How to successfully set up a DSLR camera trap
Updated: May 5, 2020
Some of the more elusive wildlife can be very hard to photograph through traditional methods, DSLR camera trapping can offer a brilliant way to capture up close and personal photos of animals in a unique way.
Firstly, let's go over the basics. Camera trapping works be using a motion detector to trigger your camera when an animal walks in-front of the sensor. Sounds simple right? But trust me, it's very easy to get wrong.
There are several different types of camera traps, the most common are all in one detectors and cameras. These are called trail cameras, they are good for find out locations of animals however they have poor picture quality so not useful for capturing beautiful images.
They consist of three elements:
The Flash - this lights the subject if it's triggered at night time. These are often infrared flashes producing an infrared image.
The Camera -This captures the image when motion is detected.
The Motion Sensor -This detects motion and causes the trail camera to take a photo.
A DSLR camera trap is essentially very similar to this set up however each part is individual they are connected together either wirelessly or using cables.
What will you need?
Camera trapping can be relatively inexpensive compared to other forms of photography or filmmaking however it's important to invest in good gear for certain elements.
Firstly, the camera. Almost any DSLR can be used for camera trapping, I would advise against mirrorless as they tend to have a much poorer battery life meaning you can't leave your camera trap out for very long. I use a second hand Canon 5D mark ii with a battery grip and I can leave it in the field for a month or more without it running out of battery. However, these can cost around £250-300 so a cheaper option can be an old Canon 70D or Nikon equivalent.
As previously mentioned the huge advantage of camera trapping is the ability to get images close to a subject therefore I like to use a wide angle lens. My current lens is a second hand 24mm Canon 2.8. It's not the most expensive lens however it's relatively sharp and only cost me around £100. The other advantage of this lens is its small size. This means that it doesn't protrude far outside the camera trap casing and prevents water droplets getting on your lens (which can be very annoying!). Other lenses such as a 18-55mm kit lens is a good starting lens as the zoom range allows some flexibility when framing your shot in the field.
Secondly, you'll need at least 2 flash units. I and many other people use second hand Nikon SB-28 off Ebay and I would highly advise getting some. They cost around £50 but are well worth the investment. I have used various other flashes and these are the best by far. They hold their charge due to a capacitor wiring system which has now been changed, this means that when woken up by your motion detector they will fire straight away, and the battery life is much better. Why 2 flashes? So you can light your scene correctly. 3 is sometimes even better. The massive advantage of camera trapping is you can get much close to your subject than usual meaning you can using wide angle lenses - this in turn means you can capture amazing, photo-journalistic style photos showcasing an animal in its environment. We'll touch on how best to light your scene later.
There are several different sorts of sensors. However the one I advise going for is a PIR Sensor or Passive Infrared Sensor. These work by detecting motion in-front of the sensor then sending a signal to your camera which then takes a photo. There are a few different companies however Camtraptions are the best combination of high quality and relatively affordable compared to others. They also have a great ability to program the sensor in various different ways. The PIR v3 is a brilliant wireless sensor that I use and costs around £200.
The Transmitters & Receivers
When using a PIR Sensor you will also need several transmitters and receivers. You will need a receiver on every flash unit you're using, as well as a receiver and a transmitter for your camera. These can all be found on the Camtraptions website here. I'll go into more depth about how these work later.
When leaving your camera and flashes outside for a long time you'll need some way of protecting it from the elements. There are lots of different ways of doing this. A plastic bag is a cheaper alternative however I find that flapping plastic often can scare animals. Tupperware is useful and easily be fashioned into rudimentary camera cases. However the best option is a second hand Peli 1300 case. This will easily fit a large DSLR and transmitters and receivers in it. You will need to do some modification to store the camera safely inside.
I initially drilled a hole in the bottom of the Peli case and glued in place (with CT1 glue) a 1/4 inch female screw thread adapter this allowed me to attach any quick release plate to the bottom of my case, meaning I can attached it to a tripod when in the field or a clamp if I'm mounting to a tree.
I then glued a quick release plate on the inside of the case for my camera to be mounted on inside. This allows my camera to be solid and not sliding around in the case.
I then cut a hole in the front for the lens to see out of and installed a piece of PVC pipe to protect the lens from rain. I then glued a glass circle to weather seal the casing. This is important as it prevents any rain from reaching your camera and damaging it and it prevents the camera lens fogging up and ruining your photos. I also installed a rain lid cover to help prevent rain getting on the glass and ruining photos.
I also installed a 1/4 screw mount ontop of the casing for the PIR motion sensor to sit on. I don't always use this however it gives an easy mounting option for the sensor and you can direct it towards where the animal will be.
You'll also need to make waterproof casings for your flashes. PVC pipe can work well however I currently use a Tupperware box as they're cheap and surprisingly waterproof. Using a piece of clear plastic across where the flash will fire allows the light from the flash to expose the scene while keeping the Tupperware waterproof.
