Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Wildlife Trail Camera

by | Pakatak kit in the field...

Choosing and buying a wildlife trail camera can be very confusing, there are literally hundreds of different models available online ranging in price from £30 up to £500.  This guide is an attempt to help you make a good choice in terms of value for money and quality when choosing a wildlife trail camera.

How much do I need to spend?

You will find trail cameras available from as little as £20-£30 on eBay and Amazon, you might buy one of these and have excellent results or you may pick up a dud and instantly (or a few weeks down the line) regret the decision to buy cheap.  The issue with some of these incredibly cheap wildlife cameras is that cheaper and less reliable components are likely to have been used during manufacture and the fact that they are sold so cheaply also means it’s not likely that the seller (often an overseas company selling on eBay or Amazon) will want to take up much time offering support.  They are even less likely to want to honour any warranty they’ve advertised if/when the product fails a few months down the road!

So the advice would probably be to steer clear of the bottom end of the market but you make your choice and take your chance!

Look for cameras that have a solid manufacturer behind them such as Ltl Acorn, Browning, Bushnell, Spypoint, Bushwhacker etc as good distributors of these brands are much more likely to support the product after sale and honour the warranty should a situation arise etc.

Find a UK retailer and see how easy it is to ask questions before you buy, you can then also gauge if they have some knowledge about the trail cameras they are selling.

A good UK retailer should also have a UK address for returns should you not be happy for any reason, not likely with many of the sellers on eBay or Amazon (many are overseas!) so it’s really important to know who you’re buying from if you want the best experience.

Getting back to price, again it’s your choice how much or little you want to spend, but in my experience the best trail cameras fall into the £90-£200 bracket.  Higher quality components should have been used to manufacture cameras within this price bracket and, if you choose your retailer well, you should also find a good level of support is available should you have any questions or need any help later on once you have received your camera.

Lens Types (standard or wide angle)

Some trail cameras have the option of choosing between a standard or a wide angle lens.  Most standard lens cameras will offer an angle of view of somewhere between 40 and 60 degrees whereas the wide angle versions usually offer around 100 degrees or more.

The wide angle lens trail cameras will make the subject appear further away from the camera but will bring much more of the surrounding area into the image.  The image below will give you a better idea of the difference between the standard and wide angle lens version cameras.

So you will see that usually, if you have a particular subject area in mind or are planning to record smaller creatures (such as birds, hedgehogs or other garden wildlife), the standard lens version will, more often than not, be the best option as it show the subject in more detail with it being closer to the lens.  However if you have a large, open, clear area such as a field, yard, driveway to monitor then the wide angle lens version may be better for you as it will cover more of this open area which could be useful to spot trespassing or vandalism etc.

If you’re not sure then stick with a standard lens wildlife trail camera.  They are designed to be portable so you can alter the position if needed to capture a slightly different area.  Using a trail camera is often trial and error in this sense and it can take a while until you work out exactly the best spot, angle and height for your camera to obtain the best possible images or video.

Image Sensor & Interpolation

This is quite important as many trail camera manufacturers make claims that are not completely 100% accurate or can be a little misleading!  Often you will see “30MP Camera” or “20MP Camera” etc in advertising and marketing pages for a trail camera product.  The key piece of information to look out for is what is the actual Mega Pixel rating of the Image Sensor used inside the camera.  The higher the actual Image Sensor quality the better quality the images it captures will be – in theory (quality of components etc also plays a big role in this).

So if you have the choice to buy one of two different cameras and they both claim 30MP resolution then check to see which actually uses a higher quality Image Sensor.

Both will still give you 30MP images but not true 30MP.  They will use a technique called interpolation.  If you imagine your screen has for example 30 million little dots (pixels) but your camera can only capture an image with 5 million little dots, interpolation will then do it’s best to fill the gaps with the colours it thinks would have been there.  This can often be fine but if you were to zoom in closer within the image or stretch it by viewing on a larger screen it would become noticeable.  So the more “real” pixels the better really!

Tips on Trail Camera Positioning & Placement

Your trail camera records when triggered, the trigger occurs when the camera senses heat change (more info on heat sensors later in this guide) within the image that is different to the ambient air temperature. This increased heat signature within the image is usually (but not always) caused by something new entering the camera view such as a human or creature.

In most cases optimal camera placement is at 45-90 degrees from the area you expect the subject to enter the image from. This way you are most likely to get the best picture/video possible of the subject entering the camera view.

When a subject moves across the camera’s field of view at 45-90 degrees to the lens axis the camera will be much more sensitive to this movement than if the subject is moving directly towards or directly away from the camera.

