Ultimate Guide to Choosing a Wildlife Camera
Choosing and buying a wildlife 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 spy camera with over 22 years of experience allowing us to offer the best advice we possibly can. Years and years of testing and using hundreds of different wildlife cameras, we hope makes us an expert in this field.
So please feel free to have a good read of this guide and we are sure you’ll pick up some vital information that will really help when choosing the best camera for your application, whether that be for recording foxes, badgers, hedgehogs or birds in your garden, for wildlife research & monitoring or for other types of covert surveillance around your home or workplace.
How much do I need to spend on a wildlife camera?
You will find 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 models 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 HD cameras that have a solid manufacturer behind them such as Ltl Acorn, Browning, Bushnell, Spypoint etc as good distributors of these brands are much more likely to support after sale and honour warranties 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 too.
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 what you want to spend, but in my experience the best wildlife cameras fall into the £100-£300 bracket. Higher quality components should have been used to manufacture cameras within this price bracket and if you choose your retailer well then you should also find a good level of support is available should you have any questions or need any help post purchase.
Lens Types (standard or wide angle)
Some 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 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 versions.
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 and hedgehogs), the standard lens version will more often than not be the best option. However if you have a large, open, clear area such as a field, yard, driveway to monitor then the wide angle lens version would probably be better for you.
If you’re not sure then stick with a standard lens. They are designed to be portable so you can alter the position if needed to capture a slightly different area.
Image Sensor & Interpolation
This is quite important as many manufacturers make claims that are not completely accurate! Often you will see “30MP Camera” or “20MP Camera” etc in advertising and marketing pages for a wildlife 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.
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 30 megapixel 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 device 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 Wildlife Camera Positioning & Placement
Your 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 photos and videos 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 light conditions really are at that moment in time. For instance if you had a camera point 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 wildlife camera to deal with the 2 extremely different levels of light.
As you can imagine 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. For wildife enthusiasts using a tripod or ground spike can be an ideal way to position your wildlife spy in the best location as sometimes there might not be a tree or fence post in the perfect place to capture the animals you’re trying to monitor.
How do heat sensors work on a wildlife cameras?
They use heat sensors to detect something new within the view, when they 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 wildlife cameras will have slightly different quality heat sensors and detection ranges, again the more reputable a brand you choose the better the components will 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.
What is Trigger Speed?
Trigger speed (or trigger time) determines how quickly, after detection, a wildlife camera will actually start recording.
It’s 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 detection speed of a camera without specialist equipment which could perhaps give rise to manufacturer claims that may not always be true of real world scenarios or average speeds of a particular camera model. Think about the difference between a camera claiming a 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 camera users this would be impossible to confirm and make very little difference anyway.
LCD Screen Options
This can be quite important for some camera users. Some 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 model that does not have a forward facing screen.
Definitely something worth thinking about before you choose which model to buy!
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 or IP66 for example.
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.
You could also use a security box to help give your camera a little extra shelter against the elements. Most of the best wildife camera manufacturers build these boxes for their various models.
Batteries (type & quantity) & how long will they last?
In 95% of instances 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 usually opt for 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!
Most cameras usually hold between 4 and 12 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)
A relatively new (as of 2023) advance is the introduction of covert outdoor cameras using 18650 style batteries. These batteries can run ann outdoor spy camera for much longer than traditional AA batteries and Ltl Acorn are one manufacturer in particular that has recognised this technology and are beginning to develop new cameras that use it.
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?
- Which type of battery is being used?
- Is it set to record 1080P video or only capture still images?
- Is it recording in daylight or at night time when more power hungry components are being used for night vision?
- If recording video, what video length have you set for each clip?
- Is the device 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!
It’s also worth noting that some cameras require 1.2v rechargeable AA batteries such as the Panasonic Eneloop Pro 2500mA, some need 1.5v lithium batteries such as the Energizer Ultimate Lithium and some of the newer wildlife cameras from Ltl Acorn are starting to use 18650 style rechargeable batteries that can offer even longer running time.
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 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 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 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 wildlife 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 users adopt is to have a couple of 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 to run your covert wildlife camera…
Some trail camera manufacturers (such as Ltl Acorn) have developed a solar panel 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 wildlife camera on it’s own if enough daylight is available to keep the cell charged. You can still pack your camera with batteries so that if the solar panel cell becomes depleted or low on power then the camera will start to draw power from the batteries.
Using a solar panel with your wildlife camera 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 & Power
Infrared light is what allows a trail camera to “see” in the dark and give it night vision capabilities, 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 used by cameras are the 850nm frequency and the 940nm frequency (the NM stands for nanometer by the way).
850nm is often referred to as “low glow”. This low glow term means that the leds (little 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 is about 30% stronger than 940nm and so the invisible beam that the human eye cannot see will illuminate a greater distance.
940nm is often referred to as “no glow”, “invisible” or “black”. 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 cameras with 940nm leds 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 of infrared seem to disturb the animals and birds at all.
Further to the 850nm and 940nm versions, Ltl Acorn have also developed a camera that uses White Light (Mini30, 8830MC, 6630MC models). 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. 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!
Wildife surveillance cameras come with (or at least they should) a 1 year warranty with some manufacturers even offering 2 years, in fact Ltl Acorn are doing this on some of their newer models and Browning offer a 2 year warranty for some models too. 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 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.