A quick guide to SLR camera trapping. Do you fancy putting together an off-camera flash studio out in the wild and leaving your kit to be eaten, soaked, cooked, frozen or worse? If so, then you may fall in love with SLR camera trapping. Follow @animalsocieties
Cram, D.L., Blount, J.D., Young, A.J. (2015)
The oxidative costs of reproduction are group-size dependent in a wild cooperative breeder
Proceedings of the Royal Society B
Young, A.J., Jarvis, J.U.M., Barnaville, J., Bennett, N.C. (2015)
Workforce effects and the evolution of complex sociality in wild Damaraland mole-rats
Beirne, C., Delahay, R., Young, A.J. (2015)
Proceedings of the Royal Society B
York, J.E., Radford, A.N., Groothuis, A.A., Young, A.J. (2015)
Dominant male song performance reflects current immune state in a wild cooperatively breeding songbird
Ecology and Evolution
Its expensive and time consuming. So why bother?
Three things allow SLR traps to produce striking images that we've not seen before. First, long-lens photography flattens perspective which can distance us from the subject even when its filling the frame. The solution? Get close to your subject. Really close. I try to use wide-angle lenses to capture intimate environmental portraits, often choosing elements of the foreground or background when setting up the shot to provide some appropriate context. Second, you're not at the capricious mercy of natural light; you control the lighting (for better or worse!) with as much of the kit and caboodle from the studio photographer's cupboard as you can afford, carry and deploy to your advantage. Third, as they're autonomous units that can run for weeks untouched in the wild, you can capture some awesome creatures from unusual perspectives with time, effort and a healthy dose of luck. Actually, I suppose there are four: compared to all-in-one trailcams, SLR traps offer much higher image quality and much greater control.
Putting all that aside though, the thing that keeps me coming back, time and again, is that it becomes deeply addictive. There is something special about building your own kit, and pushing your fieldcraft and technical know-how to their limits in an attempt to get that shot. The element of chance only adds to the experience; sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you always learn something that you take on to the next time you roll out your kit.
Building a trap...
I have been intrigued by the opportunities for using IR triggers with SLR cameras for a long time, but it was only when I found Emmanuel Rondeau's outstanding guide to building a dSLR trap that I finally bit the bullet. I can highly recommend getting a copy. It provides a detailed walk-through of all of the steps required to build a full rig, including background on why you need to do what you need to do, and rounded off with sound advice for deploying your kit in the field. If you're serious about getting in to camera trapping then that's definitely a good place to start. Will Burrard-Lucas has also posted some Introductory videos on the most straightforward set up possible, and Camtrapper is a handy forum for everything relating to building your own trap.
In a (big) nutshell, you'll need...
Something to detect your animal. There are a number of infra-red (IR) trigger devices out there. Perhaps the most bomb-proof unit commonly in use is the Trailmaster (the pair of black boxes in the centre of the kit array pictured above). As its two halves run on 10 C cells between them though its a pretty cumbersome beast. But it can run for an age in the field and can handle brutal conditions, which can be handy for a long-term setup. Its well worth considering other options though. I run one of my traps with a Trailmaster and the other with a passive IR trigger unit. The passive IR unit is smaller & lighter and is only one box, so its also more straightforward to deploy.
A camera body and lens. I shoot Canon kit, so I use Canon bodies and wide-angle lenses. The 550D makes a great and affordable trap-camera body (all of the images here were shot with these bodies). You can pick them up for < £200 second- hand and they have a great sensor and live-view (perfect for framing when you're setting up).
Flashes. As many as you want. There is one flash that off-camera strobists, whether studio shooters or camera-trappers, hold in high esteem and its the Nikon SB28. Its bomb-proof, has great manual controls (key for off-camera work with multiple flashes), can sit on stand-by for an age and then trigger in an instant (critical for camera-trapping, and not true of many other flashes), and while it was a top of the line flash in its day it now sells for around £50 on ebay. But you're not buying the SB28 because its cheap, you're buying it because its the best tool for the job (given its quirky capacitor and the lack of need for E-TTL magic).
