How Do Trail Cameras Work? (2022)

A game camera on a tree.
Table of Contents

    Hunting has been developing for centuries.

    We began hunting as cavemen, chasing deer and other fauna with spears along the great plains of our world. This was for our survival as a species and as the centuries passed a sporting aspect to hunting began. Next came the bow and arrow, and then the rifle. No longer do you have to be extremely cunning and have bag loads of stamina to get your kill, but a mere squeeze of your finger.

    The ability to take down an animal with a gun opened up the activity to more than just young men. Like with the advancement to the rifle, there are other moves forward in the sport as technology moves forward and the world adapts to it. 

    One game-changing gadget for hunters is trail cameras, aka game cameras. These devices are remote cameras that are placed in a discreet location where you are targeting game for your hunt. It allows you to build up an idea of what your target is, where it is, and what its routine is. You can utilize this information in order to improve your kill rate when the season is open and grab yourself that buck that you’ve been studying for months. 

    Game cameras are not only for hunters who are chasing after wild animals. They can also be used to aid you in watching out for pests, trespassers, and poachers. They’re also useful for wildlife enthusiasts who just want to see what lurks in their favorite piece of woodland. Many people also use them for testing whether there are rare animals in their area that are seldom seen (such as cougars, who are rarely seen by humans). Others also set them up to see if they can catch some footage of the elusive bigfoot.

    In this article, we shall look into how a game camera works, and the methods that you can use to get the most out of a game camera.

    Types of Game Cameras

    There are various types of game cameras, each of which we shall look into at more detail.

    This includes:

    • Digital trail cameras
    • Cellular trail cameras
    • Laser aim trail cameras
    • Strobe flash trail cameras
    • Film trail cameras
    • Infrared trail cameras
    • Sound-producing trail cameras
    • Security cameras

    Read on to learn more about each.

    A young boy holding a hunting shotgun in a field.

    The way we hunt is ever-changing and a game camera can give you a big helping hand when the season opens.

    What is a Trail Camera?

    Before we look at all of the individual types of trail/game cameras and how they work we shall first examine what a game camera actually is. Game cameras are remote devices that you place in woodland or anywhere in the backcountry with the purpose of receiving footage of the native wildlife. These devices sit in a hidden position as to not alert wildlife to their presence. This means that you can examine the animals acting naturally going about their day-to-day business.

    If you wished to photograph the wildlife without a game camera the animals shall most likely be well aware of you being there. Animals can pick up your sense of smell and hear you approaching from a long way off. Even big predators such as grizzly have no intention of being near you and will do their utmost to avoid you. They’ll only come into contact with you if they see you as a direct threat. 

    With this in mind, wildlife should only be photographed manually if your intention is to get some great snaps and not to track their movements. The quality of the image of game cameras tends to be a lot lower than a normal camera. They contain fewer megapixels as their energy is focused on maintaining battery life as it tends to last for around three months.

    Your trail camera has a motion sensor as part of the system. This spurts into action when it registers movement in front of it, triggering the camera and taking a photograph. These can be quite sensitive so be sure that your camera has a clear view of its target area without interference from objects such as overhanging branches.

    Luckily your game cameras sensor settings can be adjusted most of the time. This means that if you’re targeting big game such a moose or whitetail deer you can adjust the detection range so that it won’t take a photo of the slightest movement. Likewise, if you are targeting smaller animals or pests such as raccoons you can adapt it so that it doesn’t avoid taking a photo when they go past. 

    Related article: The Best Wildlife Trail Cameras Ranked

    How Digital Trail Cameras Work

    One of the common game cameras is digital cameras. These function in a similar manner to your typical handheld one. These are described as being self-contained units, meaning that everything that they need to function is already installed within the device. These feature their own power, data storage, and often have the ability to take photos at night (see: Best Night Trail Cameras). The nighttime technology tends to take the photograph through a standard flash, or through infrared technology.

    Digital cameras are triggered by a motion sensor (see: Best Motion-Activated Trail Cameras). When an animal enters within its frame parameters the motion sensor triggers the camera to take a shot, recording a still frame. The range of these motion sensors varies depending on the manufacturer of your trail camera. A better quality one, that offers a good shot at a distance is likely to have a wide-ranging motion sensor in order for it’s shot capabilities to be utilized. 

    A few of the digital game camera models also have a video function and shall record footage of your target for you. They tend to come with slots for SD cards to hold the camera’s memory files, just like a regular digital camera. When you want to retrieve your images it is best to do a straight swap of SD cards and wait until you are home before you download the images. This is so you don’t hang around where you are shooting for too long as this can deter what you are trying to shoot from entering the area. 

    Related article: The Best Solar-Powered Trail Cameras Ranked

    How Cellular Trail Cameras Work

    For those of you who want to be constantly in the know of what sort of footage your trail camera is picking up then a cellular trail camera is a great idea to think about. They take images in a similar manner to your digital camera. However, the images collected are not stored within the camera itself. Instead, the image is sent to your cell phone and you receive it instantly.

    To have the capability to send the image the cellular trail camera must have a SIM card and the ability to receive internet data just like a smartphone. These wireless trail cameras will, unfortunately, come with a monthly cost to keep the images sending. You also must place the cellular trail camera in a location where it will receive a signal so it has the ability to send the images. This perhaps rules out a few territories that are remote and don’t receive signals from cell phone masts. 

    However, there are considerable benefits if you choose to opt for this type of game camera. Firstly you do not have to trek out so often to check on your camera, as the only regular visits that you need to make is to change the battery. They are especially useful if you have multiple cameras set up in different locations as they can save you countless hours on having to check on all of them. You also know instantly if an image has been taken so if you are one of these people that like to be constantly in the know of what’s going on then you will be. 

