Say Cheese!

The next time you are thinking about how best to scout an area, try letting a trail camera keep an eye out for you. After all, seeing is believing.

Captured in the early evening, this blacktail buck was photographed with a Stealth Cam MC2 using FujiFilm X-tra Superia 800 speed film.
Photo by Joe J. Warren

Large tracks or antler rubs may provide evidence of a buck's presence, but such telltale sign still leaves unanswered questions: How big is he? When did he come through? Which trails does he use?

Fortunately, technology exists today that allows us to answer those questions, and trail cameras rank among the most popular apparatus. With an increasing number of manufacturers producing trail cameras, outdoorsmen are enjoying a flood of affordable, portable and durable cameras. These self-operating devices can help in narrowing the guesswork of elusive animals by capturing their images to illustrate presence, timing and movements.

In the Pacific West, the trail camera can be well worth its weight in gold as an aid for preseason scouting in blacktail country, especially for those whose time in the field may be limited. Avid hunters respect blacktail deer as one of the most challenging types of deer to hunt in North America, and even more so when the attention is on trophy-class bucks.

Venturing into thick forests with heavy underbrush is no cakewalk, not to mention limited visibility, and yet oftentimes this is where the buck of a lifetime resides.

According to game biologists, non-migratory blacktail deer have a home range of about one square mile. During the preseason, they can be creatures of habit, with routine movements between feeding, watering and bedding areas. Recording the quality and whereabouts of these "home-guard" bucks is a great way to stake out your hunt for when the season begins. And with the affordable price range of trail cameras, owning more than one is economical enough that you could effectively monitor more than one location at a time.

GETTING SET

As easy as it may seem, the use of a trail camera does take some forethought and planning to successfully photograph your quarry just as it would to harvest that buck with a bow or rifle.

A successful location of placing a trail camera is not a matter of luck. Knowing the terrain, reading deer sign from tracks, droppings, antler scrapes/rubs, and bedding grounds are prerequisites to selecting likely spots for trail cameras. For me, reading tracks was a good way to start photographing bucks, and I soon learned to emphasize the size and depth of tracks, which are likely indications that a buck made them.

When I first experimented with a trail camera, I took the first simple route by finding a good trail break visible from the road and taking a hike on it. Eventually, I noticed more intersecting trails with plenty of traffic signs that told me the deer in that area were active. A good-sized Douglas fir about 5 feet off the trail served as a steady post for my camera, and a quick test of the sensor by walking back and forth in front of it indicated the camera was ready.

Four days later I returned to find all 24 frames exposed. When I picked up the prints at a one-hour photo lab, I was utterly amazed. "They don't get big by being stupid," I told myself. Those earliest of photos proved that I had a great deal more to learn.

To employ the use of a trail camera, a hunter should allow plenty of time ahead of the season. Starting in the summer would be ample time to explore where big bucks are hiding. They are notorious for moving only during dark hours, which is most likely when the trail camera will photograph him. Once the pictures reveal what you are looking for, move the camera to another area and give that one a rest.

As useful as trail cameras are, overdoing it during the scouting can push the animal out of the area or into a different pattern of movement, leaving you back at ground zero. I also discovered that frequent visits to a single site will spook deer and cause them to alter their routines.

SELECTING A TRAIL CAMERA

A trail camera, also referred to as a game, or deer camera, is a camera with a built-in sensor that detects heat and motion. Most of the different makes of trail cameras have a passive infrared (PIR) sensor that protrudes a cone-shaped beam to 24 feet and beyond depending on the make; the farther the beam, the bigger the cone. When the beam detects a target, it sends a signal to activate the camera to take the picture.

As with any new equipment, there is always that frustrating task of which one to buy. Price is typically the first consideration, and with units ranging from $70 to $2,500, there's a model to suit every budget.

Make sure you compare apples to apples for the price you are paying. Many models have similar features but vary substantially in price. Pay special attention to the specifications of the camera used inside the housing. The unit can boast many bells and whistles, but ultimately, the camera itself is the most important part of the equipment if the user hopes to capture decent images. Knowing the camera first will provide a more satisfying experience of the device.

The next decision is choosing between film and digital cameras. The answer really depends on what you intend to do with the final images, and how you are going to archive the image, if at all. I prefer film because I like to catalog the resultant prints in an album. The photos are easy to view, render true color, and I can take the album anywhere I go, even to the field. If I capture an exceptional shot, I can have a large print made without it being grainy. Digital cameras are better suited to those with computer skills and who prefer working with electronic imagery. Of popular consensus, is the virtue of seeing immediate results without the expense of film and processing. This is perfect if you are satisfied with viewing your pictures on a computer screen or monitor. Storage is simple as well by saving the pictures to a CD. Digital trail cameras shoot images with low mega-pixel ratings. These images can be printed, but you may end up with mixed results, not to mention limitations in print size. The intended buyer also should be aware that, some digital cameras have a brief time lapse between when the shutter button is pressed and when the shutter actually trips to take a picture. This pause of the shutter can result in a blurred image if there is movement.

F-STOPS, LENSES & PIXELS

Since most of the cameras that come in the housing are your basic 35mm point-and-shoot cameras with a fixed lens and exposure, two of the most important components of the camera are the size of the lens (field width of view) and the "f" number (opening of aperture). The "f" number equates to how m

uch light comes into the lens when the shutter is open. Keep in mind many photos are likely to occur at night, early morning, late evening. The smaller the "f" number, the more light. I recommend cameras with "f" numbers from 2.8 to 4.5. This range will give the best advantage of film speeds for greater print quality, allow the flash to work more effectively, and freeze the motion of a moving target.

