Trail cams: What works and what doesn't

Following on from the traps thread on the same theme, one on trail cams since there seem to be comments spread across various different locations (and one very old thread with only a few messages), this is an attempt to collect everything in one place.

Some of the things to look for rather than grabbing the first no-name cheapie you see on Trademe:

  • Proper technical specs. Many, probably most, of the cheapies have very few details beyond the bare minimum so you barely have any idea of what you’re getting.

  • Weathertightness. A cheapie that works fine when it’s sold in California isn’t going to last long in our horizontal rain and semi-monsoons.

  • Decent battery life. The cheapies barely mention battery life, but you’re not going to want to swap out the battery every week or two. A one-year battery life is a good start.

  • Ability to set trigger sensitivity, illumination level (you don’t want a completely washed-out picture because the only illumination mode available is “light something halfway across a field”), and what time triggering occurs so you can only have it active at night and not record hundreds of hours of footage of birds pecking around.

  • Nice to have: A viewscreen that shows a live view so you can align the camera. For all the cheapies all you’ve got is an alphanumeric display so setting it up is a mindnumbing cycle of plug in the card, turn it on, trigger it, turn it off, pull out the card, plug it onto a laptop, check what you got, unplug it again, go back to the camera, … if you’re setting up more than one camera once only, pay the extra for live view.

  • No-glow IR illumination (940nm rather than the standard 840nm). I don’t know how sensitive possums and rats are to standard IR illumination, which even humans can see a bit, but if you get a no-glow camera there’s nothing to alert them.

In my case I got a low-end Bushnell with all of the above from Amazon, Bushnell are a big US outdoor-products manufacturer where you know exactly what you’re getting. The only downside is that the lens is too long for closeup work unless all you need to cover is a very narrow field of view, but then according to other reviews too short for field work where you’ve got deer some way off, it seems to be a bit of an unhappy medium. Still, it’s caught one or more of the possums attacking the fruit trees so with a bit of trial and error it’s OK.

Oh, and another annoying misfeature is that the viewscreen is right in front of the camera lens so although you’ve got a live view unless you squint at it from an angle all you get is a closeup of your face. Easiest is to use a camera phone to photograph the screen and use that for setup.

And as a followup unrelated to camera types, if they’re in an exposed location you may want to give them a little extra protection from the elements. This is just a quick bird-feeder style enclosure built from scrap ply that keeps 99% of all the rain off the camera including the lens and sensors, the open section at the bottom is to allow the cover of the control panel to open up for access. These things are supposed to be waterproof and the non-cheapie ones probably are, but even in this case the screw holes are inside the rubber gasket that runs around the case so in theory it could be possible for moisture to get past the screws in their holes and inside the case. It’s just an extra layer of protection for the camera when it’s out in the open.

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I’ve been using Trail cameras for over 10 years now, a range of different makes, and have had results which have been most revealing about the predators I’ve been monitoring. All the issues in the OP’s bullet points are very relevant and I could comment on each one at length. But I won’t bore you.

I’d just offer two points:-

  1. Without exception, little thought has been given to the design and manufacture of the products available to us general public. For example, the most recent one I purchased (NexTech) makes a loud click whenever motion triggers the camera. Another one (Bushnell) gives perfectly adequate images in bright daylight and dark night - but for a few hours at dawn and dusk it is completely useless. And many of them have a three way switch (off - set/menu - on) which is flush with the camera and extremely difficult to move. I’d be very interested to know if there’s a quality product out there.

  2. I’ve tested these cameras rigorously. And I discover all the ones I’ve used have the same problem. They seem randomly to go to sleep. I can put them outside my front door and I expect them to trigger whenever I go in and out and, in general, they do. But every now and again, they just don’t. And I can stand right in front of the camera waving my arms about, and the camera still doesn’t trigger. Only when I turn them off and on again does the camera return to normal. I’ve seen other reports along these lines on various bulletin boards. Manufacturers claim such behaviour is associated with poor batteries and faulty SD cards. I use external SLA batteries and have eliminated the possibility of SD cards being responsible and I suspect this could be a fundamental problem. I experienced this with a Moultrie and returned it. Only to find the replacement did exactly the same thing. So I consider it unlikely that I’ve just been unlucky. Of course the average user of trail cameras would never realise this problem. No video / photo means there was no visitor on front of the camera. You only discover this when you do more rigorous testing. It should standard practice that whenever you go to your camera you walk in front of it before turning it off or removing the card. And then make sure you were recorded.

