How to Camera Trap Wildlife with a DSLR Camera
How can you take beautifully lit photographs of nocturnal wildlife or capture an image of an elusive creature that may only pass through your garden once a week? The answer is to use a camera trap. This involves setting up your camera and lighting in advance and then using a detector to fire your camera when the animal appears.
You can leave a camera trap set up for days at a time and let it do the waiting while you go off to photograph other subjects. This can allow you to be more productive and achieve a more varied selection of shots.
Trail cameras are widely used to survey wildlife. However, they result in poor-quality images because they have small sensors and the light source is positioned just above the lens, resulting in horrible red-eye and unnatural shadows. In order to get high-quality images, you need to use a DSLR camera and move the flashes off-camera.
Triggering Your Camera
The two most common methods of triggering your camera are to use a beam-break sensor or a motion detector. Beam break detectors consist of an emitter and detector, which triggers the camera when the beam is broken. I describe how to make a basic one in my free guide to remote and camera trap photography.
Passive infrared receiver (PIR) motion detectors just consist of a single sensor so they are much quicker and easier to set up than beam emitters and detectors. They are also passive so they consume much less battery power. I have actually designed my own PIR Motion Sensor which I sell through the Camtraptions Store.
The difficulty with camera trapping is that you don’t know when the animal will turn up, so your camera settings need to expose the scene correctly in all light conditions.
The easiest method is to use your camera in Av mode and set your flash to TTL mode, so that your camera determines the output automatically. You may want to use multiple flashes to fill in shadows and illuminate the background at night. In this situation, I would recommend setting the flashes to manual mode and then adding a stop of negative exposure compensation to your camera.
Set your camera to manual focus and focus on the trigger zone. You can then either set your camera to single shot mode or continuous drive mode, depending on your subject and requirements.
Powering Your Flashes
A flash requires its capacitor to be charged in order to fire. However, a capacitor drains over time so it constantly needs topping up. If your flash is left on then this may completely drain the batteries over the course of a single night. You can get round this by letting your flash sleep, but then it may not be ready to fire at once and you may miss the shot. You have three options to deal with this problem:
- Disable your flash’s sleep function – your flash will always be ready to fire but you will probably have to change the batteries every day or hack the power supply.
- Use a flash that holds its charge well, even when sleeping. The best I know of is the Nikon SB-28, which can sleep for many days and still have enough charge in the capacitor to fire instantly.
- Let your flashes sleep and set your camera to continuous drive mode with a short shutter speed. The first and second shots may be black, but eventually your flashes will charge and fire.
Protecting Your Gear
The last thing to do is to camouflage, waterproof and protect your equipment. Rain covers can be made from plastic sheeting, and I use scrim netting for camouflage. If you need protection from animals such as hyenas and lions then you will need a strong protective housing, which you can either make yourself by converting an old Peli Case, or you can buy mine from Camtraptions.
Once everything is set-up, I recommend leaving your camera trap for as long as possible in order to maximise the chances of getting results. You should visit it regularly to change batteries and check your settings.
Placing Your Camera Trap
The most productive places I have found to position my traps are animal trails, particularly ones that cut through a difficult obstacle such as thick bush, a fence line or up a bank. I set my sensor up so that it covers a small section of the trail and then position my camera off to one side pointing at that spot, being careful not to block the animal’s path with my gear.
Video Tutorials for Camera Trapping Wildlife
I have created a free series of videos that help illustrate the process of setting up a camera trap. You can watch the first video in this series below.
You can watch the rest of this series for free here: Learn Camera Trap Photography.