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

Curious bears and thirsty critters

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.



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.


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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