Published October 09, 2009, 08:56 AM

Trail camera art gives Sean Hall a new perspective on photography

Nearly every Saturday or Sunday is a little like Christmas morning for Cloquet’s Sean Hall these days. That’s because the home-made trail cameras he’s been making have a way of yielding a multitude of surprises every time he checks them.

Nearly every Saturday or Sunday is a little like Christmas morning for Cloquet’s Sean Hall these days. That’s because the home-made trail cameras he’s been making have a way of yielding a multitude of surprises every time he checks them.

“I’ve always liked taking pictures, but I was never an avid photographer,” he admitted. “I never realized just how much interest I actually had in photography until I started doing this. It’s exciting – it’s like being a kid in a candy store!”

Hall was born and raised in Cloquet, graduating from high school in 1986. After living and working in the Twin Cities for 10 years, he and his wife, Jennifer, moved back to Cloquet where they are now raising their three children. Hall is employed in the Financial Collections Department at the University of Minnesota Duluth, and Jennifer works as a dietitian at the Min No Aya Win Clinic.

In his spare time, Hall has always enjoyed spending time in the great outdoors.

“Growing up, I was introduced to the outdoors by my father and my grandfather,” he explained. “We always hunted and fished, and back in 2003, we bought a 40-acre plot of land in Floodwood so we could deer hunt on it.”

Hall had heard a great deal about trail cameras, so he bought one at a discount store – a 35mm trail camera that only cost about $40.

“I put it out in the woods, but I had to keep buying rolls of film and bring them in to be developed,” he related. “Sometimes there would be poor exposure or water would leak in and get on the glass, so I’d end up with a $5 roll of developed film with only one fuzzy picture of a deer on it. The trail cameras at that time were very large and cheaply made. We have a lot of bears in Floodwood, and they’d get a hold of that camera and start ripping it apart without any problem because the plastic case was so thin. I bought two of them within that first year and both of them were shot by the end of the year.”

In the meantime, Hall learned that Steve Fiske, a former high school classmate, had started making his own trail cameras. Hall asked Fiske about how he could make one for himself, and Fiske told him what Web sites to visit and find all the right parts he needed.

“I figured I’d give it a go,” said Hall, “but when I got the parts it looked kind of intimidating to me, so I called up Steve and asked if he’d show me how to do it. I drove over to his house and we put one together in two or three hours. It’s very technical. First, you have to get the right brand and model of point and shoot camera. Some take really good pictures and are more compatible with the control board. Usually the cameras are discontinued models that you can find on EBay.”

He explained the discontinued models are more desirable because most already have a “hack” developed for them – a method of taking them apart and soldering the servo-connector wires inside in order to control the camera, shutter a picture and refresh the flash. He said most of the “hack” methods for cameras have been developed by the companies who produce the control boards for homemade trail cameras, or “homebrews,” as they’ve been dubbed.

“They experiment and perform research and development on a good share of the cameras that are out there,” said Hall, “and then they determine which ones are most suitable for a trail camera – which ones are fast enough, have a strong enough flash, and are small enough to be able to fit into the case with the rest of the components. Some are more difficult to hack because they are so thin, making it hard to run the wires inside without disturbing the lens and still being able to get the camera back together.”

For that first trail camera, Hall bought a 3.2 mega pixel digital camera and a kit that included the case, the board and all of the components he needed to put together an infrared trail camera.

“The camera itself has optical lens glass which identifies the colors of the image the camera is taking a picture of,” Hall explained. “If you swap out that with a piece of clear glass, that allows infrared rays to pass through and then the flash filter goes over the camera’s flash so you can barely detect it, which is the whole idea – not to scare the animals and conceal the camera from someone who might want to steal it.”

Hall paid around $85 for that first camera, and the kit was around $119.

“I built that first one, learned how to use it and operate the control board,” he said. “Then I took it to our land in Floodwood, mounted it to a tree and put some cedar boughs in front of it because deer will eat cedar in the winter. I got 330 digital pictures of deer eating cedar boughs that first time out. It took excellent pictures, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world!”

