You can pick up a cheap trail camera for very little money, and some of them are decent devices. The challenge is that, while camera function may be adequate, many lower-priced trail cams have poor range and slow response.
There's nothing more frustrating than getting a glimpse of something passing but not knowing what it was.
The best trail cameras cost a little more, but they're invariably worth it. Each of our top five should reward your investment with consistently good results in a wide range of conditions. Several accomplish this while also remaining very affordable.
Our finalists are:
Camera performance is about more than resolution. In this part of our review, we look at the different images that each model produces, how they're captured, and the different flash types provided.
A wide capture angle and good range are both important elements of a trail camera's detection response. If you want a series of photos from your camera, video bursts are one solution, but they gobble up a lot of memory. As such, best results are obtained from fast trigger reaction and rapid recovery.
Memory capacity and battery life might have an impact on which trail camera you choose, but functions such as date/time stamping, password protection, and audio recording are also of interest. We take a look at the features and benefits of each camera.
In this section of our ratings, we sum up the pros and cons of each of our finalists and draw some value-related conclusions.
Joy fell in love with hiking and climbing about six years ago. Her favorite mountain of all time is Mt. Kilimanjaro, which she summited after a 10-day trek. Summit day itself was a 10-hour slog, but the satisfaction of reaching the crater and then the summit was unparalleled. The most important lesson Joy has learned is to listen to the experts, be prepared, and have the right gear.
Moultrie is one of the biggest names in the trail camera industry. The 12- megapixel A-20 Mini Game Camera is based on their entry-level A5 but is smaller with an increased feature set. There are two choices of image quality: low at 1600 x 1200 or high at 4000 x 3000. Users can choose from single or multi-shot mode. It will also take 4:3 aspect ratio video at 480p.
The infra-red flash is barely visible, and it’s soft enough that it does not typically disturb the animal being photographed. Low-resolution image quality receives some criticism, though most find it acceptable, and owners have the option of better quality, albeit at the cost of memory.
With a resolution of 10 megapixels, the Browning Strike Force Sub Micro Game Camera produces images that are as good as anything on the market -- and considerably better than many. The Browning takes standard shots as well as three additional modes: multi-shot (up to eight pictures at three seconds apart), rapid-fire (six pictures at 0.3 seconds apart), and time-lapse (simply set the camera to your chosen interval.) It will also shoot crisp, 720p video that lasts anywhere from five seconds to two minutes. Image quality is high enough that you can zoom in later on your home PC. The flash emits a dull red glow that doesn't startle game, and it doesn't flash during daylight.
The Stealth Cam No-Glo Trail Camera is another contender with an impressive 10-megapixel maximum. Owners can choose from four resolutions (up to 10 megapixels), allowing owners to reduce quality in order to get more photos. An additional "burst-mode" will take up to nine images in rapid succession. Video is 720p; film length ranges from five seconds to three minutes. Flash comes via 42 separate infrared "black" transmitters, so there's no visible light at all.
It's understandable that some consumers are confused by the resolution of the Blusmart Wide Angle Trail Camera. The manufacturer claims 12 megapixels plus high-resolution 1080p for video, but that doesn't quite tell the full story. In fact, the camera is a five-megapixel model that uses clever software interpolation to mimic 12MP. Likewise, default video is 720p with the higher level (1080p) a selectable (and memory-hungry) option. To be fair, the Blusmart takes perfectly acceptable images, but they're not up to the quality of the Browning or the Stealth Cam.
In terms of resolution, the Bushnell Hybrid Trail Camera sits near the top of our list with eight-megapixel stills and 720p video. With the Bushnell -- as with the Browning and Stealth Cam -- actual image quality is consistently good. In stills mode, you can have up to three images in bursts or set a time lapse which gives you the option of shooting field area regardless of activity. Video can be programmed to last up to 60 seconds, and like some other top contenders, the Bushnell boasts an invisible, or "black," infrared flash.
Two main parameters control how well trail cameras detect movement: angle and range. With a 40-degree capture angle and a range that is claimed at "up to 50 feet" but is, in reality, more like 40 feet, neither of these parameters are particularly outstanding on the Moultrie. Initial shutter speed is under a few seconds, which is comparable with cameras costing much more. Recovery speed isn't quoted by the manufacturer, but multi-shot mode can be set to take pictures every 15 seconds. We take this to be a ballpark minimum. While others are faster, that's surprisingly good for a cheap game camera.
When it comes to detection, the Browning Strike Force Sub Micro Game Camera is as good as models that cost several times as much. Detection angle is a competitive 55 degrees, and while detection range (the distance at which an animal will trigger the camera) is only quoted as 50 feet, the flash range is 100 feet -- so anything in the area will be recorded. Trigger speed is a superb 0.67 seconds, which is as fast as just about any trail camera out there. This is underscored by a recovery time of 2.3 seconds, the fastest in our ratings.
