A Brief History of Trail Cameras

Blog_Cam3The invention of trail cameras occurred further back in history than some might think. George Shiras III was a politician and lawyer from Pennsylvania who had an interest in using cameras to capture the first photos of wildlife in the 1880s. Most of Shiras’s photos took place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Since cameras at this time were bulky and cumbersome, carrying a camera out to the woods to take photos of elusive wildlife was not an idea that crossed most people’s minds. Shiras, however, had a brilliant idea for baiting a site and using a series of trip wires to trigger an automatic flash bulb and capture photos of animals at night.

A bull elk

A bull elk captured at night at Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. July 1913. Photograph by George Shiras.

Another method Shiras used to capture photos of wildlife was a hunting technique he learned from members of the Ojibwe tribe referred to as jacklighting. Jacklighting is the practice of sitting out on a lake in a canoe at night and using a small fire to catch an animal’s attention without scaring them away. As the animals stood still and peered curiously towards the flames, Shiras would take his shot – with his camera that is.

Shiras’s photos were one-of-a-kind at the time, and National Geographic soon began publishing them in 1906. His collection of over 2,000 photos remains in their archives today. Click here to see some of George Shiras’s amazing camera trap photos.

A hundred years later, camera trap technology had evolved considerably. By the 1980s, camera traps were mostly being used by deer hunters, but wildlife researchers were starting to use these tools as well. These cameras worked using an infrared beam that, when broken, would open the shutter on a 35mm camera and snap a picture. The 35mm film resulted in crisp and sharply contrasted images, but the film was also costly and had to be replaced often.  

The advantages of today’s digital cameras show just how far we’ve come in film technology. Cameras are light, portable, self-triggering, hold thousands of images, and can snap photos in 0.2 seconds. The use of trail cameras by hunters and other outdoor enthusiasts make them a great tool for citizen science programs such as Snapshot Wisconsin because many people already have a familiarity with using them.

A volunteer checking his trail camera

A Snapshot Wisconsin volunteer checks his camera.

The Snapshot Wisconsin program currently has over 2,100 active trail cameras in all 72 counties of Wisconsin. We’ve certainly come a long way from George Shiras’s trip wires and flash bulbs. What remains unchanged is people’s enthusiasm for capturing wildlife in a single passing moment.

A red fox

A red fox captured on a Snapshot Wisconsin camera.

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