A means of triggering your flashes. There are numerous ways for SLRs to trigger remote flashes, but the two options that suit camera-trapping with SB28s are using off-camera cords or radio-triggers. Wiring up your flashes using off-camera cords leaves less to go wrong and adds no new battery-life constraints to the system, but the cables are more bulky than radio-triggers, make for a more complicated and time-consuming setup, and can actually end up being more expensive.
If you're going for a wired setup and use Canon cameras with Nikon flashes (as I do) then you'll need to do some rewiring of cables to make the two communicate - see Emmanuel's guide for a nice walk-through of this. If you're thinking about radio-triggers instead, be aware that not all triggers will wake a flash from standby and fire it on the first trigger of the camera, and not all radio-triggers will fit the hotshoes and feet of both Canon and Nikon bodies and flashes. One radio-trigger that does both is sold by Camtraptions. While the practical advantages of these radio-triggers make them great for travelling and for short-term setups, the battery life of the receiver units (~2 weeks in my experience) can be prohibitive for longer-term setups. So for a longer-term deployment I'd still set up using off-camera cords.
Other stuff. Lots of other stuff... You'll need a means of weather- and animal-proofing your camera, flashes and trigger units according to whatever conditions they'll face. This might involve anything from a few plastic bags to modifying Peli-cases (if you're expecting big teeth!) or something in between. Top tip: you can go a very long way with lock & lock freezer boxes! You'll also need various methods of supporting your kit and/or attaching it to natural features in the field. A bit of brain-storming will doubtless suffice, but I have highlighted a few handy items that I regularly use at the end of my Introduction to all-in-one camera traps.
Setting your trap
In setting the trap, you're effectively setting up a wild studio in to which your animal must walk. I look principally for that rare congruence of an active trail and an immediate foreground or background that conveys something of the animal's context; my goal being to produce an environmental portrait that a long-lens approach would struggle to capture. Keeping the camera close to the trigger line, using a wide angle lens, and lighting the scene subtly can all help to capture these quiet moments in the darkness. The beauty of digital is that you can trigger the trap yourself as many times as you want to check the lighting; its also one way to ensure that you get at least one goofy image!
For many people, myself included, learning to work with multiple flashes is the main technical challenge, and I will still be learning on that front for a long time to come. But there are some great books on the art of lighting in the studio and the field, and nothing beats experimenting if there is a particular look you want. For beautiful lighting, see Jonny Armstrong's work and considering taking monster diffusers in to the field!
All-in-one trail cameras can also be a useful tool when you're SLR camera trapping. For longer-term deployments, it can be handy to use trailcams to monitor other sites to ensure that your trap is in the most productive spot. If you have concerns about your trap (e.g. whether its failing to trigger or is disturbing animals), you could also consider using a trailcam to monitor your trap. Here is a funny (if soul-destroying!) example from a trail in Costa Rica.
These shots were taken from a fixed trailcam (not mine) scanning the area where my SLR trap was set, on the Osa peninsula. You can see one of my flashes attached to the tree in the middle of the image, and there is another flash off to the right. My camera is just out of shot to the right at ground level pointing diagonally across the trail, and the IR trigger beam is pointing straight across the trail. The margay walks right up to within a foot of the trigger beam, pauses, perhaps sensing the scent of my camera and then abtruptly veers off the trail at a right angle, walking parallel to the beam within inches of it, but never breaking it! I've never seen a margay - aargh! Thanks Juan Carlos for the galling images!!
While its not clear what caused the margay to veer off, it is possible that it was actually spooked by the weak red glow of the IR lights on the trailcam (see my introduction to trailcams for the potential for this to spook animals). So if you were tempted to monitor an SLR trap with a trailcam, I'd recommend using a 'black-light' or 'no-glow' model that emits no visible light (e.g. the larger of the four units pictured above). The last thing that you want is for a trailcam to spook your target before your SLR trap captures it!
For other tips & tricks for camera trap placement, see my Introduction to all-in-one trail cameras.
Looking for inspiration?
To see the pinnacle of the art in my view, check out Jonny Armstrong's beautiful work in Alaska and Wyoming. Also check out Emmanuel Rondeau's lovely work on elusive cats as well as some awesome film projects. And take a peak at Will Burrard-Lucas' innovative take on Africa, using camera traps and the awesome beetlecam project. Finally, I really love these images in Heath Holden's Tassie devil project. There are some interesting interviews here too that might serve to fire up the motivation.