I have a suspicion, which I hope a more knowledgeable person can dispel, that all the trail camera manufacturers use the same basic processor chip and perhaps it’s this chip that has a “fault/feature” which is responsible for this behaviour.

…I like your bird-feeder style protection. I have made a very protective enclosure on the cheap (no pun intended) in case you are interested.Cheap weather protection enclosure for trail cams. The enclosure has provided very good protection through some significant storms.

I saw reviews of the older Bushnells that complained about the three-way switch, and in particular that you can corrupt the SD card if the switch isn’t in the right position. The newer one I got just has a simple on/off switch. I also haven’t had any problems at dusk/dawn. The thing with their range is that there’s a huge range of hardware covering many years of development so you could get quite a bit of change over time.

In terms of the cameras going to sleep, that sounds pretty odd, particularly if it’s across multiple brands. For the video processing the more or less universal standard in good-quality cameras is the Ambarella chips, but they’ve changed a lot over time so there wouldn’t be some goes-everywhere flaw in there. Having said that I really don’t want to pull apart my brand new camera to see what’s in there. In cheapies it’ll be some unknown brand for which the only data sheets you can find are in Chinese, if you can find data sheets at all. What are the cameras?

I can’t remember all the names. I think the first one I used (borrowed) was a Swan(?). Then another couple the names of which I can’t remember. I’m now using a Bushnell (old) and Nextech (from Jaycar). I tried two Moultries but returned them because they were so unreliable.

If anyone has names of other makes they’d recommend, I’d be interested to give them a try.

Just a thought here but if it’s across that many brands then it’s more likely to be something in the environment than that every camera has the same fault. Have you tried testing them under very controlled conditions, i.e. in a basement room with fairly consistent temperature, light levels, and background clutter? For example in high temperatures (outdoors) the PIR may have trouble picking out body heat from a generally hot background, there’s a lot of variables.

I currently have 3 Browning Dark Ops cameras, 2 earlier ones & a later model. I am pretty happy with all of them.
Look at the website proschoice.com.au They have a2023 model Browning Dark Ops Pro DCL on special @ $315 AU.
They certainly tick all the boxes.

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+1 for Brownings Dark ops not sure exactly which model we have but it’s one with a screen to preview the frame/shots so far.

Similar, Browning Dark Ops HP5. I’d give it 8/10. First one I had (HP4) suffered water incursion (through the rear casing screws I think) but they replaced it without any problem. Photo/video quality and battery life are great. Has some sort of design flaw (was same with HP4) so that you sometimes need to toggle to on/off switch a few times to get it to fire up. Haven’t experienced it going to sleep…but I haven’t rigorously tested that. Picks up rat, stoats possums, blackbirds (mostly) and deer beautifully.

Anyone who isn’t using a trailcam should give it some serious thought, they open up the possibility of much more targetted trapping - it becomes clear that some rats and possums systematically avoid some baits and traps, and other tactics are required. I have videos of a possum dancing on the top of Timms traps and another attempting to burrow in from the back of the trap :slight_smile:

I use Trailcampro https://www.trailcampro.com in the US. Prices and service were very good, but with the current exchange rate, possibly not so much now. Worth checking out. I think they have sale on at the moment of slightly used demo models. Replacement service (see above) was excellent.

Trailcampro ship to NZ no problem - it cost me $32USD FedEx a couple of years’ ago.

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For people posting links to overseas sites, could you provide an indication of what’s involved in shipping to NZ? My primary reason for getting it from Amazon, apart from the good price, was that they’ll ship practically anywhere without charging the earth for it.