July 2016
Talkin' Huntin'

A Watchful Eye

A small rubber cord works to secure most cameras to a tree or post and is faster and easier than most belts that come with the camera.  

Trail Camera Tips and Tricks

Early trail camera models from the 1980s were slow and flash models. The trigger devices were not reliable, picture quality was often poor and you had to wait to develop your 35 mm film to find out what happened. I can’t tell you how many rolls of images of nothing I developed.

"Necessity is the mother of invention," as they say. Most technologies have a breakthrough that suddenly makes the technology more user-friendly. That innovation with trail cameras was digital photography. Suddenly film cameras limited to 36 shots were replaced by digital cameras capable taking hundreds of shots. There were no more trips to the film processor and trail camera enthusiasts were able to instantly view their pictures on the camera or a computer.

Infrared flash was another big step forward, and now we also have HD video, time-lapse and wireless connections so you can view images seconds after they are captured. Trail cameras today come in all shapes and sizes. They range from very complicated and expensive to very basic and affordable.

Digital trail cameras offer the choice of shooting still photos or video clips. Different settings for sensitivity, multi-shot and video length allow shots to be captured in a variety of situations. I especially like the video setting when monitoring a scrape. It’s fascinating to see up close the ritual bucks go through when freshening a scrape.

Test for Success

Trail cameras come with specifications suggesting their performances such as flash-range distance, trigger speed, etc. Most of them are fairly accurate, but I still like to test a new camera. It really helps to understand under what conditions it will be best used.

Mount the camera in your yard and starting at the camera walk directly away from it marking off every 10 feet until you’ve reached 50-60 feet. Then turn the camera on and walk off to one side. Walking at a normal pace, pass through the trigger area at each marker, giving the camera the appropriate recovery time after each shot. Then repeat the test, walking at quicker speeds, until you’re moving at a trot … if you have kids, let them do the running.

Pull the card and check the images. One of the shots will be focused better than the others; this distance is the camera’s standard focal length, something to keep in mind when you set the camera in the field. If the camera was able to capture you at fast speeds, this model is good to use on field edges, funnels or trails where you’ll encounter walking deer. If the trigger is slow, the camera is best used on scrapes, feeding sites or mineral licks where it will have no problem capturing standing deer.

You may want to repeat the same test at night to see a real-world look at the camera’s flash range, nighttime focal point and speed. The night test will also give you an idea of how bright the camera’s infrared sensors are. These tests reveal which models work best under which conditions.

Choose Your Spot Wisely

One of the best places to capture deer photos with a trail camera is a feeder, but other good places are scrapes, trail intersections, fence crossings, a hot oak tree dropping acorns, mineral licks and food plots.

Trigger speed is not a big issue at most food sources. Animals spend time there and should trigger the camera often. Center the food source in the camera’s field of view. The optimal effective range of most cameras is about 20 feet. The best height to set the camera depends upon a number of factors such as direction of the sun; if there are squirrels, raccoons or other small animals you don’t want to trigger the camera; whether you have trespassers who might like a new camera if they can reach it; or how the camera will be hung (i.e. small or large tree, fencepost, commercial tripod, etc.).

In most instances, it’s best to point the camera south, away from the sun. This helps eliminate sun spots or glare during daylight.

Remove any brush, grass or limbs that can move with the wind and trigger the camera. These objects would most often distract from the photo anyhow, so take the time to eradicate them.

Setting up on a trail or crossing requires different settings and positioning for the camera. Animals passing quickly challenge the camera to activate and trigger before the subject is out of the field of view. This often results in empty frames. To correct this problem, try pointing the camera at a 45 degree angle to the trail or crossing. This keeps the animal in the field of view longer and should result in less blank frames or shots with only half an animal.

Play it Safe

It pays to be careful and sometimes sneaky when setting cameras. I don’t like to set the camera too close to a scrape, mineral site or any spot a whitetail may focus. One of my favorite tricks when setting a camera at such a location is to mount the camera 5-6 feet high on the tree, but leave some slack in the strap. Then jam a stick behind the camera to angle it down on the site. Whitetails don’t see the high-mounted camera as well, and if they see light from a flash or infrared sensor, it doesn’t seem to bother them as much as if a blast goes off a few feet away right at nose-level.

Choose a camera with a quiet shutter. If you get lots of photos of the animal looking right at your camera, you probably have a loud shutter. The quieter your camera functions, the better.

It cannot happen at every site, but I like to position cameras so I can drive right up to them and change cards from my ATV. An ATV is so much less intrusive than a human on foot. In addition to that, I leave virtually no human scent at the site.

When hanging the camera, if possible, I like to replace the original mounting strap with a small bungee-cord with hooks on both ends. Some of the camera manufacturers provide straps that could double for the seat belt in your vehicle. Now you have to bear-hug the tree and try to fling the seat belt around the tree. The small rubber cords are much faster and easier.

Finally, minimize the impact of camera setups by checking cards as little as possible. New SD cards can hold thousands of images, so there’s no need to swap cards or pull cameras more than once a week unless you need most recent information. Time your visits for midday. Set up a route where you check all your cameras on the same day, at the same time and from the same direction. Some feel this regularity conditions deer to their presence so, even if a buck hears or sees them coming, he won’t be alarmed because the cam-checking matches the normal activity on the property.

Trail camera pictures and videos offer insight into what is truly on your property. They may inspire you to hold out for a specific buck and give you valuable data to help make management decisions from one year to the next. And, truth be told, trail cameras are a fun hobby on their own.


Todd Amenrud is the Director of Public Relations for Mossy Oak BioLogic, Editor-in-Chief of Gamekeepers, Farming for Wildlife magazine and a habitat consultant.