In the course of our research, we had difficulty finding consistent statistics for the Stealth Cam No-Glo Trail Camera. While their own website quotes 100 feet as a maximum trigger distance, we suspect real-world performance is probably more like that of the Browning, which boasts a 50-foot trigger distance. The same is almost certainly true of the capture angle. Trigger speed has been tested as fast as 0.67 seconds, but recovery is a little disappointing at one minute or more. There is some argument that this lengthy recovery enables the time lapse feature. Like other products, it's certainly true that time lapse can be set as long as an hour for these purposes. However, many other game cameras with time-lapse can reset much faster.
As the name suggests, the Blusmart Wide Angle Trail Camera has an excellent capture angle. It sports three triggers that, in total, provide 120 degrees of coverage. Range is quoted as 65 feet, but as one owner pointed out, all range figures are subject to factors like the size and speed of the entity being photographed. Most cameras would probably pick up an elephant at 100 feet, but they might not see a mouse at 10 feet. In other words, distance depends on conditions. Trigger time, at one second, is about average, but recovery time is a little slower than we'd like at a minimum of one minute.
The Bushnell Hybrid Trail Camera boasts a detection angle of 55 degrees and a range of 60 feet, which is just slightly better than average. However, trigger speed — at just 0.66 seconds — is the fastest of all the cameras we've reviewed and possibly the quickest in the industry. Recovery time, at just 2.9 seconds, is up with the very best, too. This model also has time-lapse capability, which goes to show just what kind of performance a top trailer camera can deliver.
The Moultrie A-20 might be a budget solution, but it shares a number of useful extras with more expensive models. All photos are stamped with time, date, moon phase, and a camera ID (useful if you've got more than one). It takes eight AA batteries (owners recommend lithium ion versions for better life), but it can also take Moultrie's 12V DC supply or use AC power mode. Image capacity is claimed at “about 16,000,” but that's on the low setting. A 32GB SD/SDHC Class 4 memory card is a sensible upgrade for those wanting high-quality pictures, though as with all of our finalists, neither batteries nor SD card are provided. There's no view screen built in, so you have to use another device to view your pictures. However, with Moultrie's mobile technology, that device could be your PC or a compatible smartphone or tablet.
The Browning Strike Force Sub Micro Game Camera gives you the time, date, moon phase, and camera ID stamping that is common with these devices. (Note: Browning also adds temperature to this data list!) It requires six AA batteries, and there's a 12-volt power jack should you want to use it. You'll get up to 10,000 pictures as supplied; this number can be vastly increased by using a 32GB SD card, but Browning doesn't provide actual figures for this. One addition you may find interesting -- and potentially amusing -- is that in video mode, you also have sound. Like the Moultrie, you'll need a USB cable (not provided) to download images to your computer as this model does not have a screen for viewing. However, you do get Browning's own "Buck Watch" software with this purchase.
The Stealth Cam No-Glo Trail Camera offers the standard features you would expect, but we see nothing particularly "out of the ordinary" about this product. You get photo stamping similar to that provided by competitors -- time, date, moon phase, camera ID, and temperature. The camera requires AA batteries (eight) and provides a 12-volt power jack. There's a slot for a 32GB SD drive, and like most of our finalists, you'll need a USB cable and computer to view your pictures. (The Stealth Cam video includes sound). One owner said the SD slot would actually take a 64GB card. This would be quite an advantage, but we've been unable to find manufacturer figures for photo capacity with or without a card. One unique feature you get with this camera is the ability to set a password so nobody else can access the contents. We're not sure if this feature offers much of a practical benefit, but it's there for those that want it.
The Blusmart Wide Angle Trail Camera offers all of the standard trail camera features in terms of photo stamping, SD card slot, batteries, and so on. We have the same lack of information concerning photo capacity as with the Stealth Cam, but this almost certainly relates to the ability to use different resolutions. The Blusmart offers one or two extras that will appeal to some. The main feature is the 2.4-inch LCD monitor that lets you view images while still in the field. (You also get the usual USB facility for downloading.) This trail camera also offers password protection and a waterproof case. Water ingress in poor weather is sometimes a problem with game cameras, so this is a definite bonus.
The majority of the Bushnell Hybrid Trail Camera's features are the standard features included with all of the products on our shortlist. You'll need eight AA batteries which will supposedly give you up to a year of life (though not if you use video). You'll need to find a USB cable to download photos or video because, as is normal, there's no built-in screen. There are slots for both a 32GB SD card and a power socket, and you do get an interesting addition to the time-stamping set, which consists of date, time, moon phase, temperature, and GPS location. The case is quoted as "weatherproof," but not to any specific standard.
List price for the Moultrie A-20 Mini Game Camera is $59, and we're confident that you'd struggle to find a better value. It doesn't have the greatest range or angle of capture, so it's best used in areas where you've got a pretty good idea of activity (or as a feeder camera). Owners tell us that the Moultrie is very easy to set up; many didn't even need to look at the manual. The maker's confidence in the camera’s reliability and durability are backed by a two-year warranty. Some users have reported that it can be triggered a bit too easily by leaves and branches, but that aside, the majority are more than happy with this product.
