Have you ever wondered about the secrets of camera trap wildlife photography? Find out how one photographer captures striking images of big cats and more in this interview with expert Robert Yone.
Inspiration in photography can comes in all shapes and sizes. Recently, while scrolling through social media, I came across an image by photographer Robert Yone that stopped me in my tracks. In the photograph, a wild bobcat casually walks through deep fresh snow directly towards the camera. Its piercing gaze looks frankly into the lens with one paw lifted, tentative, belaying cautious motion. The bobcat is surrounded by trees heavy with snow and softly fading mountains in the background. The image is tack sharp, immaculately lit, and captivating in its simple beauty. Perfect moments like this captured once are luck. Robert Yone has an entire portfolio full of wildlife captured by a camera trap. This is skill and dedication worthy of recognition.
I immediately reached out to Yone and found a warm, kind gentleman, knowledgeable in his craft and willing to share his work and secrets with us. I asked him for an interview. His insights and technical expertise are fascinating.
As with many photographers, Robert Yone had an organic start to the profession, he was simply documenting family vacations. As an avid hiker and kayaker, bringing along a camera was a natural way to capture those cherished memories.
I found when I take photographs, it cements the memories into my brain. I enjoy the memories that come with the knowledge of all that occurred on the other side of the camera before the photo was taken. Photography is an artistic outlet that allowed me to express how I felt about a particular place and how I see the world. It’s a challenge technically and has become a pursuit to capture the perfect image.
Yone got his start in the days of film, wielding everything from 35mm to both medium and large format cameras. While he started just capturing family nature adventures he soon fell into photographing for his college paper and then later a local newspaper. From strength to strength, his passion for photography grew. This is where the camera traps came into play.
When discussing his first camera trap adventure, Robert Yone tells the story of getting trap fever:
I took my first DSLR trap on a kayak trip off the West Coast of Vancouver Island, Canada. We stayed on a small island off the West Coast known to be occupied by coastal wolves. While kayaking, I knew I had a good chance of seeing wolves because we came across the IMAX camera crew of Ian McAllister. They were also looking for coastal wolves to film for the movie Great Bear Rainforest: Land of the Spirit Bear.
I only had about five days to set up my camera and flashes to capture something. I found a spot with tracks that had a trail leading from the inner island to the beach, where the wolves would look for food at low tide. I set up and hoped for the best. It was a tough learning experience. I checked every day and found mistakes in settings, flash exposure, focus point, and the wireless trigger sensitivity.
The day before I had to leave, I checked the camera. It rained the night before, and I was disappointed to find a lot of false triggers caused by the rain. As I looked through the photos, I was relieved to find my first two successful captures. One was a wolf as he passed by during the storm, the next was from the following morning shortly before I arrived. Needless to say, I was hooked after my first success.
As a fellow wildlife photographer, I can identify with the strengths and weaknesses of nature photography. Most wildlife vehemently avoids humans. Sometimes, you will spend days or even weeks hiking out in the field, bug-bitten, mud-covered, and exhausted, to capture the one photograph of your muse. A rustle and flash of movement in dense brush may be all you get. It is rewarding but can be full of heartbreak and frustration as well.
For Robert Yone, he seeks the elusive wildlife, the ones that don’t want to be found. When you are a photographer, you are also a problem-solver. How can one create beautiful photographs of bobcats, mountain lions, wolves that are real wildlife experiences but on their terms? DSLR camera traps are the clear solution. Quality images from professional gear that remove the human equation and let the wildlife be wild.
Yone’s camera trap photography captures an intimate view into the lives of wildlife. The perspective of the camera, low to the ground, is artfully chosen to bring the viewer into their world. He uses a wide-angle lens, and often, the wildlife are mere feet from the camera.
It was a new technical challenge. It required me to pre-visualize the image I wanted to capture. I also needed to learn about the animals. I learned their tracks, scat, and prey animals. Then, there is the photography aspect of focus, exposure, flash, battery life, weatherproofing, and remote triggers.
