How to Use Camera Traps for UK Wildlife Photography
Camera traps are one of the best ways to make your wildlife photography really stand out.
However, as with traditional long-lens wildlife photography, there are innumerable opportunities for camera trapping in the UK if you know where to look.
While modern trail cameras are capable of taking relatively high-quality photos, the best camera trap images almost always involve a DSLR, PIR sensor, and flash setup.
In this article, I am going to provide some practical advice for camera trapping with this method in the UK.
Read more: How to Find and Photograph British Mammals
Simply finding locations for camera trapping can be one of the biggest challenges in some parts of the UK. Many areas with public access will have a lot of human disturbance to the wildlife, and there will be a risk of your equipment being stolen or damaged.
If you are fortunate enough to have a garden or your own land, this can be a perfect place to start. Red foxes, hedgehogs, badgers, and deer are all common visitors to people’s gardens in some parts of the UK.
Ask friends and family if they have any interesting wildlife visiting their property.
Alternatively, it is worth asking local private landowners for permission to camera trap on their land. This is a great way of getting access to locations without too much risk of your equipment being stolen.
In Scotland, there is a vast amount of land where you have the right to roam and huge areas of forest and uplands which see relatively little human disturbance. It is easy to find locations with very little risk of your camera being stolen in the Highlands.
However, it is still always best to ask permission from whoever manages the land.
Once you have decided on a general area, look for field signs such as animal tracks and droppings. Most woodlands contain clear animal trails, and these are a good place to start.
Look for ‘pinch points’ on a trail, where the wildlife is forced through a narrowing such as a gap between some bushes or a hole in a wall – these spots tend to be quite productive for camera trapping.
Derelict buildings, abandoned industrial sites, and cemeteries can also be productive locations, but be aware that the risk of getting your equipment stolen can be quite high in such places.
Choose a location that looks like it has plenty of wildlife activity, and then leave a trail camera in place for the next week or two. This will allow you to see which species are moving through your chosen area and help you identify any notable patterns of behaviour.
I tend to make a return visit the day after deploying a camera trap to ensure everything is working properly and to make any necessary adjustments. I will then leave it for as long as possible before returning.
Some species are largely nocturnal. If your target subject is only visiting in complete darkness, then you will need to light the majority of the scene (if not all of it) entirely with flash.
Therefore, you can set the camera to full manual exposure and set the flash output manually to ensure there is sufficient light to capture the scene.
Using a narrow aperture will ensure as much of the scene as possible is in focus. It is therefore normal to use quite high ISO values so that the flashes don’t have to be firing at full output. Some species will be spooked by too much flash.
Additionally, flash batteries will run out more quickly when the flashes are firing at high output.
I generally still use manual exposure, selecting a shutter speed of around 30 seconds to allow any light from the sky to appear in the image. The flashes are used to light the animal and the foreground, and again I use manual output for the flashes.
Read more: A Guide to Using Flash with Wildlife
Some animals will display very little pattern in terms of the time of day or night they show up at your camera trap. This makes choosing exposure settings more complicated.
There are two commonly used methods for daylight setups, and both have their own risks:
Aperture priority and Auto ISO
You choose the aperture, and the camera will determine the correct shutter speed and ISO for a correctly exposed image. Set flash output manually, ensuring the output is correct for when conditions are darkest and the ISO is at its highest.
The risk with this method is that in dull conditions, the camera will choose a long shutter speed, risking the animal appearing ‘ghosted’ if there is too much ambient light.
Manual exposure and Auto ISO
You choose the aperture and shutter speed, and the camera will determine an appropriate ISO. Set flash output manually, ensuring the output is correct for when conditions are darkest and the ISO is at its highest.
This method can work well when there is more of a pattern as to when your target subject tends to be active – you simply choose appropriate settings for that amount of daylight.
However, this method risks the image being severely incorrectly exposed if the subject triggers the camera at unexpected times of day.
The UK’s climate presents a few challenges for camera trapping. Wet and windy weather can cover the lens with water droplets, ruining any images the camera trap captures.
