Surveillance cameras (a.k.a. trail, wildlife, scouting or game cameras) are motion sensitive cameras that will take pictures of any animal that walks in front of them. The pictures are usually stored on an SD memory card, which must be removed from the camera and placed in a computer or digital camera to view the pictures. There are also some cellular and wireless cameras that will send an email and/or text whenever a picture is taken. You can find more information on those cameras here.
Resources for Buying a Surveillance Camera
The best selection of surveillance cameras are available online. Amazon.com is my favorite online store given their large discounts and free shipping incentive. However, some other good sources are Cabela’s, TrailCamPro.com, and Optics Planet.
My current favorite camera is the Browning Dark Ops Elite. The Browning has a feature that adjusts the strength of the flash based on how close the animal is to the camera. A too bright flash that whites out the animal in the photo is a common problem with many wildlife cameras. If this particular one is not available, Browning Trail Cameras in general are a good option.
Bushnell and Moultrie also sell some good quality cameras. If you can afford them, Reconyx sells the best quality trail cameras on the market. They also have a high resale value on Ebay or Amazon.com, so you could resell yours after you get your lost dog or cat back home.
Cameras to Avoid
The only cameras that I specifically don’t recommend are Tasco and Wildgame Innovations. Tasco has some cheap cameras but they really don’t work very well. Wildgame Innovations cameras work okay, but some tend to have over-exposed or blurry images. They also don’t provide an easy way to securely lock your camera with a cable lock, which can increase theft.
When you purchase a surveillance camera, you will also need to purchase certain accessories.
- A cable lock to prevent theft. On all the models above, a python cable lock can be used to secure the camera directly to a tree. This type of lock can also be purchased from Dick’s Sporting Goods in the archery section. A regular cable type bike lock can also be used with the SpyPoint camera or the Bushnell (but only with the security box). I would recommend getting the thicker python cable lock (at least 5/16″), which is pictured here. Experience has taught me that the thinner 3/16″ python cable lock is easily cut.
- An SD memory card. Each GB will hold close to 1,000 photos so you only need a 1-2 GB SD card unless you won’t be able to check the camera every few days.
- A small padlock may be needed on some models. This lock is needed to prevent people from opening the camera. I would suggest getting the camera first and then visiting a hardware store to ensure you get the right size.
- A security box. This is only really needed for the Bushnell Trophy Cam or Wildgame Innovations, but if you live in a location with potential vandals (or bears), you might want to purchase one. The python cable lock is very inconvenient when used with the security box because it requires you to remove the entire camera and box every time you want to check the SD card. For this reason, I would suggest purchasing a regular cable bike lock to use with the security box. The security box pictured is for a Bushnell Trophy Camera. Make sure that you purchase a security box that is compatible with your camera style.
Surveillance cameras can be found in the hunting section of many sporting goods stores. Hunters generally refer to them as trail, scouting or game cameras, so if you need to ask a sales associate, you should refer to them this way or they may have no idea what you’re talking about.
- Dick’s Sporting Goods stores can be found in most states, but unfortunately they do not always have the best camera selection. The cheapest cameras are often Wildgame Innovations cameras for around $60-$100. These cameras are okay, but not great. Their biggest drawbacks are that they are difficult to securely lock, and they have a tendency to “whiteout” around dawn and dusk. Whiteout occurs when the pictures are so bright that nothing can be seen.
- If you happen to be near a Cabela’s, they have a better selection of cameras.
- Some Walmart superstores may carry surveillance cameras.
Additional Resources for Selecting a Trail Camera
Trail cameras (also called wildlife, game, scouting, motion-sensitive, surveillance or remote cameras) can be highly effective tools for helping locate and recover displaced cats (including escaped indoor-only cats) and skittish lost dogs. They can help provide evidence that the lost pet is in the area and whether s/he will enter a humane trap if one is set up. For an example, see Kat Albrecht’s recent blog “Catching Bill.” However, the effectiveness of the camera is dependent on several factors including the quality of the camera and where/how it is set up.
Selecting a trail camera can be a daunting task, especially if you intend to purchase a quantity of cameras to rent out to clients. There are so many brands available, none of them are particularly cheap, and they all seem to have some technical issues. The TrailCamPro.com website provides some very useful information for making this decision. They have a “First Time” Trail Camera Buyer’s Guide that covers many important aspects of selecting a camera including:
- Trigger Time
- Detection Zone
- Recovery Time
- Picture Quality
- Type of Flash
- Battery Life
- Security Options
There is even a step-by-step Trail Camera Selection Guide that picks a camera for you based on the criteria you select. The information is interesting, but you are limited to selecting from the cameras that they sell. I was happy to see that the best quality affordable camera that they suggest is the one that I currently use: the Bushnell Trophy Cam. TrailCamPro.com sells them for $200+, but you can buy them for around $150 on Amazon.com. I only say “affordable” because the next step up is their best camera, the Reconyx, which sells for $500+.
If you are really serious about learning all the features and how different brand cameras compare, then you should also check out the TrailCamPro.com Trail Camera Tests including trigger speed, detection zone, recovery time, and flash range tests. Both TrailCamPro.com and Chasing Game also provide in-depth reviews of many different trail cameras. I was unhappy to find that Chasing Game has some rather unflattering reviews of the Bushnell Trophy Cam based on camera performance and customer service issues. TrailCamPro.com also indicated that the Warranty Rate for the 2010 Bushnell Trophy Cam was 3.8%, while the best made cameras have a return rate of less than 1%. However, until I find a better camera for the same cost, I’m probably going to stick with Bushnell.
Whichever camera you select, you can improve your success by setting up the camera effectively because even a great camera won’t get a single picture of a lost pet if set up poorly. TrailCamPro.com provides a useful Trail Camera Checklist. Since their website is aimed primarily at deer hunters, the height that they suggest placing the camera (24”-36”) is too high for cats and small dogs, but most of the information is applicable to setting up a camera to locate missing pets. Chasing Game also has some useful set-up information under the “Getting Started” tab. In addition, they cover the topics of camera camouflage and security, which TrailCamPro.com does not cover on their checklist.
If you want even more in-depth information or are seeking answers to a particular question, there are many forums and discussion groups online. Among the hunting forums, I found the Chasing Game forum particularly user-friendly and informative. Besides hunters, wildlife biologists are the other heavy users of trail cameras, which they generally refer to as “camera traps.” The Yahoo! Camera Trap Group is another good source for information and questions on camera selection and set-up.