Camera trapping can be phenomenally satisfying and a really enjoyable pastime. The buzz when you remove your SD card and flick through the images is something I will never tire of, as there is frequently a surprise waiting. Camera traps, or trail cameras as they are also known, have gone from expensive scientific kit to garden toy in a very short space of time. Increasingly they are being used for scientific and professional ecological monitoring but their affordability, durability and technological advancement have made them just as rewarding to use at home or on your local patch. In this article I will generally focus on the more affordable models rather that the higher priced scientific ones such as Reconyx.
Over the last couple of years, we have completed professional camera trapping projects to confirm (or not!) the presence of species such as Wildcat, Otters and Water Vole in Scotland (www.biomeconsulting.com); evaluated the success of various attractants for Eurasian Lynx, and general species monitoring, in Estonia (www.biomenature.com); assessed mammal communities in Norway, as well camera-trapping for fun here, there and everywhere. With around 12,000 trap nights under the belt in the last couple of years we’ve got a pretty good handle on what works, what doesn’t, and what you can do to maximize your chances of success.
In recent times I have started to wonder, and others have asked me on the extent of variation between models and which models are most effective. Whilst I can’t test them all, I have pulled together nine different camera traps to review. I have endeavored to cover a range of models from the cheapest I could find (£85) to one of the more expensive on the market (£399). Some models come in at more than £400 and I have excluded them here as they are unlikely to be the models of choice for the casual camera trapper; it is safe to assume that they are of a very high quality and are generally regarded as the elite models, primarily used for scientific monitoring.
Most camera traps are fairly standard in design and output, though one that I trialed has an increased field of view (150o – Moultrie Pano and another model sends pictures straight to a mobile phone (Minox DTC 1000), well that was the idea!. This review aims to highlight the pros and cons of each model and recommend (based on this trial, and past experience) the best trail cameras for different scenarios, e.g. taking abroad, use in the garden, large-scale monitoring etc. It should be noted though that this is not a scientifically rigorous test and that higher specification models of certain brands tested may perform better than the ones trialed.
It is also worth remembering that the images you produce are unlikely to win the BBC Wildlife Camera-trap photo of the year competition as most (but not all) of the winning images use adapted DSLR cameras with external flash guns. Similarly stunning ‘camera trap’ footage from programmes such Gordon Buchanan’s ‘Snow Wolf Family & Me’ uses adapted GoPro cameras.
A quick glossary of terminology
Passive Infrared (PIR): This is the mechanism by which most cameras detect an animal and trigger an image capture. The sensors on the front of the camera detect a difference in temperature between the subject and its surroundings and trigger a picture to be taken. This works best when there is greatest contrast between the animal and its environment, e.g. when the air is colder. The sensitivity of this sensor can be adjusted so during the summer you may wish to increase the sensitivity, the same for detecting smaller mammals, and also aquatic species such as Otter which are often cooler on the exterior due to better insulation, than other animals of a similar size.
Night Vision Shutter (NV): This controls the speed of the shutter during night triggers. A high shutter speed will increase the clarity of the image, reducing blur through movement, but will also reduce the range of detection. Conversely, a low shutter speed increases the range of detection but also increases the likelihood of the image being blurred.
Field of View: The area captured in the image, usually 35-45o
Detection Zone: The area in which the camera is able to detect the heat signature and motion of the animal.
False Positive: An image triggered seemingly by nothing. These can be very frequent and are often caused by vegetation movement.
False Negative: When a trigger does not occur despite the presence of an animal in the trigger zone. This can be very frustrating! (See the album on BiOME Consulting Facebook page)
What to consider when buying
The following should be your key considerations when purchasing a camera trap:
- Weight and size of camera.
- Trigger speed (how long it takes to trigger an image being taken).
- Image size and quality.
- Battery type/battery life.
- Ease of set up.
- What will I use the camera for (e.g. garden, open ground, monitoring)?
- On-camera review of images
- Security – can I leave my camera safely?
Many of these features will vary in their importance to you depending upon how the camera is to be used. For instance if you are undertaking large-scale monitoring for nocturnal species you are likely to require a camera that takes good quality images with as short a trigger speed as possible, that will run for months, and resist all that the weather can throw at it. If you goal is to capture the garden fox then something much less high spec will be sufficient.
Birds and camera trapping
We tend to think of camera trapping as the realm of the mammologist/mammal enthusiasts; however it can be equally well suited to the monitoring of birds. I have often wondered about positioning camera traps along scrape or ditch edges to get an idea of all the waders and crakes we are missing, and I have previously targeted cairns on Scottish peaks with some interesting results. Angling a camera at a prominent perch or a carcass can also generate some fascinating pictures; the list of possibilities is almost endless and limited only by your imagination.