It requires both technical expertise and an understanding of wildlife to set these cameras up in just the right place. A great deal of planning goes into the selection of the trap location. Yone goes out in winter to look for wildlife tracks. This lets him discover areas where they walk through often, called game trails. These are like wildlife highways. When trying for predator species, he looks for a habitat far from humans with a water source, ample prey, and a nest or cover like a rock formation for the prey. Game trails with choke points that will funnel wildlife past his camera are the best spots. Once he finds a suitable area, Yone sets up an inexpensive commercial trail camera that can capture video to scout the location. The image quality of those devices is often poor, but this is just for scouting. It lets him confirm what wildlife uses the area, the time of day, and the directions that they travel as well as their behaviors.
By planning and then scouting his locations, Yone is able to reduce some of the risks associated with setting up an expensive camera rig and leaving it in the woods for days or weeks on a hope and a prayer. Instead, his hard work and knowledge pay off time and time again. He has been able to set up his larger more elaborate DSLR camera traps to photograph a wide variety of species. To date, Yone has photographed mountain lions, bobcats, bears, wolves, coyotes, turkeys, deer, elk, long-tailed weasels, long-eared owls, saw-whet owls, various birds, western spotted skunks, wood rats, mice, squirrels, rabbits, and bats. All of the wildlife are photographed up close and acting natural, just living their lives. Next on his list to try for are pine marten, fox, bobcat kittens, bear cubs, porcupine, bighorn sheep, and moose. Many of the animals that he has photographed he has never seen in person himself. Without a camera trap, these views would not exist.
Each time you check the camera, it’s exciting. You never know if you are about to see something amazing.
The DSLR camera trap itself is a custom creation and intricate system of the camera, housing, sensors, flashes, and wires. It is best described by Yone himself:
A lot of different gear can be used. The camera bodies I currently use are a Nikon D300S, D7100, and D810, with 2-3 flashes per camera. I like the Nikon SB-28 flash because it’s small, powerful, and can hold a charge in standby mode for an instant flash for a couple of weeks. I also use a couple of Nikon SB-600 flashes that work well in wired TTL mode for more flexible and accurate flash exposures. These are all used older flashes I can usually find cheap for sale locally on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace.
I mount my camera in a Pelican style waterproof case. It’s modified using a tube for the lens and glass in front for protection from the elements. I mount the case on old tripod, and the flash units are placed in PVC piping with clear covers. They are mounted on trees, posts, or rock formations.
The camera is triggered using either a wireless infrared active or passive sensor. I have used sensors from Cognisys, Camtraptions, and TRLCam.com. Some people make their own sensors; I’m not quite that handy. I have had luck with all the above and find each one has its use depending on the location.
Getting the right settings can be tricky. I found the key is to use manual focus only. I carefully set the focus point using DOF calculations to allow for the nearest distance to infinity. I keep my camera settings on manual and usually have the aperture set to f/10 or higher. I keep the shutter speed set to 1/200 to help freeze daylight action but keep within the flash sync speed. I set the ISO to auto and limit the high and low settings (400-1,600, depending on the camera) to provide the best chance of proper exposure during daylight and limit too much grain at night. The manual flash settings will depend on the distance of the flash to subject. I use a light meter on occasion to measure and set the light output at the subject location.
If you find yourself starting to feel the tug of trap fever, Yone has some suggestions on getting started with camera trap photography. Research is an important first step for this type of photography. His favorite resource online is Camtrapper.com, a forum with an avid community of camera trappers and information. There you can learn about what gear is best, why standby modes and battery life matter, and more. He also recommends just browsing YouTube for the many trappers that share their stories and successes.
Once you’ve gotten your bearings with a bit of research and are ready to build your first rig, Yone says to start simple. An old, used camera, Camtraptions wireless flash triggers, and a waterproof case modified to house it are the best start. He recommends just looking online for a tutorial on how to modify the specific case that you have to turn into the camera trap housing. Then, once your first rig is built, set it up somewhere easy like a bird feeder to test it out. Trial and error is the only way to fine-tune your setup.
Don’t get discouraged. It’s a lot harder than people think it might be. You will have weeks of checking without any results, dead batteries from small rodents triggering your camera, fogged lenses, near misses, out-of-focus photos, equipment malfunctions and other challenges. It’s all worth it when you see the one photo you never thought you would get. The DSLR trap is the ultimate patient photographer, sitting in a blind, waiting for an animal to pass to take the perfect photograph in a moment’s notice.
