How to Effectively Set Up Your Wildlife Cameras

Frequent Set Up Mistakes

If you set up your camera ineffectively, you are unlikely to get your cat on camera even if they are around.  This is one of the most common mistakes I see people make with wildlife cameras.  

Frequent mistakes that people make include:

  • Setting the camera up too high for a cat to trigger it.
  • Aiming the camera too low or placing the camera on a hill.  This is usually only an issue with wildlife cameras and not wifi security cameras.
  • Having the cat approach the camera head on.  This is less likely to trigger the cameras motion sensor.  

Preparation of Cellular or SD Card Wildlife Cameras

Camera Supplies and Preparation

Before you go off to set up the camera, make sure that the camera is prepared and you have all your needed supplies.  

Batteries

Check the recommended batteries for you model camera.  Some cameras will only work well with lithium batteries.

Make sure the camera has fresh batteries.  Some cellular cameras and black flash cameras will not work when the batteries get below 50%.  You may want to bring an extra set of batteries just in case.

SD Card

Make sure that you are using the recommended type of SD card.  If not, the camera may not work at all or it may not send photos.

If possible, have a backup SD card.  If using a non-cellular camera, it may be easier to swap out the cards and bring the card home to view photos on a larger screen so you don't miss anything important.  

Make sure that the SD card has plenty of space left and is properly formatted.  

If using a non-cellular camera, I usually recommend removing all photos after each time you view the SD card.  Save any photos of interest to your computer and delete the rest.  This makes reviewing photos daily the easiest.  

If using a cellular camera, make sure that you have the latest firmware on the card.  If not, you may need to upload an update to the SD card.  

Cable Locks, Chains and/or Padlocks

I strongly recommend securing your camera to help prevent theft.  I use Master Lock Python Cables 5/16" (8mm) braided steel cable for most of my cameras.  

Most good quality wildlife cameras have a slot to attach the cable lock directly to the camera.  If you expect to have multiple cameras, I suggest buying your cable locks in a pack.  That way all the cables will use the same set of keys.

You may also need to purchase a separate mini padlock to secure the camera closed.

Personally, I rarely use a security box.  However, you may want to consider one if you are in a high theft area or have a lot of bears.

Recommended Camera Settings

Make sure that the date and time are correct and Timestamp is on.  Knowing when your cat (or other animals) are showing up can help with catching your cat.

I usually recommend setting the camera to photo rather than video to start.  You can scan through a large number of photos much faster than video.  You can always switch to video once you have possible photos of your cat.  Videos can make identification easier and give you some idea of how your cat is behaving.  

I generally recommend setting the camera to take 3 or more photos rapid fire.  Having a series of photos increases the chances of getting photos of your cat and makes identifying them easier.  

Between sets of photos your camera will have a rest period (also called recovery period or delay).  If you have the option, set the rest period to 5 seconds or less.  Do NOT set your camera to take one photo and then take a long rest period.  With a longer rest period, you may miss getting photos of your cat.   

Start with the PIR Sensitivity (motion sensor) on high.  This increases the chance of detecting smaller animals.  If you get too many empty photos, you may need to decrease sensitivity.  

Other Supplies

If you are creating a feeding station, don't forget your bait and/or lure.

Test Your Camera!

Before going out in the field, be sure to test your camera.  If it's wifi or cellular camera, ensure that the camera is sending photos.

If it's not working, check out Surveillance Camera Troubleshooting for some quick fixes.  

Effective Set-Up of Wildlife Cameras

Wildlife cameras have a much smaller motion sensor detection area compared to most security cameras.  The exact size and shape of the detection area will depend on the make and model of the camera.

Improper camera set up can easily lead to not getting any photos of your cat.  

Wildlife Camera Parts

Don't Make These Common Mistakes

This diagram illustrates the most common error that people make.  The wildlife camera is placed too high.  The motion detection area, marked by blue lines, will not detect the cat.  

