Which trail camera do you recommend? It’s a question I get asked with some regularity. And for one reason or the other, it’s a question I’ve always had difficulty answering in the moment. There are just too many models of cameras, too many features, and too many price points to make answering easy. A real answer will require a bit of a deep dive, like the one we’re going to take in this article. Let’s see where this leads…
Trail cameras go by many names… game cameras, scouting cameras, etc. For those who are not yet familiar, trail cameras are remotely triggered–usually through the use of an infrared motion detector–and are used to to take pictures at times when an human photographer cannot be present. People use trail cameras for several different purposes. Typical uses include camera trapping, game scouting, and property surveillance.
I primarily use trail cameras for camera trapping–recording pictures in order to gather information about the types of wildlife present on a tract of land, and/or to reveal interesting aspects of their behaviors. When care and consideration are taken with regard to camera placement in this pursuit, absolutely stunning photos can result.
I love using trail cameras for this purpose. Camera trapping regularly provides me with insights about wildlife that would be difficult to aquire any other way. But because of the way I use trail cameras, my preferences for features may vary from those folks interested in game scouting or property surveillance. Please take that into consideration as you read the recommendations that follow.
Trail cameras as we now know them have been around for a few decades. When they first came on the market years ago, these early trail cameras still made use of 35 mm film. Because of this, they were very expensive to purchase and to operate. Certainly I was intrigued, but I could never justify buying one. It would take the digital camera revolution to make trail cameras more accessible to average user–me included. With the coming of digital technology the cost of ownership came down, as quality and reliability steadily improved.
These days, you get more capability in a much smaller package than would ever be possible with a film-based camera. With most of today’s trail cameras you will have the ability to record either pictures or video. Color images are recorded during the day, and black and white infrared images taken at night. You can configure parameters specifying how many pictures are taken–or how many seconds of video are recorded–with each triggering. Some cameras support a feature called Field Scan which records a picture on a regular interval, regardless of whether motion is detected or not. The resulting photographs can be combined to form a time lapse video.
But even with all of the recent improvements, trail cameras are not perfect. Some models may have issues with short battery life. Others may be susceptible to false triggers–which can fill an SD card with unwanted pictures in short order. Mounting, securing, size, weight, ease of use, and the programming interfaces are also important considerations.
There are so many makes and models of trail camera on the market right now that it would be nearly impossible to offer a fair and balanced assessment of all of them. Here’s a short list of some of the better known brands… Browning, Spypoint, Recconyx, Moultrie, Bushnell, Stealth Cam, Primos, Cuddeback, just to name a few. There are many, many more off band cameras on the market.
Each brand offers multiple models, and new cameras are being introduced all of the time. It would require a dedicated clearing house to adequately test and produce detailed reviews for all of the trail cameras that are available. Because of this, I can only offer meaningful recommendations for cameras that I have actually used. I’ll start with a little history…
I received my first trail camera years ago as a Christmas gift. It was a little Stealth Cam unit. If I remember correctly, it recorded 4 MB pictures and was powered by 8 C-cell batteries.
A little later, when I started camera trapping for DFW Urban Wildlife, I experimented with some of the more expensive and feature rich cameras on the market. A perfect example is the Moultrie D-50. This big camera came with glowing recommendations at the time. It ran on D-cell batteries to support longer survey time in field. It even came with a red laser that was supposed to aid in properly framing your shot–a feature which in practice was virtually useless.
This camera was large–even compared to its contemporaries–and it was heavy. Carrying more than one or two of them at a time into the field was difficult without assistance. Carrying dozens of D-cell batteries into the woods to services these cameras was no small feat either.
When smaller, AA battery powered units started appearing on the market, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. The first one that got my attention was the Bushnell Trophy Cam. This little camera was roughly the size of a box of baking soda, and it ran on just 8 AA batteries. It was such a dramatic departure from the trail cameras I was used to, that I was hesitant to give it a try at first.
When I finally got around to experimenting with one of these new Bushnells, I was very glad I did. I was so pleased with this new trail camera paradigm, that I quickly Ebayed my older cameras, and replaced them all with more and more Bushnells.
These small and light weight units were perfect for the way I used trail cameras. They were easy to mount, and I could load four to six of them in my backpack with very little additional burden–no matter the length of the hike I had planned. This meant I was afforded a great deal of spontaneity in terms of camera placement. If I found an intriguing location while out pounding the trail, I could now camera trap it without having to make plans to return with a big and bulky camera at a later date.
