“As seen on BBC One's 'Lost Land of the Tiger'”. That’s what the publicity blurb says about the Bushnell Trophy Cam, so as I consider how I’m going to set about testing and reviewing said camera, I can’t help but feel that any footage I get is going to be somewhat dull by comparison. Still, I’m sure I can find something to do with it – it’s a great chance to play with a different kind of camera, after all. Just one question; what exactly is the Bushnell Trophy Cam?
What is it?
Bushnell refer to the Trophy Cam as a trail camera, but that in itself doesn’t tell me an awful lot. Combine this vague title with the fact that Bushnell pitch it in America as a hunting aid and you could be forgiven for thinking that this would be of no use to anyone who prefers shooting of the photographic kind. However, if you look a little closer and establish what it is that the Trophy Cam does, it starts to make a little more sense.
In essence, the Trophy Cam is a digital stills and video camera combined with a PIR (passive infrared) motion sensor, all housed within a tough, waterproof resin case. Imagine the combination of a basic compact digital camera, one of those movement activated security floodlights and a Peli hard case and you’re in the right area. It has been designed and created to be left in a location over as long a period as required (allegedly 8 AA batteries will offer enough power for a whole year of use!) where it will sit quite happily, unaffected by the weather until something triggers the sensor, at which point it will take a photo, or record a video clip, depending what you’ve told the Trophy Cam you want it to do.
Now, there are several ways you can make use of the covert nature of this camera, some more morally, socially and legally acceptable than others, but by far and away the most obvious choice, particularly when you remember the Trophy Cam’s potential hunting application, is to photograph and video wildlife that might be shy, rare, or extremely wary of human presence.
So, with the exact nature of the Trophy Cam established, I have a few more questions that needed answering; how easy would the Trophy Cam be to program, set up and use, and how successful would it be in terms of the video and photos it captured and the quality of the footage? On with the test…
Setting the Trophy Cam
The instruction manual supplied with the Trophy Cam is worryingly thick, but as it turns out only the first few pages are in English and take very little time to read. Although not usually one for reading instructions, faced with a type of camera I’ve never used before, it makes sense to at least give them a glance on this occasion.
The guide tells me how change to the various settings on the Trophy Cam: Stills or Video, image/video quality, the sensitivity of the motion sensor, the number of photographs taken in sequence, the length of video recorded, the interval between photo bursts/video clips, the time and date, whether the time and date are imprinted on the photo, and how to take a test shot. There are only a few buttons on the Trophy Cam and making changes is as easy as setting a digital watch, if not easier. This standard version of the Trophy has an LCD screen that simply shows you what settings you're using - there's no way to frame or view your shots - you need the Trophy Cam XLT with its colour screen for that - but given the way this camera is intended to be used, its not a huge problem.
However, before using the camera I need to install the 4 AA batteries supplied in this kit. As mentioned above, the Trophy Cam will accept 8 AA batteries and with all battery slots filled it will operate for up to a year. However, you can use the camera with batteries in just the top 4 slots, and although my mental arithmetic could be better, I figure that if you can get a years use from 8 AA batteries, 4 AA batteries should be just about ok for the week that I have the Trophy Cam.
With the camera set to take burst of 3 still photos at a time and the batteries and an SD card inserted, I need to think about exactly what I’m going to do with the Trophy Cam in terms of where I’m going to stick it and what I’m hoping to record. Although I live in a reasonably leafy area, my proximity to the city means that wildlife isn’t as abundant as it might be in a more rural area. That said, I have seen foxes in the area on several occasions and have a rough idea of where they come from and where they go. It may be aiming a bit high, but how good would it be to catch fox on film with the Trophy Cam?