When out in the field you'll need to mount your camera trap and flashes to something. I find a sturdy tripod works well for camera and I either use small tripods for the flashes or a Manfrotto Superclamp attached to a tree branch works well. In the picture to the right you can see a set up I had for capturing a shot of beavers swimming through a beaver canal. I have the camera set on a tripod with the PIR sensor on a magic arm to better direct the sensor beam. One flash is mounted on the tree and one is near the ground on the floor.
All this system needs power so you'll need a lot of AA and AAA batteries. You can use rechargeable ones however they do not last anywhere near as long in the field and you can only really leave them for a few days max before they run out of charge. There is also options for using D-cells to power your receivers and transmitters as they are always the first things to run out of battery.
These are a few extras which aren't essential but in my eyes give you an even better chance at capturing some amazing photos. Firstly, one of the biggest issues in term of ruining photos is rain on the lens. Using a substance called RainX it prevents rain beading on the glass in big droplets but instead allows it to run off. This means that even when it is raining you can get clean useable images. Another extra piece of kit that I use is a silicone bag inside the camera casing, this helps in two ways. Firstly, it helps stop any moisture that does get into your camera trap from damaging your camera and secondly it helps prevent any fogging up on your lens which can be very annoying and ruin your photos.
The PIR v3 from Camtraptions is a fantastic device that allows specific mode settings for a whole host of situations. I'll give a brief overview of how you program these settings then give me recommendations for how to set them.
Firstly, the full PIR v3 Manual can be found here. It gives in detail the program selection but I found it can be a little confusing so I'm going to run through how it works in order of how to set it up.
Firstly you'll need to open up the back of the sensor and remove the battery plate as seen in the picture to the right. You will then see 4 jumpers that are in the top right of the circuit board. These are to program the sensor for either photo or video.
If you'd like to use the sensor for photography set the jumpers like this. All of them to the OFF position with the jumpers stowed on just the right pin.
If you'd like to set up the sensor for video you need to put the A jumper in the ON position which means having that jumper on both pins like the picture on the right. The other jumpers need to be in the OFF position so just on one pin.
The next stage is to decide the program that you're going to set the camera trap up on. There are 6 switches on the front left of the sensor which program these. Each combination of these switches either in the ON or OFF position programs the sensor to do certain things and the modes change between when the camera is set to video or to photo so it's important to know which the sensor is on! There are lots of different modes that are all in the stills manual or the video manual so I won't go through them all but I will explain the one that I leave my sensor on for 90% of the time and why I think it's best.
The mode I use is program 2 of the the transmitter program. Basically all this means is that switch 6 is in the ON position and all other switches are in the OFF position. This means that your flashes are woken up when motion is detected just before your camera takes a photo. This is very important as it means that your flashes will fire on the first shot of a detection. If you don't have this mode on then the first photo in each of your sequences won't have the flash fire, this means if detection is at night you'll have a black photo at the start of every sequence. As this is often one of the best photos as the animal is exactly where you positioned the sensor it can be very frustrating! By having all other switches in the OFF position it allows you to have full control using the dials on the right to program the other aspects of the sensor.
The dials on the right are used for the finer tuning of the sensor. The top dial is sensitivity. This is just how sensitive your sensor will be too movement, having it fully turned clockwise will make your sensor the most sensitive it can be. This means that smaller animals such as mice will trigger the camera trap, it will also extend the reach of your sensor. It will tend to also increase your number of false triggers from movement from leaves or trees, I will touch on how to reduce this later in the article. Turning the dial all the way to the anticlockwise position puts the sensor on low sensitivity. This works well for larger animals however can lead to missing some wildlife. For example, I had my sensor too low on a project I was working on, and I had badgers, beavers and pine martens walk past my camera trap without triggering it, very frustrating! I've found that somewhere are the 2/3rds mark is the sweet spot for triggering animals while also reducing false triggers.
The second dial is the Time Dial. This in the current program selection is used for setting the number of photos per detection. This means when your sensor is triggered, how many photos will it take. I found again 2/3rds turned round to clockwise gives around 5 photos per detection which gives you a good chance of getting some good photos while also not scaring your subject with lots of photos at once.
Finally the third dial is called the luminosity dial. However, in the current program this decides the time between each photo. All the way to the clockwise will give the longest time between each photo, this allows your flashes to charge and means you're less likely to have a black photo where the flashes haven't gone off however it can mean the animals have walked off in this time. Equally, turning all the way to the anticlockwise gives the least amount of time between each detection, this will likely lead to some photos having the flashes not fire as they haven't charged however they can be good for capturing fast action, for example a pine marten jumping! I found the sweet spot is somewhere around half way, this allows about 4-5 seconds between each photo, allowing flashes to charge but also meaning the animal is less likely to have moved on!
Setting your camera correctly can be challenging however I've found that these settings work the best. Firstly, think about when your subject is most likely to be triggering the camera. If it's only going to be at night, I would advise using fully manual on your camera. This allows you to control exactly how the photo will be and stops your camera doing anything you didn't want it to. You will want a high aperture number as you can't know exactly where your subject will be so you want as much of the picture in focus as possible. I usually stay around f/9. This means a good portion of my picture will be in focus while also not being so high that you need your flashes to be on high power that it will drain their batteries quickly.
