June 29, 2023
The Institute for White-tailed Deer Management & Research figured significantly in the development and applications of trail cameras. Over the last 40 years, I can say with all certainty that we have looked at over a million photographs, both digital and print, of deer and other animals! Our original goal in contributing to trail camera development was mostly for research applications, but later we turned to using them for hunting and patterning whitetails. I say this to document that we have seen just about every mistake a person can make with a trail camera, and we’ve come up with some good ways to avoid making them!
SELECTING A TRAIL CAMERA
There are literally hundreds of cameras on the market today. They run in price from less than $20 to almost $1,000, depending on what you want to accomplish. The average hunter we work with tends to purchase cheaper cameras, mostly because they have come to think of them as supplies, rather than equipment. I hear more and more from consumers that they are willing to accept a certain failure rate, if the price compensates for it!
What you purchase should depend on what you want from your cameras. If you just want to see if bucks are in the area and when, an inexpensive camera will do fine. However, if you are wanting to study your deer in detail, perhaps even using them for your management program, a more expensive device is better.
Since most photographs are taken at night, the flash range certainly is a consideration. Ever look at a series of photographs and see eyes shining way into the background? Our research has shown that these often belong to mature bucks that never chance coming that close to a camera. There are companies now selling augmented lighting devices as accessories. We use them in most of our research level camera work, and it has significantly increased our success rate.
The advent of cellular cameras has completely changed the landscape of scouting and patterning whitetails. At first, the image quality was not very good, and you often could not get a cell signal where you hunt! Today, reliability has greatly increased and so has the number of hunters using them. When purchasing a cell camera, the first consideration should be, is it supported by your cell service provider? The next consideration should be the cost of service. It is nice to hear that ding on your cell phone over and over as you receive images, but there may be a meter running on your dime!
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
We hear constantly about the unreliability of trail cameras, and in some cases, it is deserved. However, many times it is all user error! I have lost count of the number of times I have visited a landowner or hunter and spy a 5-gallon bucket in the back of his UTV, piled high with cameras. Always remember, no matter how stout a camera looks, it is still a piece of electronic equipment. Here are some of the most common mistakes in handling cameras.
First of all, a trail camera consists of a case, some circuit boards and chips, a lens, wires and batteries. It is common to see cameras advertised as “waterproof;” yet, are they really? Electronic devices do not like water! Water is the number one enemy of a trail camera, and it comes from two sources —outside and inside the case. Most cameras are pretty good at keeping rain out of the main case, but there are weak points that allow water to invade your camera. If your camera has jacks for plugging in recharging devices, or even cell antennas, water can get into your box. Second, there is water already in your camera in the form of water vapor. A camera exposed to temperature variation will experience condensation, which can damage your camera despite having a tight seal.
If your camera lies in the back of a UTV or on the floorboard of your truck, the constant vibration could result in failure of electronic parts! Laying one on the back seat is just as hazardous, since one sudden stop to avoid rear-ending someone will turn it into a projectile!
We have found the No. 1 cause for trail camera failure comes from the batteries. Again, trail cameras are exposed to the elements, causing significant temperature changes in the box. Batteries, especially lithium batteries, can rupture and spill their contents into the camera! The acid quickly corrodes everything from battery connections to internal wiring.
Care and maintenance also apply to the memory cards used in most cameras. Ever open one of these up to see what’s inside? It is a lot more complicated than you’d think! As with your camera, water and physical trauma can ruin a memory card, without you even knowing it! Imagine the disappointment you’d have when the big buck you thought you were going to photograph never ends up on the card.
Those are just some of the problems experienced by trail camera users, but what are the solutions?
For camera protection, we have started using padded cases and backpacks to store and move our cameras. There even are commercially available packs that have padding and compartments specifically designed for cameras. These are great for transport, but we do not use packs for storage. We use a hard-sided, foam-lined case for storage; and we place silica gel packets in each case to control moisture. We store our cameras in the cases between seasonal use. Before placing the cameras in storage, we open and in- spect each one for moisture or damage. We remove all batteries immediately after returning from the field. We also check each battery’s charge level, eliminating any that are not sufficiently charged to use in the future for an extended period. We then blow out the cases to remove any dirt or debris accumulated in the field. Lastly, we place a small silica gel packet into each box and close it.
