Have you ever walked into a store and been overwhelmed by the amount of trail cameras and wondered if the stats they claim are real or just gimmicks? Pick up any camera and you will see two main statistics which are the highest megapixel (MP) the camera takes and the distance that the flash will reach. But do these matter? We will explore both in this article and then you can decide if they are important to you as that is what really matters. For the purposes of this article, we will use generic descriptions so that we do not alienate any one manufacturer or camera.
Megapixels - The Case For And Against Interpolation
Megapixels (MP) can be the difference maker in the end results of your image generated from your trail camera and after all, image quality is what a camera should strive for. MP are the amount of pixels that are in a square inch of your image. For example, if your camera advertises that it takes a 12 MP image, that would tell you that for every square inch of image, you would have twelve million unique pixels of data which should create a much sharper image than say a 5 MP image. As you can see in the image, the amount of detail generated by the larger pixel size can be very dramatic and create a more usable image for identifying target animals for management purposes. So now you are thinking that you need to go race out and buy the camera with the highest MP rating on the box and that is where it starts to get confusing. Trail cameras use very small images CMOS sensors and currently range from 2MP to 5MP. The CMOS sensor is what actually records the data that you want to capture from the shot. Prior to digital cameras, this would be the film. Now comes the salesmanship of trail camera companies which is called interpolation. To get from the optical CMOS sensor MP to the interpolated number on the box, some advanced algorithms must interpret and do a lot of guessing. So if you have a 3 MP CMOS sensor and you interpolate your camera to 12 MP, the computer inside the camera will actually pull the pixels apart to accomplish the grid that would accommodate the new desired quantity of pixels. It then, again inside a camera under extreme conditions, will guess what pixels come in between the pixels. So if you have a red pixel and a blue pixel next to each other, the computer will have to guess what pixels are in between the two. It will not interpolate the data holistically but rather literally which does not take into consideration the context of the image. This is more important when you are dealing with more dramatic jumps in pixels as actual data will be left out as it was never captured. The best way I can explain this process is like using a topography map with one hundred foot contours and trying to determine where small fingers are that may hold deer. Since the information on the map is at such a large level, you could never determine land features in the ten foot range which may hold the key to your hunt. This is the same with cameras, if your base layer of data does not hold the data, then the interpolated information will not reveal that information but rather paint a false picture. That being said, interpolation can help to create a much more usable image for printing or even target identification but it is limited to the data you start with and is best accomplished on a high end computer in an air conditioned office. The most important megapixel number is the one that describes the CMOS sensor. There is a fine line between CMOS MP and interpolated MP in that a certain point you will start to undermine your image and bloat your file sizes. We suggest limited Interpolation levels to three times the sensor size. For example, if your CMOS sensor is 2 MP, you should not set your camera above 6MP. 3MP should be limited to 9MP and 5MP should be limited to 15MP. These suggestions are based on file size, data usability and overall image quality. So the next time you are at the store or online, look at the CMOS sensor along with the highest interpolated MP and see if they are increasing image quality or a stat line.
Flash Distance - When Is It Too Much?
So you want to see the deer one hundred feet away from your camera at night do you? But is this a realistic goal and is it even smart? This is yet another trend that is happening in the trail camera industry and that is to produce a flash that reaches out to insane distances. At first take, you would think that seeing a deer that is one hundred feet from camera is great because at the very least, you get the information that a deer was there. Where this falls flat in my eyes is what happens to the animals that are within the 15-40 foot range which is the realistic range a camera can actually make a unique identification of a deer. So what are the costs of the extreme flash ranges? First thing you will notice on extreme distance flashes are that objects that are closer to the camera will become white due to overexposure. Another very bad side effect from the long range flash is the digital noise that comes a long with them. As you can see on the cameras, flash range has increased much more dramatically than the type of LEDs or quantity of them has. To understand this, you need to understand how a night time image is created by a camera. For a night image to be captured, the camera will activate the IR LEDs and then use a combination of shutter speed and ISO to control the amount of light the image sensor receives and as result the distance the flash reaches prior to that time frame ends. The amount of light that is emitted by the LEDs is typically static although some cameras will actually reduce the power to lower the flash range but that is not recommended. So the next two tools to generate flash distance is shutter speed, or the amount of time the shutter is open and allowing light in, as well as ISO which is the amount of time it takes the sensor to capture light. Typically you want the ISO as low as possible (100-200) which preserves the most amount of data and clarity, yet since we are not using an actual flash, but rather just emitting light, we are forced to use the ISO to speed up the shutter. ISO is also increased to allow the flash to get our further than it naturally would. At ISO 100, it takes your sensor typically one second to absorb the proper amount of light to create the image. By increasing the ISO to 200, you are decreasing time needed to capture light down to 1/2 a second. Most trail cameras have night ISO settings of 400-800 and the extreme distance flash range cameras can exceed 1000. The downside of ISO is that the higher you go, the more digital noise is created. This is why you see more digital noise in "Black Out", "Black Flash" and "Long Range Flash" as they are having to compensate light due to type of LED or distance of flash. At that point you have to make a decision, do you want to be able to see what it at 100+ feet or do you want to be able to identify the deer and manage your herd. I personally feel that anything outside of 40' is really just for acknowledging the existence of deer and not to provide you any usable data as you cannot zoom into a digitally enhanced and ISO heavy image. I would suggest a more reasonable flash range and adjusting your camera setups so that you get your dear within the range of usable data. Until we, as an industry, actually create an LED IR flash that works like a flash does, which would be to pulse at 1/300 or better, then we will forever be balancing the better of two evils which are motion blur and digital noise.