There are many compelling reasons to consider investing in a spy or security camera for your home or business. Lucky for you, there are hundreds of cameras out there to choose from. Some are great, some are good, and some are little more than props for people who are trying to live vicariously through James Bond. Absolutely fine if that’s what you’re after, but make sure you’ve nailed what you actually want the camera for, so you make the right choice.
Before we go any further, let’s review the wrong reasons to get a spy camera:
- To monitor your family without their consent
- To perv on your neighbours without their consent
- To perv on your co-workers without their consent
- To perv on anyone in general without their consent
Because you could be sued. Also – boundaries.
Here is the Sensible Reviewer guide to the best spy and security cameras for conscientious people who are buying them for the right reasons.
- 1 Spy vs. Security Camera
- 2 Spy Camera Buying Guide
- 3 Gadgets and Wearables: You’re Wasting Your Money
- 4 Car Security: Best Car Cameras
- 5 Home Sweet Home: Best Cameras for Home Security
- 6 Mind Your Own Business: Best Cameras for the Workplace
- 7 Nanny Cams
- 8 Spy Cameras and the Law
- 9 Before-You-Buy Checklist
- 10 Most Common Issues for Buyers
Spy vs. Security Camera
First, the difference between spy cameras and security cameras. Feel free to skip past this section if you already know your stuff.
- Spy cameras are secret, as their name suggests. They are designed to be discreet and unseen, so subjects do not necessarily know they are being filmed – or at least where from. Spy cameras are useful for having in the home, in the car or in the workplace, as long as you comply with the law (see section on law).
- Security cameras are more like CCTV. The cameras do not need to be hidden. Often, they are there to act as a deterrent as well as a security feature. This is usually the more common choice for businesses, and for homeowners who might have one pointing down at their car, for example. Just its visible presence can sometimes be enough to ward off any trouble.
Spy Camera Buying Guide
Best Indoor Camera
- Receive motion and sound alerts on your phone, email, smartwatch (Apple and Android Wear).
- See, talk, and listen: hear what’s going on and talk back using the Nest app.
- See live events or go back three hours
Camera technology has vastly increased since its invention, with the compatible rise in smartphone technology and home security.
This Nest camera can simply be used as a baby monitor or when you are out of the house and need to keep an eye on pets, if you don’t need it for security reasons. The alerts could let you know if there is any suspicious activity whilst you are on holiday, allowing you to act before it is too late, as well.Get it on Amazon now
Best Outdoor Camera
- Full HD and Excellent Night Vision
- Two-way audio
- Weatherproof Guard
- YI Home app provides a live feed
Ever see CCTV footage on news reports that is fuzzy and unclear? You wouldn’t face that same problem with this camera. The 1080p HD resolution and 110° wide-angle lens will capture everything clearly, as will enhanced night vision.
The integrated microphone and speaker will allow you to let unwelcome visitors know you’ve seen them, and a deterrent alarm can sound at certain times if anything is picked up by the motion detection.
It is highly weatherproof, even in snow and high winds, and also vandal resistant.Get it on Amazon now
Best Pinhole Camera
- Both a home and body camera
- Full HD photos and videos
- Motion sensor
Able to record for up to 50 minutes after motion sensor is activated, or continuously while plugged in, the NIYPS camera is small enough to go undetected.
Good images are produced for its size and price, and it is small enough to be placed covertly and keep an eye on pets or the front door. It can be attached to a wall or mounted to the magnetic stand.Get it on Amazon now
Best Night Vision Camera
- 10 X optical zoom gives you greater control over your system
- Records crisp, detailed footage in full 1080 pixels HD
- Records at up to 80m at night using powerful IR
- Weather-resistant and can be installed outside
- 1080P HD
- 180° panoramic six-layer glass fish-eye lens
- WIFI and app compatibility
- Two-way voice ability
A great price for the product you get. The mini portable design means you can use it for security purposes, to keep an eye on a baby or pet, or take it in the car and use it as a dashcam.
The built-in microphone and speaker allows you to hear and speak when necessary, and you can freely adjust the angle of the camera if you’d prefer to keep it more covert.
Cloud storage offers constant recording without a limit, and there is motion detection to track any suspicious activity if you are away.Get it on Amazon now
Gadgets and Wearables: You’re Wasting Your Money
Unless you’re not looking for a serious camera – just a novelty item. In that case, go to town.
