DSLR Camera-trapping Project Part 1: Making a Start

The first in an occasional blog series on setting up and using a reliable, hassle free wildlife camera-trap setup where you can be taking photos of animals that you wouldn’t be able to get any other way, all while you are fast asleep in bed. What’s not to like!

One of my first trapping sessions in the back garden produced good results with this fine fox captured on our deck just before Christmas. Its not exactly how I want it so I’m going to have another go with this compositional idea. 

Canon 7Dmkii, Canon EF-S 4.5-5.6 I 10-18mm at 18mm, 1/100 sec f6.3, ISO 400 with 2x Nikon SB-28 flash units at 1/32 power .


In any normal year I do find that my photography mojo gets a bit stuck in neutral during the deep winter months, but this isn’t a normal year and I decided in the autumn that the photographic doldrums weren’t going to get me this time. But what to do? As many of you know I had a lovely fox to play with during lockdown and into the summer. She eventually vanished into thin air, but since then with the help of my trail-cam, and careful observation of often used tracks across the property and gaps in hedges, I have kept a watchful eye on the nocturnal comings and goings in our garden.

I now know that we currently have at least three foxes passing through during the night. Their individual behaviour, markings, body size and gait are all very recognisable on the trail-cam video footage, and we see and hear them in the patio lights as well if we fancy a bit of a ‘fox-watch’, staying up late in the dark with a cuppa, though this often leads to sarcastic comments such as ‘‘Normal behaviour!’’ from our boys. Little did they know that dads behaviour was about to get a whole lot weirder.

I figured it might be fun to challenge myself to obtain some interesting night-time photos of our new interlopers. However, because they are elusive and keep unsociable hours I would have to use a camera trap of some kind. I had previously dabbled in this but got a bit discouraged by it because of the relative lack of control of the scene compared to actually being behind the camera yourself, and also the complicated and fiddly setup with cables trailing all over the place and unreliable light sources and flashes that refused to wake up after going to sleep. All of these issues were going to have to be overcome if I was to try again. On the plus side, there was plenty of scope for experimentation with various bits of homemade equipment, and if you ever read my blog on extreme macro you’ll know that I do like a bit of that. I also have secretly hankered after getting shots of other species like badgers and pine marten from angles which would just be impossible any other way. Practising setups and technique on the foxes would be a great way of learning the trade so I could hit the ground running on the other subjects later.

First of all I needed to invest in a trigger which would detect movement or the presence of an animal. There are 3 main types, Passive Infra Red(PIR) akin to the sensors that turn on outside lights which are activated by heat or movement, Active Infra Red (a more precise bit of kit with a separate beam emitter and receiver), and Laser Beam Interruption (like those that control photography of water splashes and bursting balloons). I chose a PIR from a British company called Camtraptions, and I got their wireless version as one of my aims was for a completely wireless setup. I also purchased several transmitters and receivers and rather than explaining what controls what in words, I’ll do a diagram for you………


and here’s their promotional video which explains it very clearly.


Next I had to think about flash units and this was where I had to correct a small mistake that I had made earlier in the year. I had purchased three used Chinese Yong-Nuo flashguns and radio transmitters/receivers very cheaply on ebay and they were great for occasional use when I was indoors or for a bit of off-camera fill in flash at other times. However I realised their limitations when leaving them out at night for long periods. They were very unpredictable in their behaviour, sometimes flashing sometimes not. They ate batteries, and after a while shut down completely and simply would not wake up again until they were manually turned off then on again. And they would jump from Manual to TTL all by themselves. The instructions are in unintelligible ‘Chinglish’. Useless. So I put them back on ebay and researched my next move. It soon became clear that the go-to flashgun for camera-trappers wasn’t a bit of modern hi-tech gizmo wizardry for once, but was a 20 year old Nikon flashgun called the SB-28, from the days of film based SLR’s. If you have one in a drawer somewhere, guard it with your life! You can’t use TTL metering with them on digital cameras but that’s not a problem here since I am using manually set flash power settings. I discovered that these units would be perfectly compatible with Camtraption triggers, transmitters and receivers, would work with any of my Canon bodies, would slip into sleep mode and and had a capacitor so efficient that barely leaked any charge and would fire immediately the PIR woke the flash up. This also meant that they were pretty frugal when it came to battery drain too. So popular are these that they get snapped up on ebay rather quickly when they appear. However, I have managed to source three of the blighters and they are indeed truly amazing little powerhouses and have proved completely trustworthy. Ill come on to how I use them later in this series.

For a quick example, and before I lapse into extreme detail, I’ll just describe my initial stab I had at the trapping in the garden one night. Actually it was on the drive. Fortunately we are at the end of a cul-de-sac so it was unlikely that anyone would walk past and steal my kit, so I was reasonably hopeful it would all still be there in the morning.

So I had my camera on a tripod secured to the axle of our wheelie bin with a bike cable lock, under a bag hide, the PIR trigger in the hedge, and the single flash in the tree on the right with additional lighting with a multitude of temperatures from a yellow street lamp and the neighbours halogen security light. Here’s the setup……

Camera under a bag hide, PIR sensor in the hedge on the left, single flash in the tree on the right.