The reason for the lack of sensitivity in the latter is because the size of the subject / heat signature will only be changing slightly as the cameras view of the subject expands or contracts against the background.  Imagine a dot in the background of an image gradually getting larger and larger, from the cameras point of view that is only a tiny new heat signature each moment and so may not trigger a trail camera to start recording.  Whereas, if the camera is positioned at a 45 or 90 degree angle from where the subject enters the view, the entire subject will appear as “new” heat change from the cameras’ point of view.

Do not have the front/lens of the camera facing the sun wherever possible as this does not often make for good images or video footage (just as with a normal handheld digital camera).

Also try to avoid having large bright areas and large dark areas within the same image as this could confuse the camera into what the lighting conditions really are at that moment in time.  For instance if you had a camera pointing at a dark shaded hedge covering about 50% of the camera view but then the other 50% was bright blue sky above the hedge, this would make it very difficult for a trail camera to deal with the 2 extremely different levels of light and so the quality of your recorded footage or images may suffer as a result.

As you can imagine trail camera placement is not an exact science as we cannot always rely on any subject to enter the camera trigger area from where we want/expect them to!  Trial and error is often the best way to find out where to place your camera for the best results in your location.  In certain circumstances and when looking to capture certain animals on camera, many trail camera users will leave food or bait for the animal, this way you’ll get good images of the subject more or less stationary or spending a longer period on camera instead of quickly shooting through the camera view.

How do heat sensors work on a trail camera?

Trail cameras use heat sensors to detect something new within the camera view, when the heat sensor(s) are triggered the camera would then start to record as per your chosen settings.  The larger the new heat signature is within the sensor range the easier it will be for the camera to notice it and so start recording.  For example a human 20m away from a trail camera may well cause a trigger but a squirrel at the same distance may not.  All trail cameras will have slightly different quality heat sensors and sensor ranges, again the more reputable a brand you choose the better the components may possibly be and so the better your final results will probably be.

If the air temperature is 20C and a human with a body temperature of 37C moves in front of the camera then the camera will be sensitive to the change because of the 17C difference between the two. If the air temperature is 30C then the camera will be less sensitive because the difference is only 7C. With a small temperature difference between the air and subject temperatures it can be advantageous to set the cameras sensitivity to HIGH although this could also lead to some false triggers in some circumstances, such as a tree branch warming in the sun and then moving in the breeze for example.

Conversely, if a 37C object moves across a subzero air temperature of say -10C the camera will be very sensitive to this because the temperature difference of 47C is much greater. In these circumstances it could be advantageous to set a cameras’ sensitivity to LOW if this feature is available.

Recording Modes..

Most trail cameras have the 3 standard recording mode options, these are Photo, Photo & Video, Video.  They’re pretty self explanatory in terms of what each one does.  Photo mode will take an image when the camera is triggered, most trail cameras will allow the user to set whether they want a single image taken or a series.  How many images the camera will take is often know as “image burst” and different cameras have different options.  Some will allow a maximum of 3 images to be take and others may allow 6 images etc.

Photo & video mode instructs the camera to take an image and then record a video each time it’s triggered.  Most trail cams react quicker to taking a photo than they do to prepare and record a video so this option can be useful to make sure you actually capture whatever it was that triggered the camera in the first place as there is always the chance that it’s gone before the video started recording.  The gap between the photo being shot the the video starting to record differs between camera models but is usually somewhere between 2 and 5 seconds.

Video mode will just record a video when the camera is triggered as you would expect.

What is Trigger Speed?

Trigger speed determines how quickly, after detection by the heat sensors, a wildlife trail camera will actually start recording.

Trigger speed is always likely to be faster when capturing images/photos than it is for recording video due to it taking the camera a little longer to “wake up” and prepare for video recording than it does for it to “wake up” and take a quick snap.

So if you want to make sure you don’t miss anything then it’s recommended to either set the camera to take images or use the camera+video setting to take a photo first and then start recording the video clip.

It’s worth being aware that it’s very difficult to confirm the trigger speed of a trail camera without specialist equipment which could perhaps give rise to manufacturer claims that may not always be true of real world scenarios or average trigger speeds of a particular camera model.  Think about the difference between a camera claiming a trigger speed of 0.6 seconds and another claiming 0.8 seconds – are you ever going to be able to tell the difference?  For 99% of trail camera users this would be impossible to confirm and make very little difference anyway.

LCD Screen Options

This can be quite important for some trail camera users.  Some trail cameras use forward facing screens and others do not.

A forward facing LCD screen can often be advantageous during the set up and positioning of the camera because you will be able to see exactly what the camera is looking at and adjust accordingly.  That takes a lot of guesswork and trial & error time away that may be required if you are using a trail camera that does not have a forward facing screen.

