Wildlife camera traps (trail cameras and DSLR camera traps)

July 21, 2020  •  Leave a Comment

I've spent a lot of time experimenting with camera traps over the last few months. Given the current world situation I have no trips to write about - so instead I thought I would take this opportunity to share my experiences with this fun and exciting type of photography.

My experiences with camera trapping started a few years ago when I got my hands on a trail camera. I chose to get a Bushnell 'NatureView HD' - though I'd been eyeing one up for some time, I'll admit that it was something of an impulse purchase that I made after being impressed by a sales demo!

Bushnell NatureView HD Trail CameraBushnell NatureView HD Trail Camera

For those who aren't familiar with them, trail cameras are self-contained devices which typically consist of a passive infra-red (PIR) sensor (like those used in home security systems) which is connected to  a small camera. When the sensor detects something, the camera is triggered to take a photo or video, capturing whatever is in front. My model of trail camera has both a daytime and a nighttime mode. The daytime mode is fairly straightforward and works as I have just described. The nighttime mode makes use of infrared 'no-glow' LED lights which illuminate the scene but in a wavelength which is invisible to most animals. This means that they can be photographed or filmed in complete darkness, but without being disturbed by a visible flash. There is a small downside to this mode - the images or videos taken at night are only recorded in black and white.

I first tested out my trail camera in my parents' garden in Cheshire, which is quite large and surrounded by extensive countryside. After leaving it out for a few weeks I had recorded some fascinating footage of the local badgers as well as one brief appearance of a fox. I soon realised that although the camera records good video footage, the photo quality is fairly poor (certainly by modern standards). To be honest, trail cameras are terrific bits of kit for observing wildlife and excellent pieces of scientific equipment, but not much good for 'serious' photography.

Here's one of my first clips of a pair of badgers (taken using one of the close-up lenses that the Bushnell Natureview HD comes with):

Badger in Cheshire

As time went on my desire to enter the world of 'serious' camera trap photography grew, so I started reading up on what I needed in order to use my DSLR as a camera trap. I already had a flashgun and some radio flash triggers so, to get myself going, all that I needed was a sensor and some means of getting it to trigger my camera's shutter. After a little online research I came across an affordable option which is the Cactus LV5. This is a laser trigger consisting of two parts: a laser emitter and a detector. You also then need a receiver which connects to the camera and this communicates wirelessly with the laser trigger. The idea is to position the beam across where you expect an animal to walk and when it breaks the beam, the laser trigger sends a signal to the receiver unit connected to the camera and the camera takes a photo.

This photo of some badgers out on the prowl was an early attempt of mine with this setup:

European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles)

Trail camera footage had shown me when and where the badgers came each night (I should emphasise that trail cameras are invaluable for recce'ing potential sites and subjects for DSLR camera traps). For the above photo I set the beam across the garden and placed some peanuts in the middle, slightly on the nearside of the beam. This way the badgers would trigger the camera en route to the food, rather than with their heads buried in the grass, 'snuffling' as badgers do! I had my flashgun positioned on the left-hand side, mounted on a light stand and connected to the camera wirelessly via Meyin RF-624 radio triggers. As I had hoped, the badgers came out in the late evening, triggered the camera, ate the peanuts and then headed off for the night. I saw the flash go off through a window so I knew when to head out and bring everything inside again. None of the setup was weatherproof so I wasn't going to risk leaving it out all night!

Despite an early success, this was actually the only half-decent photo that I ever managed to take with this setup. I had two main problems:

One - with a laser trigger you have to know exactly where the subject is going to be in order to position the beam, and setting up the emitter and detector units is fiddly. It's also really hard to see where the laser is shining.

Two - I grew concerned about the risk of exposing the animals' eyes to the laser beam. The laser also frequently appears in the photo as a bright red dot (on the above photo, the raw image showed the laser shining on the badger's body, which I have cloned out in post-production).

Mainly due to concerns over the latter, I decided to sell the laser trigger setup - and that was the end of my DSLR camera trap efforts for another 3 years!

