How to Build a DIY Camera Trap for Amazing Wildlife Photography

As a wildlife photographer, I’m always looking for ways to capture stunning images of animals in their natural habitats. One technique I’ve found incredibly effective is using a custom-built, home-made DSLR camera trap, which is a camera assembly that’s triggered by an animal’s movement.

In this article, I’ll walk you through the process of building a DIY DSLR camera trap that will allow you to capture incredible wildlife photos.

equipment and equipment

The first step in building a camera trap is to gather the necessary equipment and gear. It’s important to note that you will NOT need expensive gear or the latest and greatest gear as your scene will be lit with flashes.

Here’s what you need:

  1. DSLR camera. I used a 12 year old Canon T3i for this project, but any DSLR will work.
  2. lens. I used the 18-55mm kit lens that came with the Canon T3i, but again, any lens will do. (The wider the better in my opinion)
  3. camera bag. I used a Pelican 1300 case, which is waterproof, crushproof, and dustproof.
  4. flash cases. For the flash units I used cheaper Apache 1800 cases.
  5. Clear acrylic. This is what I used as the window for the lightning bolts.
  6. Large UV filter and step-up ring. This is used as the lens cover for the camera body.
  7. PIR sensors/triggers. I used the Camtraptions V3 PIR sensor for my setup. As well as their wireless transmitters and receivers.
  8. batteries. I used a battery grip for the Canon T3i and rechargeable AA batteries – my entire setup runs on 20 AA batteries. I always have between 40 and 50 AA batteries either stored, on the charger or on the go.
  9. AA battery charger. I use this charger from Amazon, which allows you to charge up to 16 batteries at the same time. In summer the AA lasts up to if not more than a month at a time – in the severe Wisconsin winters I get 5-7 days before they’re dead.
  10. Flash. I used 2 Nikon SB-24 flashes which can be picked up on eBay for pretty cheap. I particularly used these flashes because they stay on standby for a long time and are super responsive to waking and instantaneous firing.
  11. Ram mounts. I used Ram Mounts in my build to easily mount the camera and flashes in every possible orientation.
  12. Ezhanger. The Ezhanger is a tool I use to screw the sensor/trigger into a tree.
  13. Apple Airtags. Not mentioned in the video (oops, I forgot) but I bought Apple Airtags to each place tucked under the peel and pack foam just as a safety measure in case someone wanted to run away with the setup or part the facility.
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Once you have all the necessary equipment, it’s time to start building the camera trap and eventually deploying it. I did it that way:

Step 1: Cut a hole in the camera body

The first step is to cut a hole in the camera body for the lens to slip through. I used a hole saw to cut a hole in the lid of the Pelican case, being careful to leave enough room around the hole for the lens to move.

I then went to my local hardware store and got a PVC pipe attachment to use as a makeshift lens hood. To plug this hole I used a large UV filter which I screwed into a step down ring which I epoxidized to the PVC pipe attachment.

The reason I did this is that in the rare event that the filter breaks or becomes damaged, I could unscrew and replace it more easily than if I glued the UV filter directly to the PVC mounting.

Step 2: Mount the camera in the housing

Next, I mounted the camera inside the Pelican 1300 case using the Pelican case’s peel-and-pack foam. This foam also acts as a noise dampener. DSLRs are notoriously loud, but packed tightly into this foam, it’s completely silent when the case is closed.

Next, using a piece of wood on the inside of the case, I was able to screw the ball head base of a ram mount to the outside.

Step 3: Building the Base for the Camera

After assembling the case I needed to build a base for the camera. My first attempts were failures so I decided to just use scrap 2x4s and a 2×6 bolted together and painted black. I then attached a large ram mount (the largest possible I think) to the base.

Do some more research and read what the compatible weight for the ram mounts is as my initial attempts failed.

