Outdoors / Buying Guide

See Without Being Seen: A Primer on Trail Cameras

Whether your area of interest is hunting, studying, observation, or surveillance, a trail camera can be a helpful tool for capturing close-up photos and video of wildlife or other people, remotely and discreetly. Get clear, detailed images of animals without running the risk of scaring them off, or monitor the exterior of your property for intruders. Strap a camera to a tree or post and set it to take shots automatically while you go about your business elsewhere. When you return, you’ll have great shots that would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pull off while holding the camera. In this article, we’ll explore trail cams in depth, covering their features, capabilities, operation, and applications.

The camera does all the work

All those who pursue, track, and observe wildlife for any purpose know that it can be a tedious, time-consuming process. You can spend hours just waiting for the shot you want or trying to create it while on the move. A trail camera allows you to save yourself a ton of time by setting it and then forgetting about it while you go and do something else. Return whenever you like and you’ll have photos and videos to review. Think of all you can accomplish when your camera does all the work for you and you don’t have to be anywhere near the action. You could complete myriad other necessary or desired tasks, such as studying and following animal tracks or setting up camp and building a fire. Trail cams require only a few minutes to set up and program, yet this small investment of time will give you hours on the back end and allow you to be far more productive—while rescuing you from boredom.

The images you capture with your camera will allow you to see the kinds of animals that live in a given area and learn about their patterns and behavior, which is useful information whether you’re hunting, studying, or simply observing them. The presence of people is enough to scare off a lot of wildlife and keep them hidden from view, so trail cams are designed to operate autonomously, once programmed, to capture those shots without spooking the animals. Another benefit of not having to be there in person to snap the photo or record the video is that you can maintain a safe distance from the more dangerous creatures, such as bears and mountain lions. Most trail cams utilize both infrared motion-detection and time-lapse modes, allowing them to shoot photos or video whenever their sensors are triggered by movement, or at specified time intervals.

Time-lapse software

Motion detection will likely give you the greatest number of shots and will also ensure that you don’t miss opportunities when animals step into the coverage zone. But time-lapse photography will allow you to create a video showing change over time, which is crucial when tracking and studying game. It will let you observe patterns and behaviors, including activity or inactivity at certain times of day or night, and will give you options for the time interval. Often, time-lapse capture will be scheduled in two windows of time each day, one beginning around 15 minutes before sunrise and the other ending about 15 minutes after sunset. Cameras with selectable options for delay time can be programmed to keep shooting at intervals, as long as motion is detected and a subject remains in range. Many trail cameras even include time-lapse software to help you combine your captured pictures into videos.

Adjusting settings for time-lapse photos

The detection of motion is performed by a passive infrared, or PIR, sensor, which detects the changes in temperature that occur when subjects move and captures images in response. These sensors typically feature an effective range of 35-60'. Many of them have technology allowing sensitivity to be regulated automatically, based on temperature for more consistent functionality. You can also set the sensitivity to high, normal, or low manually. If you don't want the camera to fire every time it's triggered, the motion-capture delay can be set at various intervals that often range from 1 second to 60 minutes. On some cameras, the On/Off switch is also the aim switch that allows the IR sensors to run a detection test before beginning to capture images. When “Aim” is selected, the red Aim LED light on the front of the camera will turn on for two seconds and then turn off at intervals, while the sensor performs the IR test. 

See change over time

Some cameras can be set to motion-detect mode for a certain period of time, such as during the night, and time-lapse mode for the remainder of the day. Certain models will continue to capture images via motion detection when they’re in time-lapse mode, which will enable you to see change over time without missing what goes on during the delay interval. Continuous shooting is possible on select trail cams to allow you to capture multiple photos in quick succession each time motion is detected—increasing your chances of getting a stellar shot.

The motion of wildlife fires the camera's shutter.

Another factor that can stack the photographic odds in your favor is a wider field of view. A longstanding issue with trail cameras, up until a couple of years ago, was that their lenses had a limited angle of coverage. Many animals—and people, if the camera was being used for surveillance or security purposes—would be missed and the camera would not be triggered, simply because the subjects were out of the coverage zone. This meant you would have to purchase two or more cameras and set them up in neighboring locations, or reposition the camera multiple times over the course of several days, to cover an entire area. The introduction of trail cam models with greater angles of view up to an extremely wide 150 degrees solved this problem and revolutionized trail and surveillance photography. Utilizing multiple sensors and rotating lenses that allow a shot to be captured at each sensor in quick succession, the camera effectively triples the lens's angle of view—enabling it to capture activity that would be missed by a standard trail camera. It then stitches these three images together to create a panoramic shot. It sure beats strapping three trail cams to a tree.

A wider field of view

A unique feature on select models is a manual shutter release. This allows you to use the device as a normal, handheld digital camera, framing and composing shots on the display and capturing photos and videos at the touch of a button. Normally, this is not something you’re going to be looking for in a trail cam, but it can be an asset—particularly if you see an opportunity for a great shot as you’re walking with the camera to the desired location, or as you’re setting it up or retrieving it at the end of the day.

Since you’re trying to be as unobtrusive as possible when photographing or recording game in the wild, you don’t want a flash that will alarm them. Similarly, you don’t want people who are trespassing on your property and raiding your shed to steal or destroy the camera because they were alerted to its presence—and now they want to hide the incriminating evidence. Most trail cameras have built-in, completely invisible infrared (IR) or almost invisible, near-infrared LED flash units, which provide illumination while remaining inconspicuous. Other models do have regular white flashes, which may scare off wildlife but have the advantage of offering color images at night. Cameras with the discreet IR illumination produce color images during the day but only black-and-white shots after dark. Consider the effective flash range, which can be anywhere from about 30 to more than 100', to get an idea of how close subjects will have to get to be properly exposed in low light.

