Night Photo Kits

Depending on positioning some are used all day, but the name of the
original intent has stuck for us. We have been building kits to do these
sorts of photographs since 1983 and they have changed from film
cameras in wooden boxes open at the end and the sense beam reflected
back by a cycle reflector on the other side, to the reliable design you see here.
It is almost impossible to 'seal' these boxes and our biggest annoyances
are insects attracted by the warmth blocking the sense beam hole, and
keeping the sense boxes aligned when they get barged by impatient
badgers and foxes!

Below is a photograph of the whole setup of one of the ground level kits.
Grass, bark chips all vary between sites according to need.

The black box upper centre on a wooden post is the flashgun. We use
various housings for these from this wooden construction with plastic window
through to using a transparent food container (see the tree-stump site).

The beam break is in the small black toolboxes (with slate and brick on top
for protection and stability) with the short piece of log between them.
The beam shines a few centimetres above the log, passing through
pencil sized holes in the boxes to make it more sensitive and prevent IR
light reflected off the ground from preventing the receiver ever seeing a break.
This site uses a piece of branch as a point of interest, but other sites use
stones or just a slight rise in the ground level.
The large box partly hidden by the tree contains a Low-end Canon SLR
looking through a slide-in picture frame glass. Also in this box are various
power supplies and electronics.

Ref: P34_20070817_0859_383 Relocation of fb2 & tree felling.jpg

Another view of the same kit from the other side. The box at the left contains a cable reel resting
on a brick to keep it dry. This sort of equipment MUST use an Earth Leakage or Residual Current
breaker back in the house to guard against accidents, water ingress etc.

Ref: P34_20070818_0931_495 Relocation of fb2 & tree felling.jpg

You can buy commercial beam break unit for UKP100's (year 2013) - We use a pair of security system
units from  RS components in a box with hole to reduce the beam to about pencil thickness.
The leads lying on the ground don't look artistic and we used to bury them, but the animals couldn't
care less, and laying on the surface suffer much less damage from animal teeth!

The cameras are digital SLRs (Canon low-end models) held in 'Pre' mode, mains powered, and
triggered through a hacked cable release or a wired 2.5mm stereo jack plug, according to camera
. The camera power supply is under the lens to prevent condensation on lens and window.
The whole system has fixed settings -
  Manual Flash sync and fixed F number, X-sync shutter speed,
  No power auto-power off, Manual Focus, Flash colour temperature.

The camera looks through a glass window. Standard size small and thin picture frame glass works
well and is cheap and easy to replace when scratched, dropped or whatever).

The electronics consists of a 12 Volt Relay with a 'timer base' to give a flash recharge time - see later.
The electronics is in a 'sealed' food container - the main box gets periodically infested with
insects that like the warmth, and that is not good for electronics.

The flashguns are mostly 'cheap' Mecablitz guns modified to accept 'fake batteries' powered
from a mains adapter. This sort of thing is POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS because flashguns contain
high capacity capacitors storing several hundred volts.
The power supply is at the bottom of the plastic window to help prevent condensation.

Here is a variation on the ground level kit mounted on an old B&D Workmate with the
beam break pair on a couple of cheap tripods fitted with wooden platforms.
Here the flashgun is at the centre in a clear plastic box.

Below is the inside of the largest camera box to illustrate what you need. The packing of items
into the box is a trade-off of what you can get and how hard it is to work on it.
Make sure your design allows easy access to the memory card - the fortunate learn by the
mistakes of others!
Power supplied for 12V relay system, the camera supply (various), and the flashgun supply (more
recently this is in the box with the flashgun). The angle finder on the camera is not needed when
the camera can be framed via its rear LCD. At the right is a glass window, normally mounted on
the outside, which is a removable 10cm sized thin glass picture frame. Plastics scratch when you
have to clean off plashes of mud and are thicker so create more multiple-reflections.
The kits now place the camera PSU right under the glass window to help with de-misting.
Many modern cameras don't have the dedicated flash socket on the side that this one
does - you need a 'hot-shoe' adapter. Make sure there is en
ough height.
We use cheap Jessops medium sized tripod heads fixed to the wooden base by
1/4" Whitworth scre
w and nut to mount the camera and allow adjustment
(Jessops went into receivership early 2013 - if we find a new source will include it here)

The electronics uses a 12V relay timer base as it's only active 'component'.
The relay base triggers the relay on high (something like 12V) voltage state and keeps
the relay closed until something between 30 seconds and 2 minutes has elapsed after
the signals returned to low (relay closed).
This allows the flashgun to recharge and prevents the camera being endlessly triggered
by waving bit of foliage or similar. The 2 pole 2 way contacts provide the PRE signal
(shutter half press) when the relay is relaxed, and switches the shutter EXP to ground to
take the picture.
Different cameras react differently to the shutter being held closed, and the PRE signal
disappearing just before EXP is active, and vice-versa.
The circuit diagram should clarify the placement of passive components to avoid problems.
The full size drawing is in Vutrax format we can send you if you want it (the free demo
version is enough to work on it - see ).
This is a a GIF file of the drawing created on 3 Jan 2009 (still the latest jan 2013):-

This is a photo of one of the wiring looms with some of the modifications present

It is almost certain that anybody wanting to build this kind of kit will take a different design route.
The relay base used to be a tiny microprocessor (Intel 8051) that also counted frames and stopped
at 6 to avoid faults zipping through expensive slide film. But a timer base is simple and works
well with digital camera economics - frames are (almost - shutters wear out) FREE!

Our kit for photographing Owls using the post in the meadow is just a much longer range
version of these kits, with all but the IR sender indoors. For control we use a Raspberry Pi
'hobbyist' computer with a PiFace add on card providing 2 relays, 1 each for the PRE
and EXP shutter controls. A program in Python allows multiple frames when the bird
is blocking the beam, and turns the kit camera off during daylight. Anyone interested
can ask us for the design details and software.

We have stuck with Canon SLR camera because they seem to be the only range capable of
fully manual settings that come back up the same (mains power, power up automatically, manual mode,
shutter, aperture, manual focus unchanged, colour balance locked) after loss of power.
Canon also repair their cameras well - and at 20,000 frames on some camera each year the mechanisms
do wear out in a few years, as do the flash tubes/capacitors every year or two.

Do tell us if you find another camera range.
We gave up on Nikon digital, the only other major 'whole system' provider, decades ago after
experiences an awful slide scanner with no support, and have never returned to their products.
Some Panasonic Lumix pseudo SLR cameras are 'usable', but the tiny sensors don't produce
good images without a lot more light than we have from small flashguns.

We hope this outline provides some pointers as what to look for.
Good luck.
Do send us some examples of what you produce - good or bad - we may have
seen the problems ourselves and be able to advise

Last Updated: 20 Jan 2013.