Caught by a trail camera: For a few bucks, you learn a lot

The two deer caught by the trail camera at night are a spike and an eight-point with heads down and antlers interlocked, but this is only a play fight. If that eight-point were rutting, he'd drive the spike off in seconds.

Charley Guenther looks at the photograph made by an automated camera on his hunting camp near this Osceola County town and says, "The amazing thing is that several of us have seen that spike, but no one has seen the eight-point. In fact, there are eight different bucks in the pictures that the camera took this week, and I think we've only see two of them."

Trail cameras are becoming enormously popular among hunters, largely because the price has dropped as low as $49.95, and $130-$200 buys a digital model that will make excellent pictures for months on end and store hundreds of images on a data card not much bigger than a postage stamp.

Most of the cameras use infrared sensors to detect a large object (such as a deer, bear or human) walking nearby (usually within 40 feet). The motion triggers the camera, and many of the higher-end cameras also make short video segments.

All of the cameras have a built-in flash for night photos, and some of the more expensive cameras will make pictures using an infrared flash, which doesn't produce visible light. The concept is that an infrared camera is less likely to spook game, but many hunters say that deer don't seem to show much concern for the brief visible flash and soon ignore it entirely.

More expensive cameras usually have a delay of one second or less between the time the infrared sensor detects movement and the picture is made. Less expensive cameras can take three or four seconds to trigger, resulting in more pictures of animals' bottoms.

Some of the more expensive cameras note not just the date and time on the image but the barometric pressure, allowing the hunter to relate deer movement to weather patterns.

Digital models store the pictures on a data card. The number of pictures depends on the card's size, but a 256 megabyte card in a four megapixel camera at the highest resolution holds more than 500 images.

This has allowed many hunters to collect a series of pictures that records the antler development of different bucks on their properties from spring through fall.

"We're having as much fun with the cameras as we are hunting," said Guenther, a retired wildlife division chief for the Department of Natural Resources. "I still have the first one I bought a few years ago. It works well, but it uses real film and you only get 36 pictures on a roll."

Bob Hauptmann of Grand Rapids has been using trail cameras for a half-dozen years on his hunting property in Branch County, recently upgrading from his first 35-millimeter film model to a digital camera that holds "10 or 20 times as many pictures and cost half as much."

"It's like anything else in electronics," he said. "It starts out high, then the price comes down real fast once all the early-adopters have bought it. When I first looked at digital trail cameras three or four years ago, you couldn't find one for under $400. I bought that four megapixel camera this summer for $129. It's been a lot of fun. We have a ton of deer pictures, but we also have pictures of coyotes and turkeys and some raccoons."

Hauptmann said that the trail camera had taught him that "bucks are even more reclusive than I used to think they were. The camera puts the time on each image, and most of those bucks never get photographed more than 20 minutes after sunrise or 20 minutes before sunset.

"They're around, but they just don't come out in the daytime where you're going to see them. It's made me realize just how important it is to be out there and settled in well before daylight and to hunt right up until the last legal minute."

The best digital trail cameras, which cost $350 to $600, produce daylight images that are the equal of any high-resolution digital camera. They also produce good nighttime images, but because the flash is so small, the animal usually must be within 30 feet. If the camera has an infrared flash, the image is visible but not well-detailed.

Cameras in the $130-$200 range produce excellent daytime images, but the nighttime pictures usually are of lower quality and sometimes have narrow black lines running across them. The cheapest cameras, those under $100, usually produce low-quality images, especially at night.

However, unless your object is to make portraits of deer, even the cheaper cameras make pictures with more than enough detail to be able to recognize individual animals, although you're not going to be able to enlarge them to a framable 8-by-10 for the den wall.