Jonny Armstrong Photography » Specializing in camera trapping, underwater, and conservation science photography

I recently made a camera trap set that proved to be full of challenges, but also some fun and surprises. The set should have been easy because I’ve made it before. It’s on a steep hillside that’s one of the few places on my friend’s property where you can get a view of the night sky. A couple years back I photographed a fisher at this site, with moonlit clouds in the background.

 

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I wanted to repeat this shot because I had a bunch of ideas for improving the lighting, plus I wanted to see what the sky would look like without clouds. As is typical for me, things didn’t work out as planned. First, it turned out I’d brought the wrong camera support. I figured I’d avoid a tripod so I didn’t have to worry about it slipping on the steep hillside. Instead I screwed a wall plate with a 5/8″ baby receiver onto the log and attached a Magic Arm mounted to a ballhead with a 1/4″-3/8″ lighting stud. While the Magic Arm was steady, the log turned out not to be; it shook and wobbled when I stood on it, which would be a problem for the long exposures I had planned. Luckily the log was leaning into a dead pine tree. The standing tree made a perfect mount for the camera but it was on the wrong side of the log, looking up the valley walls and losing a view of the sky.

I didn’t want the background to fade to black, especially since many of the forest carnivores in this area are dark in color and would disappear into a black background. Since I didn’t have the option of burning in the night sky, I decided I’d try to light the background, which is not an easy task with a small speedlite. I used a high ISO to increase the effective power of my flash, cranking it until it I could evenly light the background trees with the flash at 1/2 power (going to full power is a bad idea when camera trapping cause if your sensor falsely triggers, you might fry your flash). To further make my subject stand out, I lit from behind, so that the edges of the animal would be crisp. I placed one light behind and to the left, as my key light. Ideally I would have had a rim light from behind and right, but there was no where to hide it from the wide-angle lens, so I set my rim light on the ground behind the log, on a small flexible tripod. I added a fill light camera-right on a stand to keep detail in the shadows of the subject, but set it at low power to maintain contrast and shape my subject. My light stands didn’t wanna stay upright because of the steep slope. I brought tent stakes but the soil was too rocky, so I had to settle with using dead wood to weigh the stands down.

When I showed up to retrieve the camera, I noticed my rim light and flexipod had gone missing. They were nowhere to be seen in the immediate area. I followed a game trail into the woods and a little ways down the trail I found my light, unharmed except some chew marks on the tripod feet. One of my light stands was also tipped over during the set.

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Waiting for me on the camera was a critter that I wasn’t expecting–a black bear. I didn’t think a bear would climb a small log like this, especially a couple meters off the ground. Then I realized the bear in the picture was tiny, barely the size of a gray fox. It must have been a spring cub, with its mom somewhere out of the frame.

About 300 m from this site, I placed a trail cam on a tree, aimed at a small stream. To my surprise, I ended up getting hundreds of videos.  Turns out a lot of animals go to this spot to get a drink. While I would love to get an image of an animal drinking from a stream, I didn’t want to risk scaring the critters at their favorite watering hole, and I feared the bears would tip my gear into the stream.

 

 

Instead I moved my SLR camera to the other end of the property and set for a mountain lion that my friend had seen earlier in the season. My dad helped me setup the camera and let me pop off a few dozen test shots to get the lighting dialed. Hopefully the next shot I get will have a mountain lion where my dad is currently standing. Low odds but could be an amazing shot if it works.

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Critters usually trigger my camera traps at night, so lighting is a huge part of my photography. Without flashes, my photos would be black frames with nothing in them. I’m not exaggerating, way too many times I’ve checked a set to find that my flashes failed and the only images I captured were black rectangles.

Lighting is essential to camera trapping. Unfortunately, lighting critters outdoors, at night, is a huge challenge. Large backgrounds, small flashes, and no ambient light make a great recipe for ugly photos and frustration. I’ve been there. Luckily I’ve come a long way, and I owe a lot of my progress to one person–David Hobby. Hobby is the author of Strobist, an incrediblee blog which is undoubtedly the world’s best resource for learning to light.

A couple weeks back I was trying to get the hang of Twitter and I randomly decided to tweet David Hobby and thank him for teaching me to light. I got a really nice tweet back right away. It might sound dorky, but as a lighting photographer, getting a tweet from David Hobby is a big deal, kind of like if you were a writer and found an email from Jonathan Franzen in your inbox. As if it wasn’t cool enough just to get a response, Hobby had some real nice things to say about my photography and wanted to write a blog post about it. This was really exciting for me. Strobist has been my main source of photographic inspiration for the last five years. Before I went to Africa I stayed up at night re-reading Hobby’s  “On-Assignment” posts to brush up on my skills and get new ideas for camera trap lighting. It’s really fun to think that next time I’m strolling through the OA posts before a big trip, I’ll see one called “Studio in the Wild” that is actually about me.