Next is the lens; it should be a wide angle. This type of lens is better for photographing a wide scene or animal in close. Cameras that feature lenses with a 28mm to 35mm view are best with 28mm (or less) being the widest.

Faced with choosing between those features, I would give the "f" number the highest priority for the camera I choose.

Those who shoot digital need to consider mega-pixels and black and white vs. color imaging. Mega-pixels are the resolution of the image with X-number of dots or pixels per given area. More pixels produce a better quality image. It is important to keep in mind that the image on the computer screen or monitor is not necessarily going to be the same quality when the image prints out on paper! If you intend to print images or have prints made, I recommend a digital camera with no less than 3.1 mega-pixels.

For film cameras, film is another important part of the gear to achieve satisfying photographs. Thank goodness, with today's technology the film industry has made major improvements with print quality from high-speed color negative films. Unless the picture is printed greater than 8-by-10 inches, grain is not even an issue. Wildlife photography is one of the most challenging subjects to photograph because of low light and movement of whatever trips the shutter. The faster films, 400 to 800 ISO, are most advantageous in these situations, given the type of cameras used in most trail camera packages. I prefer FujiFilm X-tra Superia 800-speed print film. A 4-by-6 inch print shows hardly any grain. In addition, the higher speed permits greater flash distance.

SETTING UP AND USING YOUR TRAIL CAMERA

I chose the Stealth Cam MC2 as my first trail camera to learn the basics of a trail camera and so far, I am pleased with the results. The basic programming for taking pictures is similar in all makes and models such as date/time stamp, continuous picture taking, time out function between sensor detections and other features.

The luxury of both date and time stamp is great, but if only one can be chosen, I prefer the time stamp. The time stamp is helpful in predicting the animal's pattern of movement. I usually note the date when the camera is set up and by following the time stamps on the photos, I can usually figure out the dates as well.

The continuous picture-taking mode is a setting you choose for how many times the camera will take a picture simultaneously when the sensor detects a target. The number of pictures to take may range from 1 to 10 per detection.

The time-out function controls how often the sensor may detect a target or recuperate from a previous detection. Manufacturers made the settings this way to allow the best opportunity of photographing animals depending on what they are doing at a specific location. For example, if the trail camera is set up to monitor a salt lick, you may only want a few pictures from the camera with a longer delayed response to resume photographing so the camera is not wasting film on the same animals. On a trail, an animal passing by is less likely to stop for long, allowing for a setting of one or two pictures; quick recovery is best. In this situation, I found the first two pictures from the camera to be the best pose of the animal. After the first two frames, the next were usually wasted. For the time-out function, I use the quickest setting for the sensor to be immediately ready to go for more pictures (minimum one minute) in case there is more than one animal passing by.

Batteries can be costly and critical to using a trail camera depending on when and how long it is used. The units may require AA, C or 9V batteries. Trail cameras powered by C or 9V batteries have stronger flash distance and more battery life. For combating weather in the 40s or cooler, I recommend lithium batteries. Use 12- or 24-exposure roll film (rather than 36) so the rewind of the film will not drain the batteries. Some companies sell additional power accessories such as a solar panel or a 12V battery.

Although the PIR sensors and camera flashes can work up to distances of 60 feet, the ability of taking a good picture is more practical up to about 20 feet. Remember, the camera is simply a point and shoot and the focusing range on most is 2.5 feet to infinity.

To achieve a picture of a deer that fills the frame, he would need to be less than 10 feet from the camera. I like to find a sturdy tree greater than 8 inches in diameter so the wind will not sway the tree and set off the camera. I post the camera about 4 feet off the ground and as close as 4 feet off the trail. I quarter the camera at an angle to the trail in hopes of a head-on buck profile that displays the antlers.

Two cameras on opposite sides of the tree would be ideal to ensure photos of the animal head-on. If you face the camera directly perpendicular to the trail for a side shot, allow at least 6 feet. If the trail is sloping, you will have to tilt the camera up or down so the camera will not photograph over the top of the deer.

Avoid facing the camera east or west into the sun. The heat could set off the camera or too much sunlight into the viewing area could wash out the picture. Make sure the area in front of the camera does not have too much foliage that can easily move on a windy day and set off the camera.

The longer you can keep the animal in front of the lens the better photo you will likely achieve. Bait is an enticing way, not only to draw the animal to the area of your camera but also to place the animal exactly where you want it for the perfect photo. For deer, I have had good success with sliced apples. Other types of attractants to consider using are vanilla extract, doe scent or a salt-mineral lick.

Be cautious of presenting and leaving your human odor behind while setting up your camera. Wearing fresh, clean clothing and using masking scent helps disguise your presence. When you photograph a prime buck, there is always the temptation of keeping the camera there for a longer period. Do not risk continued scouting efforts in the same spot, as you will most likely spook the buck if not make him more leery of you being there.

Another factor pointed out by some trail camera users is that the flash will spook deer as well. This is not consistent. In the wild, I have nocturnal photographs of a buck for up to four frames without noticing his tail being upright as alarmed. In other photos, bucks have appeared in the first picture and the following were blanks. I have also set up the camera in an area where deer would gather near a countryside residence and observed their behavior to the flash. The first flash did startle them, but they did not flee. After the initial burst, they did not seem bothered by repeated flashes.

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