Wildlife camera set up too high to detect cat

This shows incorrect placement of a wildlife camera. The motion detection area, marked in blue, is too high to detect this cat.

This diagram illustrates another common mistake that people make.  This camera is placed at the correct height, but is not angled parallel or level to the ground.  The cat can easily eat the food and never trigger the motion sensor area.  

Wildlife camera set up incorrectly on hill

This wildlife camera is set up incorrectly on this hill. The motion sensor area, marked in blue, is too high and will not detect the cat.

Correct Camera Placement

Wildlife cameras work best when placed at the shoulder or chest height of your missing pet.  For a cat, 6-12 inches off the ground works well.  If placed too high, your cat may walk under the sensor without triggering it.  

You can attach the camera to a tree, pole or tripod.  I often attach my cameras to cinderblocks since a good tree is rarely in the right location.  To reduce the chance of theft, I then chain the cinderblock to a tree.  

Wildlife camera attached to cinderblock

The motion sensor will work best if your cat approaches the camera at a 45-90 angle.  If they walk directly at the camera, motion may not be sensed.  This set-up is also more likely to startle your cat if the camera suddenly takes a photo.

Ideally you want the camera to take a photo of your cat when they are 5-10 feet from the camera (minimum 3 feet and maximum 20 feet).  If too close, they will be difficulty to identify or missed completely if the trigger is too slow.  If too far, all cats start to look the same (unless yours has some really unique markings).  

Clear any tall plants or small branches that are directly in front of your camera.  At night, these will be extremely bright in the infrared and make viewing difficult.  

Wildlife camera set up diagram

This is an overhead view of correct wildlife camera set up to detect a cat. The motion sensor area is marked by blue lines and labeled as the Camera Detection Zone. The camera will work best if the food is placed 5-10 feet from the camera and the cat approaches from a 45-90 degree angle from the camera.

Correct Camera Aim

The camera will work best if the ground in front of the camera is relatively flat and the camera is level with the ground.  This diagram shows correct set up of the wildlife camera on flat ground.

Wildlife camera set up correctly to detect cat on flat ground

This shows correct placement of a wildlife camera on flat ground. The motion detection area, marked in blue, is at the correct height to detect this cat.

If the ground is sloped, then angle the camera to be parallel with the ground.  You may need to place sticks or other material behind the camera so that it maintains this angle.

Wildlife camera set up correctly to detect cat on a hill

This wildlife camera is set up correctly to detect a cat on a hill. The camera is angled so that the motion detection area, marked in blue, is parallel to the ground.

In some cases, you may need to place your camera higher off the ground.  This may be due to vegetation in the way or to reduce the chance of theft.  In this case, you will want to angle your camera slightly downward.  Be aware that this set up reduces the detection area, so make sure that you place the food or trap within the motion detection area.

Wildlife camera set up angled correctly

This wildlife camera is placed higher to avoid bushes. It is angled down correctly so that the food is placed in the center of the motion detection area.

How to Test Your Camera's Aim

Determining the aim of your camera can be difficult.  I often use a high powered laser pointer.  A flashlight can also work if it's dark enough outside.  Place the laser pointer or flashlight parallel to the camera motion sensor to get a good idea where your camera is pointed.

You can also get a decent idea of the aim by getting ten feet or so in front of your camera.  Squat down and try to line yourself up with the camera lens and motion sensor. 

Some cameras have a test setting where you can test where motion if being picked up.  

For an in-depth look at how trail camera detection circuits work, check out this article.

Test Your Camera Again!

Before leaving your camera, take the time to make sure that photos are being taken.  Make sure that the camera appears to be aimed correctly and is picking up your movement. 

If using a cellular or wifi camera, make sure that photos/videos are being sent to your app.  Be patient as it can take five minutes or more to receive your first notification.

Lastly, make sure that the camera is ON before you leave.  Don't leave the camera in set-up mode!  

Always take a test photo when you go out to check your camera and again before you leave.  This will let you know that your camera is working consistently.  

If you are having any issues, check out Surveillance Camera Troubleshooting.