In addition to writing up the post, DH gave me some real-time help with lighting one of my camera trap sets. Here’s a recent image from one of those sets, a gray fox photographed during the super blood moon.

 

 

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While I’ve managed to camera trap many a bear, fox, and moose during my years in Alaska, there’s one critter that remains conspicuously absent from my portfolio. When I first began camera trapping, I hardly realized that his animal existed, and I had no idea that it roamed the watersheds where I conducted my field work. Then a couple years ago my collaborator and former PhD adviser Daniel Schindler began leaving research trail cameras out overwinter. He sent me an email with an image of something we’d never seen during our summer camera trap surveys.

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A wolverine. Latin name: Gulo meaning glutton.

Many camera trappers, including myself, dream of getting a wolverine, but few succeed. I only know one DSLR camera trapper, Arthur Veitch, who has managed to capture this elusive critter. Unfortunately this low success rate is largely due to the dwindling numbers of wolverine in the Southern portion of their range, where most camera trappers have the chance to target them. I have a very fortunate advantage of spending time in coastal Alaska, where wolverine populations are healthy.

While I still know rather little about this giant weasel, I was able to get a sense of how to camera trap them by picking the brains of wildlife biologists and local fur trappers. One of my main sources for wolverine info was Pat Walsh, the lead biologist for the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge. I asked Pat what sort of landscape features I might look for to funnel wolverine movements; he told me they basically go wherever they want and if you track them, their movements make little sense–they’ll go straight up a mountain, then turn around and go right back down, they don’t follow ridges or valley bottoms, they just go where they want, when they want. That sounded daunting, but luckily I’m irrationally optimistic when it comes to camera trapping and Pat assured me that while wolverine were unpredictable and wide ranging, they were relatively abundant in the area where I visit each summer in Bristol Bay.

This summer I had about ten days to try my luck at wolverine while visiting the Alaska Salmon Program field camps in the Wood River watershed. Ten days is a short set for any critter, especially a wolverine. However, I had reasons to be hopeful: I knew I could get within the home range of at least one individual and from what I’d heard wolverines were fairly easy to camera trap—they’re curious and not especially skittish in response to gear or human scent. I decided I’d put one camera trap along a stream where I’d seen wolverine prints the prior summer. Like fur trappers often do, I set on a log and placed a dab of scent lure at the uphill end, hoping to pique the curiosity of a wolverine as it traveled down the stream.  The log also allowed me to compose an eye-level shot that included the sky and kept my camera off the ground, which is always good when you’re on a floodplain. Here’s a test shot midway through the setup with (L to R) me, Schindler, Jon Ohlberger, and Mike Dombeck, father of the Roadless Act.

 

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I made a second set on the lake that the stream flows into.  Near the stream mouth, the hillside along the lake turned to cliffs and left only the shore as a travel route. I figured that if any landscape feature was going to funnel wolverine movements, this was probably it. I set the camera in aperture priority so that it would choose its own shutter speed and not overexpose the scene during midday. The trade-off was that my flashes would only be able to synch with the camera during low light periods, when the shutter speed became slower than  1/200s.

Shortly after setting the camera an Arctic ground squirrel dropped by, once when it was dark enough for the flashes to function and again during bright conditions when the shutter speed jumped to 1/640s and exceeded the camera’s “x-synch”.

 

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Unfortunately that was all the action I got. Shortly after I set the cameras we had unusually warm weather. I suspect the wolverine headed up to the high country and cooled off.

While the wolverine sets were unsuccessfully ticking along, I hobbled together another camera trap from the body I usually reserve for handheld work (a 5D III), some ziplock bags, and an active IR sensor. I couldn’t use flash cause all my speedlights were out in the field. My goal was to capture a red fox that strolled the lake shore as it made forays between its den and nearby foraging areas.

I had a lot of near misses because the fox had a habit of disabling my camera trap on it’s way out to feed. It would neatly detach the cable between the sensor and the camera, run down the beach with it, and then chew it into multiple pieces. Then it’d return later with prey in its mouth, but the IR sensor wouldn’t trigger the camera. While it was frustrating to miss pictures, it’s always a joy to camera trap animals that still show their intrinsic curiosity and boldness. Canids in the lower-48 are often so skittish that they’d never get within 100 meters of my camera trap, let alone play with it. When you consider that these Alaskan foxes are bold despite a long history of being hunted and trapped, it gives you an idea of how hard we must have hammered carnivores in the lower-48 to get today’s ultra wary coyote.