    Related article: The Best Long-Range Trail Cameras Ranked

    Forrest surrounded by fog.

    A game camera will lie in wait so you don’t have to.

    How Laser Aim Game Cameras Work

    Laser aim game cameras can be thought of as being digital game cameras plus. These have laser technology installed which pinpoints the exact area that you want the image to be taken in. You can personally control the settings before you set it up so that it takes the photos in. As well as giving you greater autonomy over your camera it also provides better quality pictures, making it a worthwhile investment. 

    How Strobe Flash Game Cameras Work

    Some of the more traditional game cameras contain a strobe flash, which works on a high trigger speed. Strobe flashes are a quick bright light that goes off so fast that the game won’t have time to stop and stare at it. This means that they’ll be in a natural position when it goes off. Yes, it is bright enough to spook them, yet the key advantage of the strobe flash trail camera is that it provides a good picture quality.

    Another key advantage of the strobe flash camera is the flash range. It provides a wide field of view and is almost akin to having night vision. Another benefit is that if you have installed a game camera as a security measure, then the quick flash should scare any trespassers away. Just keep in mind that it can do the same to the game!

    How Game Cameras with a Film Format Work

    Not all game cameras have a digital format. Although similar in its setup and function, a film camera uses traditional film roll to save its footage instead of storing it on a memory card. Because of this, you cannot check your footage like when you’re out in the field like you can with a digital model. Instead, you must wait until you get home and develop it. 

    Cameras with a film roll camera don’t tend to have any distinct advantages apart from some of them being able to pick up better quality images. They are mainly a personal preference with regards to photography in general. Some of us don’t mind the wait for the photographs and enjoy self-developing at home as a hobby in itself. This for those who prefer traditional photography then perhaps a camera that uses a film roll format is the one for you.

    How Infrared Trail Cameras Work

    A lot of locations that you wish to use your trail camera in may have low light levels meaning that the photos that your camera is taking aren’t high-quality. This is particularly apparent when you have your trail camera set up in deep woodland. This is one of the prime spots for getting footage of deer and other creatures due to you not being able to know their spots as you can in open territory. This is where infrared cameras can become useful in providing you with better image quality.

    A trail camera that has an infrared feature will utilize it automatically when it is necessary. This sends out a small infrared flash that will brighten the picture without omitting a white flash. Instead, the infrared light emits a low glow or no glow at all. This is very useful as the game that you are photograph should not be aware of the image being taken kike they would if it was a traditional flash going off. 

    There are different types of infrared light that are used in these cameras. You can choose from using a red light or a white one. This does not tend to have an overall effect on the overall quality of your picture but it can give the final image a different overall tint after it has been produced.

    How Sound-Producing Game Cameras Work 

    Some of you may want to draw the wildlife towards you instead of having the camera sitting there anonymously waiting for the animals to pass by. This works best if you are tracking them in order to understand their patterns of movements to improve your ability to hunt them. Others may want to try and attract animals to them in order to take some great shots and see what really lives in the forest. This is where a sound-producing camera can come into play. 

    These trail cameras have a plethora of recordings of animals on them such as mating calls. When the sounds are activated it attracts other animals into the area allowing you to capture footage of the animal as it approaches to investigate. You can choose which animal noises you want on the camera and remotely play them. Some also have a motion sensor or a timer to activate the sound. 

    How Trail Security Cameras Work

    Security cameras can also be used on game trails. These are often used by people looking out for trespassers on their land or for people poaching. No one wants their favorite hunting areas or their own land to be tarnished by others. Security cameras allow you to see who is causing a nuisance or as a deterrent if it is positioned in an obvious place where the offender can see it in plain sight.

    These are particularly good if you own a cabin in the backcountry and you want some home security during the offseason. It’s also ideal if you have some hides set up and you don’t want them to be tarnished. The security cameras are hooked up to a computer system which can be done wirelessly or to a local system. USB or flash storage can save the footage that your camera picks up. If you have an advanced system this footage can be sent remotely to a home device, although this may be expensive and difficult in a remote location. 

    A person holding a hunter rifle with a scope.

    No need to hide in the trees, when a game camera can track movement for you.

    Final Thoughts

    There is a huge range of game cameras to choose from and they all work in different ways. The most straightforward and easiest to operate is perhaps the digital game camera (especially a Browning trail camera). If you are new to game cameras then this is an ideal one to go for. Much of the technology may take a little while to get a hold of, but for beginners, this is your best bet.

    If you hunt over a wide range and plan to install a few cameras around then cellular game cameras are a great idea. With these, you don’t need to go around to inspect the footage as it is sent to your phone as soon as the image is taken. You only need to go out to replace the batteries, which tends to be around every three months, as well as to make any necessary adjustments. This is also a great option if you live far away from your favorite hunting grounds or you are simply too busy to check on your trail camera all of the time.

    In this blog post, we have discerned the different ways in which different game cameras work. We hope that you now have a better understanding of how each type operates and it allows you to come to an informed decision as to which is the right one for you. Everyone has a different reason for using a game camera and all of the different types are suitable for specific activities. 

    Bonus tip: If you’re like us and cannot get enough info about trail game cameras, then check out this video!


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    Riley Draper

    Riley Draper is a writer and entrepreneur from Chattanooga, Tennessee. As a world traveler, he has been to more than fifty countries and hiked some of the most elusive trails in the world. He is the co-founder of WeCounsel Solutions and has published work in both national and global outlets, including the Times Free Press, Patch, and Healthcare Global. When he's not writing, he's probably on a hiking trip or climbing in the mountains.