This story was originally published in December 2020.
Since the Bangor Daily News started sharing trail camera photos and videos, hundreds of thousands of people have taken the time to click on those images. For that, we thank you.
But an important question has also kept showing up in my inbox. Readers who don’t have a trail camera of their own have been asking how they ought to go about choosing one. At first, I sent those readers links to various purveyors of outdoor gear.
But today, we’re getting smarter: I reached out to a pair of people who’ve sent in videos or photos that have caught my eye, and asked them to share some tips. Scott Hayden got into trail cams in May to combat the pandemic malaise that many of us have felt. The result: His YouTube page, Maine Wildlife Trail Videos.
Bud Utecht is a registered Maine guide, sporting camp owner and Browning trail camera dealer who owns Game Camera Artistry. (An added bonus, Bud says anybody who wants even more info is welcome to email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
I reserve the right to hop in and offer my own thoughts, since I seem to have made every mistake in the trail camera book with my own cams.
So, how much money do you expect to spend? Hayden said he opted for inexpensive options at first. Bad idea, for him, because quality video and sound was a priority for him.
“I learned that the cheapest camera isn’t necessarily the way to go. I first bought some cheap cameras and they did not work well at all. Moving up in quality was a better investment,” he said.
Though you can get your hands on a low-budget trail camera for $50 or so, Hayden said he paid $180 per camera.
Utecht also thinks it’s important to step out of the bargain bin to get a camera you’ll be pleased with.
“Cameras have come up in price the past few years and you can expect to pay between $100 and $200 for a decent product,” Utecht said.
My 10 cents: Hmm. No wonder my footage stinks. Maybe I ought to stop being such a cheapskate.
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Hayden said he wanted to have as much control over the finished product as he could. A key consideration for him: Setting the length of a video manually.
“I could [control the length] for videos taken during daylight, however my cameras limit me [to] a max of a 20-second video for night shots,” Hayden said. “I also wanted to use a regular SD [memory] card rather than a micro SD card. The standard SD card is large and much easier to insert or take out of the camera.”
Utecht, who has shared some stunning photos with the BDN, said focusing on just how many megapixels a camera has is a mistake. He’s looking for a camera that is quick enough to capture shots of moving animals.
“Trigger speed is an important feature for trail cameras. This is the time the camera senses movement for capturing a picture,” Utecht said. “If the trigger speed is too long, the animal may have passed through the viewing area before the picture is captured. Even with really fast trigger speeds there will be [a] delay. For instance, it is usually [two-tenths of a] second, and this is still enough time for an animal in close proximity to the camera to sneak partially by the camera. You may capture half an animal, and not the half you want.”
Utecht said the number one feature he needs on his cameras is a “burst” mode, which allows the camera to shoot several shots in rapid succession. He uses a three-shot burst, and is pleased with the results.
And finding a camera that excels at nighttime is a must, Utecht said.
“Night pictures are where many cameras set themselves apart because it’s very difficult to capture clear night pictures,” he said. “Cameras today use infrared flash. When this came out we were told that the wildlife could not see the flash. Though they may not see the color, they sense the change. They see it as something moved or something changed. Some wary animals will spook and some will not.”
There is another more pricey option, he said.
“A new version is black flash which is still infrared but the wildlife does not pick it up,” Utecht said. “Of course these cameras are more expensive and some situations warrant the extra spending. Probably 80 percent of my cameras are just straight-up infrared “
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As a Browning dealer, Utecht relies on that company’s products. He says the Command Ops is a decent entry level model, though he prefers the Strike Force. His high-end camera is the Recon Force.
Hayden, too, uses Browning cams, and relies on the Recon Force model on his own property to shoot YouTube-quality video.
Me? I’ve used low-cost Bushnell products, and have always been satisfied, until I looked at the images and videos that Utecht and Hayden are sharing.
Utecht said he likes to put a stick behind the top of the camera when he attaches it to the tree — doing so will tilt the camera slightly toward the ground — and said he tries to avoid putting his cameras too high. Doing so will allow shorter animals to simply walk under the shot.
And Utecht also said that when setting up a camera, it’s important to look around at what kind of branches and foliage might be in the field of view. On windy days, those thin branches will blow around, and will set off the camera’s motion-sensor.
“It can be very frustrating to check the camera and have 5,000 pictures of blowing foliage,” Utecht said. “It pays to have some trimmers with you to remove some of the branches that are in the way.”
Personally, I may not have 5,000 pictures of blowing trees, but trust me, Bud: I’m getting close.
And finally, remember that you’re not allowed to just walk out into any forest and attach a trail camera to a tree. According to Maine law, you must have a landowner’s written permission in order to put a camera on their land. And your camera must be labeled with your name and contact information.