We’re already so many years into the trail-camera era of deer hunting that most of us who use them have forgotten what hunting was like without them – or don’t know what it was like because we weren’t born. While technological advancements have increased their user-friendliness and convenience far beyond the days of 35mm film, there is still a wide range of trail-camera problems that can cause frustration for everyone from new hunters to the special forces of remote deer surveillance.
Luckily, most of these problems result from user error, so they can be avoided. Before you head out to deploy your array of high-tech scouting equipment in anticipation of all the valuable intelligence and great photos you’ll gather, let’s review some guidelines that help prevent the common failures and frustrations that will always be found in this high-tech territory.
Why does my trail-camera take pictures of nothing? That’s a common question for many users, and most of these “false triggers” can be prevented by orienting the camera somewhere between northeast and northwest, if not due north. This way, the camera is never looking directly into the sunrise, sunset, or the mid-day sun that hangs fairly low in the southern sky throughout fall and winter.
When the camera faces the sun, you are more likely to get false triggers that eat up batteries and card storage (and bandwidth for wireless cameras), sun-flare that ruins photos, and backlit deer that are only dark silhouettes with no detail.
I once ran the risk of aiming due south on a scrape with no other orientation options. On the first windy day, the afternoon sun, flickering behind limbs and leaves moving in the wind, not only filled a memory card with empty images, not only drained brand new batteries, but fried something important in the hardware. The camera never worked after that day. You can bet I check a compass every time I set up a camera.
The Right Height
Hang your camera too high and you’ll be chopping off the legs and even bodies of deer that walk by. Too low and you lose heads and antlers, especially at scrapes where bucks often lift their heads to work licking limbs.
For me, the ideal height is my own kneecap, about 21 inches. Since my kneecap is always with me for reference, I don’t need a ruler.
Certainly under some special conditions it is advisable to hang a camera overhead, looking down, such as on public land where you may want the camera well out of reach of passersby. But it’s especially important to me to be able to estimate age of the bucks in all my photos, and that’s very difficult from an overhead angle. Only from a ground-level perspective can you see the right profile of a buck’s stomach, chest, neck and back that reveals the proportions and characteristics that suggest age.
It is easy to overestimate the height of the average deer in our minds, because few of us ever get to stand next to a living whitetail. I have found that knee-cap height puts my cameras on the right level to capture the whole deer without chopping off parts. Of course, I hunt in the flatwoods of coastal Georgia. If you hunt in hilly terrain, account for the slope of the site in your height calculations to put the camera about 21 inches above the level where deer will be standing. If you hunt where whitetails are significantly larger than our Georgia deer, you might also need a slightly higher standard height.
The Ideal Distance
While I want to get the whole deer in my camera frame, I don’t want it so far away that it’s too small in the image to be of use for identification by sex, age and unique antlers. Again, I think it’s easy to overestimate the ideal range of a trail-camera, because deer are just not as big in reality as they tend to be in our minds.
Whether it’s a trail, scrape, feeder or other small target zone, I rarely place my cameras more than 15 feet away from the most likely zone of deer movement, and that goes for every brand of camera I’ve ever used. That’s 5 yards or about 5 paces. Usually it’s between 12 and 15 feet, but closer than 10 feet is getting tight. This will vary a little by camera brand, so do some measuring and adjusting as you learn the ideal distance for your own cameras.
These first three factors – height, distance and northward orientation – will naturally limit your camera setup options at any site. That’s why you should…
Be Ready to Hang It Anywhere
You already know a site or area you think will be a productive spot for your camera, and if you’re like me you’ve already imagined the setup with your camera catching lots of great deer photos. It’s only after you arrive on scene that you realize your fantasy was just that: there’s not a single good tree on which to strap the camera that’s the right distance and direction from the target zone. If there is one, it’s often too big for your camera’s strap, too crooked to hold the camera straight at the right height, or too covered in vines, briars and brush for you to use it.
