Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's

Wildlife Photography

May 2002

Question of the Month

What is the most versatile remote
camera release system?

In the early 1980s, POPULAR PHOTOGRAPHY published an article about a miracle device called a Dalebeam. Invented by Greg Dale, the son of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC photographer Bruce Dale, the Dalebeam was an infrared camera tripper that allowed a photographer to capture subjects in motion not previously possible. The device fired either a camera or a flash, tripping either one when a subject broke an infrared beam or when a noise triggered a sound detecting trigger. I remember getting my first Dalebeam, and trying it for the first time, using it to capture a screech owl flying into a nest box. The 'Beam was in many ways the basis of my photographic career, as I tried capturing other subjects using high speed flash techniques and the Beam to film frogs leaping, owls, bluebirds, wrens, and other birds in flight, and more.

The Dalebeam was eventually sold to another company which failed to market it effectively, and the Dalebeam died out. Fortunately, another device appeared, the Shutterbeam, which shared all of the features of the Dalebeam and more. I replaced my Dalebeams with the new, improved device, and continued my remote camera triggering and high speed flash work.

Now, it's another decade and another device has appeared, offering still more versatility and advantages. It is called the PhotoTrap (see, and has several improvements over the Dalebeam and Shutterbeam. Although I loved my Shutterbeams (I have two), I've been using the PhotoTrap almost exclusively for the last two years. Here's why:

The PhotoTrap has several unique features. The mechanics of the device is housed in a plastic box similar in appearance to a tacklebox or tool box, and the PhotoTrap weighs significantly more than a single Shutterbeam. Although a heavy box is an obvious disadvantage if you were attempting to mount it in position to trip a camera, this isn't the case because the box is simply the control center that operate one to four cameras, and up to two tripping devices at a time. These tripping devices are small and light and varied, and it is these devices that are mounted in position for a subject to trip a camera or a flash.

Let's look at the controls on the device itself. On the upper left corner of the box (pictured below) there's a switch for adjusting how quickly a camera resets after each trigger. The switch can be adjusted for almost an instantaneous reset, or adjusted for a delay of several minutes. What's the relevance? Suppose a bird flies into a nest box and you are framed for the bird flying in. When the bird flies out, it would again trip the device but it is likely that you will not be correctly framed for the bird flying out (not if you are framing tight for a closeup view). By adjusting the reset switch you will get the shot as the bird flies in, but you won't waste a shot when the bird flies out. You'll have to experiment, of course, to determine how long a delay you'll need. Does the bird stay in the nest for a few seconds, or for many minutes. Typically, I only do these types of setups when the birds are actively feeding, and the adults only spend a few seconds, or a minute or so, inside the nest feeding the young.


Next to the trip reset time switch are switches for a delay in the actual firing of camera ports #1 and #2. You might wish to have different delays set if you were shooting a sequence with several cameras, but if you're using flash, like I am, I generally keep the release time at zero.

Below the switches are ports for plugging in a DIN cord for attaching either one beam (the single beam port) or two beams (the double beam port). This is one of the major advantages of the PhotoTrap, for the PhotoTrap can be used with just one beam or with two for cross-beam work.

Why would you need to do cross-beams? If your subject could cross a single beam anywhere along its length, the subject would trip your camera or flash. Imagine a beam passing in front of a bluebird's nestbox hole. If the beam extended out six feet, the bird might break the beam 1 foot from the emitter, or all the way at the six foot end. I'd suspect you would want an image area smaller than that spanned by a six foot span for a bluebird, but the camera would fire whenever, or whereever, the bird broke the beam.

By doing a cross-beam, the bird would have to cross both beams simultaneously in order to trip the PhotoTrap and your camera or flashes. For most setups when I use a cross-beam I arrange it so that the beams cross in a + pattern or an x, basically at right angles to each other. With a DaleBeam or ShutterBeam, doing this would require purchasing another beam and positioning these triggering boxes in the correct position. With the PhotoTrapper, doing a cross-beam is one of its built-in features.

In the upper right hand corner are FOUR camera ports, to enable a photographer to attach one, two, three, or four cameras to the PhotoTrapper to fire at the same time or at one of two different times (remember the release time switches in the upper left corner?) I frequently use two ports at one time, so that I can get two different perspectives each time the PhotoTrapper fires.

There is also a Gardena timer if you want to arm the camera for particular times of day. For example, suppose you want to 'arm' your PhotoTrapper and cameras to only fire after sunset. Imagine you're hoping to film a bobcat that only visits a waterhole at night, but in late afternoon or early evening or just after dark deer visit the waterhole too. If you didn't want to capture that action, you could set the timer so that the PhotoTrapper fires later in the night when you expect the bobcat to visit the waterhole.