In the meantime, I moved to Bali, taking my trail camera with me. Early on in my time there I set it up in our rented villa's garden, my mind full of the expectation of recording footage of all manner of tropical creatures. Collecting it in after two weeks in the garden I obtained footage of about a dozen domestic cats but not a single other animal. No wild animals at all! Consequently, I did not pursue camera trapping further during my time on the island.

During this period I did, however, take the trail camera on a trip to Borneo (you can read about the trip here) where I was delighted to obtain photos and videos of range of species but - most notably - wild Bornean pygmy elephants. Here is my favourite clip:

Bornean pygmy elephants and Bornean bearded pigs in Deramakot, Sabah, Malaysia

Otherwise, my trail camera largely sat collecting dust for the best part of two years. I didn't feel the desire or opportunity to get back into DSLR camera trap photography at all during this time.

In March 2020 (during the COVID-19 crisis) circumstances necessitated our sudden return to the UK. We ended up basing ourselves in Devon in the Southwest of England. With all of the disruption to our lives and with a newborn baby to look after, it was a month or so before I even touched my camera again.

We are very lucky to have access to a small garden here and one day - on a whim - I decided to set up my trail camera in it. I left it out for a couple of days before checking and, when I did, I was amazed that, in addition to the usual hours of footage of domestic cats, I had also recorded footage of two badgers and two foxes which took it in turns to visit the garden each night.

This is the badger that we see most often - we have named it 'Square':

Badger in Sidmouth, Devon

This is the other badger, larger and greyer in appearance - we have named it 'Peanut':

Badger in Sidmouth, Devon

I still haven't worked out the relationship between the two of them -  I quite often record footage of both of them out at the same time:

Badgers in Sidmouth, Devon

This is the adult fox that we see most frequently. You will see that it appears to be suffering from sarcoptic mange*, making it easy to identify:

Fox in Sidmouth, Devon

This is the other adult fox, a less frequent but still regular visitor to our garden. In this clip there is also a cub which only ever appeared once in my footage (I am not sure what came of it):

Foxes in Sidmouth, Devon

With the discovery of all this life in the garden I decided that I would make it my goal to get properly into DSLR camera trap photography. In particular, I was very keen to get some photographs of the foxes - animals which are widely persecuted in the UK and animals which I am very fond of.

The first bit of kit that I needed to get this project going was a new sensor. With my previous concerns over the use of lasers, the other main option available to me was to use a PIR sensor. These function just like the one built in to my trail camera but are specifically designed to trigger DSLR shutters. I opted for a sensor made by a UK-based company called Camtraptions. It is a wireless model which comes in a robust and weatherproof housing with a range of modes and settings:

Camtraptions PIR sensorCamtraptions PIR sensor

The sensor unit is well-made, straightforward to use and does the job perfectly. After a couple of initial experiments, I did however come across a few hurdles with other aspects of my rig.

Proper lighting is an essential element of a DSLR camera trap setup and in most cases this requires the use of artificial light. Initially, the only flash that I owned was a Nissin Di700 flashgun which I had been using for over 5 years. It had been a great workhorse flash in all that time, surviving numerous trips to the jungle and still going strong despite me having dropped it countless times. However, I soon discovered that this flash has serious limitations for using in a camera trap.

One - it only stays ready to fire for 2 minutes after which it enters a standby mode. If the PIR sensor is triggered while the flash is in this mode, the camera immediately takes a photo however the flash is not ready, meaning I get a dark (or totally black if taken at night) photo. The sound of the camera shutter is usually enough to scare the foxes off, so even if I set the camera to take a series of photos, the fox is gone by the time the second photo (with flash) is taken. The video below shows this happening:

Fox in Sidmouth, Devon

Two - the flash also has a really annoying feature whereby after an hour of disuse, it switches off completely and then cannot be woken up by the camera. This means that (assuming an animal hasn't triggered it) each hour I had to go out and set it off manually to keep it awake. The regular disturbance by me was undoubtedly putting off the animals from coming out into the garden.

