March 26, 2012
Last hunting season, I enlisted the aid of more than 20 trail cameras. Comprised of various makes and models, my network was spread across several properties near my home here in southeast Ohio. Seven of those cameras utilized wireless technology. The remaining were conventional infrared (IR) flash cameras with removable memory cards.
Wireless cams are my favorite and most useful deer hunting tool. However, they are not usable in certain areas I hunt due to a lack of cell phone coverage. A few companies make external antennas that greatly extend cell range, and it should be noted that most cellular models can be used as conventional cameras when cellular service is not available.
There are several variables to consider when selecting the proper trail camera. This is definitely not a one-size-fits-all technology. A few internet Web sites offer unbiased evaluations of performance in addition to online message boards that can help you make an informed decision of which type of camera and what features best fit your needs.
WHITE FLASH VS. INFRARED
The advantage of the white flash is range. White flash cameras tend to record better nighttime images at greater distances than most infrared models. White flash cameras are also capable of nighttime color photos.
Meanwhile, the red hue of an infrared flash is less likely to be seen by a camera thief, and the "black flash" infrared technology available with some of the newer cameras is undetectable to the human eye.
Over the years, I have observed several deer as they passed in front of a flash camera. Most appeared to be unaffected by the flash, however, a few reacted as if they had been shot with a gun. On the other hand, I have never personally witnessed an adverse reaction to an infrared flash. The indicator I find most telling is the increase in repeated photos of the same mature bucks at different times and dates after switching to the infrared technology. The number of "one and done" photos declined dramatically after I switched from flash to the infrared technology.
Of all the features to consider when selecting a trail camera, the most basic — and often the most overlooked — feature is battery life. This is especially true when it comes to wireless trail cameras.
The No. 1 advantage of wireless technology is the ability to place a camera in the field and monitor activity without visiting and contaminating the site. This primary advantage is nullified by a short battery life. Many times, cameras are set in remote, hard-to-access locations or many miles from home, making them very inconvenient to visit. Battery life, as well as image storage capacity, become even more important when a camera is placed over a bait site, food plot, mineral lick or any place that concentrates deer activity. This is amplified during the winter months when cool temperatures are particularly tough on battery performance.
Some trail camera manufacturers incorporate external battery packs for both traditional and wireless models to dramatically increase battery life. These rechargeable external packs are also economical. The best overall solution to avoid a power outage is a solar charger that continuously charges, (during daylight hours), an onboard rechargeable battery.
Some of the newer conventional trail cameras have built-in viewing capabilities. There are also handheld image-viewing devices on the market, including digital cameras that allow you to view images at the field site. This is a valuable tool as it allows the user to make changes to the trail camera and fine-tune the field of view.
Some cameras incorporate a "burst" mode feature. This setting allows the camera to take multiple consecutive photos of a single deer or multiple deer from a single triggered event. This setting allows views of the subject from various angles and is most effective in situations such as overlooking a trail where the animal is just passing through. A fast and sensitive trigger, along with a higher photo resolution setting, is also critical in these scenarios. Some cameras have a delay mode. Like long battery life, this feature is useful when the camera is set over any area with concentrated deer activity, where the same deer is likely to trigger the camera multiple times.
GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR
As a rule of thumb, buying a trail camera is no different from any other procurement. You get what you pay for. The more expensive models tend to have quicker trigger speeds resulting in fewer "missed" photos, and the picture quality is usually better. Wireless cameras are my favorite, but they certainly are not the low-cost option. Trail camera technology is improving rapidly, and many of the lower-priced conventional models are now capable of taking a pretty decent picture in a relatively short amount of time.
I believe that blanketing an area with trail cameras gives you a much better assessment of what's there. And for me, knowing that a big buck inhabits the area I'm hunting is a huge confidence builder.
Another advantage of lower-priced units is the exposure to theft. Unfortunately, trail cam thieves are a real problem in some areas, and leaving a thousand dollars worth of equipment in one spot unattended in the field can sometimes have heart-wrenching consequences.
Camera placement is similar to tree stand placement in that the right tree is seldom in the right place. Every location presents unique challenges. When the right tree for mounting a camera is not present, there are other options. A mobile tripod offers a few advantages. Some cameras have a port to attach to a tripod head. A tripod can be set up on uneven terrain and the camera height easily adjusted. I sometimes use a fence post or a sawed tree limb sunk in the ground as a support for mounting a camera.
It's important to remove any brush or small saplings immediately in front of the camera, as their motion in the breeze often triggers blank photos. An important feature of any trail camera is a laser pointer. The laser pointer allows the user to accurately see exactly where the camera is pointed and center the field of view.
As a rule of thumb, I like to point the laser "belt high" at the approximate distance I anticipate the deer to pass. This is normally 30 to 40 inches above the ground. Most infrared trail cameras I've owned take decent photos out to about 20 feet. I have noticed that my black flash IR cameras seem to take better and brighter nighttime photos when a static object like a large diameter tree is just beyond the animal to reflect the infrared light. When that's not possible, I try to point the camera down at a slight angle just past the expected target area as the glow from the ground also seems to brighten the image.
A compass is a handy tool to have in your pack when placing a trail camera. Most daytime deer activity occurs at first and last light, making this the most likely time to get daylight photos. As we know, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The glare from direct sunlight usually makes a photo difficult to view. In flat terrain settings, I always try to face my cameras north or south whenever possible.
When setting up over a deer trail, I try to place the camera five to 10 feet off of the trail and angled toward the direction from which I expect the deer to approach. This gives the subject more time in the "strike zone" and increases the chances of a high-quality, centered photo.
For many hunters, myself included, the use of trail cameras has become almost a sport within a sport. I was an avid fur trapper for many years and I liken the setting of a trail camera to the setting of a trap. You place the camera or trap in the exact right location and it does the work when you're not there. The anticipation and thrill of checking your photos is very similar to that of checking a trap line — without the unpleasant need to dispatch, skin, flesh and stretch the animal that you just caught. It's almost like "catch-and-release" hunting.