Trail cameras are tremendously useful tools for advanced hunters. Like any tool, they need to be utilized properly to get the best results. Better pictures will provide you with better information, and give you the best chance at taking a trophy buck this year.
I have scoured through old magazines, and questioned many successful hunters, to produce this exhaustive list of trail camera tips to help you capture better pictures that should lead to big bucks this season. Have a tip not covered in this list? Feel free to leave me a comment at the end of the article.
1. Update Your Camera Firmware
Trail cameras are basically small computers, and like any electronic device, they run on bits of software called firmware. Even the top trail camera manufacturers discover bugs even after cameras have been manufactured and stocked in stores.
This is a simple process that can prevent a lot of headaches before deploying your cameras to the field. Visit the manufacturers’ website to check for any firmware updates.
Note: AdvancedHunter.com is not responsible for any damage done to your trail cameras, so I highly recommend you follow their update instructions exactly. You run the risk of bricking your camera if you do not do this!
2. Build Your Own Trail Camera
If you are the do it yourself type, you may feel inclined to try your hand at building your own trail cameras. Not only can you save some money, but you can save yourself a lot of heartburn and frustration caused by dealing with poor customer service on broken cameras.
I’ll warn you now that this can become an addictive hobby! There are a few websites out there selling kits and components allowing you to build a high-quality camera, as well as a few forums where DIY trail camera fans discuss their projects.
3. Number Each Camera and SD Card
This tip is particularly useful for managing multiple game cameras on one property. You can’t rely on memory to determine which camera was at what location.
Take a permanent marker and write a number on the bottom or back of the camera body, as well as on the SD card. This makes it much easier to organize your photos when you get your SD cards back home for analyzing.
Many trail cameras will put a time stamp with a custom camera name, but sometimes that fails, and the number on the SD card will save the day.
4. Record the GPS Coordinates of Each Camera Location
Use a smartphone or handheld GPS unit to mark the exact coordinates of each camera. This is incredibly handy if you like to disguise your cameras with brush and don’t check them for weeks. Then load the GPS coordinates into Google Earth and keep them up to date during the year. Brush and trees are growing and changing all the time, so I promise this is better than losing a $200 camera in the woods because you can no longer see it.
5. Use Google Earth to Pinpoint Prime Locations
Google Earth is a powerful tool for scouting your properties for prime buck territory. Google Earth overlays the satellite imagery over the top of elevation and contours, giving you a 3D view of your property. Combine that with your knowledge of creeks, hills, and plots, and you have a very powerful scouting tool. You can also input the GPS coordinates of all your trail cameras to see where you might be missing some coverage.
6. Get Away From the Beaten Path
Just like fawns and yearlings, a grown buck requires protein and mineral rich food to sustain muscle density and antler growth. The difference is, a buck will prefer an adequate food source that is in a more remote area where human presence and pressure is less. Keep your eyes open for this type of area during your scouting trips. When you do find such a spot, tread lightly, and leave a camera or two to see if there is a rack buck in the area.
7. Aim Cameras North or South
Before you deploy your cameras, grab your compass (or a smartphone with a compass app). You’ll be using it to point your camera’s in a northerly or southerly direction in order to avoid overexposure and image washout during sunrise and sunset. During the winter months, the sun’s path is low enough that you’ll want to point in a more southern direction.
8. Angle Your Camera to the Trail
By angling the camera to the trail, you are giving the motion sensors a much larger window to trigger and capture an image. The deer will be walking into the sensors range for a longer time, as opposed to simply walking across the field of view. Instead of getting just the tail end of the animal, you stand a much better chance of getting a great full body picture of the deer. The exception to this would be when you have a specific target you want to monitor like a scrape or feeder.
9. Remove Obstructions to Flash and Lens
Having too much foliage, grass, and branches in front of your camera sensors can cause several issues. First, when there is wind, the movement of the brush can cause a false trigger and leave you with hundreds of empty images. Make sure your motion sensors have a clear field of view to avoid this.
The second issue that can arise, is when there is an object like a leaf or branch directly in front of the LED flash. Instead of illuminating the animal, the obstruction will be lit up leaving you with an underexposed image. Bringing with a trail camera viewer, or digital camera with an SD card reader can help you fine-tune the camera alignment to avoid poor images.
10. Use Combination of Time Lapse and Trail Modes
This is a sneaky advanced tip to discover deer movement over a broad area. First, you want to set up your time-lapse capable trail cameras to cover fields, food plots, and other known travel areas. If you can, set your time lapse to take pictures every 10-20 seconds over the first and last few hours of daylight. You won’t capture every deer doing this, but your batteries will last for weeks rather than days.
After you have scouted with time lapse for a few weeks, review the photos and determine the exact routes the deer are using. Then you can set up a regular trial camera to get images of specific bucks you are interested in.
11. Take Inventory and Build a Hit List
To take inventory, you will be running a survey of your land. A scouting camera survey will not only help you identify each buck in the area but will also tell you about the numbers of doe and fawns on your land. We all want bucks, but if you are a management minded hunter, you will use that information to consider harvesting some does.
Use your cameras in time-lapse mode (see #10) over a period of months to get an idea of the population on your land. One camera for every 100 acres, minimum, is my recommended camera density. This is where photo management software becomes extremely useful. Once your buck list is compiled, you can follow up with a targeted game camera campaign to get better images of your target bucks.
12. Target a Specific Buck
If you are using time-lapse mode, eventually you will spot a buck that you want to hunt. If you have seen the same deer moving on the same routes on multiple occasions, its now time to bring in more trail cameras to blanket the routes to get an accurate understanding of his movements. You will begin to see a pattern of where, and when, the best times to get in your stand for a chance at shooting the big buck.
13. Develop a Photo Organization System
If you are checking your cameras every 3 or 4 weeks you will have a ton of pictures to evaluate. The more cameras you use on your hunting property, the more important it is to be organized. Good organization leads to better patterning and better chances at killing a big buck. Here are some tips to get organized.
- I use 2 SD cards for each camera, with matching numbers written on the cameras and cards. I can quickly swap SD cards in and out this way, and download them to my computer at home.
- Or, use a cheap laptop to download each SD card and place it back in the camera.
- Use a folder system to create a directory on your computer. It can go something like this: Property > Camera Number > Date
- Keep only the images of bucks you want to keep track of over time.
- Keep time lapses only if there is evidence of one of your target bucks in it.
If that all sounds too complicated or time-consuming, there are now trail camera software options as well as smartphone hunting apps that make managing your photos more efficient and help you to analyze and pattern your target bucks.
14. Conceal From Thieves
No matter what you do to secure your game cameras, be it python cables, or locking steel housings, there is always the possibility of a dirtbag swiping your camera. Cables can be cut, housings can be cut off, and trees can be chopped down. By taking some of these simple steps you increase the odds your trail camera survives the season.
- Avoid obvious locations such as directly off a timber road or in front of a feeder.
- Mount your cameras a few feet higher than eye level. Not only will most people not be looking up, but if they can’t easily reach it, they just move on.
- Use leaves and brush to disguise your camera. Read this article for how exactly to do this.
- Newer cameras sometimes have a security code feature. It may not prevent the theft of the camera, but it will prevent the bum from using it themselves.
- The stock black nylon mounting straps make a horizontal stripe on a tree trunk. making it easy to spot. Try use bailing wire instead. It’s inexpensive and nearly invisible when mounted on a tree.
15. Call Your Insurance Agent
Give your insurance agent a quick call and ask about a policy for your hunting equipment, including all your trail cameras, as well as bows, stands, and binoculars. For a small monthly cost, you can add your gear to your homeowner’s personal property policy to cover theft.
16. Mount Cameras Higher
There are several reasons to mount your camera a few feet higher this year.
First, is that the flash can spook deer. It is very frequent you’ll see deer looking directly into the camera lens for the photo. Clearly, they are aware of the camera’s presence, either by the noise the shutter makes, or the flash itself. By mounting a few feet higher and then angling the camera down, you will reduce the chance of the deer locating the origin of the camera flash. An arm length up will do, or you could bring a step stool on your quad to do reach the height you’ll need.
The second benefit of this is getting your cameras out of the reach of the criminal types looking to swipe your trail camera. Most people won’t look above eye level, leaving them to pass by your camera.