This was the only photo that I got in the first use of my new setup - and it's not the quality portrait that I was hoping for. By the time the flash had woken up the fox had scarpered. I also didn't have things set up quite right - it's noisy, there's motion blur in the fox's head, and it's just generally not that nice of a photo:

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

The second problem I encountered was that although the sensor is weatherproof and I could cover up my flashes with plastic bags, my (rather expensive) camera itself is not weatherproof. I certainly wasn't going to risk leaving it out overnight with the UK weather!

To get around these issues, I realised that I needed to invest in a better flashgun and also some kind of protective housing for my camera. For the former, I purchased a Nikon SB-28 flashgun on eBay. This is an older (manual) model which has one particular feature making it great for camera traps - even on standby mode, it stays ready to fire as soon as the camera tells it to. It does not switch off and, in theory, can stay ready to fire in the field for weeks at a time. The limiting factor is usually just the life of the batteries in it.

Nikon SB-28Nikon SB-28

Later on, I purchased a second SB-28 as well as some adjustable arms that I could use for mounting the flashguns. I got these from eBay along with the necessary attachments. The arms are by a company called SmallRig and they are well-made, strong and versatile:

Nikon SB-28Nikon SB-28

Annoyingly, I also learned that my TTL radio triggers (Meyin RF-624s, bought when I lived in Malaysia) were incompatible with these flashguns so I had to make an additional purchase of a transmitter and two receivers to make everything work. For these, I also purchased models made by Camtraptions. Theirs are non-TTL but, to be honest, you really need to set everything manually anyway.

The final hurdle to overcome was how I could protect my camera from the elements, allowing me to leave the setup out overnight. I debated long and hard about buying anything else as at this point I had already spent more than I wanted, but in the end I decided my camera was valuable enough to warrant looking after. I managed to sell some other gear in order to fund these purchases. With visions of using this setup when I move to Kenya, I decided to also purchase a protective housing from Camtraptions.

Camtraptions housingCamtraptions housing

Finally, I needed something to store all this gear in and carry it around. I came across this bag online - a 'tactical response bag' by a company called Condor. It's designed for the military (or military enthusiasts), but it's perfect for the job and fits all of my camera trap equipment:

Condor tactical response bagCondor tactical response bag

Once I had everything I needed I set to work. At first, I experimented quite a bit - flitting from one arrangement to another. It is quite hard to know how to set everything up as there are so many different variables - camera shutter speed, ISO and aperture, lens focus point, flash output and position (with two separate flashguns), sensor program, position of the 'bait' (a handful of peanuts) etc. - so there was a lot of trial-and-error. It is also a bit tricky to set things up in daylight for photos that will mostly be taken during the night.

I spent the next few months primarily trying to photograph the foxes, but largely failing (more on that later in the post). I did, however, find the badgers to be much more obliging and over the summer I managed to accumulate a range of photos of them. The garden itself wasn't particularly photogenic so instead of attempting to take any kind of 'environmental' photos, I opted instead to get some  straightforward animal portraits. For the most part I used my Tamron 24-70mm f/2.8 lens since most camera trappers out there seemed to be using wide-angles. The camera housing has interchangeable lens barrels but I only bought one size - big enough to fit either my 24-70 at 24mm or my 90mm f/2.8 macro lens. At 24mm my wide-angle gives a generously wide field of view which increased the chances of the badgers being in the photo. The down-side is that they had to be quite close to the camera to be large enough in the frame for the photos to work. At first I was nervous about putting the peanuts too close to the camera as I didn't want the badgers to knock it over but as time went on I got a bit braver.

This photo was one of my first efforts, taken with a single flash (before I had bought another):

European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles)

The next one was one of the first taken with a two-flash setup. Although the photo above has a little more 'mood' to it, I definitely prefer the balanced look that two flashes give.