Most of the images on the card were rubbish. False triggers with nothing; The cat from next door; the back end of something; blurred streaks. The hit rate was truly appalling. And yet, this one was there in amongst all the dross. It isn’t very impressive, its noisy, and there’s some ‘ghosting’ of the fox where it moved during the x sec exposure, but hey, it was a camera-trapped urban fox in a nice pose and in its typical environment, so I was pleased enough with that, especially as I was only using one flashgun. I was on an obviously steep learning curve, where there were many aspects of technique to be improved and worked on, but it was an encouraging start. 

A first attempt with a single flash unit.

Canon 7Dmkii, Canon EF-S 4.5-5.6 I 10-18mm at 18mm, 1/3 sec f8, ISO 400 with 1x Nikon SB-28 flash unit at 1/32 power .

I then thought a bit more about composition and the following evening got this shot which I was much happier with. 

Amongst other things I needed to improve my lighting setup, the parameters my camera was set to, my security, my weatherproofing and my compositions. But mostly my lighting. This game is going to force me to get to grips with artificial light and how to use it. I think many photographers are afraid of flash because they don’t really understand it. I’m afraid of flash too. My god, look at all the settings, what should I choose, how does it talk to the camera?  and there’s the matter of where to position them for best effect and for avoiding blasting the flash directly at the animal (which is clearly a well established no-no). And then there’s the matter of ambient light from the sky or street and house lights. How can I freeze motion if I need a longer exposure to get the ambient light? How do I combine ambient with my artificial lights? Do I even try?

The good news is that you don’t need to be a nerd to get a grasp of the basic principles. I learn best by experimentation and fortunately the techniques lend themselves to that. A lot of it is trial and error. The flash units are set to Manual mode, and then you can use the plus or minus sign buttons to adjust the power output of the flash. Now here’s the thing – I originally thought that when you adjusted the power output of a flash you were changing how bright it fired at. Select a low power (say 1/8 on the LCD) and the flash fires a bit dimmer than it would if you set it at full power (1/1 on the LCD). But as it turns out that’s not true at all! The flash element, no matter what the setting chosen, either fires or it doesn’t. When you set the flash power, what you are actually doing is controlling the flash duration – the length of time the flash element is lit up! This revelation was actually like a flashgun going off in my brain. (ah the lights have finally come on!). Up till then I had thought that increasing the flash power and my camera’s shutter speed would give me a sharper shot because I could freeze motion with the faster shutter speed and with brighter light hitting my subject. How wrong could I get! In darkness then, your flash going off at 1/32 or 1/64 is acting like a very very fast shutter itself (in fact it the shutter speed of the camera is irrelevant here), and that’s also great for not blinding the subject. Clearly then, for this particular camera-trapping application the best setup is a multiple low-power flash arrangement. Three or four units are about right, all arranged to creatively illuminate the scene, with typical manual flash settings of 1/32nd or 1/64th power.

I found this video to be absolutely brilliant at explaining flash.


And so, once I had a second flashgun, I began to get better results……

Canon 5DmkIV, Canon EF 24-70 F4 L IS USM at 35mm, 200th sec f8, ISO 1000 with 2x Nikon SB-28 flash units at 1/32 and 1/64 power .

Canon 5DmkIV, Canon EF 24-70 F4 L IS USM at 35mm, 200th sec f8, ISO 1000 with 2x Nikon SB-28 flash units at 1/32 and 1/64 power .

These are my best shots to date, but I am currently waiting for another flash unit to arrive, then Ill be able to improve further I hope. While I’m waiting I have improved my weatherproofing and security by making some housings for the flashguns and the camera. So in the next exciting episode, I will be showing how I have made these in case you are interested in doing the same. I know Barry at least is keen to see what has emerged from ‘the shed’!

Canon 5DmkIV, Canon EF 24-70 F4 L IS USM at 24mm, 200th sec f8, ISO 1000 with 2x Nikon SB-28 flash units at 1/32 and 1/64 power .

I hope you found that interesting. Bye for now.

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  1. That’s a great set-up and very clearly explained. You’ve already got some very good natural shots and I’ve no doubt that you’ll get some absolute corkers as you go forward with this. Looks like a really great project!

  2. Thanks Paul. It’s challenging, and full of highs and lows but overall exciting.

  3. This a very intriguing blog Andy. I will have to seriously consider doing something along theses lines. Thanks a million.

  4. Great blog, thank you Andy. Very lucid in explanation and with the lovely images too – looking forward to your next! The fox looks very healthy indeed from this layman’s eye – beautiful animals and much-maligned

    • Cheers Jerry. Well some are beautiful specimens whereas others are scruffy, mangy unfortunates, though with this technique you have to take what comes!

  5. Nice Work Andy!! I think I have more triggers than the Lone Ranger!! I have just been playing with my Trail cam getting footage and now I may after put the serious kit out soon!! Look forward to the Barry Bucknell Edition !!

  6. Cracking stuff Andy …SB28’s I remember those … but do have a slack handful of suitable flash units … Hmmmm

  7. Great blog – although I read the second one first 🙄

  8. Brilliant 😃. Love reading your blogs, they always tell a good story, have great pics and good insight. Really looking forward to reading the follow up chapters.

  9. Hi Andy, I just started to read your blogs. Great concept which I have been looking to set up myself for ages. Lots of interesting tips you have learned along the way. Thanks for sharing.

  10. Just catching up with this blog, which features your usual thorough and methodical approach and lots of great information, not to mention some terrific pictures! Thanks Andy.

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