The 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.
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.
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.
The destiny of a Snapshot Wisconsin photograph is to contribute to a one-of-a-kind data set, ultimately supporting management decisions related to Wisconsin’s wildlife. However, the development of this data set is not the only goal of the project. The photos, through their collection and distribution, also serve to pursue the goal of public engagement. As the project has grown, as has our collection of incredible wildlife photos, and the photos have begun to speak for themselves. For me, personally, the fact that we can’t entirely control what the photos will look like (i.e. which animals will present themselves for a photo, and what they will be doing) adds to the appeal. Trail camera photos show life uninhibited – especially with the increasing quality of the photos as technology improves. Many of our crowd-sourcing volunteers and trail camera hosts can attest that not every trigger captures a moment in time with crisp detail, however. That is the nature of trail cameras. Recently achieving the milestone of over 2,000 cameras on the landscape, Snapshot Wisconsin has learned some simple camera deployment tricks to increase the chances of catching a spectacular photo.
A trail camera operator who wants to maximize the visual appeal of their photos can benefit from considering some properties of traditional photography. First, let’s talk about light. The camera will read the amount of available light and automatically adjust its settings, but the camera operator does have some control over the direction of light in the photographs. Some Wisconsin animals have crepuscular activity patterns, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk, when the sun is low on the horizon. We often recommend positioning cameras to face north so that animals will never be back-lit and overpowered by the bright sun, as they may be if the camera is facing east or west. We recommend north over south because Wisconsin’s relatively high-latitude position in the Northern Hemisphere means that the sun will always be hanging in the southern sky, especially in the wintertime. The best compass bearing for the camera will undoubtedly vary from site-to-site, however. Take the above turkey photo, for example. This photo was taken at 10:42 AM, and the shadows cast by the trees indicate that the sun is behind the subject. This camera is likely facing east. In this case, the forest is dense enough to block out the light directly, and the trail appears to be coming up a slope. The key here is to consider where in the camera’s field of view the light will be coming from.
The next consideration, image sharpness, is a little more difficult to control. There are a lot of factors that can play into how crisp or soft an image will be, including how quickly the animal is moving, where it decides to enter the frame, and when it visits the camera site (sharp nighttime photos are notoriously rare). For locations along a clearly defined game or maintained trail, a few helpful considerations can be made. Our cameras tend to take the sharpest images when the subject is around 10-15 feet away. Placing the camera at approximately this distance from where animals are expected to cross in front of the camera can increase the chances that the animal will be in focus.
The final element that I’d like to touch upon is composition. What makes the composition of a photo “good” is difficult to discuss, not only because it’s a matter of opinion, but also because the composition within the frame can change based on the time of year. Not to mention, we can’t always predict where in the frame the animal is going to be captured and in what position! This is tied to one of my sentiments at the beginning of the post – the composition is often special because we can’t control the details. This concept known as “natural design”. It’s familiar to most of us who have a fondness for nature; a glen of naturally-scattered ferns has a special quality that just wouldn’t be the same if they were hand-placed. Our trail camera hosts often have a relationship with the natural design of their unique camera site, which has resulted in Snapshot staff curating individual collections of our own favorite snaps. Of course, being aesthetically pleasing does not give a photo any more weight in our data set, but the potential for such photographs is another reason that Snapshot Wisconsin is such a special project.
Feeling artsy? Check out the past blog, “Getting artsy with Snapshot Wisconsin” to hear more about the creative side of the project.