At $113, the Browning Strike Force Sub Micro Game Camera delivers a superior performance for relatively little money. It might be a physically small unit, but it packs a very big punch. It's got terrific range, it's fast, and the quality of the images produced is exceptional. A few owners complained that the set-up buttons were too close together, making the job unnecessarily difficult, and a few found the case or latches broke a bit easily, but most had very positive experiences and liked just about everything about it. Many owners told us that they bought more than one Browning because they liked it so much. You can't get a much better recommendation than that!
The Stealth Cam No-Glo Trail Camera is a top-quality piece of equipment that, at $111, is yours for a fairly mid-range price. The choice of resolutions makes this a multi-purpose tool that gives you the option of setting for image quality or quantity. It has great detection range and a fast shutter that is only slightly let down by the recovery time. It also benefits from "black" infrared, making the flash invisible. In general, it's extremely well-received by owners. Battery life could be longer, a couple of owners complained that the straps were faulty, and one or two consumers had set-up problems. However, most owners find this camera to be robust and easy to use.
The Blusmart Wide Angle Trail Camera sits at the upper end of the price range (at $0) in these ratings. However, it offers a number of unique features. Most useful is probably the 120-degree detection angle which, combined with relatively good speed, gives the Blusmart the potential to capture more activity than standard game cameras. It's the only model on our shortlist that includes a USB cable and a screen for field viewing. Battery life was found to be outstanding by owners, and although some struggled to get the performance they wanted, most reported results that were better than expected.
There's no doubt that the Bushnell Hybrid Trail Camera is an excellent product, but at a cost of $390, it's also at the top end of the price range. There are some good reasons for this, most notably the ability to capture stills and video simultaneously. A few owners had difficulty with false triggers and sensor range, but most thought it easy to set up. High-quality night shots are another notable feature. Alas, we have to question whether this product is really worth twice as much as the Browning, our Best of the Best contender.
Considering the fact that the trail cameras on our shortlist are all excellent products, choosing a Best of the Best winner is difficult. Some of our contenders even offer specific advantages based on the kind of image you want to capture. However, as a complete package, the best trail camera overall is the Browning Strike Force Sub Micro.
Physically, the Browning is one of the smallest units on the market, but that certainly doesn't mean it's got limited performance. Thanks to its superb 10-megapixel image capture, in fact, the Browning's picture quality is among the best you'll find at any price. Detection angle is on par with most and offers a better-than-average range. Indeed, the low-glow flash extends as far as 100 feet in the right conditions.
Trigger time, at 0.67 seconds, is extremely rapid. The Browning's market-leading recovery of just 2.3 seconds means the camera is ready to take the next picture faster than any other model. Owners get HD video from five seconds to two minutes long and two different "burst" modes for grabbing a sequence of images. Time-lapse benefits are also included.
Of course, the technical aspects of a great trail camera are only good if they deliver quality results. This is where we turn to the opinions of actual owners. Downsides are few; some owners say the buttons are a bit awkward, and some have found the cases to be too fragile. Upsides are numerous; owners love the superb images (one owners caught a bobcat on the run, which is a quite a feat for any camera) and the flexibility of image capture, battery life, and ease of set-up. You also can't ignore the cost of this gem. At just $113, it's a terrific deal for a top-notch camera. Few compete with the Browning Strike Force Sub Micro on any terms, which is why we endorse this trail camera as the Best of the Best.
Across the board, owners of all five of our finalists felt they got a good deal for their money. However, the Best Bang for Your Buck trail camera is the Moultrie A-20. Although it has a few weaknesses, they're far outweighed by the camera's capabilities and how little you must pay for them.
A resolution of 12 megapixels is as good as any of the competition, and though the lens quality could be better, the set-up as a whole is perfectly adequate for taking reasonable stills and 480p video. Its capture angle (40 degrees) and range (up to about 50 feet) might be less than some of the competition, but it's really a question of how you want to use your game camera. If you're using it in an area you know well — or better yet, as a feeder camera — the Moultrie will do an excellent job. Of course, it's also cheap enough that you could actually get several A-20s for the price of one high-end model. If you choose to go this route, you have the potential of covering a much larger area for the same budget. Each A-20 gives you up to 16,000 images as standard, though if you want that number of high quality photos, a 32GB memory card would be a sensible investment.
Owners find the Moultrie A-20 very easy to set up, and the majority — novices in particular — were delighted with their results. This is a very affordable introduction to game cameras. It's also a popular choice among those who want a camera to photograph activity in their yard. Reliability appears good, and the manufacturer is confident enough to offer a two-year warranty. Owner complaints are few and mostly relate to the quality of night shots. It's difficult to find a balance between good illumination and not disturbing the animals, so that's fair to some extent, but few would deny that the Moultrie A-20 delivers tremendous value given its all-around capabilities and budget price.