You don’t have to be a hunter to have fun with a trail camera. Monitoring your property with one (or a few) of these handy little gadgets is a fascinating hobby for birders, wildlife enthusiasts, kids, or just folk who enjoy being surprised at what goes on in their backyard after dark. Also known as a trap, game, or wildlife camera, a trail camera is equipped with a passive infrared motion detector that triggers the shutter when an animal (or trespasser) walks into its field of view. Hunters use them to identify places to find game when the season starts, or to establish migration or feeding routes. Birders like the close-up, freeze-frame images a trail cam can capture; a person holding a camera would scatter the birds, but an unobtrusive trail cam doesn’t bother them a bit.
Some people set up trail cams just out of curiosity about the activity of wildlife, or even their own pets, when humans aren’t present. Residents of rural and even suburban areas are sometimes surprised and delighted by the variety of animals their cams capture, and by their hijinks. Trail cam “bloopers” of wildlife caught in goofy moments have become a popular category on blogs and video sites.
Here’s a quick primer on trail-cam features.
Movement triggers a trail camera’s shutter. The amount of time between the movement and when the photo is taken is called trigger speed. It’s easy to find cams that fire in half a second or less. The Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Aggressor Low-Glow, Browning Strike Force Apex, and Browning Dark Ops Apex are examples of cams with 0.2-second trigger speeds. Naturally, you want the photo to be captured or the video to start recording as quickly as possible, before the subject moves out of view.
A related measure is recovery time, or how long it takes for the camera to get ready to take another picture. Not every camera maker specifies recovery time, but it’s worth considering when they do. It’s common for cams to offer a burst capability, firing off several shots in rapid succession, or a multi-shot mode with a selectable period of time between shots. You can also set the interval between triggered events, so your memory card doesn’t fill up with shots of the same show-off deer.
Also related to trigger speed is detection range: how close to the camera an animal must get to trigger the motion detector. Naturally, a longer (farther) detection range will capture more wildlife movement, but may fill your card more quickly.
As with cameras in general, the higher the resolution, the higher the potential for a sharp picture or video. But be aware that, often, the maximum resolution listed for a camera is an interpolation, or enhancement, of a significantly lower “native” resolution—the camera simply adds pixels to what the sensor captures. The good news is that even the native resolution is usually sufficient to capture really nice photos and video, and they’ll take up less space on your memory card. Many cameras give the user the ability to select the still-photo resolution and the video resolution. Browning’s Recon Force 4K lists a maximum resolution of 32MB for photos and UHD 4K maximum video resolution, with lower resolutions available.
Nighttime photography requires artificial light. Trail cameras offer three kinds of flash: white, which is becoming increasingly rare; “red” or “low-glow” infrared; and “black” or “no-glow” infrared. The infrared options are by far the most popular because they are much less likely to startle the animals being photographed. Low-glow flashes operate just above the visible spectrum (at a wavelength somewhere around 732nm) so they do emit some light at the source, but not much, and while there is a chance it will spook the game, it also produces better photos. Operating well above the visible spectrum at wavelengths around 864nm, a No-glow flash is totally stealth; the animal goes about its business without having been alarmed. White flash is seldom used, because it’s likely to scare the animal and cause it to flee. But it also allows nighttime color photography, while infrared flash only allows black-and-white.
It's a bit inexact, but most cameras list a flash range. Within the range, the flash will provide enough light to photography the subject; beyond the range, it’s too dark. It’s hard to say exactly how far flash light travels (and trail cam makers all list suspiciously round numbers), but the range is still a useful indicator of the strength of the flash, and therefore of what you’ll be able to see in your pictures and videos. The RECONYX HF2X Hyperfire 2 lists its no-glow flash range at 150', considerably longer than most cams.
Memory Cards vs. Cellular Plans
All trail cams store their images on memory cards. Some also transmit their images to cell phones and web portals. The advantage of a cellular cam, such as the Spypoint LINK-DARK Cellular Trail Camera, is obvious: you don’t need to visit your camera physically and pull the card (or view the images on the cam’s screen) to see what you’ve captured. Also, if your camera is stolen, lost, or destroyed, you still have the images. The disadvantage, of course, is cost—in the purchase price and in the monthly charge, which typically ranges from $9.99 to $49.99, depending on the level of service selected. Most cams offer a choice of Verizon or AT&T plans, while some, like Spypoint, also offer their own network.
Your trail cam is going to use a lot of batteries. Eight AA cells is a typical requirement, and some cameras need as much as twelve. However, many cams, such as the Browning BTC-4P Command Ops Pro, can also accept power from an outside source, usually a 6- or 12-volt battery or power bank. A growing number of trail cams can operate on solar power, such as the Spypoint LINK-S-V Solar Cellular Trail Camera, which has a built-in solar panel that charges an on-board 12 VDC lithium battery to power the unit. If need be, the cam can also run on eight AA cells or a plug-in DC power supply. Brands including Moultrie, Bushnell, RECONYX, and Spypoint offer solar panels designed to work with select trail cams.
Most cams come with a strap or a bracket for mounting on a tree, and some also have 1/4"-20 threaded tripod-style sockets for additional options. Many feature a channel or holes designed for use with a Python-style locking security cable to prevent theft.
Trail cameras have always been fun. Today, they’re also highly capable and convenient. Whether you need them for monitoring game, indulging your interest in wildlife, keeping an eye on a remote property or job site, or just for spying on the natural world when it thinks no one is watching, you’ll find the right model at B&H.