A proper trail-camera setup is a very important part of scouting and oftentimes the most overlooked. We expect to throw a camera on a tree and have deer walk past. I have highlighted some small steps I take to improve my trail-camera outcomes. By taking your time and following these steps, you will generate better photos and a more enjoyable scouting experience. In turn, you will have a better idea of the bucks on your property and locations to hunt them.
Let's face it: You will not get pictures of deer if there aren't any deer around. Just like hunting, you want to pick a location that deer are frequenting at that given time of the year. This could include a water hole in the summer, large scrape during the rut or food source in the winter. The more evidence of deer in the area, the more photos on your SD card.
So now that we have the right location, let's narrow it down to the high-traffic areas. Look for main trails leading to food or water. Check for deer tracks at places like the muddy bank of a pond or creek, a favorite hard-hit mineral site in the spring and the fence line alongside a bean field in the summer. The main focus here is to make sure your setup is in the most likely spot deer will cross. Remember, if nothing trips the trigger, no pics for you.
What goes up must come down. I'm talking about the sun. Make sure your camera is not facing directly into the sunrise or sunset. Many times we forget this simple step and get blurred or whited-out photos from the sun's intense glare. It's best to face trail-cameras north, or if not possible in your location, south, but at least never facing due east or west. The diagram below, created by QDMA for their book, Deer Cameras: The Science of Scouting, helps explain why.
Also, if placing a camera on a trail, orient it at a 45-degree angle to the trail instead of head on. This not only gives your camera wider viewing and more potential to trigger and catch a deer in the frame as it moves along, but it also keeps the camera out of the deer's face for less chances to spook it. The diagram on the right, also from QDMA's book, provides a good overview of this concept.
You now have deer in front of the camera, but what is behind the deer? Make sure the background of the photo is not too busy. A busy background full of sticks, trees, shrubs and other cover that is close to the camera can make it difficult to see a buck's tines, like in the photo below. Pick a contrasting background such as an open field, the skyline, distant trees, or water to help make those tines stand out so you know exactly what headgear your bucks are sporting and whether they are on the hit list or not this fall.
Get those cameras up! When setting up a trail-camera, I believe you should always make sure the camera is at least as high as your head. I think deer are much less likely to notice cameras placed 6 feet or more off the ground. Cameras placed lower can be right in a deer’s face, making it more likely they will notice the camera (as the deer below clearly did), and some deer may then avoid the camera once they notice it. By simply moving your camera up the tree and angling it down, you'll improve your odds. (Note: It can be more difficult to estimate the age of bucks in photos taken from a high angle because features like belly and neck lines are less visible. When age is important, like with a pre-season trail-camera survey, keep cameras lower but make some effort to camouflage them).
We all know deer are always on high alert and looking out for potential danger. However, the object of trail-cameras is to get photos of deer without them knowing. So just like when setting up a treestand or blind, set up your camera making sure your setup does not stick out like a sore thumb. Try to hide your camera in a pile of brush and not on a single tree in the open (but make sure leaves and twigs do not obstruct the face of the camera, especially the lens and infrared sensor).
What you chose for the settings on your camera can play a big part in the success of your photos. You want to pick the settings for the situation that you are in at the time. If the camera is high and out of the deer's main line of sight, I like to use burst mode or video mode. However, if in a setup that is more likely to be picked up by deer, I don't use burst or video mode. Even though infrared (IR) is not supposed to spook deer, it seems they can still sense it. In burst or video mode, the IR flash goes off for a longer period of time.
Another setting to watch on your trail-camera is the IR sensor setting, if your camera includes this feature. You will want sensitivity on high for open areas and low for areas with lots of brush or grass. You don't want the SD card to fill up with blank photos in 48 hours because your camera was set too sensitive.
The proof of your efforts will be in the photos! Keep these simple steps in mind, see what you get, and adjust your setup as you go to continue improving your photos! Good luck!