The fox shot was a bit tricky because it often traveled back from feeding in the evening, with the sun at its back. I should have used a flash or reflector but I had neither so I had to rely on pushing the shadows in post. After a week or so I finally got a shot of the fox with a mouthful of prey, in this case a large Arctic ground squirrel. A lot of nature photographers hate it when the animal looks at the camera, but I like it in this shot. Maybe the fox was looking over to tell me that it was giving me my one good photo of the trip.

 

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  • Sean Landsman - That last fox shot is awesome. The look on its face is like it was caught in the act of doing something it shouldn’t be. The photo wouldn’t be nearly as engaging if the fox weren’t making direct eye-contact. Brilliantly captured!

    Photographer Peter Mather camera trapped a wolverine in the Yukon I believe. Here’s a link to the Nat Geo article about it: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/10/23/elusive-wolverine-caught-on-camera/ReplyCancel

  • jonny5armstrong@gmail.com - Thanks Sean!

    If I can make it up next year, I’m going straight to a ridgline above camp that has an incredible view and a nice game trail.ReplyCancel

A few weeks before I travelled to Kenya I couldn’t sleep, so to pass time I grabbed my phone and started Googling African wildlife. The first one that popped up was a leopard. Unlike a lot of folks that visit Kenya to photograph wildlife, my list of top animals didn’t include any of the “big five” iconic species such as leopard. The critters I find the most interesting to camera trap are the ones that are difficult to photograph with camera in hand, the secretive or nocturnal ones you may never get a glimpse of in an entire lifetime; the cougars, fishers, honey badgers, and  aardvarks of the world. Kenyan leopards definitely don’t fall into that category; they’re photographed tens of thousands of times every year.

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I hadn’t gotten that excited about photographing leopards until that groggy moment, as I squinted at a generic image on my phone’s tiny screen. For the first time I actually stopped and took a close look at this mysterious spotted cat. I was blown away by its subtle features, like the countershading that goes from orange on its back to white on its belly. Or how its spots start as single black dots on its face and actually become dark orange blotches surrounded by rings of black dots towards its hind legs. Suddenly I got overwhelmed with excitement knowing that I was going to have a chance to camera trap such a visually stunning critter. I didn’t get back to sleep.

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When I arrived in Kenya, I didn’t have a clue how to photograph a leopard. The woodland shrub habitats of Laikipia are so criss-crossed with game trails that it’s hard to single one out and predict how an animal might traverse the landscape. Further, not knowing anything about the ecology of leopards, I had no idea what sort of habitats they preferred. Luckily Jake Goheen (posed below) had been working in the area for over a decade and knew exactly where to take me. We headed to a stretch of river lined with yellow fever trees. The river was full of hippos and the adjacent grazing lawns had an amazing array of wildlife including elephant, giraffe, kudu, impala, and dik-dik. I didn’t realize it at the time, but there were actually so many animals that it would become a problem. I set one camera on a game trail under the fever trees, and another on a fallen tree just off the river.

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The first night out, the game trail set captured a leopard, but one of the flashes failed and the cat triggered the camera before it entered the frame. With such a fast start, I felt a level of optimism and confidence that I rarely feel while camera trapping. That feeling was ephemeral. After that first night, the leopards avoided my camera and the rest of the animal kingdom started getting frisky. First an elephant dismantled my lighting gear, somehow managing to play with two of my lighting rigs without damaging anything. Then a group of baboons had their way with the cameras and brought things to an abrupt halt.

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I left for the Serengeti and had the thrill of seeing several leopards in real life, meanwhile hoping that my camera traps back in Laikipia were taking their own leopard shots.

 

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I returned a week later to bad news. Hyenas, elephants, baboons, and cows had mangled my camera traps so bad that the assistant checking the cameras decided to pull everything to stop any further damage. With one week to go, I’d gotten skunked on big cats and my supply of functional motion sensors and flashes was dwindling. I didn’t have a good way to protect my equipment, and I doubted there was much that could stop an elephant, or even a motivated baboon, so I just kept at it and crossed my fingers. I ditched the game trail set because of the density of monkeys in the area, but I hoped that my luck would turn on the log set. However, a  group of elephants with newborn calves moved into the area and I figured I was done for.

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Not only was it dangerous to access the area to check the cameras, but I was sure they would have a field day with my camera gear. Somehow the elephants left my camera alone and in the following nights things started to pick up. Not only did I finally get a leopard, but I also got a zorilla, an African skunk of sorts.

