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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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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Last Minute Gift Guides for Photographers

What's on your holiday gift list?

What’s on your holiday gift list?

Is there a photographer on your gift list this holiday season?  Perhaps people are still asking you what you want?

Holiday gift guides for photographers are a dime a dozen, and most highlight the same things, whether sublime or ridiculous.  How many times do you need to see a travel mug that looks like your 70-200 lens?  Cutesy t-shirts with bad puns about photography?  Have you seen enough instant cameras, clip-on smart phone lenses and mini portable printers to last you a lifetime?

If you’re looking for your standard photography stuff, you can check out the guides from your favorite camera store.  But there are many more options.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention a few NANPA-related gifts, so we’ll start with those.  Then I’ll follow with a few weird items that might make you laugh, but are things you can probably live without.  Finally, I’ll conclude with a few items that you just might want to buy.

Nature Photography Summit: Great opportunities for photographers you won't find anywhere else.

Nature Photography Summit: Great opportunities for photographers you won’t find anywhere else.

NANPA: the sublime

How about a year of NANPA membership?  A great way to introduce a photographer friend to the benefits of our association.  Or, perhaps some nice person could extend your membership for another year!  There are a lot of great member benefits that make joining well worth your while.

A generous friend or relative could spot you a registration to the 2019 Nature Photography Summit, February 21-23, in Las Vegas, NV.  Great speakers, timely workshops, options for Super Sessions and location shoots as well as opportunities to make connections with fellow nature photographers, photo editors, vendors and potential clients.

NANPA Regional Events are led by NANPA members with special knowledge of and expertise in the area.

NANPA Regional Events are led by NANPA members with special knowledge of and expertise in the area.

Have a bighearted benefactor? Maybe they could send you off to photograph birds in Florida, fall foliage on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or starry night skies in Arches National Park at one of NANPA’s Regional Events.

If you haven’t hit your charitable contributions goal for the year, consider donating to the NANPA Foundation.  Your money goes towards high school and college scholarships and grants that “allow photographers at all levels of experience to explore special nature-related photographic projects in their communities.”

The Photorito, a lens wrap that looks like a burrito.

The Photorito, a lens wrap that looks like a burrito.

The Ridiculous

Among the weird items for photographers, PHOTOLEMUR’s gift guide has a couple of my favorites: The Photorito Lens Wrap and the Go Pro Fetch.  The former is a padded lens wrap that looks like a tortilla and makes your wrapped lens look like a burrito.  And who doesn’t need that? The latter is a dog harness for a Go Pro, allowing your pooch to record a dog’s eye view of the world.  Just in case you were curious how Fido experiences life.

Salt and pepper shakers in the form of 35 mm film canisters might be cute but does anyone really need a set that includes toilet paper, paper towel and tissue dispensers mimicking film canisters?  Or a toilet paper dispenser shaped like a Polaroid instant film camera?  Someone must, because you can buy each of them.

Another item of questionable utility is the Moman Cell Phone Clip, a bottle cap tripod for a smart phone.  While one might appreciate the ability to use an everyday object to stabilize your iPhone or Android, the opportunity to not only knock them over but also get them wet does not appeal to an occasional klutz me.

Paper towel dispensers, a GoPro harness for Fido, and a water bottle tripod head

Paper towel dispensers, a GoPro harness for Fido, and a water bottle tripod head are among the holiday gifts available this year.

The useful

I’ll leave you with one cool, yet more sensible, gift idea.  Take a look at LenzBuddy lens caps (shown at the top of this article), which are customizable front and rear caps for a variety of lenses.  If you’ve ever opened you bag and couldn’t distinguish between one lens and another, these might be just the ticket.  You can even customize with your business name and logo!  Better than a lens burrito!

PhotoPills and Photographer’s Ephemeris are photography planning tools that I simply must have on my phone.  They’re $10 or less (there’s even a free desktop version of Ephemeris) so, if you haven’t tried them, you’re missing out.

Whatever you give or receive this holiday season, we hope the past year has been full of great nature photography and that the year ahead will be even better.  Next year, I’m hoping for a camera bag shaped like a taco.

 

How to Chase and Shoot the Aurora

Aurora borealis over Turnagain Arm in Chugach National Forest, Alaska, in mid-March.

Aurora borealis over Turnagain Arm in Chugach National Forest, Alaska, in mid-March.

From the Editor:  Award-winning landscape and nature photographer Carl Johnson has been living in Alaska for almost 20 years and is an expert on shooting auroras.  On Friday, August 17th, at 2 PM EDT, he will present a NANPA Webinar, “Chasing & Photographing the Aurora Borealis. This webinar covers the science behind the aurora, the tools available to predict and plan for it (including websites and apps that provide real-time and forecasting information), tips on when and where to photograph it, and what gear and techniques to use. For more information or to sign up, click here.

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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.

 

 

Photographing the Unseen by Sebastian Kennerknecht

Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) gray morph male in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia © Sebastian Kennerknecht

Bay Cat (Pardofelis badia) gray morph male in lowland rainforest, Tawau Hills Park, Sabah, Borneo, Malaysia © Sebastian Kennerknecht

Using SLR Camera Traps to Photograph the Unseen

Text and Images by Sebastian Kennerknecht

How do you photograph an animal so elusive that the biologists studying them have never even seen the species themselves? The answer is simple: SLR camera traps. Photographing wildlife with a camera trap seems easy in concept. Place a camera trap in the wilderness, let it sit there, and have it take amazing pictures while you relax at home. This isn’t quite the case. One of the hardest parts about camera trap photography is getting your set-up to work like you want it to. The camera and flashes have to be ready to take a picture at a moment’s notice, but it also needs to conserve batteries enough to last for an extended period of time. And then everything has to be safe in a serious down drench. Continue reading

Multi-flash Hummingbird Photography by Nate Chappell

A Sword-billed Hummingbird (left) and a Chestnut-breasted Coronet battle over a hummingbird feeder. © Nate Chappell

A Sword-billed Hummingbird (left) and a Chestnut-breasted Coronet battle over a hummingbird feeder. © Nate Chappell

Images and Text by Nate Chappell

Photographing hummingbirds in flight in countries like Ecuador and Costa Rica with natural light or with just one flash can be very difficult. The reason – most of these birds live in the cloud forest where there isn’t much light due to both shade from trees and cloud cover. One solution for this, which creates beautiful flight shots, is a multi-flash hummingbird setup. By setting up several slave flashes set to 1/32 or 1/16 power around a hummingbird feeder or flower you can produce stunning images of hummingbirds in flight. The reason is that the flashes are actually synching at speeds of 1/8000 to 1/12,000 of a second changing the effective shutter speed from what is on your camera – let’s say 1/200 sec to the lightning fast speed of the flashes synching. The key to this is having the flashes produce all of the light, otherwise you will be mixing ambient light and flash lighting. In that case the 1/200 sec shutter speed will affect the image by causing blurring in parts of it. So you need to have your camera’s exposure set to at least -3 or -4 stops below the ambient lighting.Another helpful component is to have an artificial background – often a large printed photograph held a few yards behind the mutli-flash setup. Continue reading