Before you know it, with enough grit and determination, perhaps you too will be capturing gorgeous photographs of wild cats in the snow-covered mountains. If you have enjoyed viewing and learning about Robert Yone’s camera trap photography, you can find him online on Facebook, Instagram, and his website.
Images used with permission.
Thank you so much for conducting such a good interview. I really appreciate being able to learn about this unique method of photographing wildlife. And I, too, was stunned when I first saw Robert's awesome Bobcat photo at the top of this article!
I wonder if there is a way to do camera trap photography with a thin depth of field - where the animal's face is tack sharp, but the background is all blurred away, such as one often sees in telephoto wildlife portraiture. Perhaps advances in mirrorless camera's Animal Eye Focus systems will help to make this more practical or possible?
Hi Tom, there are a lot of ways to trigger camera's, I use it often for kingfishers, where I wheigh them with a sensor and trigger if something heavier then 30 grams gets on a branch. In this way I can use a pretty narrow depth of field, because I know the branch it will take place. If you're a little handy you should dive into Arduino, there are a lot of different sensors you can use to trigger camera's in every way you can think of.
I am handy with things like handtools - nuts, bolts, pliers and wrenches.
But I am terribly confused by anything electronic or computerized. Actually had to get a tutor to show me how to use my new cell phone because I couldn't figure out how to answer phone calls, take a picture, install apps, adjust volume, etc.
What is Arduino? Must admit that I have never seen or heard that word before.
Then I think you should not start with it ;-) Arduino is a (I keep it simple) very small computer in the most basic sense which you can program to do certain things, based on sensor-input. When you search on YT you'll find plenty examples.
That bobcat photo is nuts, very impressive indeed!
I'm a forester (timber management) with a major in forest game management. From what I've seen first hand and learned, I'd say set up your camera along game trails. You want the animals to walk along the trail towards the camera, so its face comes into focus before the rest of its body. Sometimes those trails are faint, so you have to hunt for them. Also setup along streams in the riparian (stream associated) area. Many animals walk along stream banks. As with game trails, point the camera in a direction parallel to stretch of stream. White-tailed deer are a stream associated species.
Also deer like edges and places where three habitat types come together (coverts). They will often walk along the edge of a forest next to a natural opening, or artificial open area like a cow pasture or crop field. Point the camera long the edge.
If you use Canon DSLRs, check out Magic Lantern. Their firmware (which goes on the memory card) includes trap focus triggering. Not all Canon models are supported.
I am so glad that you enjoyed my interview with Robert Yone! Thank you for your positive responses and questions.
It is possible but difficult to use a narrow depth of field for camera traps. There is much less room for error as the wildlife is moving but the camera is not. They would need to walk in just the perfect spot where you are focused. So you could set it up to a lower number f stop and just wait for the perfect photo.
Many photographers just use a larger f stop number with a huge depth of field so that you capture more images, less room for error, and more chance of the eyes and face being in focus.
However if you feel drawn to the narrow DOF style, I would say try it. It may take longer to get the photos as it is skill in setting your trap and luck that the wildlife steps in just the right spot. Just imagine how rewarding it will be when you do get the photo though!
I would feel very uncomfortable leaving my camera unattended. How long do they leave it? How recluse are the locations? No one ever passed and stole them?
What if the animals are upset by the flash and attack the gear? What if there’s some mudslide? What if an animal decides to drag it far from original location?
Too many unknowns!!
I would say that remote camera trap photography is not for people who are afraid of taking risks and facing the possibility of loss.
No risk it, no biscuit!
Gotta take chances to get images that others don't or can't take. Gotta be okay with the possibility that your camera, lens, and trap equipment could be damaged or stolen.
Camera trap photography does have risks of the gear getting damaged or "lost." The best way to mitigate that is to use a bit older gear, maybe even a used camera you grab and consider a throwaway kit. It will still take great photos and would be cheaper to replace if something goes awry. That being said, many wildlife like this are in very remote places, which is much of why camera traps are ideal to photograph them.
It is definitely a risk and as Tom mentioned in the comment above "No risk it, no biscuit!" Worrying too much would have every photographer bubble wrap their camera and never use it. Even regular style photography your gear can get stolen from your car, hotel room or even your home, you can drop it, etc. There is always something to worry about if you let yourself. Camera traps are calculated risks. The important thing is as I mentioned to just use gear that you would be okay losing just in case.