If your subject will be at night shutter speed I would suggest to be around 1/100 to 1/160, this may seem low however as there is no external light your flash will 'freeze the action' and you shouldn't get any blur in your images. ISO you don't want to be too high however too low and you need your flashes to be powered on high which will run the battery out. I tend to go between 400-1000 ISO, sometimes higher for a specific type of image. This is the advantage of using a full frame camera, you can reach higher ISO without having poor picture quality.
The other option for settings is using Aperture Priority mode. This allows you to set the aperture, then depending on the light conditions it will set the shutter speed. This is useful when your subject is going to around during day and night time. It allows triggers during the day to be correctly exposed however at night time it will do a much longer exposure, often resulting in either ghosting (where your subject has moved and and you get motion blur) or that your subject has moved on and you only have a few images.
This technique can be used at night to create some incredible images where you use a flash to expose the subject in-front of the camera, then using a longer exposure you expose for the background of the image. It's a much harder technique to get correct and only works when there is no moon in the sky so that no extra light leaks into the image. Some of the best examples are by Will-Burrard Lucas as seen on the right. To achieve this technique you'll need a lower aperture, somewhere around f/4-f/5.6, a higher ISO 1000-1600, and a shutter speed of around 8-15 seconds or longer using aperture priority mode.
Finally, you'll want to focus your lens manually and make sure it's left on manual focus so that it doesn't go out of focus if it can't use autofocus. You'll want to manually set your white balance or use a flash white balance preset on your camera. You'll. want to make sure your camera is on single shot. You'll also want to reduce your LCD screen brightness and auto power off after the shortest time possible to save battery.
As previously mentioned you'll need at least 2 flashes to correctly light your subject. I always manually set the power of my flashes so I know exactly how much light will be in my photo. I usually set the main flash around 1/8 to 1/16 depending on how close my subject is to the flash. My second flash is usually around 1/16 to 1/32. This helps to fill in light but not overpower it. I think shadows are important as they add a dynamic feel to the photo. A third flash can be used to light the background of the shot, or as rim lighting for a tree or another part of the photograph. I find it adds a lot to the photo when it shows the subject in its environment. As you can see on a photo I took above. I was taking a photo for a story about a Pine Marten that had taken up residence in my barn so I wanted to show the subject in context with its surroundings.
Receivers & Transmitters
If you're using the program on the sensor I have suggested above you will need to set your receivers on your flashes to channel +1 of whatever channel the receiver on your camera is on. This means that your sensor is automatically on channel 1, it will send a signal to your camera where you need a receiver (plugged into your shutter release port using a cable) on channel 1. You will then need a transmitter in your cameras hot-shoe but this will need to be on channel 2. You'll then need all your flashes to also be on channel 2 also so that they pick up the signal emitted from the transmitter.
This all may sound confusing so I've drawn a diagram below to explain which channel each transmitter and receiver should be on.
This set up below will allow your flashes to wake up and fire on the first photo of your detection.
Setting up in the Field
Setting up in the field is one of the most important parts of camera trapping. Using field craft when setting up is important, you need to try and place your camera in the best possible position to get a good photo. Following scat signs is a good indication of what animals might be around and I will often use a trail camera firstly in an area so I can see what animals are coming and going and therefore see what sort of photos I can get and how to set the camera up. When setting up your DSLR camera trap I think it's important to think of the best possible composition and this be your first priority. It's no good simply getting a shot, you can use a trail camera for this, you need to try and compose a good photo. Keeping things like the rule of thirds in your photos help to compose an interesting photo. I also like to try and be at eye level or below with my subject to create a feeling of intimacy with the subject however this is not a hard and fast rule, pictures from above can look very interesting and different from the norm! Adding depth to an image is important, that is why having multiple flashes to light an entire area I think is important. It's important place your flashes away from your camera to create the best light you can. Ideally I think you'll want to light the subject from the side with the main flash, with a fill flash on the other side and a third flash lighting the background or providing some rim lighting.
It's also important to place your sensor correctly. This reduces false triggers, try not to be pointing at grass or leaves that will blow in the wind causing your camera to be triggered. It also can't be too far from your subject or it will not be triggered, I try to get it around 1-2 metres away from where I want my subject to be. Although this photo wasn't exactly what I had in mind as the pine marten didn't play ball, I was able to light the subject, the background and provide some backlighting to bring out the hair on the top of the pine marten.
Finally, I think it's important to set your camera trap up in similar light to what you camera will ideally be taking photos in. This means you can accurately gauge exposure. This is why I generally will set my camera trap up in dusk time if I'm going to be trying for a nocturnal animal. That way I can see almost exactly how my photo will be, rather than setting up in the middle of the day when it's very difficult to judge exposure and you'll likely have to leave your camera on aperture priority mode.
I hope that has been helpful to some people, any questions feel free to drop them in the comments below and I can try and answer them!