You can reduce the risk of this with a large rain ‘hood’ on your camera housing, and if possible, it is best to face the camera away from the direction of the prevailing wind.
Condensation on the lens can be a real problem during the colder months of the year. This is particularly the case when the temperature drops rapidly at night – typical conditions in spring and autumn in the UK.
To reduce the risk of this, place silica gel packets inside your camera trap housing. You can also attach a hand warmer with an elastic band to the lens barrel – this can be really effective at keeping condensation away in the short term.
In general, the summer months tend to be the most productive for camera trapping in the UK. Many of the species suitable for camera trapping are more active at this time of year.
There is far more daylight, meaning you are more likely to be able to capture images with a more natural feel – by balancing ambient light with flash.
Camera trapping different species in the UK
There are plenty of different species to photograph using camera traps.
Foxes are abundant throughout much of the UK. They are highly resourceful and adaptable animals and are found in almost every habitat you can think of.
Foxes vary hugely in their tolerance of camera traps. Urban foxes can be extremely bold – often living in gardens and sometimes being fed regularly by humans.
As such, urban foxes can provide excellent opportunities for camera trapping, particularly for images showing wildlife in an urban environment.
However, many rural foxes are exceptionally shy. Even the most camouflaged, thoughtfully placed camera trap will spook many rural foxes.
Human scent on the camera trap can be a big problem with rural foxes, so leaving the camera alone for as long as possible between checking it is crucial.
Read more: How to Photograph Foxes
The badger is one of the most common species to photograph by camera trap in the UK. Badgers are widespread and conveniently leave abundant signs of their presence in the form of their setts, feeding areas, and ‘latrines’.
Mature deciduous woodlands surrounded by fields or meadows are prime habitat. Badgers usually don’t take long to become tolerant of a newly-placed camera trap and do not seem to be bothered by flash at all.
It is best not to place a camera trap at the entrance to a sett, as this is encroaching on their living space. Instead, look for regularly used badger trails or feeding areas.
If you want to tempt them into a very particular spot, scattering a few peanuts regularly in the same area will help.
Badgers are nocturnal and crepuscular, so you will usually need to set a camera trap with appropriate settings for complete darkness or low ambient light levels.
Read more: How to Find and Photograph Badgers
The most widely distributed deer species in the UK and found in a wide variety of habitats. Roe deer can be very shy of camera traps, so it is important to conceal your equipment as effectively as possible.
Try to mount flashguns and the sensor above their eye level, as this will minimize the number of new ‘objects’ in the environment. Look for well-used roe deer trails and seek out ‘pinch points’ where the trail goes through narrow gaps in the environment.
Roe deer leave distinctive ‘scrapes’ on the ground, and these will often be visited multiple times, so placing a camera trap near one of these can work well.
Roe deer rutting season is between mid-July and mid-August. The bucks can be uncharacteristically bold during this period and may not be spooked by camera traps when they otherwise would.
Read more: Photographing the UK’s Secretive Roe Deer
The Scottish Highlands have one of the highest population densities of red deer in the world. Scattered populations also exist in the rest of the UK.
Red deer generally seem to be more tolerant of camera traps than roe deer, although they can still be highly wary.
Some of the best places to deploy a camera trap are isolated woodlands surrounded by open upland habitat. Red deer will usually visit such woodlands frequently, and there should be opportunities for you to find ‘pinch points’ on trails going through the trees.
Red deer leave deep hoofprints and eroded trails that can last a long time. It is best to scout locations just after or during a rainy spell so you can identify new hoofprints and be sure that a deer trail has been used recently.
Read more: How to Photograph Red Deer
Both red and grey squirrels can be relatively easy subjects for camera trapping. It is common for photographers to tempt them to a specific spot by scattering peanuts or hazelnuts, and over time squirrels can become extremely bold.
If you would rather not use any bait, then looking for fallen trees or branches over steep-sided streams can work well. Squirrels will often use these as a crossing point.
As squirrels are very small animals, you will need to consider composition very carefully so the squirrel doesn’t get lost in the frame.
