Nature Tech

Camera Trap Meets Studio Lighting: Stunning Images and the Story Behind Them

September 1, 2015

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Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

This is not your usual backyard camera trapping.

You’ve undoubtedly seen the images I mean: grainy, dark photos of elusive critters passing in the night. Sure, they’re cool. And they are often provide important scientific evidence of creatures that we seldom see.

But such camera trap pictures are not quality wildlife art.

Enter Jonny Armstrong.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Jonny Armstrong tests a camera trap. Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

Armstrong is a fish biologist and, most recently, a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow at the University of Wyoming. I first interviewed him about his surprising findings on the ecology of salmon rivers. It turns out, he’s also doing groundbreaking work with camera trapping – combining technical skill, studio lighting and wildlife knowledge to create stunning, artistic images.

At first glance, these images almost don’t look real. Then a different idea takes hold: these photos don’t look real because they show wildlife as we almost never see them. Photos taken not with a telephoto lens from just a few feet away. At night.

You could spend months – years – staked out and not capture such images. Camera traps can. But it’s not easy. This is more than putting up a trail camera over a game trail and seeing what comes by.

First, Armstrong deploys his tools. He has a motion sensor, an SLR camera, plenty of battery power and studio lighting. He has to know how the animal moves. He often uses fur trapping techniques – clearing a trail to make it more appealing to an animal, directing it to one spot – to get the perfect shot.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Wyoming ground squirrel. © Jonathan Armstrong

“That means that I have all lights focused in one shot,” says Armstrong. “When it works, you get the best photo. But that means there is no room for error.”

And it also means lots of errors. He recounts the time he set up on a game trail used by a mountain lion with Denver’s city lights in the background. The camera was out for weeks. A friend, David Neils, set up a cheap trail camera set on video nearby.

Neils’ camera captured this mountain lion grooming itself just feet out of range of Armstrong’s set-up. The still camera never captured the image despite inarguable video proof of the mountain lion’s presence. He missed the shot-of-a-lifetime by the slimmest of margins. The consolation prize? A long-eared owl.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Consolation prize: long-eared owl. © Jonathan Armstrong

All sorts of problems can befall a camera in the wild. Armstrong’s recent work – camera trapping focused on Wyoming wildlife – meant cameras out in frigid cold and wind.

Sometimes it works out; he tracked a mountain lion to a deer kill, then set up his trap. That night, the camera captured several mountain lion images before freezing up in -30 degree temperatures.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Mountain lion with a deer kill. © Jonathan Armstrong

Other times, the wind knocks over the camera, capturing only a sideways look at an animal’s leg.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

This form of camera trapping means focusing on one species, but other animals don’t know that. Super-abundant deer mice can trip the motion sensor hundreds of times in one night, quickly burning the battery. When the camera is set up over kills, common daytime scavengers like magpies can have a similar effect.

Popular trails for wildlife are also often popular trails for humans – and their dogs.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Camera trap bycatch: dog on a trail. Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

Cows grazing on federal land knock over cameras. They also often end up in the frame. A herd of cows can burn through batteries in an afternoon.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Cattle were frequently captured on camera traps on public lands. Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

And then there are black bears.

“When you get a black bear, you see one or two images, then the bear trashes the set,” Armstrong says. “It’s not unusual to see a photo of a bear followed by a bunch of smeary images caused by the bear nosing the lens.”

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
A smudged camera lens and the culprit: a black bear. Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

And that’s nothing compared to Kenya, where Armstrong spent one month camera trapping earlier in the year. “It was not unusual to have your camera stepped on by an elephant or trashed by a hyena,” he says.

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
A trashed camera in Kenya. Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

But the rewards are worth it. “It is basically like setting up a studio in nature,” says Armstrong. “It gives you an intimate view of animals that are seldom seen. I have never seen a wild mountain lion in real life. But this set-up gives a view of what a mountain lion is doing just a few feet away.”

And it even has advantages over traditional wildlife photography. “The challenge of lighting also creates incredible creative opportunities,” he says. “You suddenly have control over the light. You don’t have to rely on ambient light like you usually do in nature photography.”

Armstrong’s salmon research reveals there’s a lot more going on in a river than meets the eye at first glance – a world of feast and famine that escapes the eye. He sees his camera trapping in much the same way.

“When you walk through a lodgepole pine forest in the daytime, you might see chickadees and red squirrels, but it looks as if not much is happening. At times, it can almost seem lifeless,” he says. “But the camera trap shows a different reality. It shows there are large predators living out their lives.”

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Mule deer. Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong

Armstrong has teamed up with University of Wyoming fine arts photographer Bailey Russel for an exhibition, Wild Portraits, opening September 2 at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, sponsored by the University’s Biodiversity Institute.

This is a peek at that exhibition, showing a marriage of science and art and technology. And if you can’t make it in person, we’ll feature more of Armstrong’s images in the coming months.

With the technology requirements, time investment (to capture one stunning image often takes weeks or months) and extensive field time, these images would be impossible to replicate with the trail camera you buy at the local discount store. But that shouldn’t dissuade you.

