Bird Cam Setup

After giving my TEDx San Antonio talk today I got some requests to share my setup for catching all the action. So, here we go:


The first (and most important!) piece of hardware is an old phone. You don't need anything super powerful or fancy; its battery doesn't even need to be in good shape.

I went through a couple of prototypes and finally settled on a basic picture hanging kit that I had laying around the house. This one is very similar to what I already had. There's not a whole lot to it. I screwed in the screw eyes into the ceiling of my entry way and threaded the included wire so that the phone could easily be held against the ceiling, giving the birds plenty of head room.

Male Barn Swallow Closeup

I then got an existing extension cord and threaded it through a heavier duty screw eye in the corner oposite the nest. This would supply constant power to the phone without worrying about how long the battery would last.

The final important piece of hardware is a set of lenses. Because the iPhone camera has a minimum focus distance of about 3-4 inches, it alone is not suitable for this setup. I picked up these cheap lenses for ~$10 on Amazon. They're not exactly high quality and suffer from some pretty horrible chromatic aberration, but they got the job done. The wide angle was great when the swallows were incubating the eggs, but I switched to the macro once they hatched.


I spent a lot of time trying several live streaming apps off of the App Store and settled on Instant Webcam. What made this the winner was its relative ease to setup, start streaming, but I could also record the stream as it was coming to my laptop or phone. I captured literally dozens and dozens of hours of video this way. Even though the quality of the stream wasn't exactly the best, it was the most reliable.

I also used Camera Plus, an awesome app for remote trigger photography. I was able to setup a second phone and remotely capture 1080p recordings and take photographs with a streamed live preview on a different iOS device. In the photo below, for example, I attached the phone to a goose neck clamp I had from a different project. Once the birds got comfortable with it being there, I could capture them whenever they perched on my porch light.

Male Barn Swallow Closeup

What made this app especially powerful was my ability to not only preview what the clamped iPhone could "see", but also control the focus point and exposure. The background in the photo is blown out quite a bit, but the vibrant colors of the male Barn Swallow are absolutely vivid and gorgeous.


That's it! Just setup the phone, hit record, and enjoy the show! If you have any questions or need clarification, please feel free to drop me a line @waynehartman.

Posted on Mar 5
Written by Wayne Hartman