If you are using a wide-angle lens, you may need to place the camera only a few inches away from where you want the squirrel to appear in the image.
Read more: How to Photograph Red Squirrels
Pine martens are relatively abundant in the Scottish Highlands, and minor populations exist in isolation in parts of England and Wales. Pine martens are a favourite species for camera trapping in the Highlands.
They are industrious animals, often exploring their territories thoroughly during the night in search of food. They commonly use trails created by larger mammals and humans.
Pine martens can be very curious, and it is common for them to approach and investigate a newly-placed camera trap. Their sense of smell is exceptional – if you scatter some peanuts within a pine marten territory, it usually doesn’t take them long to find them.
If they find a food source (such as a bird feeder) that they can raid, they will usually return to check that location repeatedly, sometimes for months after the food source has disappeared.
During the winter months, pine martens are almost entirely nocturnal. During the summer, they can be active during daylight as well.
It is worth noting that pine martens are largely dark in colour but with a bright yellow ‘bib’ on their neck. This can cause issues with blown highlights in your images if you overdo the flash.
Read more: How to Photograph Pine Martens
Mice, voles, shrews, and rats are found in a vast range of habitats and can provide ample opportunities for camera trapping. Derelict buildings and garden sheds are reliable locations.
The main challenges with camera-trapping rodents are that they are both extremely small and fast-moving.
As such, you will need to place your camera only a few inches away from where you want the rodent to be, and you will probably get a huge number of images where the animal is facing the wrong way.
Corvids and buzzards
Crows, ravens, and buzzards are prolific scavengers. A common method for photographing these species by camera trap is to pick up any road-kill animals you find and place them in an area where you have seen the birds present.
This can be particularly effective during the winter months when food is scarcer. Corvids and buzzards can be very wary of camera traps, so make sure it blends into the environment effectively.
Some owl species regularly perch on the same fence posts, dead trees, or boulders. If you can identify one such place, these can be promising areas for camera trapping.
You should avoid placing a camera trap at an owl roost during the nesting season.
Opinions vary on the ethics of using flashguns for photographing owls, and increasingly photographers are using infrared flash as an alternative.
Read more: How to Photograph Barn Owls
Mistakes to avoid
As with all types of photography, there are some mistakes that we can easily avoid to increase the likelihood of taking great photos.
- Don’t rush your composition. As you will probably be using a wide-angle lens, it is useful to think like a landscape photographer. Aim to create a balanced composition. Think carefully about how large or small you want the animal to be in the image and if you can compose the image to frame the animal using natural features, such as a gap between two trees.
- Don’t rush the lighting. The way you use your flashguns can make or break an image. Don’t “over-light” the scene or place the flashes too low to the ground, or you can end up with a very unnatural image. Invest some time in learning about flash and consider using flash modifiers such as diffusers, snoots, or grids to refine the lighting.
- Resist the temptation to go and check your camera trap too often. The less disturbance at the camera trap, the better.
- Don’t place a camera trap next to a bird nest. Ensure you are behaving in a way that adheres to all relevant wildlife legislation, and check whether or not you require a Schedule 1 photography license.
- Don’t block any animal trails or dens with your equipment. This could disrupt their feeding, breeding, and territorial behaviour.
- Make sure your equipment is well camouflaged and blends into the environment. This can make the difference between an animal passing close to your camera trap or not.
- Don’t forget to clear any vegetation from in front of the PIR sensor, as this can cause unwanted false triggers.
- Don’t point the PIR sensor directly towards the sun, as this can also cause unwanted false triggers.
- Make sure any cables are not lying on the ground or they are likely to be chewed by rodents. Also, ensure that any cables are not going to be tripped over by animals (or people).
Camera trapping is a challenging form of photography, requiring substantial patience and perseverance.
Do not give up if it is taking a long time to get the results you want – it is all part of the process, and the rewards can be more than worth the effort.
Camera trapping allows you to produce images that stand out from the crowd, and it can give you a new and unique insight into the wildlife around us.