Man setting up cellular trail camera for hunting

Step by Step Guide: How to Use a Trail Camera?

Real-time cameras are one of the great benefits of modern technology. As long as you've got your phone handy (or your tablet, laptop, whatever), you can capture images and video and voila—it's all right there on your screen. Now, advanced cellular and WiFi technology has made it possible to go one step further with photography—multipurpose trail cameras that monitor your property and prey, sending you images in real time, no matter where you are. 

How trail cameras work

Trail cameras are basically stationary outdoor cameras that capture images and upload the photos to your phone or other device. They connect to the internet via a WiFi or cellular signal, although a cellular option is best for remote areas with no WiFi signal. Trail cameras can be programmed to meet the owner's needs and specifications, so your property is always being monitored. 

Even if you already have a monitored home security system, a trail camera provides an additional layer of security, especially if your lot is large or wooded. The cameras mounted on the exterior of your home do not typically have the range you get with a trail camera that can be installed miles away. We will go deeper into the security advantages a bit further on. 

How to use a trail camera

For hunters, trail cameras help pinpoint the location of your game in the field. The thing is, the fields are huge and you can only cover so much land—adding to that, humans make noises and throw off scent, so deer and other game tend to avoid the areas you're stalking. And let's face it, hours in a deer stand could be better spent actually hunting, as long as you can track the deer. 

Setting up trail cameras in the field or at home lets you monitor activity without giving yourself away. If you're using the camera for your home security, you can use it independently from an existing system, or some can connect to a monitored system that's already in place. The advantage of the trail camera is that it has better night vision than most home security cameras and will record both still and video footage with time stamps. 

Where to set trail cameras up

Animals are creatures of habit and move around the same areas during the day, usually in groups. Experts recommend using Google Earth to find food and water sources on your hunting land, and install the camera near those areas. 

In the field

Once you've found a heavily trafficked location, it's time to set the camera up. Here’s a field checklist to utilize where and how to set your trail camera up.

  • Height—place the camera at chest level for the target. For deer and elk, this would be about three feet off the ground.
  • Land angle—try to find a flat spot, otherwise you'll get great video of hooves and antlers. 
  • Sun angle—if the camera faces the sun, the heat of the rays will trigger the camera to take shots of the sunshine, but nothing else. Get out your compass and set the lens so that it faces north or south, avoiding sunrise and sunset activation. 
  • Distance—as with any camera, you want a clear shot of the target, but with these cameras you get one shot at focus. Set the camera about 10 yards from where you think the game will pass by, otherwise you'll get great dental shots, or long-distance shots that are impossible to actually see. 

At home 

You can install the trail camera anywhere on your property, but if it's for security then you probably want it to capture images between five and eight or nine feet off the ground. The idea is to keep an eye on the most vulnerable points of entry to the house, but also consider that you want to see any burglars before they get to you—so it makes sense to install trail cameras away from the house, too. 

One important advantage a trail camera has over a standard home security camera is that these were designed to document moving wildlife. The image quality and detail are far superior, and you get much better zoom quality and minimal motion blur. If you have to use camera footage to catch a burglar, you will usually have clearer images from the trail camera. 

Cellular Trail Camera by CreativeXP

How to Pick a Trail Camera

So what are the specifics you want and need in a trail camera? Like any other technology, there are lots of levels of quality and features, so it's good to do your research before you're ready to buy. The most important features are picture quality, night vision and flash, trigger and recovery time, and field of vision. 

Image quality

With trail cameras, a high megapixel number doesn't equate to better image quality. Lens quality matters more, so look at sample images from different cameras to make your decision. Look for clarity, contrast, color, and resolution. 

Flash types

Do you want crisp photos, or does the idea of a faint red glow really bother you? Red glow infrared cameras will give you a brighter image in the dark, while a no-glow flash will record darker images. The decision here may come down to the reason you're buying the camera; if it's for security then you want a tighter photo. 

Field of vision

This may be called the "detection zone"—the range the camera covers, and the time lapsed between images. How much time elapses between detection and the trigger? How quickly does the sensor recover and trigger a second photo? What is the range the sensors detect, both width and distance?

How to Program a Trail Camera

Modern trail cameras are simple to program. Most have a user-friendly interface that makes it easy for even technology novice to program. These are the settings that you can customize for your camera. 

  • Number of images
  • Length of videos
  • Time period—you can choose the hours you want it to monitor
  • Uploaded image quality
  • Monitored range
  • Sensor sensitivity—most hunters and homeowners don't want photos of chipmunks and tree limbs blowing in the breeze
  • Heat sensitivity

Picking the right SD Card

If you're used to a digital camera, then you know what a SIM or SD card is. If your entire camera life has been lived on your phone, the SD card is a thumbnail-sized chip that you insert into the camera, and any recorded images are retained on the card.

SD cards come in a range of quality and price points, so check your camera's guide for which card they recommend. Keep in mind that the bigger and better the card, the more information it holds, and you get a higher quality resolution. 

Choosing the batteries

Batteries are a lot like SD cards—there are wide ranges in quality. Basic alkaline batteries are inexpensive, but they don't last very long. Lithium batteries do cost a lot more, but typically last four times longer. Rechargeable lithium batteries are the best option as they have the longest life and are better for the environment. 

If you are really environmentally sensitive, opt for solar panels that will continuously charge lithium batteries and keep your camera running indefinitely. 

Trail camera tips

Trail cameras are great accessories for the field or your home security. They are designed and built to withstand harsh conditions, but you should mount them in a location that's away from the elements as much as possible. You can also invest in waterproof skins that will protect the camera case from wind, rain, and curious wildlife—not a bad idea since these cameras are not cheap. 

Cellular trail cameras have better service to your devices than WiFi; either AT&T or Verizon are likely to have the best coverage in remote and rural areas. Check with your provider for which company has a stronger signal where you're installing the camera. 

Trail cameras use apps to monitor the images and manage settings, so you can change your camera parameters any time. 

To read more on how trail cameras work, check out this blog on CreativeXP.

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