The top performers in our review are the Moultrie Panoramic 150, the Gold Award winner; the Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Essential, the Silver Award winner; and the Browning Strike Force, the Bronze Award winner. Here's more on choosing a system to meet your needs, along with detail on how we arrived at our ranking of 10 products.
A game camera is a tough, motion-activated camera designed to take photos and videos of wildlife. They're especially useful for hunters, because they can help identify the movement patterns of wildlife on a piece of property. Most game cameras can take short videos as well as photos.
Game cameras are often referred to as "trail cams." They come in rectangular plastic housing, and are typically less than 6 inches tall and less than 6 inches wide. Most hunters choose to strap the camera to a tree using the ubiquitous nylon tree strap that comes with every game camera, but you can also buy specially designed tripods if you want to place the camera in a field.
A game camera is comprised of a motion detector and a digital camera. The motion detector uses passive infrared technology to sense movement and trigger the camera. Then, the camera takes a picture or begins video recording. If it's at night, the cameras will uses infrared LEDs to capture black-and-white night- vision photos.
Trail cameras vary in price from about $60 to about $600. The most expensive trail cameras use a cellular data connection to email you the photos that it takes. They require a monthly data subscription, usually around $10- to $20.
However, the overwhelming majority of trail cams simply store captured photos and videos on an SD card. Every few weeks, you can go check the SD card to see if you have any activity. We did not evaluate cellular trail cameras, as they are more of a niche category for professional or prosumer hunters. To learn more, keep reading or check out our additional articles on game cameras.
Image Quality: Look for a Wide Field of View
Game cameras typically have a still-picture resolution of 8 megapixels and a video resolution of 720p. There isn't a ton of difference in actual picture quality among most trail cameras. The biggest difference is in the fields of view.
Field of view, in this context, concerns how wide the angle of view is on the camera. The wider the field of view, the more you will capture in frame. Many of the best trail cameras have a field of view of 55 degrees, whereas some of the less-sophisticated ones have fields of view that are only 42 degrees. You'll see a significant difference in the amount of subjects captured with a 55-degree camera versus a 42-degree camera.
Detection Circuit: Size & Speed
Trail cams are most sharply differentiated by their respective detection circuits. A game camera's detection circuit can be measured in terms of size and speed.
A game camera's detection zone comprises both the detection angle and the detection range. The bigger the detection zone, the more photos of wildlife you will capture. Game cameras' detection angles are linked closely to their fields of view. So, a camera with a field of view of 55 degrees will have a detection angle of 55 degrees. Detection range refers to how far away from itself the camera can detect movement. The cameras we reviewed have detection ranges from 40 to 80 feet. You should make sure the camera you choose has a detection range of at least 50 feet.
Speed refers to trigger time and recovery time. Trigger time is how long it takes from the moment motion is detected to the moment the photo is taken. Trigger times for the best cameras are typically less than two seconds. Recovery time is how long it takes after the photo is taken for the camera to be ready to be triggered again. Recovery times should be less than five seconds, but they can be as long as a minute.
A good detection circuit has a good mix of size and speed. Look at our head-to-head comparison for an easy way to compare different cameras' detection circuits.
When you're trying to find the game camera that will be the best value for your needs, you should consider how you'll use the camera. Cameras with large detection zones and large fields of view typically cost more and may not be necessary.
If you're simply looking for a game camera to record activity around a feeder, then you don't need a large detection zone, because you know that animals are going to be around that feeder. You can save money by purchasing a lower-end camera, such as the Moultrie A-5.
On the other hand, perhaps you'll want to survey a meadow that is hundreds of feet long. Even the largest detection zone is far too small for that application. You can buy an inexpensive camera and set it to time-lapse mode, a feature that bypasses the detection circuit and is present in many affordable cameras. You can even purchase a game camera made specifically for time-lapse footage, the PlotWatcher Pro.
The Moultrie Panoramic 150 is the best game camera on the market. The "150" in its name stands for its ultra-wide 150-degree detection angle and field of view. This is almost three times wider than its closest competitor's field of view. The Panoramic does have a relatively slow recovery time, but with a detection zone this large, you're still sure to get more pictures of wildlife than with any of the other cameras we reviewed.
The Bushnell Trophy Cam HD Essential is our Top Ten Reviews Silver Award winner and an excellent hunting camera. It has the quickest detection circuit of any camera we reviewed, with a 0.3-second trigger speed that is twice as fast as any competitor we reviewed. It also has a one-second recovery time, which is the quickest among cameras we reviewed. Bushnell also has exceptional customer service.
The Browning Strike Force is our Top Ten Reviews Bronze Award winner and one of the best-selling trail cameras in the industry. Its best-seller status is justified, as it has an excellent detection circuit. It is also the smallest trail cam we reviewed, which means it's easier to pack and is less obtrusive to animals. The Strike Force is also the best value on the market. At around $125, it's one of the most affordable trail cameras on the market and still performs extremely well.