July–August 2022

Camera Obscura

Ryan Pennesi’s trap photography offers an artful, up-close look at Minnesota wildlife.

Ryan Pennesi's first try at wildlife photography yielded exactly zero wildlife photos. Instead, the trail cam he placed in a strip of woods near the University of Massachusetts captured hundreds of photos of neighborhood dogs. 

“That first setup was a disaster,” says Pennesi, who was studying wildlife and fisheries conservation at UMass at the time. “But one of my peers got a really cool trail cam shot of a bobcat, and I kind of became hooked on camera trapping.” 

Contrary to its name, a camera trap doesn’t actually catch an animal. It’s a photo rig that uses a trail cam or digital camera to capture images of wildlife. Camera trappers place their equipment outdoors and walk away, relying on sensors to activate the cameras. Wildlife researchers favor these setups as a passive way to monitor animals, including elusive critters that can be difficult to photograph. 

After graduating from UMass in 2012, Pennesi began incorporating camera traps into his environmental education work. While working with students in western Massachusetts, he placed a trail cam near a deer kill and later showed the kids photos of fishers, barred owls, and other wildlife that had fed on the carcass. 

“It was really neat to see how many animals were making use of that valuable resource and redistributing the energy back into the food chain,” says Pennesi, who eventually moved to Finland, Minnesota, where he now works as a wildlife technician for the U.S. Forest Service.

Pennesi employs camera trapping in his day job and in his side hustle as a nature photographer. Years ago he replaced his trail cam with a higher-end DSLR setup, which, as you’ll see on the following pages, takes stunningly crisp images of Minnesota wildlife. By combining his love of animal tracking, research, and nature photography, Pennesi has emerged as one of the state’s finest camera trappers.

“I try to blend science and art to empower conservation,” says Pennesi. “To get people to understand what’s happening in the natural world and how we play a role in that.”