Jonny Armstrong photographs animals using camera traps.

Photographing Animals When They Least Expect It

Photographing Animals When They Least Expect It

Behold
The Photo Blog
Dec. 1 2015 10:07 AM

Photographing Animals When They Least Expect It

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A camera trap mounted 7 feet up a spruce tree captures a bird’s-eye view of a bear scratching its back.

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

As a working ecologist, Jonny Armstrong often uses camera traps—cameras that are remotely activated via motion sensor—for scientific purposes. Since 2011, Armstrong has also been using camera traps along with flashes in his personal nature photography to make images that are unusually intimate and unguarded.

“My research photos are occasionally pretty, but usually they’re grainy nighttime shots with low contrast, motion blur, and eye-shine from the on-board flash. These images are great for generating data and communicating science, but they fail to capture the beauty of nature. My personal photos strive to do what my science cannot—emotionally engage audiences,” Armstrong said via email. 

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"Red foxes are often camera-shy in the American West, but in Alaska they are bold and curious. Here one heads out to forage at sunset, inspecting my camera as it walks by."

Jonny Armstrong

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After a spring thunderstorm, a ground squirrel emerges from a burrow and scans the horizon in Southeast Wyoming.

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

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A black-backed jackal in Kenya.

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

During annual trips to Alaska’s Bristol Bay region, when he’s not conducting field research, Armstrong spends most of his time camera trapping grizzly bears and red foxes. He also camera traps in Wyoming, where he lives, and in Oregon where he goes to visit family. This past winter, he spent a month in Kenya practicing his craft.

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While Armstrong’s setups are often designed to capture a particular animal, chance is always a factor. Once, he tried to camera trap a wolf and instead got a shot of a great horned owl capturing a mouse. Another time, he set the camera up by a salmon carcass hoping for a bear but instead came away with a photo of a bull moose sniffing the fish. 

“The surprises are really fun, but they usually don’t make for good photos. I generally need a specific size of animal for a shot to work, and it needs to stand in a specific spot, sometimes even at a specific time of day. I like taking big risks to get the shot I have in mind, so I fail a lot more than I succeed,” he said.

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A young grizzly bear roams the shores of Lake Nerka at dawn, Bristol Bay, Alaska.

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

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“I set this camera on the Colorado Front Range hoping for a cougar. A trail camera set in the area revealed multiple cougars had traveled through the area, but none came close enough to trigger my camera. Instead, my camera captured a long-eared owl, framed against the lights of sprawling suburbs and airliners headed to Denver International Airport.”

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

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A red fox searches the water’s edge for washed-up salmon carcasses and other food.

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

Getting a successful picture doesn’t always come easy. Sometimes he gets a good image on the first night, but other times he wait months only to come up empty. Animals wary of human scent are particularly difficult for him to photograph. In the West, he’s seen the tracks of coyotes, red foxes, and wolves follow a trail toward his camera and then detour around it. But not all animals are as skittish.

“The weasel family seems to be the most camera-friendly. Fisher and marten will not only come and check out your set, but there’s a decent chance they’ll also climb your lightstand or pounce onto your camera housing. Bears are camera friendly in that they are not shy, but they often knock over gear.”

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“A few years back my camera trap photographed a mysterious weasel-like animal I’d never seen before, which turned out to be a Pacific fisher. In Washington, Oregon, and California, fisher have been extirpated from most of their historical range and are candidates for listing by the Endangered Species Act.”

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

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A bobcat passes along a cliff edge in Southeast Wyoming.

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

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“My first winter in Wyoming I spent much of my free time tracking mountain lions and setting cameras for them. It took several months to capture my first image, but the excitement of seeing this adult female staring back at the camera made all the hard work worth it.”

Copyright Jonny Armstrong

Jordan G. Teicher is the associate editor of Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.