Daffodils flourishing in sidewalk cracks, pigeons and starlings congregating on overhead power lines, rats living in your apartment walls — no matter how urban humans strive to make our environments, nature’s flora and fauna will make themselves right at home next to us. Sometimes that’s cute, like Pizza Rat, sometimes it’s not, like Pescadero High’s recent feline transfer student. But if we’re going to be moving into their habitats and living alongside them anyway, we might as well get to know our furry new neighbors by going full Rear Window to surreptitiously observe their daily (and nightly) lives. And for that you’re going to need a trail camera. Here’s what to look for to get the most out of your backyard Big Brothering.

What the heck even is a trail camera?

Trail cameras are what you’ve got integrated into your smartphone but in a ruggedized (albeit largely immobile) casing — think, waterproof digital sensors outfitted with laser tripwires and IR vision. Like traditional cameras, trail cams come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and capabilities, all of which will determine how well the camera works in the environment you put it in.

“The human desire to observe wild animals without disturbing them goes back at least to hunter-gatherers who constructed blinds,” Kucera and Barrett write in A History of Camera Trapping. “Our ability to do so was greatly enhanced with the development of photography and other, even more recent, innovations such as small, portable batteries, electric lights, and digital equipment.”

StrikeForce night shot
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

Trail cameras already play an important role in field research, allowing scientists to remotely monitor habitats and herd movements, as well as in wildlife conservation and land management, for the same reasons. These devices can serve much the same purpose for citizen scientists and backyard photographers.

“The most common friction point [between people and wildlife] is the destruction of a yard or a garden, that’s currently what we get the most calls about,” Denys Hemen, Hospital Manager at the California Wildlife Center in Malibu, told Engadget, noting that Koi ponds are particularly popular attractions for both people and raccoons in Southern California.

Placing camera traps won’t do much to stop the local coyotes and falcons from eating the neighborhood cats, but the devices can help expose urbanites to the natural world around them, ease suburbanites’ fears about what comes sniffing around the trash at night and help rural landowners monitor the movements of game herds on their properties.

StrikeForce cam deer
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

They’re also far preferable than the alternative, Hemen argues. “The worst case for animals is [homeowners] calling a trapper,” Heme said, explaining that in California, trapped animals cannot legally be relocated into the wild (to minimize disease transmission) and may be euthanized if they cannot be rereleased locally. So before you go calling animal control, maybe see what’s actually bustling in your hedgerow first.

Trail camera tests: Browning Strike Force Max HD vs Reolink Keen Ranger PT

There are as many trail camera brands on the market today as there are ways to fall out of a tree with iconic hunting names like Browning and Bushnell joined by OG trail cam maker Cuddeback and more recently established brands like StealthCam and SpyPoint. Cameras themselves run anywhere from the dozens to the hundreds of dollars and offer a huge variety of traits and accessories at every price point.

Let’s take a look at some of the most common features as they appear in our two test models: Browning’s mixed-modality Strike Force Max HD and the mid-range, solar-powered Keen Ranger PT from Reolink.

Browning Trail Camera
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The $99 Strike Force is a solid entry-level trail camera capable of capturing up to 18MP images — plus 2MP, 4MP, 8MP shots — and 1600×900 video up to 30fps at 900p during daylight hours (20 fps and 720p at night). You’ll need to balance the image and video quality against the storage capacity of the SD card they’re being stored on or the cellular data plan they’re being transmitted through. Compared to conventional cameras, the Strike Force user has very little control over what is actually being photographed, so if you’ve got the camera set up to take 5-shot bursts at 18MP or record 2 full minutes of HD video every time it triggers, you’re going to fill up your storage capacity in as little as a day.

StrikeForce front plate open
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The Strike Force allows the user to dictate the quality and quantity of captured images — including the shutter and trigger speeds, the trigger distance and cooldown timing between shots — all through the camera’s onboard menu system. Alternately, because this stores its data to an onboard SD card, you can just as easily just slot in a higher capacity card. The downside to that is you’ll have to regularly check on the camera to empty the card once it’s filled — not a big deal in urban backyards but more so of one when you’re trying to monitor a two-acre homestead. The six AA batteries that power it will have to be occasionally renewed as well. The Strike Force can be affixed to a vertical surface either with a dedicated mounting plate or using the included nylon strap which lets you lash the camera to trees, branches, fence posts, or drainage pipes.

Reolink Keen Ranger PT
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The $350 Ranger PT takes a very different approach (and price) to wildlife photography than the Strike Force. Reolink was a security camera company before it began adapting its products to wildlife photography, the Keen brand actually came into being after Reolink discovered that some of its customers were using their outdoor security cameras as trail cams. As such, the company ran with the idea, incorporating features like infrared sensors and forest camo color schemes onto its existing security camera platforms.

So rather than a blocky, front-facing camera body and sensor, the Ranger uses a gimballed dome that can pan and shift. This gives users a nearly 360-degree view of the area around the camera, which can be mounted on both vertical surfaces and ceilings.

