Freedom to Move: Camera Trapped

A remote camera trap is pretty simple. It’s just a normal DSLR camera connected to a motion trigger. I don’t push the shutter button, the animal trips an infrared beam, and then click, click, click. It’s really the only way to make intimate wide-angle pictures of wild animals without disturbing them. Pronghorn like to see far and run fast—it’s impossible to get close to them. So, if I’m around, they are not, that’s why I need to use a remote camera trap. (See the previous story and video in this series.)

I first saw this style and method of wildlife photography through the work of the legends of camera trap photography, Michael Nick Nichols and Steve Winter. I first learned how to use camera traps by just trying them out, trial and error—with lots of errors! Then in 2010 I worked for Steve Winter as his assistant on a tiger story. That’s when I really started to learn the ins and outs. He taught me a lot about gear, but more importantly he taught me how to travel and how to think about and approach photographing a story. And, this past year, I worked with Nick Nichols on the big Yellowstone single-topic issue of National Geographic coming out in 2016. Here’s the gear needed to build a camera trap.

– Nikon DSLR with wide-angle lens
– Trailmaster 1550 trigger
– custom weatherproof housing, camouflaged
– extra batteries and big SD cards

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A herd of 300 pronghorn spend their summers in Grand Teton National Park. Each fall they migrate south into the Upper Green River Basin of Wyoming, a distance of about 150 miles. This migration is the longest land mammal migration in the United States, it has never been photographed before my project. Photograph by Joe Riis

In addition, I’ve been using a lot video camera traps because I’m working on an Elk River film. Video traps are surprisingly different than still photo traps. With video, I’m trying to get the camera recording before the animal enters the frame and allow the animal to move through the frame. With still photography I’m trying to capture a moment when the animal is near the camera and evokes a sense of migration and movement.

At the end of the day, camera traps are a tool, sometimes they work really well, but most of the time they don’t because of weather or battery issues. They require a helluva lot of patience. I’m happy if I make a couple good camera trap pictures in a full year. Yes, one year. Some of the best locations I find are after the migration has happened, I see their tracks, so I return the following year to set up a camera trap before they get there.

See the previous story and video in this series.

The Adventurists blog series “Freedom to Move” is sponsored by Toyota TRD Pro, which provided a vehicle for this adventure.