Sometimes, you may see a close-up image of an animal going about its business, seemingly unbothered by a camera, and wonder how in the world the photographer pulled it off. The answer might be a camera trap.
Camera traps are a great way to get intimate portraits of difficult-to-photograph birds, a fresh angle on a commonly-photographed one, or to capture rare behaviors. But using one can be frustrating at first. You might go days, weeks, or even months without a single good shot. As a National Geographic Explorer and photographer working in Mozambique, I certainly had my share of misses. But when you do spot a good photo after scrolling through hundreds of empty frames, it’s like Christmas morning. If you follow these tips, you’ll increase your chances of getting lucky.
A camera trap consists of just two basic components: a camera with a lens, and a trigger. It’s also helpful to have something to protect the camera (a box) and mount it (tripod, clamp, stake, etc.), an external battery pack for longer camera life, and a large memory card.
Not that long ago, photographers had to build these setups themselves. For example, I once used custom boxes made by cutting a hole in a Pelican case and mounting a lens filter on the front. Before that, I simply put my camera on a tripod, put a plastic baggie over it, and hoped for the best. (If you want to go DIY, there are detailed guides online.)
Luckily, today, several companies, including Cognisys and Camtraptions, have introduced equipment that makes it a lot simpler. As the foundation of my setup now, I use the Cognisys Scout Camera Box ($499), which contains the necessary electronics and room for an extra battery. You can use any camera that has an external shutter release port. The box is programmed using an app, and you have fine control over options like the time windows when the camera is active.
Inside of the box, I use a Sony A7s camera with one of a few wide-angle lenses. With wider lenses, you can get closer and more intimate images; slightly longer lenses are better for more sensitive subjects where you can’t set up too close. I prefer Sony Alpha cameras because of their true silent shooting mode—they’re less likely to startle your subject. I bought these cameras on eBay; because you’re leaving your equipment unsupervised, camera trapping is inherently risky (bears, thieves, extreme weather events). Start out with second-hand or less expensive equipment.
To trigger your camera, there are a few options. One is to simply set the camera to time-lapse mode, which is built into some or can be done using an external intervalometer. This is a setting I use for capturing vultures at carcasses, where I know there will be nonstop action—a motion sensor would quickly drain the battery and fill up my card.
In other circumstances, a motion sensor is a good choice. There are two popular types: passive, which monitors a wide area for a combination of heat and motion, or active, which sends a beam between two units and triggers when the beam is broken. Active is more precise than passive, so you should use it if you’re sure exactly where your subject will be (like a perch) or if you need the subject to be in a certain place for your shot.
To mount the camera trap once it’s put together, I sometimes use a tripod, but they are bulky and conspicuous. It’s often simpler to use a metal angle-iron with a screw welded to the top that fits a ball-head. Since these traps are heavy and since the boxes open from the back, it’s also difficult to strap them to a tree. I use a specially welded triangle bracket with a mounted ball-head to attach them to trees when needed.
Now that you have your gear, how do you figure out where to put it? This is probably the trickiest part. Here are some things you can do:
Find a resource hotspot. I often use carcasses (for vultures and other scavenging birds) and water bodies (for wading birds). But your backyard bird feeder or birdbath can be just as productive, and certainly a great place to test your setup.
Think like a bird. In photography, the best shots almost always come from carefully observing your target bird's behavior. Does that owl perch on the same branch every evening? Does that kingfisher hunt in that one spot? Does that quail family walk the same trail through the undergrowth each morning? Try learning behavior patterns well enough that you can predict the gap in the trees that birds will fly through or the patch of grass where they might land.
Do some tracking. To see if a pond is being used by birds, even if there are none there at that moment, I check for fresh footprints, droppings, or feathers. I then walk around the whole pond and try to find the busiest spot.
Work with biologists. Your local fish and game biologists or those at a nearby university might be doing research on birds. Might they be interested in some stunning images for their papers or presentations in exchange for sharing tips? Biologists often know the behavior of their study species better than anyone else.
When setting up your camera, it’s critical to consider how you might be affecting the animals’ behavior. You may need to construct your setup gradually over the course of a few days. Make sure you’re not getting close to a nest or other sensitive area, and try to set the camera up when bird activity is low. Camouflage helps, but the unavoidably large, shiny, eye-like lens can still be startling. I like to use camouflage netting, but sometimes I just rub mud on the box or pile branches around it. If you can integrate the setup among the branches of a fallen tree or other natural feature, then birds are less likely to be startled.
Since you’re not behind the lens, getting an in-focus, properly exposed, and well-composed shot requires a lot of planning and some luck. When placing the camera, have an idea of what you want the perfect shot to look like. Imagine where the bird might be, think about how big it will be in the frame, and then compose. It can help to have a stand-in for the bird that’s a similar size to the species you’re aiming for, whether that’s your hand, a rock, a stick, or whatever you can find. Make sure your camera or lens is set to manual focus. Then focus on the correct spot and don’t move the camera.
As with any photograph, you’ll need to find the right balance between depth of field, shutter speed, and ISO, even though you won’t be there to see the conditions. To adapt to variable light conditions, I recommend using auto ISO mode. If you need a high shutter speed to capture action, you might select shutter priority mode. If going for a quieter environmental portrait, aperture priority might be a good bet. In other cases, manual mode is the best option. In general, it’s a good idea to get as high a depth of field as possible, as you can’t always guarantee exactly where the subject will be.
Basically, plan for every possibility, but know that, despite the best planning, it might not always work out. Camera trapping is an exercise in problem-solving, and like in anything where nature is involved, persistence and patience are key. If you buckle down and get through the initial frustration, you’re likely to be rewarded at the end.
This article's gear section was updated in September 2019 to reflect latest pricing and availability.