When doing camera trapping work, you have two options. You can hardwire the camera to a device and, when the device is 'tripped' or 'triggered' the camera fires. There is always some delay (called propagation delay) involved, because the camera's aperture must shut down, the mirror must flip up, and the shutter must fire. In some cameras this delay can be AS SLOW AS 1/10th of a second. I use a Canon EOS 1n RS camera that has a lag time of 1/180th of a second -- that's fast! Alternatively, one could hardwire the flash to the device, and the flash fires when the device is tripped. This delay is almost instantaneous since there is no mechanical operation involved. However, when hardwiring a flash, the camera must be on bulb so you have to be shooting in pitch dark conditions. I've used this method with bats.

Unfortunately, when using most tripping devices and a camera on Bulb, you have to be there, too, so that when the camera fires you can advance the camera to the next film frame. If you did not, the flash would just repeatedly expose the same frame of film. Fortunately, with the PhotoTrapper, you can advance the camera while the camera is on bulb -- meaning you do not have to be there when the camera is set on Bulb! I haven't used this feature yet, but if you have plans to photograph bats or anything else in complete darkness -- this is a tremendous advantage.

However, the heart of this system is the various tripping devices that you can use. This is a tremendous feature. With the ShutterBeam, remember, there is two ways to trip the camera or flash -- either with an audio trigger (a built-in mic) or with a infrared (invisible) beam. A reflector is required opposite the Beam to reflect back to the ShutterBeam, and when a subject passes between the device and the reflector, the camera (or flash) fires.

With the PhotoTrapper, you have an option of several different triggering methods. One method is similar to other devices, in that an infrared beam is reflected back via a reflector. However, my favorite infrared trigger is one THAT DOES NOT REQUIRE A REFLECTOR! The beam extends out about six to eight feet, and the object passing through the beam reflects back to the transmitting device. As I illustrate (Left), you could position the transmitter below a target area, giving the subject plenty of space to fly into the next box. With devices that use a reflector, you'll have to position a reflector somewhere above the box (or in another position if you configure the transmitter/reflector arrangement differently).

The smaller image (immediate Left) shows the transmitter, and a portion of the DIN cable that attaches the transmitter to the PhotoTrapper console. The DIN cables are about 20 feet long, giving you plenty of length for positioning.






Sometimes, trying to line up an infrared beam precisely is very difficult, and sometimes there is some doubt as to where, exactly, the beam lies, and where a subject may break it. Another trigger device of the PhotoTrapper addresses this problem, using a laser trigger (or two, for double beam work). The laser is a visible beam (exaggerated via PhotoShop for my illustration) that allows you to see PRECISELY where the beam will cross and where a subject can trigger the camera. A wonderful feature of the PhotoTrapper is the fact that the laser beam shuts off momentarily when the beam is broken. With a camera with a fast response time the beam should be off when the camera fires. Even with cameras with a slow response (slow propagation time) the laser beam won't show if you simply position the transmitter at the back end, so that the subject's body hides the beam. With a laser you need a receiver as well as the transmitter, but it doesn't matter which one faces the camera (and thus which one would be hidden by the subject) and which is on the camera's side. I use the laser when I'm working with insects -- last summer I photographed mud-dauber wasps carrying spiders to their nest with the laser trippers.


While the PhotoTrapper is more expensive than other trippers, it is less expensive than buying two of the other types, which would be required for cross beam work. Only the PhotoTrapper has the Infrared transmitter that DOES NOT REQUIRE a reflector, as well as the laser trippers, and the bulb-advance feature.If you'd like further information, please visit the PhotoTrapper website at


Do YOU have a Question you'd like addressed? If so, please forward your question to our email address, below, and title the subject of your email (in the Subject field) 'Proposed Question of the Month. Can't promise you we'll address your particular question but we'll do the best we can do.

Previous Questions of the Month

How can you attract insectivorous birds to your feeding stations and bait sites?   
 Why should you know Manual Mode?  Flash and Tele-flash Techniques
 What is the best flash for closeup and
macro photography?
 How do you make things happen in wildlife photography?
What is the Best Composition?  The Sunny 16 rule -- is it worth knowing today?
 What the heck is the Scheimpflug Law?   How do you shoot silhouettes?
 How would you meter these challenging images?  Using Zoom lenses with tele-converters and extension tubes -- can you use both together?
 What are our Five Favorite Shooting Locales? What is our Favorite bird-shooting location?
 How Easy is Whale Photography?  Is NANPA for you?
 What do we think of the Canon D30 digital camera?  What is NANPA and how will it benefit me?
 Are Image Stabilization Lenses Worth the Money?  How do you shoot high-speed action images?
 Reciprocity Failure  Hyperfocal Distance

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