Generally speaking, ‘gadget cameras’ are not for the serious buyer. They seem cool and are very 007, but in terms of actual usefulness, they are not very effective.
When you’re talking about spy cameras, pen cams are often one of the first things people think of. They look just like normal pens, but they feature a tiny camera lens that you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking for it. They’re battery-powered and can really only run for an hour or so. The problem is, they’re not very practical. They take better footage outdoors, which kind of defeats the object. Essentially, they are on their way out.
I could repeat the paragraph above, as largely the same principles apply to spy camera glasses. These sorts of products are designed to look ordinary, with the camera subtly embedded. You can get them in glasses or sunglasses – again like the pen, they are battery-powered. Spycam glasses could be useful for recording conversations – but you might be legally obliged to let the subject know they were being filmed. Maybe not so subtle after all.
Clocks and Watches
Spycams embedded in clocks and watches are very popular purchases. Clocks, in particular, are often bought for or by people living in care homes, for example, if they think they are being stolen from. There are also alarm clock variations, which are not bad, but you wouldn’t want your home or business security depending on them. As for watches, it’s the pen story all over again. In terms of practical use you are going to have to strategically place your wrist in the right position, which could have you looking like a crazy person. Don’t be a crazy person.
Car Security: Best Car Cameras
If you’re planning on purchasing a spy or security camera for your car, consider its primary objective. Is it to prevent vandalism or theft? Or is it to capture footage of other road users, incidents or journeys?
Vandalism is most likely to happen at night; therefore, it makes good sense to invest in a night-vision camera for this purpose. There are three possible options: a camera fitted inside the car, an external camera pointing down at the car, or both.
One of the best models for in-car security would be something like this small rechargeable infrared spy camera. This camera is activated by motion, so it would start filming at the first sign of trouble. With the use of a microSD card, it can provide continuous recording by just overwriting old files.
The problems with relying solely on an in-car camera for security are that A) if vandalism happens at night it won’t be able to record through the window (due to infrared) and B) eventually the power will run out. So ideally, having an external camera covers all bases.
A great value, professional quality CCTV camera is this 1080p Full HD model by ieGeek. It has excellent night vision with infrared lighting, smart motion and is completely durable and weather-proof. Being HD, it will capture far more detail than a standard CCTV setup.
Alternatively, what you may be looking for is a dash cam. They provide you with video evidence of road accidents, bad drivers or parking incidents, which can be extremely handy for insurance purposes. Some drivers also like using them to document a road trip or capture unexpected events.
If this sounds like what you’re looking for, then you won’t go far wrong with this HD 1080P Car Dash Camera by NEXTBASE. Again, the memory card is not included but can be bought in a bundle. This camera works best when you connect it directly to your car charger via the 4m long cable, rather than running it on battery.
Home Sweet Home: Best Cameras for Home Security
There are many compelling reasons to invest in a home security system. Protecting your house, family and valuables from intruders, having peace of mind when you’re away with remote monitoring, and savings on home insurance all make a good case for taking the plunge.
If you’re out to buy your first home security system, then a good place to start is with something like this Digital Wireless CCTV System. It has mobile access so you can view it anywhere you have signal, and it comes with a portable LCD screen – of which you can add up to four. This plug-and-play system offers decent quality at a very reasonable price, with useful features such as motion and PIR heat detection, so you don’t have to leave it recording all day long.Get it on Amazon now
If you’re looking for something more specialist or would prefer a covert camera option, then you might want to pass on that one and consider something more along the lines of this Night Vision Pinhole Spy Camera.
Left in a room, this camera would keep track of people coming and going around the clock. The built-in PIR sensor uses body heat to activate recording (it is also activated by sound or vibration), or you can choose to set scheduled recording times. The lithium battery and MicroSD card slot mean it can be used as a completely standalone security device. The beauty of this system is its compact, unassuming design – it can be placed on a shelf and not draw any attention to itself.Get it on Amazon now
Mind Your Own Business: Best Cameras for the Workplace
Having a CCTV system in place can be very useful for employers, not only for security purposes but for aiding health and safety, preventing misconduct and observing productivity. There are also some legal obligations involved, which we will cover later (see section on law).