Definitely something worth thinking about before you choose which trail camera to buy!

Weatherproofing

Weatherproofing is often qualified using an IP code or Ingress Protection Code.  The higher the number the more weatherproof and less likely for water/dust/dirt ingression the camera should be.  So a trail camera rated at IP68 should be more weatherproof than a camera rated at IP67 for example – again quality of build, design and components used plays a big part in this too.

There is much more detailed info on Wikipedia about Ingress Protection Code to be found at the link below: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IP_Code

Again with regards to IP codes for certain cameras, if you want to be sure then ask a seller or manufacturer for the certification to prove that the product really has passed certain tests to meet the IP code criteria.  They should be able to provide this information.

Batteries (type & quantity) & how long will they last?

In 95% of instances trail cameras will work better with either Ni-Mh rechargeable batteries or Lithium non rechargeable batteries.  It’s good to check which your camera prefers as some are designed for a 1.2v input that rechargeables will offer and some prefer a 1.5v input that a Lithium battery will offer.  Some that require 1.2v will suffer sensor burn out if 1.5v batteries are used and cameras that need 1.5v may not work efficiently if you try to use 1.2v batteries.  This all sounds confusing but a good retailer will talk about this on each trail camera product page and so take the decision making out of the equation for you.

Personally I always opt for trail cameras that use rechargeable batteries as this is better for the environment and your pocket over the longer term.  If you use disposable batteries then you will not only have to keep spending on new ones whenever required but you’re also adding to the battery waste mountain.

The one key thing to remember is that the batteries you choose is vitally important for the performance of your camera and read the retailers information and recommendations carefully.  Remember, all AA batteries may look the same but they are very different in terms of power output and quality!

Wildlife trail cameras usually hold between 4 and 12 AA batteries.  If you are planning to check your camera regularly and are able to swap the batteries at the same time then a camera running from just 4 is likely to be more than enough.  However, if your camera will be out in the field and you won’t have access for long periods at a time then choose a camera with more battery capacity (or even use batteries alongside a solar panel if possible, more on these later in the guide).

As I write, more and more trail cameras are starting to use the 18650 style batteries.  These should give a camera even longer running time than using AA.  More on this to come as more of these cameras come to market..

How long will my batteries last before I need to change or recharge them?

We get asked this question at lot with regards to trail cameras and it’s always very difficult to answer as it depends upon many different variables such as:

  • How many batteries are being used in the camera?
  • Which type of battery is being used?
  • Is the camera set to record video or capture still images?
  • Is the camera recording a lot at night time when the more power hungry infrared is being used?
  • If recording video, what video length have you set for each clip?
  • Is the camera working in very low temperatures? (will use up more battery power in extreme temperatures)

These variables could mean your batteries might last anything from 4 days to 4 months!

Memory Capacity

Trail camera specifications will always state the maximum size memory card that can be accepted by that particular camera.  Some can take massive amounts of memory up to as high as 512G, others will only accept up to 16G.

Whether or not this will make any difference at all to you and your trail camera results will depend upon how you intend to use your camera.  If you will be checking it regularly and so able to copy off any important images of pieces of video footage then the size of the memory card will be less important.  Another key factor will be whether you intend to use your trail camera for capturing images only or for recording video footage.  Video files will of course take up much more memory space.

So a scenario whereby a trail camera is to be placed in a very busy location, with the intent to record large video files such as 30 seconds or 60 seconds for example.  Couple that with the plan to only visit the camera location perhaps once every 3 weeks – in this application I would advise the largest memory card capacity possible.

However if you will be checking your camera every 2 or 3 days and only intend to use it to capture still images then I would save some pennies and go with a smaller card.  A 16G card for example will likely store thousands of images before becoming full.

Most trail cameras also give you the option to set them to stop recording when full or recycle and start recording over the oldest files when full.  One option that many trail camera users adopt is to have a couple of memory cards and when they visit the camera site they will remove the card that’s in use and replace it with a blank card, this means no down time and no rush to look at all of the recorded files whilst at the camera site.

Solar Power

Some trail camera manufacturers have developed solar panels which can be used with their range of trail cameras.  In the right conditions this can be a fantastic tool and you may even find that at certain times of year you don’t need to use any batteries at all.  This will of course depend completely upon where the camera and solar panel are positioned and how much sunlight is hitting the panel.

The Ltl Acorn solar panel charges it’s own built in 2500mA battery cell.  So it can in effect power a trail camera on it’s own if enough sunlight is available to keep the cell charged.  You can still pack your camera with AA batteries so that if the solar panel cell becomes depleted or low on power then the camera will start to draw power from the AA batteries.