 

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As my time winded down and I had a few good shots on the hard drive, I wanted to go for something more ambitious. While in the Serengeti I’d seen leopards in trees, resting or caching prey out of the reach of thieving hyenas. The sight of a large cat high in a tree left a strong impression on me. I really wanted to capture that signature behavior of leopards, but rather than shooting them with a telephoto lens from a Land Cruiser, I wanted to be in the tree with the leopard. I also didn’t want to get eaten, so clearly this was a job for the camera trap. The trick would be getting the camera in front of a leopard. One solution would be to set on a cached kill, but the probability of finding a cached leopard kill in a climbable tree was slim to none. Further, I didn’t really want to hang around a leopard kill if I didn’t have to, for the cat’s sake and my own. Instead, I figured I’d find a tree along a leopard’s travel route and see if I could pique its curiosity enough to make an arboreal detour. I put a couple different lures 30 feet or so up a yellow fever tree and secured my camera about 20 feet up the trunk, hoping to get the cat on its way up. Scrambling around in a fever tree above hippo pools was probably not the smartest thing I’ve ever done (as Jessi frequently pointed out), but it was certainly my most memorable camera trap set to date. My friend Anne Hilborne had warned me about snakes and biting insects that hang out in trees, but luckily none of the ants that got all over me were biters, and the only critters I saw in the tree were elephants across the river. With help from Jessi and local hippo chaser Matt Snider, I mounted my camera to the tree with a Magic Arm and secured two flashes using parachute chord and a flexible tripod. I anticipated a night shot, which meant I didn’t have to worry about overexposing ambient light. This freed me up to shoot at a higher ISO (800), which allowed me to use lower power setting on my flashes, increasing their ability to freeze action. For a motion sensor, I used a prototype PIR sensor my friend Jeff Dale at TRLcam gave me before my trip, which had proven incredibly responsive and reliable.

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Luckily the resident baboons and vervet monkeys had grown bored of my gear and left the camera alone, besides posing for the occasional daytime picture.

 

 

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However, with one night to go, I still hadn’t gotten any leopard shots and my hopes were dwindling. On our final morning in Kenya, I pulled the camera out of the tree and Jessi, Jake and I hit the image playback button to see if we had any visitors. To my surprise, a leopard had come by just a few hours earlier, triggering a single picture as it bounded up the tree.

 

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  • Arthur veitch - Just love the work and the story behind it. You aced the night sky.ReplyCancel

    • jonny5armstrong@gmail.com - Thanks Arthur!ReplyCancel

I Just got back from Kenya, where I was working on a science and photography project with my friend and colleague Jake Goheen. In addition to being a stellar model for setting up camera traps, Jake is one of the best ecologists I know; he’s made some really cool discoveries about the role that predators, large herbivores, and even ants, play in shaping ecosystems.

Jake wanted pictures of the elusive “aard” beasts. Aarde means “earth” in Afrikaans/Dutch and probably refers to the burrowing behavior that these animals exhibit. We were after both the aardvark, which translates fairly accurately to “earth pig” and the aardwolf, an evolutionarily unrelated critter that is not actually a wolf, but instead a dwarf hyena. Both the aardvark and aardwolf are insectivores and mainly eat termites. We weren’t sure how to camera trap an aardbeast, but we figured setting on a termite mound couldn’t be a bad place to start. My first non-travel day in Kenya, I piled into a Land Rover with Jake, my fiancée Jessi, Simon (Jake’s research assistant), and a massive pile of camera trap gear.

 

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Jake drove us to a spot that was thick with termite mounds and we started looking for signs of aardbeasts. We didn’t find any fresh burrows, tracks, or other clues, so we picked a random termite mound and plopped a camera trap on it. I set up some pretty conservative lighting with a key light on a stand off to camera-right, an on-axis fill light on the ground, and a rim light in case we got an animal on top of the mound. I switched up the lighting and composition a tiny bit during the set but nothing major.

 

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The camera ran for a week before getting disabled by what I assume was a herd of cows. I didn’t get a single shot of an aardvark or aardwolf, but I wasn’t too distraught–in just seven days, nine different species of mammal stepped in front of the camera. Waiting for me on the LCD screen were shots of a bat-eared fox, a giraffe, several goofy-looking camels, bats in flight, and the five critters featured below, which were kind enough to pose in the camera’s focal plane.

Leopard

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Serval

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And over a stretch of 7 minutes…

Cattle

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Human

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Black-backed jackal

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Every shot from this set put a huge smile on my face, especially the one of the two jackals, which is probably my favorite from the whole trip.

The day after we left Jake bumped into an aardvark while driving back to camp at night. It was only the third one he’d seen in his whole life. I wish I’d have been there to set a camera on it’s burrow, but hopefully I’ll be back before too long.

More pictures to come…