The Ranger’s placement options are only slightly limited — it works best in a high vantage spot so as to get maximum coverage and needs a broad field of view to maximize the utility of its pan and tilt feature. How high up you set the Ranger could make accessing it for maintenance — swapping out full SD cards or replacing the batteries — a real chore, which is why the Ranger doesn’t use either.

Instead the Ranger comes with a rechargeable lithium battery and solar panel for continuous charging, and a WCDMA or FDD LTE SIM card instead of an SD (though there is a microSD slot for backup). Rather than picking through reams of jpegs, users can send videos and stills from the Ranger directly to their smartphones using the Keen app as well as control the camera directly. The Ranger shouldn’t be employed to run continuously as a live streaming camera, the quick start guide warns, “it’s designed to record motion events and to live view remotely only when you need it.”

The Ranger’s camera 4MP resolution is only a fraction of that offered by the Strike Force but it can record video at 2K quality. What’s more, despite all of the helpful connectivity and live monitoring features, the Ranger cannot and does not work without a SIM card. The included microSD slot is only for occasional backup when cell service is unavailable and the unit has no WiFi connection so you’ll need a monthly 4G subscription from your local carrier — and the SIM card in hand — before this thing will even pair with the smartphone app.

It’s not that the Strike Force is inherently a better device than the Ranger, or vice versa, just that they’re built with different applications and use cases in mind. So, when you’re picking out a trail camera for yourself, go into the process with a solid idea of what you want to use it for in mind. That doesn’t mean you need a specific camera just for photographing deer, another for songbirds and a third for small mammals, but you will want to “change up the settings on the camera based on the particular type of animal you intend to capture images of,” a Browning rep told Engadget. That is, if you plan on photographing primarily birds and other fast moving wildlife, you’ll want a camera with faster shutter speed to minimize motion blur and a quicker trigger speed to more likely catch the animals unaware before they have a chance to flee. The Strike Force, for example, can snap its shutting in as little as .2 seconds but takes as much as .6 seconds to cycle between shots.

Deer Cam
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

If you plan to do a lot of nighttime surveillance, the type of infrared flash the camera uses becomes an important consideration. “Some believe that a standard IR flash camera may spook wildlife because the flash/red glow can be seen,” the Browning rep explained. “Others believe it doesn’t make a difference at all and some believe that it may scare them at first but then they get used to it. All of the above can be true and to some animals it won’t even be an issue at all. The best way to tell is to just try it for yourself and observe the animal’s behavior on your property to figure out the best option for you.”

Alternatively, if you expect to regularly get shots at both day and night, look for a camera with dual lenses — one dedicated to visible light, the other to IR. They’re more complicated and expensive than single lens cameras but deliver better quality photos regardless of the lighting. Additional accessories like a built-in viewing screen can prove useful when using the camera trap in a remote location (so you don’t have to lug your laptop out to the site with you), while lock boxes and secured mounting hardware will ensure that your gear is still there when you come back round to collect it.

Of course, if you squint real hard, most any run-of-the-mill outdoor security camera, smart or not, can be adapted for use as a video trail cam. So long as it has a power source, data storage or transmission, and is weatherproof/concealable — you know, all the aspects used to describe an outdoor security camera — there’s very little stopping you from pointing it at wildlife instead of potential burglars. Ring doorbell cameras are so adept at catching critters on people’s porches, in fact, that the company has dedicated an entire page to wildlife interaction videos on its site. Or you could just adapt an old DSLR into a makeshift camera trap using an inexpensive aftermarket Passive Infrared (PIR) sensor.

Setting the thing up

If you can tie a box to a post, you can set up a camera trap. Manufacturers offer a wide array of attachment systems in varying degrees of permanence so pick the option that best fits with how long and how securely you want it set. Just don’t go nailing your camera to a living tree, that’s what the straps are for.

Positioning the camera effectively is key to capturing the best shots. “Make sure the camera is the correct height off the ground,” a representative for Feradyne Outdoors told Engadget. “In most situations we recommend around three feet.” However, if you’re concerned that the IR camera flash might spook the wildlife, the rep added, try to position the camera above their line of sight.

But before you go burying your camera in the foliage to conceal it from wary wildlife, remember that it is triggered by movement — any movement — even and especially movement not made by animals. Would you like to see the 200-plus pictures of grass that it took to get the four shots you see in this post? Because those were the ones that I actually copied over to my laptop and didn’t just summarily delete. A branch bends in the wind, leaves rustle, sun glimmers off water, a butterfly in Cambodia flaps its wings — each and every one of these events will set off your camera so make sure that you point it away from as many of them as you can. 

Trail Camera doofus
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

Many cameras have a trigger range option, set it to the shortest distance the space can accommodate and clear out any brush directly in front of the camera that might set it off. And, I say this from experience, before you walk away from the newly-installed camera, take a second to make sure the damn thing is turned on.