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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Toward a philosophy of camera trapping

Correspondent Alistair Fraser, who can boast some fine wildlife images taken with remote cameras, recently questioned the appropriateness of the term camera trap. Thanks, Alistair, for rattling my cage.

I like the term camera trap for purely sentimental reasons. It was the term that was used before "trail cams" and "scouting cams" became a commercial enterprise, and it goes back a hundred years or slightly more. When my interest emerged in this use of cameras in the 1960s, one had to make his or her own, and the contraption was just called a camera trap.

For me the use of remotely triggered cameras is a vicarious reenactment of a frontier livelihood. It requires traipsing about in the woods, observational skills, a knowledge of natural history, and survival skills. You capture images instead of animals.

Making a "set" with a camera (that's trapper jargon) is like making a set with a trap. You place either device in such a way as to maximize your success. A trapper only wants the creature to step on the treadle, and the deed is done. A novice camera trapper may be thrilled with any image of an animal, but that soon wears off and expectations start to change. Then the camera trapper tries to induce the subject to pose well or show some of its natural behavior. This requires experimentation, practice, prediction, and previsualization, as well as a understanding of how the animal might respond to the circumstances contrived. Reading about a species' ecology and behavior can help a lot.

Trappers target specific species. I am not interested in photographing every bird and mammal in the woods, or only those species that happen to use the trail. Usually I am after specific quarry. Recently I've been thinking about aquatic voles and shrews. Now there's a challenge.

Now don't get me wrong. I don't mind the newer terms scouting camera or trail camera. They are all the same thing, remote automatically triggered cameras. For me the terms scouting and trail cameras also conjure romantic images. Trappers like Jim Bridger were also frontier scouts. Game trails are safer and more fun to use than roads and highways.

But to me a trail camera is just a camera on a trail. A scouting camera on the other hand implies the exploratory use of a remote camera. A camera trap implies a bag of tricks, including the use of smelly substances and roadkill. These distinctions are more about my own philosophy of using remote cameras than semantics.

In my view, those who want superb wildlife images should sit in a blind and control the shutter themselves. Camera trappers will never (or hardly ever) be able to compete with those guys for imagery. (Maybe that's why I just bought a 10MP digital cam with two long lenses.)

Camera trapping is about a lot more than wildlife photography. It offers a certain abstract element that is missing from sitting in a blind with a 500 mm lens.

There's a curiously intimate spatial relationship in camera trapping, because trapper and animal tread the same ground and the camera set is the nexus of interaction.

Part of it is the inherent handicap of leaving so much to chance. You choose a place to leave a camera in the woods, try to create favorable circumstances, and wait for species x to appear.

There's the everpresent danger of losing your equipment to man or bear.

There's the temptation to take a chance, to leave your camera floating on a small raft in a lake, or hidden in a culvert.

There's an element of serendipity when your camera photographs the unexpected, like a clapper rail, shrew, or red salamander.

There are the disappointments and rewards of experimentation.

And there's the thrill of clicking through the images in the field and finding that your set actually did what you had predicted. Huzzzaaaahhhh!

Then you march home and a familiar voice asks that nagging question, "Okay, smartass, you did it once, but can you do it again".

So camera trapping is a harmless way to explore nature, practice woodcraft, reenact a frontier experience, and learn about wildlife. Oh yes, it's also a way to take pictures of wildlife.

I would say it's also a way to enjoy my second childhood, but the family informs me that my first childhood never ended.

3 comments:

Johanna Turner said...

You've eloquently summed up everything I'm discovering in my new hobby of camera trapping. My first image of the blurry back end of a deer was a triumph, since I was sure I would find the camera had been stolen, or just wouldn't work at all. A few months later, I am thrilled to get a bobcat, but crushed to find 100 images of a boring possum eating all the bait. As we study animal behavior, we should notice that we too are responding to the strong pull of a random positive reinforcement schedule!

Owlman said...

Very well put Chris and a great inroduction for your forthcoming book on Camera Trapping.
I am enjoying the excitement of my new hobby as well and it's "like a box of chocolate". "You never know what you're going to get".

Camera Trap Codger said...

Glad to find sympathetic souls out there, and good luck with your cams. Are we having fun or what?!