In amongst a pretty dire year to be working as a professional photographer, I was grateful to find out that the above image was one of the category winners in this year’s British Photography Awards.
This is my third category-win in a major national competition, the other two being in the British Wildlife Photography Awards and the Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year. I had never entered this particular competition before, perhaps because images can be taken anywhere in the world, and more exotic species often tend to be the most popular. I had my doubts as to whether a humble pine marten photo would do well, but I did have a feeling about this particular image. It is one of my favourite ever DSLR camera trap images, and it took me three solid months of effort to achieve.
I thought I would use this opportunity to provide an insight into what goes into getting an image like this, and the ‘dark art’ of camera trapping.
An idea takes shape
A few years ago, I spent a short while assisting Terry Whittaker on a camera trapping project on the Black Isle. Terry is one of the best camera-trap photographers in the UK, and I learnt a huge amount from him in a brief period. He set up two cameras on a remote stretch of coastline, and we were both surprised when we found that a pine marten had been passing his cameras on the beach. It had never occured to me that pine martens might venture from the woods down to the shoreline.
Fast-forward to last year, and endless lockdown walks in my local area. I was visiting the same beach almost every day, and would often explore some of the many caves spread along several miles of the coast. One morning, I found what looked like pine marten scat (droppings) in the entrance to one of the caves. Feeling an idea coming on, I returned the next day and put out a trail camera in the cave for the next week.
When I returned to check the trail camera, I was delighted to find that a pine marten was indeed sporadically visiting the cave. With thousands of video clips of mice also filling the memory card, I guessed that the marten perhaps visits the cave to hunt the mice. I was hugely excited by the prospect of photographing pine martens in a cave setting, as to my knowledge this has never been done before.
The next evening, I hauled several kilos of DSLR camera trap equipment down to the cave. Unfortunately, the beach outside the cave had recently become far busier with walkers than I had ever seen it before lockdown, so I knew there was a genuine possibility of somebody walking into the cave and finding my camera and equipment. The only way around this, was to set up the camera just before dark, and return very early the next morning to hide all the gear. The round-trip walk to the cave is a few miles, and takes you up an exceptionally steep cliff-path. I knew that I was going to have to do this walk twice a day for duration of the project, but when I started out, I had no idea how many times I was going to end up walking this route…
It took me around a week of checking the camera every day, before I got my first pine marten images. But the marten was clearly extremely wary of the camera trap, something which usually isn’t a problem with pine martens. From my images it seemed extremely shy, so I decided to spend the next week putting the camera out, but with everything switched off, to try and get it a bit more happy with the equipment being there.
By the start of week three, the marten seemed far happier with the camera. My images, however, were a long way from being satisfactory. Despite being very familiar with cave photography, I was finding this particular cave extremely challenging to light. Getting a good balance of light and shadow to show the contours of the cave, whilst also lighting the animal well, was very tricky indeed. It took me another two weeks to refine the lighting and composition to the point where I was happy.
Putting the hours in
After five weeks, I finally had a couple of images that I was fairly pleased with. But my gut instinct was that I could get far better – I just couldn’t quite figure out how yet. It took me another two weeks of experimentation with different compositions before I finally settled.
The final composition was really tricky to set up. The camera had to be only a few inches off the ground, and the precise positioning made all the difference. Due to the lay-out of the cave, it was also really difficult to position the 4 flashguns in a way which lit everything properly. I was still having to hide the equipment every morning before re-deploying it in the evenings, and each set-up took me around an hour, on top of the hour walking to the cave and back. It was a substantial commitment of time every day.
With my composition finally settled on, I thought it would now just be a case of patience. Whilst the pine marten was visiting every few days, it would rarely ‘pose’ in a way which made for a good image, so I was just going to have to wait until it did. However, when the marten finally did do everything I wanted it to, I found that the lighting still was not quite right.
I ended up creating a hand-made ‘snoot’ modifier for one of the flashes. This was the only way to direct the light from that particular flash in exactly the way I needed it. Finally, I was convinced that everything was the way it needed to be. As luck would have it, the marten then stopped visiting the cave for over a week, perhaps due to even higher numbers of late-evening dog walkers on the beach.
After two months, I was full-blown obsessed with this camera-trap project. I would regularly wake up at night thinking of flash output fractions or worrying that somebody might steal the camera. It was taking up almost all my time and energy, but I knew that the final result had the potential to be something quite special.
I knew that I was going away for a couple of weeks at the end of October, so the 22nd Oct was going to be the last day of the project. I had a few images that I was fairly pleased with, but I hadn’t had that ‘YES!’ moment yet, when I would know that I’d nailed it. On the morning of the 22nd, I walked in to the cave for around the 170th time of the project. I was trying to not get my hopes up, and I knew I was going to find it difficult to step away from if I hadn’t produced something I was proud of.
I started reviewing my images. Mice, mice, more mice…then marten images started to appear, but they were mainly rejects, with the animal facing away from the camera. My heart starting to sink as I scrolled through the photos. But then, there it was! Just one, out of hundreds, but it was all I needed. I shouted with excitement when I saw it, and I’ll admit to doing a dance around the cave! I slept better than night than I had for three months previously.
Equipment and settings
This image was taken at ISO 4000 on a knackered old Nikon D750. When magazines and YouTube videos tell you that you need the newest possible cameras and to be shooting at low ISOs in order to get good images, don’t listen. If an image has enough impact, nobody will care if it’s a bit noisy. And if they do, you probably shouldn’t care about their opinion!
Nikon 16-35mm f4 lens.
4x Nikon SB700 Speedlite flashes
1 hand-made snoot modifier.
Camtraptions PIR v2 sensor.
16mm focal length.
1/200 sec exposure.
Flash output set manually.