Hidden camera traps capture wildlife in Wyoming

An ecologist uses a scientific tool for artistic purposes.

  • A red fox inspects the snow-covered scraps left over from a cougar kill.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A long exposure of a bobcat in the Vedauwoo area in Wyoming, which is popular for rock climbing during daytime hours.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A mountain lion feeds on the frozen carcass of a mule deer that it killed and cached the day before.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A Wyoming ground squirrel scans the horizon after a spring thunderstorm.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A camera set for mountain lions is triggered by an unexpected visitor, a long-eared owl. In the background, streaks of light show planes headed for Denver International Airport above the glow of sprawling suburbs.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A grizzly bear scratches its back on a tree in Bristol Bay, Alaska.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A young-of-the-year American marten inspects a camera in a stand of lodgepole pine.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • Cottontail rabbits are a frequent “bycatch” of camera traps meant for carnivores.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • A mule deer seeks refuge from deep snow on a windswept ridgeline, tripping the camera just after dawn.

    Jonny Armstrong
  • The hardest part about trapping on public lands during summer — curious cows damage gear and trigger cameras until their batteries die.

    Jonny Armstrong

 

As an ecologist, I use camera traps as a non-invasive tool for studying animal behavior. I set these cameras, which automatically take a picture when triggered by nearby motion, for the sole purpose of collecting data. Though I'll carefully position the camera to ensure an unobstructed view, the aesthetics of the image do not matter as long as I can identify my subject to species. Motion blur, muddled tones, and freakish eye shine show up in most of the photos, but have no bearing on the results: either the animal was there or it wasn't. Though uninspiring on their own, these camera trap images can provide exciting insights into natural phenomena, such as how grizzly bears move across landscapes to feed on salmon.

As a photographer, I also use camera traps, but for a very different purpose: environmental portraiture. Remotely triggered cameras allow me to get close to subjects and shoot with wide-angle lenses. The result is an intimate perspective that displays the animal in the context of its surrounding landscape. Since most of my subjects are nocturnal, it's up to me to light the scene. In stark contrast to the small on-board flashes of trail cameras, my homemade camera traps use a studio worth of lighting gear including several flashes and modifiers that adjust the color and character of the light. Though I cover my gear in gratuitous amounts of camouflage duct tape, my outdoor studio remains conspicuous. Wary animals, such as coyotes, refuse to have their picture taken, but some species are surprisingly bold. Mountain lions curiously approach my camera and seem to be entertained by the sound of the shutter. Bears are so curious that they rarely leave my camera and lights standing.

In 2013 I moved to Laramie to start a postdoctoral research job at University of Wyoming. For two years I spent most of my free time exploring the local mountains and setting camera traps, along with local photography professor Bailey Russell. Except for the photograph of the Alaska grizzly, all of the photographs here are a result of that work.

The series will be on display as part of the Wild Portraits exhibit at the University of Wyoming this month. This project received support from the Berry Biodiversity Conservation Center's Art and Biodiversity Grant and the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship.