Expert Discusses Using Trail Cameras for Watching Wildlife

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Using trail cameras, also called remote cameras or camera-traps, help observers greatly. “They are a valuable addition to the traditional tracking methods, and have become more affordable,” says Stewart McAllan at

“Conservationists, scientists and landowners all have reasons to want to monitor wild animals. Perhaps management, controlling problem species, or scientific research. Importantly, some animals are shy, uncommon or nocturnal, thus difficult to observe.

“As well as for watching secretive animals or birds, trail cameras have many other uses. These include: to help population estimates, understand animals’ behavior, and find individuals or rare species.”

The Possibilities of Using Trail Camera Technology

We will cover some of the advanced capabilities trail cameras provide to spy on wildlife. The beauty of it all is that you don’t have to be an expert.

What Are the Types of Sensors?

Sensors use either Active Infrared or Passive Infrared.

Active Infrared Sensors (A.I.R. Sensors)

These are made with two separate parts. There is a transmitter that shines an IR beam, and a receiver that detects it. The distance between these two is a straight line, where the beam must be broken.

This zone can be as wide as 150 feet. The moving object has to break the beam for at least a minimum of time. An advantage of AIR is that you can set the beam high for large animals.

AIR is also not much affected by temperature changes, or moving sunlight. However, they take time to set up, and are more expensive. They are easily set off by moving leaves and branches.

Passive Infrared Sensors (P.I.R. Sensors)

These are made with one sensor that senses both heat and motion. When there is a rapid change of heat in the detection zone, the camera triggers. Some PIR sensors can be set to the level of sensitivity you want.

The size of the detection area varies, so consider your targets. Some cameras aim only in the middle of the picture-angle, others over the whole. The distance the IR travels also varies between models.

PIR is easier to plan for, usually scans wider, and moving plants trigger it less. Yet it can be set off by moving sunshine, or rapid temperature changes. Very small animals might not trigger it, nor large animals in hot weather.

What Kinds of Flash Do Trail Cameras Use?

Trail Cameras often used to use bright incandescent flash, so you had colored night photos. However, there are disadvantages: it frightens animals, thieves will see it, and it drains batteries.

Admittedly it used to be cheaper, but night video also isn’t possible either.

Infrared (I.R.) Flash

This is now standard, you get mostly light of 850nm that humans can’t see. Most animals can’t see IR either. There is a slight red glow from the LEDs, seen straight ahead, in cheaper models.

With IR you can hide the camera from animals and humans so much better. Now you have the possibility of extended video at night. One disadvantage is that the night-time images and video are only black and white.

Newer models are coming out with “no-glow” 900nm IR light no human can see. More expensive, but even fewer animals can detect it. They use a bit more power, so need rechargeable lithium or NiMH batteries.

What Types of Trail Camera Are Available?

Old-style film cameras were used, but have no real advantages for unmanned trail cameras.

Digital cameras have an image-sensor screen inside, to convert light into digital information. This is stored on a memory card or stick, in different formats. Examples are .jpeg, .gif, .bmp or .png.

Digital cameras store vast numbers of ordinary images, or many detailed ones. They are often equipped with the ability to take video, which needs a lot of memory. You can edit digital photos to bring out more information, or just to beautify them!

More Digital Advantages

There are huge possibilities: you can view pictures on a screen at the site. You can program some of them remotely to work with your computer or cellphone. Your cameras can stay outside longer without changing batteries or memory cards…

The more features the camera has, then it may be more expensive, obviously. Decide what you need the camera for, and what animal behavior you want to see. Now we will examine some of the many available options.

What Must I Know About Digital Memory?

Just be aware that different models may store images in different formats. It’s usually .jpg/jpeg for photographs, .mp4 for video. You may get a choice, and if not there may be compatibility problems.

Memory cards also have different standards, so if you buy them separately, be aware. Usually there are SD, SDHC, and SDXC systems; there were several older storage sticks. These included XD, MMC, and MS; newer ones store much more (2 to 32 GB!).

