How do camera traps work?

Nick’s take was created from interviews made in 2000.

[Nick’s Take was written in 2000. As of June 2011, Nick still uses camera traps for most of his assignments but he has switched to using Canon digital cameras in the setup. The techniques described below and the theory behind using camera traps are still in use.]

The camera traps are something we’ve developed because we’re trying to photograph animals that you can’t get close to at all. When people like Champion first started trying to photograph tigers, they’d set up wires on the trail that would trigger flash powder. And those pictures were generally just a record of trying to get the thing on film.

With my camera traps, I try to set the photos up so they’ll look like something I would take if I were actually sitting there. In the August 2001Geographic, there’s an opening shot of an elephant that I wouldn’t have done any different if I were there.

When I first started trying to do camera traps in the Ndoki project, we had so many problems. Batteries blew up, flashes melted, animals ate the cords…and we got nothing on film. The device was too sensitive, so we got thousands and thousands of false hits and empty frames. We did get a leopard picture, where the leopard cropped himself right down the eyeline, so that became a double page in the magazine.

It was so labor intensive that I almost gave it up, because it just wasn’t working. But when I got the tiger project, I realized I really needed to use camera traps to get a different picture than the one I could get on the back of an elephant, which is the only way to get close to a wild tiger.

We used Nikon cameras that have a way to go to sleep and conserve batteries. So we went into the wiring systems of the strobes and made it so they go to sleep, but wake up once an hour to fill themselves up with juice so they’re ready if an animal trips the beam. That’s worked really well, and we were able to set out cameras for a month at a time with four AA batteries in each unit.

I find a place where animals frequent and put a camera on a trail with an infrared beam. It has to work with whatever environment is there. We find that if we go back to the camera spot too often, we leave too much scent and scare the animals away. So we don’t visit more than once a week. I can’t put it on full auto, because the strobes can get fooled by the color of the animal. We know where the animal is crossing the beam, so we set up the strobes for that distance. I let the camera adjust the shutter speed throughout the day. Plus, I know when the animals are going to come by, so I don’t worry about overexposing in the middle of the day and I skew my exposure so it’ll work better at dusk and dawn. We also set the trailmaster, the computer that triggers the camera, for certain times of the day when we know the animals will be there.

I set them up at least 2 miles from where we’re camped, so our camp doesn’t disturb it, but it’s got to be accessible enough that we can check it. I see where there are tracks, I talk to the local guides, and I try to find places where the animals are likely to congregate. But out of those same traps we got elephant trunks and trails, a beautiful female leopard, a male leopard. In other words, sometimes I get an animal I’m not looking for, but it makes an interesting picture.

I haven’t done well yet with small things, with bats and things that crawl in holes. I figure camera traps should be very effective on an animal that lives in a hole. But I haven’t had success yet. I’m still just scratching the surface.