The art of camera trapping

Of this I am certain: camera-trapping is an art. A camera trap photo of a rare animal doesn’t get the artistic recognition of, say, a Rembrandt, but I think this is a shame, because to my mind they are equally deserving of respect, equally captivating. People may scoff at this, thinking that I’ve spent too much time away from civilization, taken one too many knocks to the head, or that my brain circuits have been gunked-up with glutinous secretions from eating too much rice: they would be factually correct on all accounts. But I maintain that a clear camera trap photo of an elusive or difficult-to-find species takes as much skill to produce as any “true” work of art: After all, there are only five camera trap photos in existence of Saola, and more than two thousand Monet canvases: surely such a skewed ratio is worth notice? And to those who maintain that a Monet can’t compare aesthetically with a perfectly-captured camera trap photo, take a look at the Saola photograph above that came out of Laos in the late 90s, or the photo that came out of Vietnam a couple years back, then tell me that it ain’t so. If that isn’t a work of art then I’ll eat my leech socks.

At this point, I imagine a few of my more logical readers, bless their hearts, might object that a camera trap photo isn’t “created” in the sense that a painting is. And they’d be correct—to an extent. The camera trapper doesn’t have a specific media to work in: rather, his media is the site, the setting, the scene: Nature herself. It is here that the artistic side of camera-trapping comes into play. Even a trained chimpanzee can strap a camera to a tree and press the “on” button. Proper camera-trapping takes a creative eye. Site selection and camera placement are everything. The camera trapper must choose the right site, which, in a large landscape like the jungles in which I work, is a needle-in-a-haystack game. To find the right site one must be able to read the landscape: to read animal sign, to put himself in the mind of the animal so as to anticipate the path and even the angle where the subject will walk. Camera placement has to be perfect: if the camera is too high or too low the animal could be missed entirely, if it’s set at the wrong angle it might give nothing more than a rear-end exposé. Distance is critical: too close and the flash whites out the shot, too far and the picture is dark, the animal dissolving into the night. Vegetation has to be trimmed away in just the right places: the shot must be clear, but one can’t very well take out a weed-whacker and defoliate the area, or it could seem so unnatural that the animal won’t visit at all. And . . . well, I could go on and on about what it takes to get the right shot, but this isn’t a lecture course. Instead, why don’t you join me as I set one last camera deep in the jungles of Xe Sap.

Red-shanked douc caught on camera trap
Red-shanked douc caught on camera trap

Khamhou, my WWF guide, slides down a slick-wet embankment to the bottom of a ravine and begins to trudge up the next bank. I follow him but stop: This seems like it could be a promising location. The flat riverbed, perhaps fifty yards long, is cut off to on one end by a towering waterfall, and on the other by a sheer drop-off that leads an even deeper ravine. Any animal going this way will be funneled roughly along the path that we are on. And so I ask Khamhou to wait a minute while I look around. Soon I see clues: places where the vegetation has been nipped by one of the Annamites many ungulate species. I sit and think. And think and think. Trying to picture the way the animal will walk, to see its exact footsteps. I spot a small trail leading through the jungle and then I can visualize it in my head: this is the way it will cross the ravine. I am sure of it. Khamhou spots a tree only three yards away, an ideal distance, and we begin to trim away vegetation that could obstruct the shot. Then, my perfectionism satisfied, we secure the camera, turn it on, and leave.

I turn back to look at the camera. I now had one more set of eyes in the jungle. In a few months I would see what the eyes revealed. My heart was thumping with excitement and anticipation. How, I wondered, was I supposed to wait that long?

Annamite dark muntjac camera trap photo
Annamite dark muntjac caught on camera trap 
One last camera trap
One last camera trap set in Xe Sap

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