For the workplace, you’re going to want something larger and more substantial than the options suggested for the home. You may even want to consider mixing and matching visible and covert cameras.
A system like this Gamut TVI 1080p HD Covert Surveillance System is a great first step. This two-camera system uses tiny pinhole cameras that are easily hidden – they can film through gaps as small as 2mm. The cameras themselves are very powerful, capturing far more detail than the average pinhole camera. Its four-channel CCTV DVR also has a 1TB hard drive, where most other covert cameras would only offer basic SD card recorders.Get it on Amazon now
Another highly recommended option is this mini pinhole spy camera – a spy camera and DVR receiver pack set as with the Gamut, only this one is wireless. It comes with a built-in microphone, which allows the camera to record sound from nearby areas, and it has a more slimline design than the Gamut. This system is best when used in tandem with a 30 LED night-vision camera, as it doesn’t record particularly well in the dark.
Get it on Amazon now
If you’re happy for the cameras to be on display, or you plan on mixing traditional and covert cameras, then a great option for your on-display system would be this Gamut 4-Camera HD CCTV System. The Full HD cameras record crystal clear 1080p video with 30m night vision, and the DVR comes with 2TB worth of hard drive space. It’s a simple plug-and-play system, so there’s no complex configuration required to start recording.Get it on Amazon now
Most people are familiar with the concept of nanny cams: hidden cameras installed inside common household objects to keep an eye on caregivers, such as nannies or home help.
Their use with regard to the law can be unclear. The bottom line is that you need to make outsiders aware that they could be filmed, but you don’t have to specify where the camera is located. For more comprehensive details, read this guide.
You might think of a nanny cam as looking something like this:
The next step up from something like the teddy bear cam is this Foscam HD ‘Pan and Tilt’ IP camera. It shoots excellent 1080P Full HD video, giving you a highly detailed view of your home, with intelligent alerts to your phone or tablet to let you know immediately when there is movement. It has a built-in microphone and speaker and powerful 8x zoom – so you won’t miss a thing.Get it on Amazon now
A great all-rounder if you’re looking for a good quality covert nanny cam (or dash cam) is this Battery Powered Night Vision Pinhole Spy Camera Video Recorder. This very compact camera has a super wide-angle lens that can actually be rotated 180°, and it captures very high-quality footage at a resolution of 1280×720. Recording is triggered by sound, vibration or movement, so you save the 10hr battery life by not recording all the time.
Get it on Amazon now
If you’re fine with the camera being on display, then you might be better served with something like this Foscam FI9826W Wireless Ip Camera Webcam. This handy piece of kit allows you to view the footage on your mobile in real-time, wherever you are. In terms of aesthetics, it looks a little bit like a fancy webcam – not overly imposing. It is a cost-effective option for those who don’t want to shell out too much for a camera, but still need something of good quality. At night it is able to record up to 10m away, and you are able to control the ‘pan and tilt’ function remotely.
Get it on Amazon now
Spy Cameras and the Law
The law around use of spy cameras varies around the world. Before investing in one, always consult with your local law enforcement.
As a general guide, if the camera is on your private property, you are ok. If they are being used at a place of work, you should display a sign letting people know they could be filmed. One important point is that you shouldn’t place them in areas where people can reasonably expect some privacy – like the loo. But I don’t need to tell you not to go around putting spy cams in toilets. That’s some good common decency right there.
Using spy cams on other people’s private property can be iffy – secretly filming someone in their home is a clear invasion of privacy.
A key thing to remember is that recording with audio has different rules to recording without. There are more restrictions on what may or may not be recorded with audio, due to wiretapping laws. So again, be sure to check what the official line is in your country. For UK residents, see this section on domestic CCTV guidance.
To help you work out what kind of camera is going to best suit your needs, consider the following:
- Is there a power source near the intended location of the camera?
- Most cameras will require one unless they are battery-powered
- Battery-powered cameras can only run for a short amount of time
- Will the camera be recording at night?
- If so you will need an infrared camera or one with low light recording
- Infrared cameras cannot film through windows
- How much detail does the footage need to capture?
- If you need to clearly capture detail like faces or car registration plates, you will need to invest in a 1080p HD camera
- What distance do you need to capture?
