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Everything I've learned about trail cameras


It's almost a year now that since I bought my first Bushnell trail camera (I bought it with my first book money), and pretty much every night since them it's been out in the woods filming wildlife. It's always exciting going back to it to see what's on it, and it's fun trying to invent new ways to film wildlife. So far I've filmed roe and red deer, foxes, pine marten, squirrels, birds, rabbits,

I'm not an expert, but I've learnt a lot in the last year. I've blogged before about filming my pine marten and red deer herd, but here's pretty much I've learned about using my trail camera from the last year !

Why you should get one

There are tons of wildlife in woods which we don't normally see - even if you are a brilliant tracker. My trail camera has helped me watch nature close up, to track red deer herds, to watch roe deer families, to see jays and robins, and discover that I have pine martens pretty close by.

Here's a composite video showing a fox, a rabbit and a pine marten all in the same spot on the same night:

You still need to be good at exploring woods, good at spotting tracks and signs, and to be very very patient, but a trail camera helps you understand nature a little bit better.

One of the great things about a trail camera is that you never know what you're going to film. I set my camera up for roe deer and filmed a pine marten; I set it up to film a pine marten and got a roe deer mum with her fawns; I set it up for red squirrels and filmed foxes and robins; and I set it up to film the red deer herd and got another pine marten !

Every day your trail camera is at home, it's missing some great wildlife. I went about a month without filming the pine marten, then I got this fantastic footage of it killing a rabbit:

What to look for

There are tons of trail cameras out there. They are all mostly the same design with a camera lens in the middle, a motion sensor below, and a light above the lens. They record video and/or stills  onto a camera card whenever an animal triggers the sensor.

I think the single most important thing with a trail cam is that it's waterproof, because if its not, then nothing else will work. I asked around and the Bushnells have a good reputation. This is my first one, which ended up with a small amount of misting inside the lens from water (but which they replaced with a newer model).

If the trail camera case is wet, then wipe along the edge of the door before you open it, to avoid drips getting in.

Bushnells are more expensive that other trail camera, but the warranty seems good, and they seem solid. But would I have been better buying two for half the price, and getting twice as much footage ? It's hard to say. I don't know anyone who uses more than one trail camera, but I could easily think of five or six spots I'd love to watch wildlife at the same time.


LEDs allow filming in low light or darkness, in the same way as a camera flash works. There are two types, normal (where you see the LED bulbs, and can see them come on), or "black" (where humans can't see the LED bulbs, or when they come on).

The only difference between cameras with "invisible" LEDs and the normal ones seems to be the price, and whether humans can see them. Pine marten and red deer still seem able to see the light. It's still an advantage, though, so poachers or other people don't notice the camera.

The best way to use the LEDs is when everything that you want to film is roughly the same distance from the lens, like in this video of a pine marten, where the camera was about 2m away from the branch, and the pine marten was always the same distance away from the camera.

This setup wasn't designed for night vision, because the area closest to the camera gets far too much light, and the area farthest away gets less:

One solution is to put duct tape over part of the LED panel so less light comes out, but I've never tried that.

The LEDs also has an unusual effect of making animals' eyes glow bright white.

Camera cards

Unless you take a computer into the middle of a wood, or bring the trail camera home every time, you'll need more than one camera card. I have three,

Most trail cameras take SD cards, which are small, a bit bigger than a postage stamp, and easy to lose. Dad made these attachments out of a piece of plastic the size of a credit card, duct tape, and electrical tape, to make them easy to find. I once dropped one in a wood but was still able to find it.

The attachment has a piece of velcro on it, and after inserting the card, it folds up into the camera and attaches to another piece of velcro, like this:

My cards are 8Gb, 16Gb and 32Gb, and the bigger the number, the more images and video they can hold. On my current trail cam the video files are 100Mb so about 80 would fit on an 8Gb card, and 320 would fit on a 32Gb card.  It's unlikely you'd need a bigger card than that, because 320 one minute videos would take you about five hours to go through !

Two of the cards I use are Sandisk, and quite fast at reading and writing to the card (speed 4).  The other one is unbranded and slow, but it doesn't seem to make a difference. My trailcam doesn't seem to need a fast card, but the size of it does matter.

Picking your location

I've used about a dozen different woods and locations to film in for the last year. All were about ten minutes away from where a car could be parked, and away from main footpaths. That made it easy enough for dad to change the cards on his way home, but far enough away from passers by.

You need to leave the camera in the wood for at least a couple of weeks to get a good feel for the wildlife there. It's a great opportunity to study a tiny area of a wood just to see how much wildlife lives there. Over the last year there are three woods in particular that I have been able to study in great detail.