“You can buy a trail camera very cheaply now,” says Armstrong. “And that opens up a whole new form of nature recreation. It can also create a connection to species we don’t normally see. The species that we connect with through fishing, hunting and birding all have a constituency. Maybe camera trapping can create a constituency for wildlife that we almost never see.”

Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
American marten. Photo: © Jonathan Armstrong
Matt Miller

Matt Miller is director of science communications for The Nature Conservancy and editor of the Cool Green Science blog. A lifelong naturalist and outdoor enthusiast, he has covered stories on science and nature around the globe. Matt has worked for the Conservancy for the past 14 years, previously serving as director of communications for the Idaho program. More from Matt

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33 comments

  1. Yes Johnny is a master camera trapper, Some of his picture from Alaska are out of this world.
    Denis

  2. love these stories but, can you also show the reader what the guys and gals use kit and the settings when your doing stories like this so people can see and try to achieve the same results.

  3. Great story. Those are certainly stunning camera trap photos and put the ones we take on our property to shame. But, it is a great way to document the wildlife that visits and that was our first goal. Now I just need to take it to the next level. Thanks for the inspiration Johnny and Matt!

  4. Great blog Matt. I sure can be an expensive endeavor as evidenced by the trashed equipment 🙂 There is also the missing element of the hunt and the personal interaction that I enjoy with the critters but I do appreciate these images, thank you for sharing.

  5. The camera takes a wonderful picture, but what does such bright lighting do to the animals? I should think that it would startle them.

  6. Animals nature willd are taken will be extinction is time to bring human family Happy Sustainability 2015

  7. Very nice. Thanks for sharing this. I too, am wondering how the sudden lighting affects the animals.

  8. These photos are incredible and quite wonderful to view, not to mention amazing..Bravo Mr Armstrong and his special camera… the puma and the little marten are standouts…..keep up the work..

  9. The American marten is my personal favorite….it feels like you could reach out & touch him.

  10. Absolutely increadable photography. Technique and a loving care for nature come together making for a beautiful emotion for all to see and feel. I loved it.

  11. These are beautiful images. However, I think that it would be a shame to have these techniques proliferated throughout the remainder of our wild areas in the interests of amateur photographers getting their shot of a lifetime for their portfolio. Misguided “nature lovers” can abuse access to animals/ wild areas too.

    These photos obviously wouldn’t be great photos without the studio light trap. Would any of us invite a photo trap into our house to show us doing what we do in our own environment? That’s called modern day entertainment on reality TV. Hmm… the idea of capturing wild animals doing what they normally do without imposing the human element and all it’s “trappings”is not the case here. The light “trap” is a very obvious true trap with very real potential negative consequences. As we all know, species are being squeezed for home range-wild area already. Bright lights are blinding to nocturnal predators – so the “natural” question is if the capture of a beautiful image is worth the cost to the individual animal, etc…

    Are the images being used to fund more research, purchase more conservation land to set aside for the species, or are they being used for exploitive purposes- to build a portfolio for a pro photographer ?Also, will location data – intelligence be shared with the big game hunters etc.?

  12. Really remarkable, wonderful shots that do reflect a dignity, a majesty to the photographed individual animal.

  13. Browsed through all of this and found it most interesting. I am just an average senior 87 year old that would like to follow some of these interesting studies. The camera pictures of the animals are glorious. I love them. And will look for more. Thank you, Nancy

  14. So beautiful and interesting. I appreciate the enormous work and expense that goes into making these photos happen. A legacy forever. Why do we need to go to Pluto when our own world is rich with complicated and diverse life that is fast disappearing? Better to invest our money in this kind of science.

  15. Amazing! I’m a novice in knowledge about nature. It’s great to see animals in “real life” – Thanks for sharing these photos and thanks for the patience and skill to take such photos.

  16. Do the lights affect the animals? Great images, but am wondering if the camera lights startle the animals,
    and if this technique becomes highly popular as a hobby, what sort of impacts will the animals feel?

    Love the images, but concerned that humans have so encroached on the few remaining wild lands that even good conservationists might not fully review impacts of taking pictures using night lights.

    Please describe the lights used and the reaction of the animals when they are caught in the lights…
    or has that reaction not been caught on video?

  17. I have a project taking videos of the wildlife in a cemetery. My usual subject is tadpoles, but I video anything I can find. Often my best shots, and when I learn the most about the critters I am watching, is when I turn the camera on and walk away. Watching that footage is always a treat. Check out Moshassuckcritters on youtube.

  18. What astounding images! What Armstrong is doing is truly beautiful – the images are reminiscent of the stuffed animal tableaux the Victorians created, trying to capture the natural world, but these images show life, not death and dust. It certainly opens new fields of possibility, not just for naturalists, but for photographers and other artists as well.

  19. Thank you for this wonderful presentation; I wish I lived closer to Wyoming to see the exhibit at the University. Fraser, VA