- Make sure the night vision is powerful enough to reach the subjects. Cameras will usually quote a night vision range
- Do you need to store the footage?
- If you don’t need to store it, you could make do with a simple camera and receiver setup
- If you do, how much storage space will you need?
- Will you be filming constantly, or will it be motion-activated?
- Constant filming requires a nearby power source
- If motion-activated, it will only record if something moves in front of the camera
- Wireless range
- How far away will the receiver be?
- Are there any obstructions between the camera and receiver? A solid obstruction such as a wall can halve the range
- If you choose a wireless camera, will the signal be strong enough to reach the receiver?
Most Common Issues for Buyers
Here are some of the most frequent problems that new spy camera owners can run into, and how to avoid them.
Recording at night
If you need a camera that will record good-quality footage at night, then you should expect to pay a little bit more for it. A night-vision camera will use infrared light to produce clear footage. What many people don’t realise is that infrared waves don’t penetrate glass – only bounce back – so if you try to film through a window using a night-vision camera then it won’t work. The camera must be in the same environment as the subject.
Most spy and security cameras are analog, rather than digital (with the exception of HD cameras). This means that image quality is measured in television lines, or TVL. As a guide, 700TVL is approximately the lowest you should aim for if you want to capture footage that is of decent, usable quality. A spy pen, for perspective, would have around 420TVL. More on spy pens later.
People associate the word ‘wireless’ with being cord-free – understandably. With spy cameras, ‘wireless’ refers to transmitting a wireless signal, not power. So while you may choose a wireless camera, that doesn’t mean it will be cord-free, unless it is also battery-powered. The downside with battery-powered cameras is that they don’t run for very long.
9 times out of 10 you will be better off with a camera that isn’t wireless. There are various issues that pop up time and again with technology not working or signal interference. Wired cameras tend to be better quality, plus HD is more readily available with these models.
Do security cameras make noise?
Spy cameras do not usually make any noise. That would kind of give them away! However, if you’re using a big professional recorder, the hard drive can sometimes emit a humming sound. Most people get around this by installing the recorder somewhere out of the way, such as a cabinet or up in the loft.
Can I rent a CCTV camera instead of buying one?
It is possible to rent security camera systems, which is a good option if you need it for a temporary event such as a festival. However, if you will be using the system over a long period, it makes more sense to buy.
Can I connect my spy cam to my phone?
Yes. Spy cams that connect to Wi-Fi are really popular as they allow you to check what’s happening on your camera in real time. Not all cameras have this capability, but some do: like this mini battery-powered camera and this wireless HD hidden camera.
What about spy cam apps?
You can now theoretically turn your smartphone into a spy cam using apps like Secret Spy Camera Pro or ReconBot. But you need to be there to operate them, so they are more for short snippets than general surveillance, and they will only be as good as the quality of your phone camera.
How much storage do I need?
If you need your camera to record all the time, you will need a lot more storage space, so you should get a camera that records to a hard drive, like this Hikvision Turbo dome camera system. If you’re only after short clips, for example where the footage is motion-activated, then you can go for one that records to an SD card, such as this mini-battery-powered camera (mentioned above).
What kind of motion sensor is best?
There are two different types of motion sensor associated with spy cameras. The first is pixel-based, which is where the camera senses movement within the picture and starts filming. This is the basic level of motion sensor. The second kind is PIR (Passive Infrared Sensor) motion detection, which is triggered by body heat. Though less common, it is more sophisticated, but the downside is that the subject has to be within approximately 20 metres for it to activate. If you need the motion-activation to be triggered by something far away from the camera, then pixel-based detection is best.
Do I need an HD camera?
HD cameras offer much better image quality, but you may or may not need it. HD files are considerably bigger than SD ones, so require more storage space. If you need to capture a lot of detail, such as car registration plates or clear faces, then you should consider HD. Watch out for cameras that are advertised as HD but are actually not – a lot of pen cams will do this, but they fail to meet the HD image quality specifications despite being larger files.
Spy and CCTV cameras are a great security investment and offer peace of mind for the safety of your home, business and possessions. As long as they are used within the terms set out by the law in your country, they can be incredibly useful for a range of different scenarios. As they are a significant investment, be sure to think carefully about the features you require and do your research beforehand. And importantly, do not use them for the wrong reasons. You have been warned.