Mounting the Trophy Cam
I know this might be considered cheating, but in the interests of attracting a fox to the particular area where I intend to mount the camera I have purchased a tin of Pedigree dog food. The plan is to stick the Trophy Cam in or on a hedge that runs down the side of the road near my house. When I have seen foxes before they have inevitably disappeared through the hedge and run along behind it, parallel to the road, so ideally I want to set the camera up on the other side of the hedge overlooking this fox-run. The dog food will be used to bait the area in the hope that any passing foxes will be enticed by the smell of the delicious meaty chunks in jelly and wander over in front of the camera. That’s the plan, anyway…
After forcing my way around the hedge (and picking up a few stings from nettle on the way) I have found a suitably solid trunk on which to mount the camera. The Trophy Cam is supplied with a buckled strap as standard which can be used to attach it to an upright tree, post or pole – even with a relatively large diameter. This kit also includes a tree bracket which has a screw thread on one end to fix into a tree and a mini ball-head on the other end for positioning the camera. The Trophy Cam measures a neat 14x9x3cm and is also reasonably light, so the strap is perfectly adequate for where I want to mount the camera and doesn’t require any invasive procedures on the hedge, so with the Trophy Cam on the hedge and the dog food on the ground I just have to wait it out for a couple of days and see what, if anything, the camera picks up.
After 3 nights strapped to a hedge (the camera, not me) I was pleased to find the Trophy Cam exactly where I left it and still intact. The dog food had clearly been nibbled, so I was looking forward to seeing the images. Unfortunately, having downloaded the images from the SD card in the camera to my laptop using a USB cable (one is supplied with the Trophy Cam as standard, although it was missing from this kit - luckily I have spares) I am looking at several photographs of the neighbourhood cats tucking into my fox bait. 8 out of 10 cats may prefer Whiskers, but it seems that most of them won't turn their nose up at Pedigree Chum either. Although not exactly the subject I had hoped for, these feline scavengers have at least demonstrated that the Trophy Cam works and given me some images on which to assess its quality and performance.
From a performance point of view, there are a few niggles, some of which are my fault due to the set up, others of which are down to the camera itself. Firstly, the sensor appears to have a wider angle than the lens. This means that as a subject enters the sensitivity range of motion detector, it isn’t necessarily within the field-of-view of the lens. As such if the Trophy Cam had been set to take just one photo at a time I would have ended up with lots of photos with nothing in them. However, because I set the Trophy Cam to take a sequence of 3 photos every time the sensor is activated, the second and third shots have been more successful. There is a short delay of about a second between the sensor picking up movement and the camera taking a photo, so if the subject is moving reasonably swiftly it’s entirely possible that it will be picked up on the first image, but in the case of the cats, they were obviously in no rush and were still out of frame for many of the initial shots.
Secondly, because positioned the camera quite close to the bait, the infrared illumination is far too bright on many of the night-time shots. Bearing in mind that the LEDs can illuminate a subject up to 14 metres away, it’s hardly surprising that it’s too powerful at less than 3 feet.
The positioning of the camera has also had an effect on the quality, as the camera has struggled to focus on anything closer than one meter from the lens. The native resolution of the Trophy Cam is a modest 5 megapixels, which can be increased to 8 megapixels through interpolation. This test was conducted with the quality set to 8mp, but to be honest I would probably use the 5mp setting as standard, artificially increasing the size of the images afterwards in Photoshop. There is also a 3 megapixel option if you need to cram as many shots as possible onto the SD card. If you were intending to leave the camera out for several months without changing the memory card, then this may be the preferred setting, but as the image quality at 5mp is hardly breathtaking, I’d be inclined to avoid the lower quality setting unless absolutely essential.
I’m not blown away with the photos from the Trophy Cam – the quality is merely adequate and the subject matter disappointing. Maybe the video mode will prove more successful. I’ve returned the Trophy Cam to its place in the hedge, added more dog-food to the area as bait and will leave it for another couple of nights to see what I get.
Surprise, surprise – more cats. Still, it’s not a complete loss. The series of 10 second clips that the camera has captured demonstrates that it works exactly as it should, but has also shown the problem of mounting the camera too close to your intended subject area. Once again the infrared lighting is too harsh at this close proximity – something I really should have learned from my photo experiments. However, the overall feel of the clips are quite acceptable and relatively satisfying. We’ve been spoiled with this kind of night-time footage on wildlife programs on television, but actually capturing some myself, even if it is of a dog-food nibbling cat, feels vaguely satisfying. Sure, the quality isn't anywhere near as good as you would get even from a compact digital camera with HD capability, but sitting here watching the footage, it's not a huge issue and is somewhat secondary to the "coolness" of watching my own covert night-time footage (although since writing this, Bushnell have released an HD version of the Trophy Cam which should see an improvement in video quality).