I set the camera up in this position to try and get pine marten, but I got this brilliant footage of a roe deer mum out with her month-old fawns.

HD settings.

HD means a bigger image size than normal, so better quality. My second trail camera is HD but my first one wasn't.

In good light you will see a difference in quality if you show videos at full screen. In night vision, you'll just see the grain in greater detail.

HD also means bigger file sizes, meaning you will fit less on a card. My 720p trail camera files were about 50Mb for about a minute, and my HD one is about twice that.

Day and night settings

Mine is set to be triggered anytime. Here are four pictures over a 24 hour period showing snow fall. During the day time, it films in colour. When the light is low, it uses black and white, and uses the lights on the top of the camera. At some times the colour balance can get confused, like in the bottom right picture when it seems very blue. When the light is low, but not low enough to switch to night mode, the quality can be a bit poor.

The LED lights are okay for anything close to the camera (eg within about 3m) but any further than that, and things will be a bit murky and grainy. And if anything is too close to the camera, it'll get bleached out completely white like this.

If the camera is at the edge of a wood, then if the light is bright outside, then the camera adjusts to make everything inside the wood 

For example, in this video the roe buck inside the trees is hard to see because the camera is confused by the bright light in the clearing to the south.

This is the camera's current position. Because it points south, at about 3pm the sun shines straight down the lens, giving this misty lens flare effect. But sunshine is not a massive problem because I live in Scotland.

Keeping the trail camera secure

If you're leaving a £200 camera in the middle of nowhere you need to know it'll be there when you come back. I bought a £1 security cable with a loop at one end, and a £1 padlock. The cable loops round the tree over and over through the loop at the end. Then the end of the padlock is attached to the case - or actually two home made metal brackets, because the padlock loops got cracked on my second one.

I leave my camera away from where people tend to go, and only one person has ever noticed my trail camera.

The thing that worries me is that if I accidentally film poachers or other people who don't want to be filmed, and they decide to destroy my camera to avoid being caught, so I have this sticker on both sides to try and tell people what it is, and to leave it alone.

Having the "invisible" version of night vision would also stop people noticing it at night.

Having a grab bag

I carry a small grab bag with little things that help with the trail camera. That usually includes a small can of WD40 in case the padlock seizes, batteries, a spare SD card, Nutella (for attracting animals), cable ties (for putting branches in place), tissues (for wiping it when wet), gloves and plastic bags in case I find anything else that's interesting, a measuring tape (for close up lenses, and making sure the camera isn't too close to things), black tape (for blacking out part of the LED, when using close up lenses), and a penknife for cutting branches.

Keeping a diary

I keep a diary so if I have a useful video I record the date and time of what it was. I don't do it for birds or squirrels, because they are common and come and go all the time during daylight hours, but it is useful for rarer animals such as pine martens, as well as knowing the red deer herd's routine at night and morning.

How to attach it

The manual for mine says to attach it to a tree about 1.5m off the ground, but I put mine wherever I want.  It comes with a strap which fits most trees, but that points it flush against the tree, so if I want it angled down, I break small bits of branches and push them in the top to angle it down. What you really need is a frame which is held by the strap, which has some kind of socket so you can then angle it easily.

Here's how I attached it to a tree that was too big for the strap to go round. The strap looped around a few branches rather than going round the whole tree

In this picture I wanted to film a hole in an old barn wall about 6ft off the ground. I attached the camera to an old plank then leaned it against the wall.

There's a screw fitting at the bottom that hardly anyone uses, but I used mine to attach to clamps and arms from my dad's camera bag. This is it when it was filming a hedgehog which came to a neighbour's garden.

Here it's actually upside down, hanging from a tree branch, held with a superclamp, to film a roosting spot on a tree trunk. (The video will be upside down, but a lot of video editors allow you to rotate it).

Here's it attached to an old wall, watching a hole in the wall where I thought the pine marten might be living. The strap goes over the other side and hooked over something further down the wall. The security wire went through a pipe which went through the wall.

Go wide first.

If you think there might be wildlife in a particular area, aim to film a wide area to start with. That'll be triggered by more animals, so you get a feel of what is there.

Sometimes the wide angle is better anyway. This view of the red deer herd lets you get a good feel for the whole herd as they pass by the camera:

When you don't get anything filmed...

If there is nothing on the card at all, then something is wrong - on mine there is usually at least a video of me(*) coming or going. If there isn't, then something may be wrong with your sensor.

(*) I mean a video of you. If you get a video of me every time you check  your trail camera, then that'd be weird.

Often, though, the camera can go a couple of days without filming anything.

If you get a video that hasn't got anything on it, it usually just means the animal has triggered the camera but moved out of shot before the camera started. If you get lots of these, maybe move the camera back so it covers a wider area.