Step 4: Mount flashes in the housings

Next I mounted the flashes in the Apache 1800 cases using the peel and pack foam that came with the case. For the flash housings I simply cut a window in the top of the housings and glued it in some clear acrylic I had laying around.

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Once again, using a piece of wood on the inside of the case, I was able to screw the ball head base of a ram mount to the outside.

Step 5: Finding Out the Specialized Gear

Next, make sure you develop a thorough understanding of the Camtraption PIR sensor and trigger and receivers. How shall I put it politely… read the manual cover to back, do as many tests at home, then test on your mother and then on a friend.

I had the manual stored on my phone for the first 6 months of my DSLR adventure and I can’t underestimate the importance of learning and understanding the PIR sensor inside and out. It’s confusing at first, but believe me, once you’ve read through it all and run several tests, you shouldn’t have to touch it once you’ve dialed it in.

Step 6: Exploration

Another important part of successful camera trapping is exploring locations where wildlife is active. I’ve been fortunate enough to know passionate outdoor people who appreciate my work, so I regularly get tips on wildlife locations.

Despite the tips, I will still explore and research the location myself before using the DSLR camera trap. In the fox series, I tracked and explored the foxes for 3 days before finding a suitable location/composition to deploy my camera trap.

The finished camera trap system.

Step 7: Deploy the DSLR Camera Trap and Camera Settings

Congratulations! You’re ready to use your DSLR camera trap… but how should you set it up and what should your camera settings look like? It helps if you have some experience lighting a scene with flash, but if you don’t have that experience, don’t worry.

focus and aperture

The first thing to address with your setup is focus. First, I use an aperture of at least f/8, sometimes up to f/11, because that gives me the best chance of getting an animal in focus. Let’s face it, we have no control over where these critters will be in our scene. Additionally, I will manually focus my scene and then tape off all the knobs/rings on my lens once I have achieved the desired focus.

sync speed

The next thing you need to understand is that every camera has a “sync speed,” which is the fastest shutter speed your camera can use to successfully process the flashes in your scene. If you exceed this sync speed, your scene will not be properly lit and you will have dark areas in your compositions.

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My Canon T3i has 1/250 sync (which I think is standard on most cameras). Since we are using flash to light the scene and because the animals are not fast moving/causing motion blur, I use shutter speeds between 1/100 and 1/160. It depends on your scene/composition and whether you want more ambient light to seep into your images. The faster the shutter speeds used, the more likely you are to get more ambient light in your scene.


Finally, I set my ISO to Auto, with the camera limiting it to not going beyond 3200. As for flash performance, it depends on each scene and use. I usually trigger the setup with myself to test that everything is working properly and to check the flash output. Usually between 1/4 and 1/8. The lower you can keep this, the less likely you’ll need to change batteries.

As for flash placement, I try to always have a key light and a back light. It creates the greatest separation and hasn’t let me down yet.

Step 8: Luck and Patience

The only thing that makes camera trapping equal parts fun and frustrating is the luck and patience part. You can do all the exploration and set up the perfect composition, but if the animals don’t get into your trap or don’t shape up the way you want, you’re just out of luck.

I was asked to create the Animal Butts photo book using the number of animal butts I’ve captured.

In the fox series, I looked at the timestamps and the curious fox got into my trap just an hour after I set it, and then came back only once over the next month. Another stroke of luck was the pose of the fox. If you watch the whole series you can see the fox wanted to give me the classic ass shot but the flashes must have caught his attention.

At this point, the fox turned and gave me the odd pose with its paw raised while looking straight through the lens – I couldn’t ask for a better pose or composition.

Finally, you must be patient… Animals come and go as they please and it will take time. I built my camera trap over a year ago and used it 5-6 times before I got the winter fox series which a few other critters also visited!

A rabbit.
A cat.
A possum.
A raccoon.

Good luck building your own camera trap and taking great animal photos!

About the author: Ross Harried is a Wisconsin-based photographer. You can find more of his work on his website, Facebook, Twitterand Instagram.

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