As described in the guide, the sensitivity of the sensor can be set to one of 3 levels, Low, Normal or High. The advice in the guide suggests that in hot areas where the sensor my struggle to differentiate between the body heat of an animal and the ambient warmth of the surrounding area then the sensitivity should be set to High. In colder environments, or to avoid the sensor being tripped by foliage moving in the wind, the Low setting is the suggested option. On a chilly March night I had opted for the Low setting and it appears to have been the right choice. Although there are one or two clips of moving branches and little else, the majority have some form of animal life, and even at the lowest setting, the sensor picked up the movement of a small Blue Tit in the clip above.
A walk on the wild side
Sadly, I’ve not managed to capture any footage of a fox, just lots of cats with identity issues. What I have got has given me a good idea as to the advantages and limitations of the Bushnell Trophy Cam and allowed me to assess the quality of the footage. To be honest, the still photos are a little disappointing – the quality just isn’t very good, even for a 5 megapixel camera. However, I’m still reasonably impressed with the video. Again, the quality isn’t great, but maybe it’s the covert, spy-like surveillance feel to the video that appeals to the James Bond in me. Still, I guess if you really want to see what the Bushnell Trophy Cam is capable of, this example of how the BBC used them in the making of the 'Lost Land of the Tiger' programme is probably far more convincing than anything I can offer.
One last hurrah…
I’m sitting here writing these words at 12:24 on Friday 25th March 2011, the very same day that this review has to be in so it can be linked from an email this afternoon. I’d planned to end the review with the BBC video above, but as I still had the camera in my possession last night I thought I might as well give it one more go, just to see if I get lucky. While out exploring with my kids near my house I stumbled across (or, to be more accurate, climbed through a hedge, some brambles, two fences, past a “Danger – Deep Water – Keep Out” sign and found) a previously undiscovered oasis in my suburban neighbourhood. There were birds singing in every tree and blossom blooming everywhere. Sure, there was more than one abandoned cider bottle, presumably left by some “youths” who discovered this place long before me, but the whole area had a completely wild and abandoned feel to it. In the centre of this area was a large pond with a few ducks floating about in one corner. In the hope of catching some kind of waterfowl or possibly even a rat or two, I set the Trophy Cam up on a tree by the edge of the water, baited the area with cat food (I’d run out of Pedigree Chum) and left the camera in place overnight.
This morning, as I forced my way back through the undergrowth to retrieve the camera, a heron took off from the far side of the pond – a good sign surely? With the camera back in my possession I headed into Wex Photographic. Once in the office this morning I removed the SD card from the Trophy Cam, inserted it into my card reader and opened the video files…
This video is a combination of fourteen 10 second video clips that were recorded and approximately 01:40 this morning. After a celebratory lap of the office (yes, I was that pleased) I sat down to watch the footage again. Along with a wave of euphoria, the night-vision footage of the wild fox on my computer screen brought with it a sudden and complete understanding of what the Bushnell Trophy Cam is all about.
It may not offer the best quality and if you have the money and patience to buy top-end gear and stalk out a site personally, then I’ve no doubt you could get much better footage. But I have neither, and I am not a wildlife expert or a particularly proficient videographer. However, the Bushnell Trophy Cam has allowed me to do something that I have only ever seen on television before – stalk and record a genuinely wild animal. The fact that it’s been recorded in super-cool night-vision is just the cherry on the icing on the cake.
If permitted, I’d like to extend the loan of this Trophy Cam and monitor different areas and see if I can’t catch some other wildlife on camera, but even if I’m forced to give it back today, you can bet your last penny that I’ll be pushing to borrow one again soon, and if that’s not an option, I’ll be saving my pennies to buy one myself.
|Build||7/10||Rugged, solid case, weather proof outer, but interior a bit plasticy.|
|Ease of use||9/10||Limited controls but an absolute doddle to use.|
|Performance||7/10||Photo quality poor, video better, night-vision awesome! No audio though.|
|Value||9/10||Worth it for the excitement factor - a bit like fishing, but much, much better!|
David Attenborough eat your heart out!