Be ready to adapt to these roadblocks. I have a tote bag in which I keep my trail-camera gear, and it includes: 1) bungee straps, zip ties and cord for strap extensions; 2) a tree-mounting adapter (like this one) for crooked trees; and 3) clippers and a hand saw for trimming brush or small trees that block the ideal camera spot. Though I don’t carry one with me every time, I also have camera stands that stick in the ground for those situations when there’s not even a bad tree in the place you need a camera
This is when I get accused of having OCD, as I pull out my pocket bubble-level from my camera kit and check the camera’s alignment. I place the bubble-level on top of the camera to ensure it is level side-to-side, which gives you horizontally level images. But I also check front-to-back alignment. If the camera is pitched slightly up or down, you can still under- or overshoot the target zone even when you’ve got the right height and distance.
Very few trees stand perfectly straight, so your camera will often be aimed a couple of degrees above or below horizontal. Use the level to detect the problem. If you are using an adjustable mount, make corrections. If not, go low-tech: Place twigs or other objects between the tree and the camera housing as needed to remove pitch.
Clear the Window
Grass, vines, shrubs or dead branches almost always lie between the camera and the target zone. These obstructions, even very small ones, will reflect or absorb illumination coming from the camera. This reduces the amount of illumination reaching the deer that triggered a photo, making it more dark and less clear. Also, the reflected light interferes with the camera’s ability to see the target object.
Using my clippers and hand saw from my kit, I cut or pull off all these obstructions to ensure a clean window between the camera and the target zone. You don’t have to clear an acre of woods. The camera’s view is a cone that is narrow near the camera and spreads out to maybe 10 feet at the target zone. The vegetation and branches you remove can be set aside for a later step.
This is when a little extra time spent on site will go a long way toward preventing frustration, especially if you drove many miles to set up this camera: Trigger some test shots before you leave. With a wireless camera, I walk in front of the activated camera and wait for the images to be delivered to my smartphone app. For non-wireless, I trigger some photos, pull the card, and use an Apple “Lightning to SD” card reader that allows me to view the photos on my iPhone.
Use these test images to check that the camera is working, sending photos, and that the setup is like you want it. For example, if you’re setting up on a scrape, but you can’t see the licking limb in the image, chances are your bucks are going to have their heads cut off by the frame. If you can’t see the ground, their legs will be cut off. Make adjustments and take more test shots. It’s time consuming, but you will be glad you did this.
You’re done adjusting camera position and settings, so you’re ready to lock it down. Use a security cable or combination cable and padlock to secure the camera from thieves. Locks cost more money, and it takes more time to finish your work, but nothing takes the fun out of trail-cameras like losing one to a thief. Don’t assume you’re safe on private land, and don’t assume you can hide the camera well enough: Make certain with a lock.
We’re down to the final step on site. You’ve placed the camera fairly close to the zone where most deer will travel, and it’s at ground level where deer are best at detecting objects that are out of place and might present a threat. Hide it with natural camouflage. I like to use natural vegetation, sticks, pine cones, vines and anything else I can find nearby to brush-in the camera and break up its outline from the tree. I tuck them between the camera housing and the tree, or under the camera straps. Others can be stuck in the ground at the base of the tree. Be careful, of course, not to obstruct the lens or ports of the camera face, or to create new obstructions in the field of view.
There are many more advanced and creative ideas for hiding your trail-cameras included in our book, Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting.
Of all the frustrations that come with trail-cameras, batteries cause a lot of them. Few things are worse than going through all the trouble to set up a camera only to have the batteries die a week later.
A few tips based on my experiences include buying high-quality batteries of the type recommended by your owner’s manual. When you’re placing a camera at a new site, especially a site that is remote or far from your home and not easy to visit, start out with a brand new set of batteries every time. Don’t throw away half-used batteries but place them in a camera that is easier for you to regularly check.
Set up a Trail-Camera Kit
I mentioned my camera tote-bag. I recommend you set up your own, whether it’s a backpack, fanny bag, or grocery sack dedicated to your trail-camera adventures. This way, when you’re heading out to hang or check cameras, you can grab the bag knowing everything you might need is already gathered there: clippers, bungees, batteries, bubble-level, SD cards, SD card reader, a Sharpie for marking SD cards, and extra straps. Mine also contains disposable latex gloves and scent-killer spray, to help me minimize my own scent at camera sites. I also include a soft lens cloth for wiping and cleaning the lens ports of my cameras – spiders love to fill them with cobwebs.
Hopefully these tips will help you avoid trail-camera frustration, wasted time, lost photo opportunities and other headaches that can be prevented. You’ll spend more time enjoying your high-quality photos of deer, and then hunting them!