Ever since building that first camera, Hall has been making them for relatives and friends.

“I don’t want to get in the business of making them,” he emphasized, “because that could get overwhelming and it would no longer be an enjoyable hobby!”

The last one he built was a 7.2 mega pixel camera, and he won one, an even higher resolution 12mp unit, in a trail camera photo contest.

“It was a bear photo contest sponsored by one of the Internet forums that are set up by people who share a common interest in building these cameras,” said Hall. “That particular picture was of a very large boar black bear with scarring on the left side of his snout. I set up the camera at a swamp crossing where I knew bear frequented. There were raspberry bushes covering the area, which bears love. The bear came through at about 7 a.m. on a July morning when the sun was just rising in the east and filtering through the trees. The lighting was just perfect and it was a really beautiful picture.”

Hall said as he got smarter and learned how to bid more efficiently on EBay and order the components separately in order to acquire them at a cheaper rate, the price of building his trail cameras has actually gone down.

“The last one I built, I bought the camera for $25.50 and I had another $100 in the parts,” he said, “so the whole 7.2 mega pixel camera only cost me about $130 to build from scratch. If you were to buy one that has the same quality of images and construction, you’d be looking at $400-$500.”

Hall currently has nine of his cameras set up on their Floodwood property as well as the property where he bow hunts on land owned by a relative.

“Right now I’m scouting for bucks out there,” he said, “and I’ve got some decent ones on camera.”

Hall keeps his trail cameras mounted “24/7 for 365 days a year,” he said, and checks them every week or two, changing out the batteries and switching memory sticks.

He recently got an image of a black bear with a nasty wound on its right side, as well as timber wolves, red fox, flickers, raccoons, fawns, rabbits, flying squirrels, otters, fishers, and a grouse which had just hopped off of the log from a drumming sequence and ruffed up its neck feathers with his tail feathers fanned out and in full strut.

“To find that drumming log, I had to wait for the grouse to drum and then keep narrowing down the search,” he explained. “It took me about an hour to locate the log. I finally spotted him and walked toward him when he started drumming again. He flushed off of the log and then I knew where to aim the camera. I mounted two cameras on the log from two different angles and managed to get some very nice pictures.”

Sometimes Hall said he gets just what he’s hoping for on his trail cameras – and sometimes it’s a big surprise. On one occasion, he set up to photograph a grouse and ended up getting images of a flying squirrel, and another time he not only captured the glowing eyes of a deer but also a rabbit in the foreground and the moon coming up behind the trees in the background. On another of his deer images, he photographed a mosquito-gleaning bat hovering just off the deer’s shoulder.

Three years ago, when Hall was first starting to get some really good photos on his trail cameras, his wife suggested he make a calendar of them. He agreed and had about six of them made as gifts for his dad, brother, father-in-law and other family members. As friends found out about them, they started asking to have copies made for themselves, so this year Hall decided to produce 500 of them to sell through his own Web store at: http://www.freewebs.com/cedarhollow/apps/webstore/ as well as at McDonald Rental, Bergquist Imports and the UMD Bulldog Shop.

He has also created his own forum for those interested in homemade trail cameras, called “Home-Brew Trail Camera Chat (HTCC),” and now has some 600-700 registered members from all over the nation and Canada who share photos, feedback and pointers on building and using trail cameras. In addition to that Hall has created a “Homebrew Reference Site” providing links to suppliers, help forums, free photo software, instructional PDF files and more at: http://www.d.umn.edu/~shall/Homebrews.htm

“The main reason I got into making trail cameras was to scout for deer,” admitted Hall, “but when I realized what quality pictures I could take with them, it just took me in whole other direction.”

Hall still hasn’t lost sight of his original goal, however, especially at this time of the year when deer hunting season is on.

“With my trail cameras, I can figure out what trails the deer are using fairly easily and whether they’re moving in daylight or not,” said Hall. “The other thing that really matters to me is knowing if there are big bucks out there. If you know they are out there, it’s a lot easier to stay on stand longer, just to get a chance at them!”

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