The RSPB, among other conservation bodies, have adopted camera traps as a means of passive monitoring for species such as Hen Harrier and Curlew. It’s worth remembering though that you can’t just place a camera trap in front of a nest without the correct licenses! The possible increased risk of predation is also a consideration in such scenarios – it’s definitely worth leaving such projects to professionals. Studies in relation to the predation of ground nesting birds are, however, ongoing and will no doubt yield valuable results in the future that will be used to target conservation efforts for threatened species.
Choosing a location
The best location depends on what you’re trying to photograph, but remains the single most important factor in camera trapping. For mammals, placing a camera trap on an obvious trail is a good starting point. Ideally the camera should be about 2-3 feet above the ground and facing along the trail rather than across it. This increases the likelihood of a trigger and the duration of any video of the subject. But, it is important to be mindful of false triggers as a result of vegetation movement when placing a camera trap at low level – a pair of shears and some careful gardening is often required to minimise the amount of time you have to trawl through subject-less photos. Fence lines often funnel animals along them, as do forest rides. For species such as Otter or Water Shrew, identifying a well used rock or riverside feature is the best starting point. Prominent trunks crossing paths can act as scent-marking spots and are worth focusing on. Holes and crevices always attract attention, even if they are seemingly unoccupied by a specific species and these can generate plenty of interesting videos and pictures, often of multiple species.
Whilst most cameras come with the option of being able to padlock them shut, it is still worth bearing the security of your camera in mind. Placing it in a public place without securing it thoroughly is likely to see it vanish.
It probably goes without saying, but you also must have agreed access with the landowner to the location you are placing your camera traps.
Affixing your camera
All cameras come with a strap for attaching them to a suitable structure. Personally we have found that using strong garden wire is as good and usually a better option, as it doesn’t loosen. In many cases it is often possible to affix the camera to an existing feature e.g. a fence post or tree, however if you have the time then manufacturing some simple, small stakes is often beneficial and overcomes the frequent problem of having a great camera location but nothing to anchor it to. If you are positioning your camera along a stream, river or ditch edge remember to bear in mind fluctuating water levels, these cameras are weather-proof but don’t fare too well when submerged!
As well as the importance of recognising significant features that may funnel animals or birds past the camera, you also need to bear in mind other factors that impact on the images.
Trigger settings and angling your camera
In general it is best to angle the camera slightly downwards towards the ground rather than up. This avoids any unnecessary triggers from overhead vegetation or branches. It is also worth trying to avoid directing it towards either a rising or setting sun/moon, both of which can trigger the camera.
Vegetation movement can cause huge numbers of false positives which are very frustrating to work through, especially after months in the field. Depending on the location of your camera you may wish to adjust the sensitivity of the camera trigger mechanism. A camera trained at a grassy field of view may be excessively triggered by grass movement, in these cases it is worth reducing the sensitivity to low. The best locations are generally the understory of woodland where there is minimal vegetation and shelter from wind movement, as well as along open ditch edges, upland knolls and sand dunes. In these locations you may wish to have the sensitivity on high.
If you are after small mammals then the trigger settings should always be set to high, reduce the height that the camera is set at, and if possible add on a macro lens.
Baiting can massively increase the success of camera trapping either by using an existing foods source e.g. grain spillage or carcass, or by placing your own bait down. Cat or dog food is ideal for carnivores, anchovies or sardines can attract in Otters and Water Shrews, and grain and peanuts will draw in small mammals as well as birds.
Over Christmas/New Year I tested the nine models in three scenarios; at the base of a Red Squirrel feeding hopper at Treborth Botanic Garden, Gwynedd; on a marsh edge trail at RSPB Malltraeth, Anglesey; and in a copse on the outskirts of Derby. Many thanks to Red Squirrel Survival Trust and the RSPB for allowing me to trap at these locations.
The aim was to see how they coped with multiple triggers in different scenarios, and hopefully, in both night and day. This is by no means an exhaustive review with plenty of additional tests and scenarios possible, and there are many more models available.
For the trials at Treborth and Derby, all nine cameras were lined up immediately adjacent to each other. Whilst there will have been a subtle difference in each ones field of view and detection range, they were effectively focused on the same central point. At Malltraeth the cameras were split along the same animal trail with four facing in one direction and the remaining five further along the trail facing back towards the first four.
The trial models
I’ve summarised the specifications of each of the model included in the trial in the below table. This is followed, in ascending cost order, with my thoughts on the pros and cons of each, and is concluded with my overall opinion on what to buy. Other makes not included here but maybe worthy of consideration include Cuddeback, Scoutguard, Uway, and Reconyx.