Using a solar panel can be beneficial to the environment as less batteries may be used and less charging time needed for any batteries that are being used.  The solar panel could also mean much longer “in the field” running times for your trail camera and no need to check it so often to change the batteries.

Infrared Type & Infrared Power

Infrared light is what allows a trail camera to “see” in the dark, without it a camera would return pitch black images and video in dark conditions at night time.  The human eye cannot see infrared light but for the camera it acts as a torch beam, lighting up the area so that nice black & white night time images and video can be captured.

The two most common types of infrared used by trail cameras are the 850nm frequency and the 940nm frequency (the NM stands for nanometer by the way).

850nm infrared is often referred to as “low glow”.  This low glow term means that the leds (little infrared bulbs that make up the entire infrared array) will give off a feint red glow when in operation that can sometimes be seen in the dark.  850nm infrared is about 30% stronger than 940nm infrared and so the invisible beam that the human eye cannot see will illuminate a greater distance for the camera.

940nm infrared is often referred to as “no glow”, “invisible” or “black” infrared.  The leds that make up a 940nm infrared array do not glow or give off any sign of life at all when in operation.  So trail cameras with 940nm infrared are often used in sensitive location when the operator wants to record completely covert images/video or if they think the camera may be in a location whereby there is a chance of it being stolen.

From the video and image files that our customers send in and from our own testing, neither form of these types infrared seems to disturb the wildlife.

Further to 850nm and 940nm infrared, Ltl Acorn have also developed a trail camera that uses White Light (Mini30 model).  This White Light is basically like a standard camera flash.  Again it does not seem to bother the wildlife too much, especially in areas where the creatures are used to seeing security lights etc coming on and off as they walk by.  This White Light, although not in any way covert or inconspicuous, offers one really good advantage and that is that it allows the camera to record in full colour at night time.  This is something new on the trail camera scene and Ltl Acorn seem to be the only manufacturer that has this offering so far!

Sometimes you might feel that your infrared / night time footage is a bit “whited out” with areas that are way too bright.  An infrared beam, a bit like a torch beam, needs a chance to dissipate a little before hitting solid objects or subjects.  If a powerful beam hits a wall, fence, shrub, hedge etc too soon then you may just see a bright circle of white light in the image which could reduce the overall quality of the image or video footage.  There are various ways to avoid this issue.  Some trail cameras have infrared brightness adjustment levels which you can play with and through trial and error select the best option for your own situation.  If this option is not available then the obvious thing would be to move the camera further away from your subject area, this would mean the infrared light would be less bright at the problem site.  Again, this option is not always viable as your recorded footage may now suffer as the subject(s) will be further away front eh camera and so in less detail.  A crude but very popular way to reduce white out on a trail camera is simply to use some dark masking or electrical tape and just cover over some of the infrared leds or bulbs, again trial and error should eventually allow you to cover the exact amount needed to balance the infrared your night vision images need with having too much infrared that causes the white out.

Hopefully if you are seeing this issue then one of the option above will work for you!

What is a cellular trail camera?

A cellular trail camera can send images and/or video to an email address or to an app on your mobile phone whenever the camera is triggered.  They have a built in modem and usually also have an external antenna.  Due to this extra technology they will almost certainly always be more expensive than a regular trail camera.  A cellular trail camera will still record to a memory card but will also transmit an image or a video clip out to the user, this can be useful if you require notification that something is taking place in the camera location.  Usually you will receive the image about a minute or two after it’s actually recorded but this really depends upon the strength of the signal in the camera location and whether you’re using a 2G or 4G cellular model.

Cellular trail cameras are usually more expensive to buy and also will come with running costs.  You’ll either need to keep a PAYG SIM card topped up inside the camera or you’ll pay a monthly tariff.

Warranty

Trail cameras come with (or at least they should) a 1 year warranty with some manufacturers even offering 2 years.  However, the very important point here is who you actually buy your camera from.  Pick it up on Amazon, eBay or from a direct seller in the far east and it’s highly likely that you’ll either have to ship the camera across the world or that the seller might not honour the warranty at all and just “go missing” when you try to contact them.

It’s easy for sellers to band about long term warranties before you have purchased.  The real clincher is whether they will actually honour their claims when you contact them 9 months after purchase with an issue!

Buy from a reputable seller and you should have no problems at all should your camera suffer a problem months after purchase.

Even after a warranty has expired, look for trail camera brands that have a UK seller of spare parts for their range of cameras.  This way if a physical part is damaged outside of the warranty period then you still may be able to refurbish the camera rather than adding it to landfill and having to buy a new one.

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