification. They helped sell a book idea to a publisher! His book about the Central Appalachians (to be published in 2023) might not have sold without his trail cam images of fisher, bears, bobcats, deer, fox, and other “native critters,” many of which he could not get without the trail cam.

So, was the learning curve and all the failures worth it? “Absolutely! When you see it all coming together and you get a picture you like it’s awesome!”

Mark Hendricks is an award-winning wildlife and conservation photographer, writer, and author working on environmental issues. A former marine mammal biologist and animal rescuer, he turned to using his camera as a storytelling tool for conservation purposes. Current work focuses on the diverse habitats of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. His images and articles have been featured in the Washington Post, Nature Photographer, National Geographic, and many other publications.  His photographs grace the walls of both public and private collections including the famed G2 Gallery of Venice, California. Mark is an adjunct faculty member at Towson University where he teaches courses in Ethology and Research Methods. Additionally he is a fellow in the International League of Conservation Writers and a member of the ethics committee for the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). He is currently at work on his second book about the Central Appalachians in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. See more of his work at his website, markhendricksphoto.com.