This was the beginning of a preference for Bushnell trail cameras that continues to this day. No trail camera is perfect, but Bushnell’s Trophy Cams have always gotten the job done for me.
A little later a company named Simmons came out with an even smaller trail camera. Simmons is perhaps best known as a rifle scope manufacturer and marketer. Their new trail camera was barely bigger than a deck of cards, and was powered by only 4 AA batteries. Lightweight, small, and easy to program, these may be the best engineered trail cameras for my purposes that I have yet to encounter. Unfortunately, these units are no longer on the market. Perhaps they were a little too unconventional to catch on.
I’ve tried a number of other different trail cameras over the years, especially as the prices began to come down. I became intrigued by the possibility of finding a good quality trail camera for under $50.
Most of the cameras I experimented with performed satisfactorily. For me, the most important differentiators were the programming interface, the type of mount the camera would support, and small size. My objective then became to find a single low cost camera model that I had a preference for, so that I would only have one programming interface to have to become familiar with.
For this purpose, I finally settled on the Primos EasyCam. I purchased a nice collections of these cameras when I found them on sale for $33 a piece. I mounted a few of these on some plastic stakes from the landscaping department at Home Depot.
Now, when I am of a mind, I throw a hand full of the stake-mounted EasyCams in my backpack before a hike, and drop them in the ground at any promising location I find along the way. Losing a camera is not nearly the concern with these low dollar units as it is with the more expensive options. At this price point they can almost be considered disposable.
This technique has served me well over the years. It is especially effective during the winter, when vegetation growth is not an issue. I typically load them with inexpensive alkaline batteries, since the surveys I use them for are usually of a short duration–a week or two or three.
Then there are new wireless trail cameras. These cameras offer some exciting new capabilities. They come equipped with a cell phone, and can upload the images they record to the cloud. The pictures can then be viewed online, without having to go out into the field to retrieve the camera or SD card. Even more, the configuration settings of these cameras can also be adjusted remotely–a fantastic feature that can be a big help in getting your photos just right.
Wireless trail camera are significantly more expensive than their non-wireless counterparts. And a monthly service fee is required in order to view your pictures online. For the convenience to be worth the extra cost, the reliability of the wireless technology needs to be beyond reproach. You can’t miss shots or generate a lot of false triggers, and expect to be satisfied with one of these trail cameras.
I returned to the Bushnell product line for my first wireless trail camera, when I purchased one of their new Aggressor Wireless models. This was a pretty good camera. Its capabilities were largely as advertised. Problems with the app and website were disappointing, but easy enough to work around, or even do without. Despite the technical issues, these cameras were pleasant to use. Getting to view trail camera pictures online–in real time as they were recorded–made it easy to forgive the camera’s few shortcomings.
Bushnell has since discontinued the Aggressor Wireless, and it looks like its replacement–the Impulse Wireless–has been something of a bust. Despite a lot of fanfare surrounding the new camera’s release, the online reviews have been terrible, and it appears Bushnell has pulled their AT&T version off the market–at least temporarily. With all the bad press, it was very difficult to make the decision to purchase one. But in the end, I bit the bullet. I really wanted to see how they performed for myself.
The Impulse Wireless units I tested were thoroughly disappointing. The GPS feature for one was defective, indicating always that the camera’s location was at the Bushnell facility in Kansas City. Battery life was adequate, but lacking when compared to what I had become accustomed to–measured in weeks, instead of months. A propensity to false trigger burned through my data plan with hundreds of worthless pictures. Finally, the online support for the camera settings and picture viewing did not live up to its billing. A number of these features did not function as advertised.
Bushnell’s case design philosophy has also been reconsidered, despite the fact they had it nearly perfect with their Trophy Cam and Aggressor lines. Unfortunately, the new design is not an improvement, in my opinion. The camera tripod mount has been moved from the bottom of the unit to the back–a relatively benign change, in and of itself–but a deal breaker if you ever want to mount your camera on a tripod, like I sometimes do.
