Our journey into DSLR camera trapping – Part 1

What is a camera trap and why are we making one?

One of the things we find in photography is that technology allows us to see things we wouldn’t otherwise see. Take wombats for example. We have plenty of photos of orphaned wombats with carers and we’ve seen wild ones grazing but as soon as we walk closer to get a better photo the animals stop acting naturally and are wary of our presence (unless you’re at Maria Island!!). We purchased a trail camera last year, set it up in some wombat rich parts of the bush and programmed it to take a 30 second video when it detected motion or a change in temperature (if only it could make coffee too…). Watching the videos from this trail camera was really exciting, we saw so many species we didn’t know even lived in the area. Not only that but we got to witness amazing natural behaviours like a wombat joey stumbling along behind its mum. These are the kind of things we want to capture in well lit, nicely composed photos but the problem is how do you do that when your presence alone scares the animals away? Or in the case of wombats, when they’re up at ridiculous-o-clock so being out taking photos at 2am when you have to go to work the next day just isn’t practical?

Its a busy place out there, all alone, as a camera.

We already had a trail camera that takes photos in these situations, we just wanted to improve the quality of the images. This is how we began our journey into DSLR camera trap photography. A bit of googling later and we realised while this is not a new area and there are a few videos and articles on it, every situation is slightly different. People had deployed them in jungles, they featured heavily in the video footage of snow leopards as part of Planet Earth II, and one very unfortunate camera was even squashed by an elephant. This was great background, but meant that whatever instructions we found we’d have to adapt to our own circumstances. By reading French guy’s ebook we gained a broad understanding of what bits of equipment we’d need and what we needed to do to make these work. Put simply, we needed:

  1. Something to take the photo,
  2. Something to make sure a photo was actually taken,
  3. Something to make sure the photo wasn’t pitch black,
  4. Something to make sure all of this very expensive sounding stuff from points 1-3 doesn’t die from an overly inquisitive possum or thunder storm, and
  5. All the right bits to assemble point 4
Diagram of our ultimate goal, who says Power Point is useless!

Let the challenge begin

1. Something to take the photo

After lots of sketching out ideas (they’re not all as pretty as our diagram) we could sit down and work out what we already had and put together a list of things we needed to buy. Our starting point was a trusty Nikon D90 DLSR who had been replaced by newer models along the way. That’s point one on the list done, how hard can the rest be?

It was at about this step things became vaguely complicated.

The finished trap out in the wild… okay, out in a backyard.

2. Something to make sure a photo is actually taken

As a general rule, camera trapping is used to capture natural behaviours with as little intrusion as possible. This means if at all possible, there is little or no human involvement with the trap or the animal once deployed. The basic version of this is setting up a camera within visual distance with a remote trigger, you can then trigger the camera when something comes close to it. We’ve attempted this method, and it mostly involves a lot of sitting, waiting and being very, very quiet. This is definitely something you can try without too much effort, it just requires some location scouting, a wireless trigger and patience to attempt.

Our trap needed a little more than this. A camera trap is basically a portable surveillance system that registers movement and activates. At its simplest, it’s the motion activated sensor light you might have on the front of your house to scare away burglars. So, in order for us to get photos of our subjects (animals, not burglars) we needed a way for the camera to register there was an animal in front of it (sensing the complication yet?). Our trail camera gives us a great example, it uses a Passive Infrared Sensor (PIR, because there’s no way we’re going to write Passive Infrared over and over). This detects changes in the infrared spectrum, and activates a connected circuit. Our little warm-blooded wombat friend waddling past is detected and our camera gets told to take a picture. Our initial research said you can build your own using sensor lights (Mitch can solder two wires together, but that’s the end of his electrical know how). Digging deeper we found a number of different options that included laser tripwires and complex timed infrared sensors (too hard and too expensive). We chose to go with the Camtraptions PIR Motion Sensor V2 as this was the most user-friendly brand.

The Camptraptions option required no assembly, had a battery life longer than we expect the flashes to last and a whole host of different program settings including a wake mode. All attached to our beloved PIR sensor. It was definitely the pick of the bunch.

3. Something to make sure the photo wasn’t pitch black

The simple answer here was at least one speedlight.

In everything we’d read, people talk about how they buy cheap Nikon SB28 flashes online. The cheapest we found was around $250 not including shipping so we decided to use the SB 700 flashes we already owned instead of blowing the budget and potentially buying a flash that didn’t work. The 700s have a standby mode and can be set manually which gave us everything we needed. The important part here was the ability for the flash to sleep, this preserves battery life over the length of a deployment.

Scrim netting was one of the stranger things to buy for this project.

4. Something to make sure all of this very expensive sounding stuff from points 1-3 doesn’t die from [insert random event here]

Our next challenge was in finding a box to protect the camera which would fit different sized lenses, any cables and transmitters. All of our research demonstrated simple boxes that would fit any number of different lens types. We were out of luck though, the Pelican case we wanted to buy wasn’t the ideal depth so we had to use it in a different way to methods we’d read about. Our depth fits exactly one D90 with a 35mm lens on it and no more, future builds or renovations might change this setup, but we’re happy with our outcome. The most annoying aspect was buying flash transmitters and receivers online. We fell into the pitfall of just slightly enough information to hook us to buy, but not enough to make it clear whether they’d work for our intended purpose. When they arrived, we opened the manual and realised they didn’t have a wake function – so they were completely useless for what we wanted and we had to go back to the drawing board. Luckily, we could return them for a full refund but this put our building plans on hold. Work, my course and other photo projects began snowballing so we shelved our camera trap project for the best part of a year…

Which was actually the best thing to do because when we got back to it Camtraptions had released a cheap range of transmitters and receivers! This was the wireless flash triggering solution with a simple wake function, long battery life and great price tag we’d been searching for that didn’t exist when we first started the project!

5. All the right bits to assemble point 4.

Here’s where living in a small place without a fully stocked workshop sucks. Without the tools on hand it was definitely a case of making a list and hoping it was everything we needed… There were only 3-4 different trips to Bunnings to collect every single thing we needed as well as a few different online orders. This included (but definitely wasn’t limited to); bolts, threaded rod, silicone, an 82mm UV filter, the head from a GorillaPod tripod, a 77mm hole saw, the chuck for a 77mm hole saw, two sets of furniture feet, rubber grommets, rubber washers, a lens cap and a few other assorted odds and ends. Photo of all the pieces

I’m not sure there was anything left at the hardware store after we finished.

Build day!

Motivation boosted we finally had all the bits we needed and could begin construction at last! We sat down and sketched out all the things we needed to do, talked about how we were going to do it and just generally made sure we were on the same page. Once we had the logistics sorted, we did a final Bunnings run to get the last few things then spent most of a Sunday in Mitch’s parents yard building the trap and using their tools. There was no going backwards once the first hole was put into the case, which was only slightly nerve-wracking. Most of the work involved modifying the Pelican case to give the camera a sealed porthole to photograph through (scary drilling), inserting a platform for the camera to sit on (more scary drilling) and drilling holes to feed the cable through (even more scary drilling). We silicone around all of these drill holes in an attempt to make the case watertight. We then left it there for a week so the glue could set properly. The next step was to set it all up and see if it worked…

I guess X marks the spot.
I’m pretty sure this voids the warranty.
We put in a number of different holes for cables and bolts to pass through. This was for the camera mounting point.
We bought bolts hoping they were the right length… they weren’t.
The filter was fixed over the port hole as a protector using silicon.

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To be continued…