Table: Comparative specifications of each of the trial models
|Model||Cost (£)||Weight (inc batteries)||Size (S/M/L)||Ease of setup||Max image size||Trigger speed (s)||Max vid size||Field of view||Range of IR (ft)||Batteries||Case seal|
|Bresser visiomar game camera||85.23||240g||S||M||6mp||? (1)?||720p||52||40||4AA||Moderate|
|Acorn Ltl 5210||95.69||300g||S||M||12mp||1.2||640×480||35||65||4/8AA||Good|
|Acorn Ltl 6210||129.80||350g||S||M||12mp||1.1||640x4801440x1080||35||65||4/8AA||Good|
|Pro Stalk PC400||129.95||300g||S||M||5mp||0.9||640×480||60||33||4AA||Good|
|Minox DTC 650||199.00||365g||M||VE||8mp||<0.5||1080p||50 (?)||49||12AA||Strong|
|Bushnel Natureview HD max (119439)||269.00||610g||M||E||8mp||0.6||1920×1080||55||60||4/12AA||Good|
|Moultrie Pano 150||189.00||1130g||L||E/M||8mp||0.9||1280×720||150||40||6C||Good|
|Minox DTC 1000||399.00||700g||M||E/D||8mp||1.0||1080p||50 (?)||50||12AA||Strong|
Summary of each model
Pros: Small. Cheap. Moderately easy setup. Good value for money.
Cons: Poor detection rates at night
A dinky, cheap and fairly inconspicuous camera and despite only running on 4AA batteries we have shown that they persist for a relatively long time (>6months). The detection rates seem good with the initial tests matching the higher powered models however the Bresser fell down at night with virtually no triggers indicating that the sensor isn’t quite as good as it could be. The set is up is through a remote on which you can also replay any images. A word of warning, I bought mine on Amazon and it arrived from the EU with only German instructions!
Acorn Ltl-5210A & Acorn Ltl-6210MC
Pros: Small. Cheap. Easy setup. Excellent image quality
Cons: Not as sensitive as the higher spec models or indeed the Bresser, the 5210 was significantly less sensitive than the 6210.
These two neat and small cameras run on 8AA batteries with easy setup and reply. Surprisingly good image quality and well balanced exposure. A great little model for garden use but I would recommend the 6210 over the 5210.
Hawke ProStalk PC 4000
Pros: Cheap and small
Cons: Very poor image quality and detection rates. No replay facility.
A small camera, taking 4AA batteries and easy/moderate setup. Despite a user error of my part during the first trial, the camera proved to be very poor at detecting animals. Generally a disappointment.
Spy Point HD 7
Pros: Moderate detection abilities, easy setup and handy setup instructions on inside of backing case
Cons: large, poor clip mechanism for shutting the case
Large but only takes 6 AA batteries. The setup is an alternative approach to most of the cameras but very easy. The output is fairly middle of the road; it’s not the worst, and its by no means the best. Detection rates appeared average.
Minox DTC 650
Pros: easy setup, excellent trigger speed and detection rates, high image quality, prolonged battery life, replay facility
This is a brilliant camera. On top of the list of pros above it matched the Bushnell in terms of its detection rates, in fact actually recording more triggers than the Bushnell in total though the two are on a very even par. Given the cost, ease of set up and performance this camera has a lot going for it.
Bushnell HD Natureview 119439
Pros: easy setup, excellent trigger speed and detection rates, prolonged battery life.
Cons: large, Images frequently under-exposed, no replay facility on this model (but there is on other similar ones)
An excellent larger camera and long been used by scientists and amateurs alike. Whilst the detection range and ability is excellent, the image was frequently under-exposed making analysing pictures very difficult. This combined with a higher price tag bought the overall rating of the camera down
Moultrie 150 Pano
Pros: A fantastically large detection zone (150o), which undoubtedly picks up animals other cameras wouldn’t, large flash range.
Cons: Very large and heavy and seemed to get moisture on the lens more than other cameras. Uses C batteries.
Despite advertising the silent movement of the sensor as it pans between the three 50o detection areas I could still hear it and it was obvious from images triggered on other cameras that animals could also hear it. That said the detection range is huge. The camera runs on 6C batteries which combined with its size makes it a hefty piece of kit. The setup was moderately easy
Pros: Similar in spec to the DTC 650, which see.
Cons: Expensive, and the photo/video replay to PCs and mobiles didn’t work for me as is not Mac compatible, slower trigger speed than DTC650
Seems to be more of a fancy gimmick with not much practical application unless you want to know what’s visiting your garden there and then whilst you recline watching X-factor. Other manufacturers also offer pictures/videos straight to your phone or computer. The camera itself is very good though the trigger speed is slower than the DTC650. Given the choice I would be going for the 650.
Calculating value for money is difficult and arbitrary, and very much depends on what you intend to use it for. For the benefit of the review I have named my personal top models and reasons below:
Overall top model: Minox DTC 650 (also best higher spec model)
Best cheap model: Acorn Ltl 6210 or for even cheaper garden use the Acorn Ltl 5210
Best travel model Acorn Ltl 6210
For monitoring the Reconyx (not tested here) are by far the best, but the Minox DTC 650 or the Bushnell HD Natureview would both be suitable.
If you want anymore information, or help with monitoring and training, then please get in touch with us at Biome Consulting.
Happy Camera trapping!