How Do Trail Cameras Work? (Explained)

Trail cameras have become all the rage over the last few years; in fact, they have become so popular that some states have started banning them due to the overwhelming amount of cameras on public land.

Let’s look at how trail cameras work for the states that still allow trail cameras or those of you on private land.

What is a Trail Camera?

A trail camera is a small box-shaped device that houses both a sensor and a camera.

Trail cameras are used by hunters and wildlife enthusiasts to capture images of deer and other wildlife species.

These images allow hunters to know what deer are in the area, what condition the deer are in, and what areas they frequent the most.

Trail cameras use infrared sensors to detect heat and motion, thus setting off the camera to capture images or video.


As I mentioned above, trail cameras are small cameras that are placed on a trail to capture footage of wildlife. 

They do this by using sensors that can detect heat or motion. When an animal comes close enough to activate the sensor, the camera will record or take a series of snapshots.

The most recognized sensor on trail cameras is the PIR sensor.

PIR stands for passive infrared sensor. The materials used in this sensor are sensitive to infrared radiation. The sensor is activated when there is a change in the relative infrared caused by heat and motion.

The other type of sensor used in trail cameras is an Active Infrared sensor. 

Active infrared sensors are much less common in trail cameras. These types of cameras require a two-piece setup.

On one side of the trail is the transmitter and the other side of the trail is the receiver.

The animal must break the beam in order to trigger the sensor, the period of time for how long the beam must be broken varies and is adjustable on some cameras.

As you can see, the active infrared camera is a bit more involved and a bit more technical, this is why the PIR camera is much more popular, especially in the hunting industry.

Trigger Time

How Do Trail Cameras Work?

Once the sensors have been activated, the next in the chain of events is the trigger time or trigger speed.

Trigger time is the amount of time it takes from the activation of the sensor to the camera starting to record or take a picture.

Trigger time is a much talked about topic amongst hunters and is also used as a selling point with manufacturers constantly boasting faster trigger speeds.

However, trigger time is relevant to the method in which you intend to use the camera. Trigger speeds are usually slower if the camera is set to record.

Also, a fast trigger time is not much use to a camera stationed in front of a baiting area. So when considering trigger times, it’s worth considering how you intend to use the camera.

Recovery Time

Often overlooked, the recovery time of the trail camera is just as important as the trigger time.

The recovery time is the amount of time it takes the camera to reset in order to take pictures again. 

During this time, the camera needs to write and save data, then reset to start recording again. This time is usually determined by the hardware the camera is using. 

Some of the topline cameras on the market have no recovery time.

How Far Away Will a Trail Camera Take Pictures?

Some of the better trail cameras can operate up to 100 ft away.

The distance in which a trail camera can work is reliant on a few things. As mentioned above, one of the most important parts of a trail camera is the sensor, as this is what triggers the camera to operate.

If the sensor can’t detect heat or motion, the camera won’t work. Most modern cameras of good quality can work out to 100 ft. 

However, just because the sensor can be activated from 100 feet away doesn’t mean the camera can take pictures that far away.

For the camera to take good quality pictures or recordings, we need to look at the focal length. Most cameras have a fixed focal length that is near point focus.

This means that even if the sensor can pick up heat or motion from great distances, the lens can only take good images or videos of close-by animals.

Final Thoughts

Trail cameras have become an essential tool in most hunters’ arsenal. Most trail cameras use PIR technology to operate, but as technology improves, so do the cameras, and they are constantly upgrading and getting new features.

Active infrared cameras have their place, but most hunters and manufacturers prefer the simple setup of the PIR cameras.

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