Camera memory cards are best stored in a container specially designed for this purpose. We clean and clear all cards before storage. By saying “clear,” I’m referring to deleting all images after they have been transferred to permanent storage. We also label each card for our record-keeping.
When we are ready to use our cameras again, we pretty much repeat the process in reverse. We check each camera to ensure that moisture has not damaged any component, and we also check our batteries that have been stored properly after use. When checking your batteries, look for leakage around the housing and corrosion.
SETTING UP YOUR CAMERAS
In most situations, after you are sure where you want to place a camera, make sure that it is at the proper height to capture the images you expect. This sounds like an obvious consideration, but you would be amazed by how many photographs we examine for cooperators that have parts of deer in them! We generally like to have our cameras 2-3 feet above the ground, and 10-12 yards away from our targeted area. This, of course, depends on the type of lens on your camera. The best way to set up your camera properly is to test it! Many cameras offer a test feature, so that is not a problem.
Trail cameras work on a motion trigger, so how much motion will it take to trigger a camera? Some cameras allow you to adjust the sensitivity, while others do not. Properly setting up your camera will eliminate a great deal of the “non-target” images. The biggest problem we encounter is not clearing all vegetation from the path where the camera is “looking.” A clump of tall grass or even a small limb can trigger your camera on a windy day. I have had to look through as many as 1,500 images on a large card, because the operator did not clear the camera view.
Another big mistake we encounter on camera set up is the direction the camera monitors. We never set up a camera that is not pointing directly north or some short distance off this direction. I have grown tired of trying to see deer in a photograph with solar flare, because the operator pointed the camera to the south. Of course, if you are totally in the woods, you probably can get away with it, but you need to check to see if the sun will be a problem.
Most cameras offer an array of options when it comes to what is captured on your memory card. Options include video vs. still image, single or multiple capture and time lapse. We hear a lot of promotions on cameras being “fast.” What does fast actually mean? Is it trigger speed or recovery speed? Most cameras have acceptable trigger speed, the time it takes to capture a photograph; however, the recovery time is the amount of time it takes for the camera to prepare to take another photograph. The most common problem we encounter with our cooperators is the delay time between photographs. Some cameras allow you to designate any amount of time, while others offer two or three choices. The delay time you’ll need is determined by what you are doing with the camera.
If you are trying to get a photograph of a buck coming down a trail, you may not want any delay, because the number of photographs will be relatively few. If, however, you are photographing deer at a highly visited site, you may want a long delay. We have seen photographs taken at a feeder with a 30-second delay that literally look like movies! For deer census applications, we use a delay between five and eight minutes; but again, it depends on what you are wanting to capture.
When you close that door on your camera box, ask yourself, “Did I arm the camera?” We have lost count of the number of times someone set up a camera where they cannot wait to see the buck that is using the trail, only to return to a camera that never was turned on! We like to draw a “?” on the outside of our cameras as a reminder to make sure it is armed. Even after you’ve correctly set up the camera, it’s important to check on your camera’s performance. When you close that door on your camera box, are you sure the memory card will properly capture an image? Card failure is one of the more common reasons for frustration with trail cameras. One of the new problems we are encountering is the use of a memory card that has a larger capacity than the camera can handle. Make sure your memory card conforms to the recommendations for that camera.
It is not uncommon for someone to come up to me at a meeting or hunting show and want to show me some of the bucks he has at his place. I love looking at them and never turn down the opportunity to see an interesting buck; however, the next step is to watch the guy thumb through 12,000 photographs looking for one specific buck! Likewise, I have seen stacks of camera cards on someone’s desk that represent their “photograph storage system.”
In the digital era, it is simple to have the discipline to go through each card and pull off the most important images and store them in a clearly marked folder on your computer or cell phone. Then, you simply erase the rest, since it is unnecessary to keep 300 photographs of a buck standing next to the same tree. There are some applications that claim to offer photographic storage in a retrievable system, but I have yet to see one I like. There is no substitute for a well-marked folder.
I appreciate you following along with this discussion on the proper use and maintenance of trail cameras. If you follow these suggestions, I guarantee you will be less frustrated and a whole lot happier with this important addition to the hunting experience.