How often should you check it ?

After I have set up a new position, I usually leave it for 24 hours then check it, to make sure the angle is right and that it's working okay. After that, it depends. In the pine marten I checked every couple of days. If I've left food out, then I might go back every day to pop up the food.

I think the longest I have left my camera is about ten days, when I was away on holiday.

When animals come though at particular times, I try to avoid those times so not to disrupt their patterns and routes. For example, for red deer, I don't visit that camera at sunset or sunrise.

Leaving out food

I've had mixed results with leaving out food. Nutella works well with squirrels and birds. The pine marten liked jam sandwiches, but the jays stole most of them. 

The Nutella pine cones left out for the red squirrels did attract the red squirrels, but also attracted robins. The peanut butter left for the pine marten attracted mice...lots of them:

I tried an egg with the pine marten, and never found out whether it would have eaten it or not. It seemed to get spooked by something else.


My first trail camera took eight AA batteries, and the second takes 12. My battery icon shows three things: full battery, half uses, and almost empty Always carry spare batteries with you, and as soon as the batteries start to go down, change them. You can still use the half-used batteries in things like TV remotes, and there is nothing worse than finding out your batteries have run out and you've missed something.

I use Maplin batteries. A couple of times a year they do deals where 100 extra life AA batteries cost £15. A set of batteries lasts me a couple of months, but it depends how many videos they shoot and how often the LED lights are used.

My first camera took 8 AA batteries, which were easy to knock out when opening it, so I made this cover across the back from a piece of black plastic which fastened with velcro to keep the batteries in place:

Close up lenses.

My Bushnell came with two lenses which screw into the front lens, and which allow it for film things closer than normal. Without the lens, the trail camera can't really film anything in focus which is close than a metre. The two screw in lenses allow filming at 46cm and 23cm, but you have to be pretty sure that whatever you are filming will be at about that distance. That's why here, the pine cones are filled with nutella, to attract red squirrels and birds.

When you get it right, the video is incredibly sharp.

Close up lenses are also ideal if you are into close up pictures of a pine marten's anus.

Finally....trail cameras are edible.


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Melanie said...

Great post! I love my trail camera, was pleased with some of the pictures I got! :-)

Matt Williams said...

Great post. I also have two trail cameras that are both Bushnell (Bushnell trophy cam 2011 and Bushnell trophy cam HD 2014). The Bushnell Trophy cam HD had exceptional day time footage but the night time is really dark and grainy. I find that my favourite type of bait is peanut butter and apples (I heard that peanuts were good bait for badgers but I find that it attracts jays and mice and it can be annoying when you get 300 videos a night). I have caught foxes, badgers, Roe deer and fallow deer in the past month in the woods behind my house. Matt...

sedruff said...

What exactly is a pine marten? Are they similar the the mongoose?
Also this is awesome. \/"I mean a video of you. If you get a video of me every time you check your trail camera, then that'd be weird"

Richard Lawrence said...

Great stuff, some good tips there. Out of interest do you submit your records to your local mammal recorder or to the Mammal Society? I'm sure they would very much welcome them and they will help towards the national mammal atlas.

Jake said...

They are very addictive !

Jake said...

Nice !

Jake said...

It's similar to a cat-sized stoat or weasel, from the badger/stoat/otter family.

Jake said...

No I don't, thanks for the tip !

Mori said...

I love your bird skulls! And especially what you found out about the Razorbill's white beak stripe.

I'm about to start my first bone clean using washing powder with some hedgehog bones. Exciting! Reading your posts about cleaning thoroughly before I start of course. :)

Amber Spoerl said...

Would a turkey fryer work as well?
I have larger items

Jake said...

I use a slow cooker now, which iis bigger but not big enough to do a red deer skull in one go. A rice cooker would also work.

thedwightguy . said...

Pine Martens are endemic in North America's northern forests and a prime fur species. Lots of them are around here in northern BC, the Rockies, but are rarely actually seen.

Morthern Gratitude said...

Trail cameras are the best, you will be amazed at the quality of the photos that it captures. http://www.trailcamerazone.com/

justine said...

Jake, you are an awesome kid! Glad to find your site and explore it. I clean bones at a local museum and your site teaches me a lot. One tip on the trail camera bait for pine martens that I discovered. You can use sardines in the can, but if you open the lid then squirrels will eat it. So instead take a sardine can and poke holes into it so the smell comes out. I built a pine marten box the size trappers use (without the trap of course), and put the sardine can inside with it tied down. Works everytime and keeps the squirrels away.

Ed said...

Can I use lavender scented biological washing powder

Jake said...

It's probably fine, but I try to use the cheapest stuff, so nothing else which might damage the bone has been added.

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