17. Place Cams at Your Inactive Stands
If you have multiple treestands over your hunting properties, try placing a trail camera on each inactive stand. Sometimes you will discover a buck in the area that you weren’t aware of. Take the time to pattern the new shooter, and then get your butt in the seat during the best times for your best chance at a kill.
18. Be Patient!
The excitement of deploying your fleet of scouting cameras can lead to the common mistake of checking for results too frequently. Checking your cameras every other is showing the deer your pattern rather than you patterning them. Try limiting yourself to 2 weeks minimum, and ideally up to 3-4 weeks.
Every time you visit your camera is another chance for you to be detected by deer in the area. Practice good scent control methods (see the previous tip) when handling the cameras to retrieve images, and always try to use transition points where it’s easier to get in and get out without alerting deer.
19. Control Your Scent
A scent-free trail camera can be achieved by following these common sense tips:
- Spray the camera with your favorite scent eliminator, and wipe off with a clean towel. Take care not to smudge the lens with the spray or you’ll end up with blurry pictures.
- Use scent-free neoprene gloves when touching and setting up the camera to reduce the human odors on the housing and mounts.
- Use those same type of neoprene gloves when you go back out to check your cameras, as well as wipe them down again with the scent eliminator spray.
- A pair of rubber boots is always a good idea to wear when visiting your cameras.
20. Check Cameras on Rainy Days
Rain naturally eliminates human scents by knocking particulate in the air down to the ground, effectively eliminating much of your scent trail. When the rain washes away fresh scents from the air, it also makes new scents easier for deer to detect.
Pay close attention to the wind direction when you visit your cameras in the rain, and you still need to practice the scent control methods previously discussed, like wearing rubber boots and using an odor eliminating spray when checking your cameras.
21. Create a Bedding Areas Near Food Sources
Have you seen a few bucks showing up near food sources late at night? Sometimes this indicates a deer is walking from far away to your plot. When you create a bedding area in close proximity to a rich food source, such as clover, you can encourage bucks to bed down nearby, rather than walk a long distance to reach it. This is not a guaranteed method for success, deer will always avoid pressure if present, but it can increase the chances of drawing one in closer.
22. Make a Fake Scrape to Draw in Bucks
To make a fake scrape, grab a rake and shovel, and find a good tree with leafy green growth on an overhanging branch that is 6 to 7 feet above the ground. Rake up the brush and dirt about 6 feet away from the base of the tree, and spray the area with deer urine to draw in bucks. Make sure to aim your camera at the licking branch where bucks will focus on shedding their velvet. Make a few scrape sites to increase the odds of success, and then focus your cameras on the most active site.
23. Give Fresh Rubs and Scrapes Some Space
Rubs and scrapes are deer magnets, but if you jump the gun and place trail cameras right next to them, deer will recognize this and avoid the scrape. Many bucks in the pre-rut will visit the scrape site just after dusk. Place your game camera at least 25 yards from the scrape, ideally on one of the paths leading to it. By giving it space you can usually determine which direction the buck travels, giving you an edge to shoot him later.
24. Upgrade to Black Flash
Black flash is a fancy word for no-glow flash. Typical flashes on cameras use a pulse of white light that can startle and blind deer. Standard infrared cameras use a burst of red light to illuminate the target at night. A black flash camera uses a low glow or no glow infrared flash.
All trail cameras make some amount of noise when taking a picture, so it’s not completely undetectable by whitetail deer, but it does help in preventing your camera being detected by skittish deer as well as unwanted human visitors.
25. Go Cellular
If your property is a long distance from your home, you might want to consider investing in some of the top cellular trail cameras for keeping tabs on deer from afar. No more visiting your cameras every few days, and wondering if they captured any good footage. You can set these cameras up on your wireless phone plan to send pictures directly to your email, cell phone, or table. The benefits of wireless are many, the major drawback is cost, but think about all the time and gas you’ll save and the investment will pay for itself.
26. Remember the Offseason
Offseason scouting is a great way to see what bucks on your hit list survived the hunting season. I like to put out my tail cameras in front of bait (check if its legal in your state). I usually use mineral licks, peanut butter, or towels soaked in molasses or vanilla. Corn tends to bring in varmints and turkey instead of deer. Stock up on batteries because they will die on you much quicker with the colder temperatures.