Buying Trail Cams
What You Need To Know Before Heading To The Store
As I stood in the aisle of trail camera possibilities, I couldn’t help but ponder the words “generational knowledge”. It’s not something I ever really thought about until I found myself drowning in an overwhelming sea of trail cam options wishing I grew up in a family of woodsmen. After all, if that were the case, maybe I would already know what the heck I’m looking at. Surrounded by customers and employees that looked like they bounced straight out of a lumberjack movie, I felt like an imposter…
I wandered up and down the aisle for 45 minutes (much to my children’s dismay). I was pacing back and forth, picking up boxes and then putting them back, when a store employee meandered over. “Hey, you’re looking a little lost. Is there something I can help you with?”
To the employee, I’m sure my 5′ 3″ stance probably made me look like a damsel in distress or a fish out of water. Either way, my indecisive movements and facial expressions probably didn’t help. I imagine they read “confused, clueless…please help”. But, what the employee didn’t know, was what was about to come out of my mouth…
This is a good time to briefly pause the story and tell you a little bit about myself. I am an extremely independent introvert who prides myself on being self taught. I’m a quick study and can usually problem solve my way into, or out of, about anything. I also would rather chew off my left arm than ask a store associate for help…LOL! Anyways…back to the story.
“Hey, you’re looking a little lost. Is there something I can help you with?” I’ll never forget the look on his face when I replied with a “Yeah, hi…” but quickly followed by a barrage of technical questions about the specs of the camera in my hand.
You see, the first 5 minutes I spent exploring the trail camera aisle was indeed overwhelming. I WAS lost. I WAS a damsel in distress. However, that feeling dissipated quickly. All I needed to do was pick up the first box. Then the second box. Then the third…
I started noticing patterns. Which features were being highlighted? What was the common vocabulary? What numbers were low? Which were high?…For 45 minutes, my eyes scanned each box taking in all the information. By the time the employee came over, I was feeling pretty good about trail cam basics.
Clearly, I’m no expert and I know there’s more to learn. However, I felt like it’s important to share a few basic things to look for when purchasing a trail camera incase, like me, you are lacking the generational knowledge of outdoorsy folk.
A trail camera is a camera. Novel concept I know! LOL! It’s important to say because considering the megapixel of a trail camera is just as important and considering the megapixel of a trail cam. The higher the megapixel, the higher the quality of the image…or at least so I thought.
For reference, a new iPhone 14 has a 48 megapixel camera. So, I was ecstatic to find a trail camera with similar quality. Unfortunately, I stumbled into an article from outdoorlife.com that later debunked my theory. The article states “most trail cams have a “native resolution” of three to five megapixels, so when you set the camera for 24 megapixels, the only things you’re doing are 1) making that image file larger (not clearer), 2) taking up more room on your SD card, and 3) slowing the camera down because of the larger file size. You’re actually going to get a better image if you set the camera to its native resolution.”
Good to know! Don’t let the high camera megapixel be the only reason you choose a certain camera. Also, don’t buy a low megapixel camera thinking it’s the same, especially if you want quality night images. You’ll need to find a balance. Just don’t get hung up on “the higher, the better” mentality.
Some trail cameras come with a memory cards, but some do not. Here’s why… The two basic category breakdowns of trail cameras are cellular and non-cellular. The difference is just how it sounds.
Cellular trail cameras send the videos and images straight to your phone through cell service. This is super convenient, but not for everyone. Cellular trail cameras require a monthly, or yearly, fee and only work if there is good reception. Also, different camera brands use different cellular providers, so you might be limited in your options.
Non-cellular cameras store the videos and images on an SD card. This is more inconvenient because you’ll need to physically remove the card in order to retrieve the images. You’ll also need to be careful to choose the right SD card type and storage capacity. Not all cameras take every kind of memory card.
Power Source & Mounting Options
Two more questions to ask yourself are “how do you want to power your camera, and were will you be mounting it?”
Trail cameras can be solar powered or battery powered. This is purely a feature based on customer preference. I like the idea of batteries because they are replaceable as opposed to solar, which would render the entire decide useless if it ever stopped working.
Fortunately for us, our land has a few trees around the north and east property lines that are perfect for mounting a trail cam. The camera we chose came with a cinch strap, but also has a threaded spot at the bottom incase we want to by a ground stake attachment later.
If you’re property is a security risk, there are also lock box style mounts you can purchase. This prevents people from stealing the camera and/or the memory card. All of these features are important to think about before heading down the trail cam aisle so you can choose the best camera for you.
In my opinion, shutter speed is one of the most important specs to consider when buying a trail camera. It honestly could make the difference between getting a good shot and missing it entirely. This is true whether you’re buying a camera to detect theft or just to sneak a view of the wildlife.
Shutter speed is the amount of time it takes between when your sensor detects movement and when the camera starts recording. As you can tell from our coyote friend image, our camera could have a faster shutter speed. In that case, we may have seen his face and not just his tail end.
According to money.com “The standard for most trail cameras is 0.5 seconds, but that might not be enough for faster animals, and can result in blurry images. If catching clear photos of nimble critters is the goal, a shutter speed of 0.2 seconds or less is ideal.”
Shutter speed is not to be confused with trigger speed. Trigger speed is the time it take the sensor to detect movement. Both are important, but in my opinion, shutter speed is the priority.
Buying a trail camera is easier than I originally thought it would be. I let all of the fancy, technical words (and I’m not technologically blessed) on the box overwhelm my mind before truly knowing what each of them meant. As it turns out, I didn’t need the generational knowledge after all. All I needed to do, was just pick up a box and try.
Now, are there more features you can consider before buying a trail camera? Of course! Some trail cameras offer night vision options, further detection distances, video as well as still images, and much more.
However, if you know the five features listed above (megapixels, memory, power source, mounting, and shutter speed) I’m confident you’ll end up with a basic trail camera you love. I know I sure love mine!
Before you go, be sure to check out the Messy Masterpiece Back Acres page to see why we wanted a trail camera in the first place!