You also have different classes of memory card, based on their recording speed. This is in megabytes per second: the higher the better, to take pictures more quickly. With more memory you can store more pictures, and visit the camera site less often.

Can You Set Images-Per-Triggering?

On some models you can set how many images are taken when the camera’s triggered. Put it higher to see movement in a series of pictures, for example. With it high you can see all of a herd, not just one or two.

What Is Resolution?

Resolution is the number of pixels – color-points – in each image. Measured in megabytes, it can vary from 0.5 megapixels to 30… etc. The more pixels, the more detail, but the larger each picture needs in memory!

High resolution can also slow down the taking of a series of photographs. You can choose several settings.

What About the Video Option?

This gives you multiplied possibilities, just remember that video uses much more memory. It’s also harder to edit, though always possible. You can choose a maximum time for recording video on many models.

Detailed behavior of your target is recorded very well on video. Night video is in black and white.

Why Is Detection-Zone Size Important?

This zone refers to the area covered by a passive infrared sensor. Different cameras have different angles, widths and distances in which heat moving triggers them. Basically you can have from a narrow, long pathway to a broad, close-by panorama.

When detection is wide, you will capture animals that creep only to the edges. Conversely, a longer, narrow zone may prevent you from getting bad, unfocused pictures. If trigger speed’s fast as well, the camera doesn’t waste effort outside the zone.

The flash has to be considered: can it go as far as the detection area? If not, you will get some dark, unidentifiable images. If triggering is very slow, and detection narrow, animals won’t set it off.

What Is the Definition of Recovery Speed?

This is the time needed between taking one picture and being able to take another. It is measured in seconds, anything from a fraction, to a minute or more. If you want to see many images in quick succession you need high recovery speed.

Remember that good memory cards make this faster. Combined with wide detection fields and fast trigger speed, this gives you the best performance.

And the Definition of Trigger Speed?

This is the time a camera takes between being triggered, and actually taking a picture. It can range from less than 0.15 seconds to 5 and more. The faster, the better: trail cameras aren’t for static scenery, but moving animals.

How Is “Viewable-In-Field” Useful?

Trail cameras usually have a built-in screen so you can see what’s on them. Other possibilities are hand-held monitors; or you can even see the pics at home! The image information can be sent to your phone or computer in some models.

One really important benefit of this is at set-up. You can see exactly what the camera is pointed at, and make sure it’s right.

What Information Can You Put on Trail Cam Photographs?

An amazing range of information can be stamped on each photograph at the corner:

  • Date
  • Time
  • GPS location
  • Number in series
  • Moon-phase
  • Temperature, and more.

This helps you to understand animals’ activity, or when you file photos on computer later.

What Can the Timer Do?

The timer can make the camera function only when you want. Only in daytime, only at night, or only when you know animals are active. This saves both energy and memory-space because you won’t get unnecessary pictures.

What Is Game Cam Cell Phone Connectivity About?

If you have cellphone coverage where a camera is, you can connect some models. This means that remote control becomes possible from a mobile phone or computer. Like the Mars-lander, it can send pictures across, or you can alter settings!

Watch out, because in remote areas there may be no coverage, or it may be expensive.

What About Camera-To-Camera Transmission and Base Stations?

This is a wireless setup used where cellphones don’t work, or you don’t want them. There is a central base-station which is the only place you need to visit. It communicates with the cameras, and they can relay further to each other.

You use a license-free radio wavelength of up to two miles, and control everything. Each camera can go out two miles more, sending pictures to the base. From the base, all settings can be changed.

I’m Worried About Trail Cam Theft or Sabotage – What Can Help?

Physically, you can put trail cameras in secure boxes and tie them with cables. There are locks for doors and cables, steel bars, and camouflaging material available.

Sophisticated electronic security includes passwords, personal contact info printed on pictures, and GPS location. And the fact that you can get pictures remotely before anyone might steal the camera. In other words, you could capture the image and identity of the culprit.

Why do some trail cameras have laser beams?

Some cameras help you to determine angle, distance and accurate aim at setting up. This is with a built-in laser.

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