Interpolated resolutions

Some trail cams have the ability to increase minimum shutter speed automatically to help counteract motion blur in dimly lit environments. This advanced function could mean the difference between a clear shot of an identifiable animal or person and a blurry photo of little use, especially in situations where the subject is moving quickly.

The resolution of the image sensor is a huge determining factor when it comes to the quality of your photos and videos. Generally, a greater number of megapixels will give you better image quality. Sharper photos and videos will allow you to pick out finer details in the wildlife you are observing, and will lend themselves better to large-scale computer or television viewing or print reproduction. Many cameras can render images with interpolated resolutions that are two or three times higher than the native resolution of the sensor, and these are the resolutions that are advertised most prominently. Interpolation can improve the quality of images to an extent, but an interpolated resolution will not be as sharp and detailed as a native one with the same pixel count.

Camouflage finish blends in with the natural surroundings.

The ability to adjust the picture and video resolution of your trail camera is very useful, as it ensures you won’t run out of memory before you retrieve the camera. If you want to record for longer periods of time, you can select a lower resolution; if the duration is shorter, bump up the quality for sharper images. Virtually all trail cams provide multiple selectable resolutions. Of course, if your camera accepts memory cards with higher capacities, you won’t have to worry as much about running out of room on the card—but most trail cams can only take cards up to a maximum of 32GB.

To see the game in action, you’ll need a camera that records video. While many allow for standard-definition capture only, some shoot HD 720p and even Full HD 1080p movies. Certain models are even capable of shooting video and still images simultaneously. Video clip length can vary but is generally pretty short—up to 30 or 60 seconds for many cameras and as long as 90 seconds for others. If you want to capture the sounds of wildlife to accompany these movies, you’ll need to get your hands on a trail cam with a microphone.

"Generally, a greater number of megapixels will give you better image quality."

Many trail cameras feature small black-and-white text monitors about 1.5" in size for menu navigation and settings selection, but others offer larger 2-2.5" color LCD screens that enable you to see your shots before and after they’re captured. In the past couple of years, models with even larger, playback-enabled, color LCD touchscreens have begun to hit the market—changing the game yet again. Not all trail cams offer photo or video playback, so you may need to purchase a separate viewer that will allow you to see your images in the field from the camera’s memory card.

Wireless connectivity

Then again, depending on which trail cam you’ve got, a viewer may not be a necessary purchase. As technology has continued to evolve, the advancements in the game and wildlife camera arena have come to include models equipped with Wi-Fi. Wireless connectivity is available right out of the box, with a SIM card and data supplied in some cases and pre-paid data plans optional. Free apps for iOS and Android devices let you send images—in real time or after the shoot—from your camera to a smartphone, tablet, or computer, from which you can email them or upload them for sharing on the Web. Plus, you can manage camera settings via your computer or smartphone.

Make sure you’ve got plenty of battery power when setting up a trail cam. The majority of models run on replaceable batteries, such as AA or C-cell types, which are conveniently available almost anywhere. Additionally, some cams have the advantage of an input like a 12VDC jack for the connection of an optional power pack to extend shooting time. This helps ensure that you don’t miss a great shot because your camera ran out of juice.

Time and date stamping

To help you track patterns at various hours of the day and in various conditions, many trail cams stamp time, date, temperature, and moon phase onto images at the time of capture. Time and date stamping will help you track wildlife by indicating the time of day, month, or year when they’re most active, while temperature tells you whether they prefer warm or cold weather. Moon phase allows you to see what animals are inactive during a full or nearly full moon—when brighter lighting conditions will make them more visible to predators. It also helps you determine whether brighter or darker backgrounds in images are due to the fullness of the moon.

GPS mapping

On select trail cameras, you also have the ability to enter longitude and latitude for GPS geo-tagging. Enter coordinates down to multiple decimal points for an extremely high degree of accuracy. The data will be conveniently stored in your images.

If you’re going to leave your device outdoors in the wild for extended periods of time, you want to make sure it’s safe. Many trail cams let you enter a security code to prevent tampering by unauthorized users, and most are equipped with integrated loops or eyelets for optional padlocks or cables, such as Python cables.

Water and weather resistance

Since your camera is likely to be exposed to the elements, weather resistance is crucial. You don’t want rain or snow damaging your investment. Almost all trail cams are protected by water/weather-resistant housings, some of which have features like rubber gaskets, for an extra-tight seal.

There are a variety of ways to mount a trail cam on a tree, post, or similar structure. Eyelets for a mounting strap are common to many cameras, as are standard 1/4"-20 threaded holes on the bottom for connection to various mounts. Some models feature an attachment point on the rear, instead of, or in addition to, one on the bottom. This configuration allows for attachment to mounts that have horizontal screws.

A mounting strap keeps this trail cam in place securely.

Useful for a range of applications and offering an array of helpful features, trail cams are simple yet versatile devices that work for you while you’re off tending to other business or having other adventures. Upon your return, you’ll have a collection of photos or videos that will give you information about the types and number of wildlife or other people moving about the area. These details can help you determine patterns in animal behavior that will aid you in your hunting or research endeavors, and will also allow you to catch a thief or intruder in the act.

For more information, stop by the B&H SuperStore in New York, or contact a sales professional on the telephone at 1-800-606-6969 or via Live Chat.