European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles)

For both of the above photos, I had the camera, in its housing, on a tripod.  One of the best 'rules' for compelling photos is to be at eye-level with the animal so I wanted to position it as low as possible. I set the tripod to be as far down as it would go - unfortunately my tripod legs don't lock into place like this but you can still splay the legs out. It's a bit ungainly, but I discovered that if you put weight (I used bricks) on the legs then it's all fairly secure. Even so, with the tripod head and the housing, the camera is still around 10" off the ground - not as low as would be desirable.

For the next set of photos I placed the camera (in its housing) directly on the ground, which gives a better perspective. There is a major drawback to this however - the housing door hinges downwards, so placing it directly on the ground like this makes it hard to set up. You have to pick the whole housing up to access the camera inside it and this can affect the framing of the photo and the focal point etc. Still, with a bit of trial and error I did manage some ground-level photos of the badgers:

European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles) European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles)

A bit later on in this project, I tried using my 90mm lens instead of my 24-70mm. Again, this was really set up for the fox, but it was impossible to keep the badgers away! With this lens, even at small apertures the depth of field is small so it required really careful setup with the sensor to get the right part of the animal (the eyes) in focus. One big advantage of using this lens instead is that I could set the camera up much further away from the trigger point - giving less chance of the badgers knocking it over! I got some more portraits of the badgers with this setup:

European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles) European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles)

Throughout this time I continued to hope that one of the foxes might make an appearance to be photographed. Whenever I set up my DSLR camera trap, I also set up my trail camera overlooking it (partly to observe and learn from mistakes but it was also because I was a little paranoid about someone thieving my expensive camera gear, and I wanted it to be surveilled). The trail camera would regularly record one of the foxes visiting the garden - but it almost never seemed to venture into the trigger area for the DSLR camera trap. This photo shows a rare appearance:

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

At a casual glance this photo may seem acceptable - but unfortunately the fox is behind the focal plane that I had set, meaning that it is completely out of focus. Both foxes, being typical rural foxes, are very wary. They are probably used to being shot at or harassed and so they would dart at the slightest sound from the camera shutter or flash, then not come again back on the same night.

It seemed initially that, at best, I had one chance to photograph a fox per night. But after several consecutive days of failure (for varying reasons) they then seemed to stop coming completely. Feeling rather sad and disappointed, I decided to stop putting out the DSLR camera trap setup. I did, however, keep my trail camera up and running and after about a week with no loud DSLR 'mirror-slaps' or bright flashes, the foxes returned again.

So, I gave it another go with the DSLR camera trap. The foxes continued to visit - but the trail camera now recorded them eyeing up the setup and showed them clearly and deliberately avoiding it! This seemed to happen no matter where I positioned it. At this point I just gave up - feeling well and truly outwitted...

Fox in Sidmouth, Devon

I may have given up with the foxes but I didn't give up on camera trapping. At some point, on a trip to the garden shed I noticed that a hole had appeared in a bag of bird seed that I was storing there. There was also a hole in one of the shed walls. It seemed probable that rodents of some variety were coming in and eating the bird seed - and so I had found my new photographic subject!

I removed the bird seed from the shed, and put some of it, plus a few peanuts, in an overturned flowerpot on a shelf. I set up my camera trap (with just a single flash at first) to see exactly what was coming. It was the first time I had used my macro lens with the camera trap so I wasn't expecting to have much luck. As the shed is enclosed I didn't bother to set up the housing. This made it much simpler than setting everything up outside.

I was delighted to obtain this photo on the first night, showing that the visitor was a little wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus). I named him 'Walter'.

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

After this initial success I decided to get a bit creative with the flowerpot and to see what sorts of images I could create. Walter was refreshingly obliging and came night after night and, with a variety of lenses and lighting setups, I was able to come up with quite a range of images of him. Many photos caught him as he was investigating the flowerpot or about to climb in. This was one of my early favourites (though it bothered me that his tail was cut out of the frame!):

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

After a couple of nights I decided that the photo would look better with a second flash to fill in the shadows, so I set my second flash up as well. I was really pleased when I managed to obtain a similar photo with the whole tail in the frame and also with better lighting:

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

I was using my 90mm macro lens for these images, which (even with a small aperture) gives a very narrow depth of field when used at such close distances. This means that not all of the photos were 'keepers' since I had no control over which angle Walter came in at. However, occasionally I got lucky. This photo shows him darting away with one of the peanuts:

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

This one shows him reaching inside:

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

I then had the idea of setting up the camera a little closer to get a photo of Walter peering over the top of the flowerpot. I had to select the focus area very carefully to ensure I would get his head in focus. I had hoped that he would peer over straight-on to the camera, but he didn't oblige. Even so, I was pleased with the ensuing result:

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

After a couple of nights I felt that I had achieved what I wanted, so I took a bit of a break while I thought about what to do next. In general I'm really happy with these photos, but my main issue with them is that they give you no real sense of the environment. If you didn't know better you might assume that they were taken in a studio with a pet or a trained animal, and not in an actual shed with a wild mouse. You'll have to take my word for it - I'm a strong believer in the importance of integrity in wildlife photography.

I began to develop an idea in my head for an 'environmental' shot that showed Walter clearly in the shed. For this photo I decided to use my Laowa 15mm f/4 wide-angle macro lens. This lens is tricky to use at the best of times but was the ideal choice for this idea. I placed my camera on the floor of the shed, and arranged various tools, flowerpots etc. so that the image looked more balanced. This was the result after one night:

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

I felt it was close to what I was aiming for, but not quite. It certainly showed Walter in his favourite environment though! One issue was that on my Nikon D810 this lens was a bit too wide-angle, and the flowerpot had to be so close to the lens that it was almost touching it. Despite the aperture being set to f/16, the depth of field is still quite shallow (by now you'll note this to be a recurring problem!). This again meant that I had to be rather lucky with Walter's position in order to have him in focus. So I started using my Nikon D500 instead of my D810 as this was a bit more forgiving. For some reason, I then encountered another problem whereby my D500 wasn't waking up the flashes properly. To make it work I had to use a mode on the PIR sensor which wakes the flashes up before triggering the shot. On this mode there is however a noticeable delay in the triggering but at least the shot is always properly lit. After a couple of attempts, I got some keepers. This is my favourite one, showing Walter surveying his 'kingdom'!

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)

Well, that sums up my experiences of camera trapping so far. It's been challenging (and at times frustrating) but also immensely rewarding when it works. It's certainly kept me (vaguely) sane throughout the period of lockdown here in the UK!

At the point of writing (21/07/20), I have one more week here in Devon. The DSLR camera trap is currently out in the garden and I'm still holding out the hope that one of the foxes will show themselves! If so, I'll update this post.

UPDATE (25/07/20)

Well, in true wildlife documentary form - in my last few days in Devon the larger fox finally made an in-focus appearance! It's still not the photo I was hoping for (its tail is cut off) but it'll do!

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

UPDATE 2 (04/08/20)

I really should have waited a few weeks before publishing this post! For the last week I've been in Cheshire at my parents' house. Naturally I couldn't resist putting my trail camera out in the garden - after all, this is where my camera trapping experiences began!

After just one night, my trail camera had recorded some footage of the badgers (of course), plus the usual cats, but also, to my delight - a fox! I was quick to set up the DSLR camera trap the next night and I couldn't believe my luck when I saw that these photos had been taken:

Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)

After 4 months of trying, I'm now happy to declare 'mission complete' - I can finally add red fox (Vulpes vulpes) to my 'satisfactorily photographed' list!

I also got a couple of other bonus pictures, like this 'profile pic' of one of the Cheshire badgers:

European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles)

Plus this one - with the fox 'photobombing' the badger!:

European badger (Meles meles)European badger (Meles meles)

I'm due to fly to Kenya in a few weeks, so hopefully I'll be able to continue experimenting with some more exotic species! To end this post - my favourite out-take from the 'shed photography sessions':

Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)Wood mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)



*I sent off for some treatment for this from the National Fox Welfare Society and they kindly sent some to us for free. I was intrigued and quite skeptical that the treatment is labelled as a 'homeopathic potion'. They are adamant that it is effective so we will see!


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