The biggest disappointment in the new design is that there is no effective way to secure the unit with a padlock. On Bushnell’s older models, access to the battery compartment, SD card, and programming controls could be secured with the same padlock used to discourage theft of the entire unit. With the new Impulse there is no good way to protect the camera from these problems without using a bulky and unwieldy cable lock system. Without a cable lock, the batteries, SD card, and programmed configuration are vulnerable to tampering. This is an inexcusable flaw, in my opinion.
I hate to say it, but if the Impulse represents the direction Bushnell trail cameras are headed, this may be the end of the line with Bushnell for me. The Impulse is a product that never should have been allowed to make it to market. Somebody at Bushnell really dropped the ball with this one.
Even more concerning, is that it now appears that Bushnell is phasing out their Trophy Cam line in favor of their new Core line of cameras. I haven’t tried cameras from the Core line yet, but I hope they will be worthy heirs to the Trophy Cam pedigree. I find the dual day/night sensors feature included with some of the Core cameras especially intriguing.
So, which camera is right for you? It all depends on how you want to use it. For people who are interested in backyard camera trapping, I usually suggest trying an inexpensive model first. That way you can get the feel for using trail cameras and work on your technique with out spending a lot of money. Most trail cameras on the market today are adequate for light duty use. Unless you are running a highly organized, scientific, and long term survey, there is no reason to spend a lot of money on a trail camera any more.
If you are experienced or have more demanding needs, then for the time being, I can still feel comfortable recommending just about any camera in Bushnell’s Trophy Cam product line. Stay open to the idea of taking a look at their new Core product line to see if it continues the positive attributes of the soon-to-be-phased-out Trophy Cams. And, as suggested earlier, stay well away from their wireless models.
Of the other major name brands, Reconyx trail cameras seems to be considered the top of the line, a fact that is reflected in their high prices. Browning cameras come at a more reasonable price, and tend to have good reviews. I would like to give them a try some day. Stealth Cam and Moultrie cameras are generally reliable, and have provided me with good service over the years. I have been disappointed with Cuddleback cameras. Their product line tends to be over-engineered, including seemingly clever features, that really just get in the way in practice. And their CuddleLink wireless system simply did not work well for me.
In the end, you may find that technique is just as important–and possibly even more important–than the camera itself. Simple tips can make a big difference in the quality of images you are able to record… Paramount among these is keeping your batteries fresh and new. Strong batteries are critical to optimal trail camera performance. Use lithium batteries for long sets. Some good quality cameras can run for almost a year on lithium batteries. Use inexpensive alkalines for sets lasting six weeks or less. Whatever the case, replace your used batteries with new at every reasonable opportunity.
Mount your cameras facing north if possible. This will keep the sun behind the camera and give you the best chance for good lighting on your subject during the day. Be cognizant of vegetation and sunlight hot spots–both of which can cause false triggers. Mount your cameras in such a way that approaching wildlife will have ample time to trigger the motion detector. Record multiple images at each triggering. Frame your shots well, and consider the composition that will result.
I like to use my cell phone to help frame my trail camera shots. I simply hold my phone in front of the mounted trail camera, so that the phone’s camera sees what the trail camera sees. Then I use the phone to take a picture from the trail camera’s point of view. That way I can review the framing and make adjustments before leaving the site. This technique comes with the added benefit of recording the exact GPS coordinates of the location, on the off chance you can’t remember where you left your trail camera when it’s time to retrieve it.
Most of the time I prefer to mount my trail cameras with a simple screw-in tree mount. These handy mounts allow you to easily make fine adjustments to the trail cameras positioning. After mounting, I secure my cameras with a lightweight chain and small padlock–just enough security to keep honest people honest.
When choosing a place to set a trail camera, there are a couple of other consideration to take into account. Primary among these is the need to be respectful of the privacy of others. You absolutely do not want to intrude on other people’s ability to enjoy being outdoors by making them have to worry about if and why they might be being photographed.
The other important consideration is trail camera theft. If your trail camera is left in a place where it can be easily found, it will almost certainly be stolen or tampered with.
Fortunately, these two considerations both have the same solution–mount your trail cameras only in locations where they are unlikely to be intruded on or found by other people. The benefits are threefold. Following this guideline will help you respect the privacy of people enjoying the outdoors, it will protect your cameras from theft and tampering, and the lack of human traffic will improve your odds of photographing candid wildlife behaviors. It’s a win-win-win.
Now go out and camera trap some great pictures!