An introduction to IP surveillance cameras
Get your head around some network video camera concepts
There’s nothing better than video proof when your neighbour’s dog keeps crapping on your lawn, when Australia Post reckons they knocked on your door but didn’t or when some ice addict decides your house looks ripe for a break-in. But what sort of camera will get the job done? How do you actually use and set up these cameras? That’s what we’ll spend the next few hundred words exploring.
First thing you need to decide is if the cameras are going indoors or outdoors. Obviously, a camera placed outside needs to be somewhat weatherproof and also needs some sort of power connection. Most outdoor security cameras support Power Over Ethernet (PoE), which sends electricity and data over a normal CAT5/6 cable, killing two birds with one stone. There are outdoor cameras utilising wi-fi, but they still need electricity to operate and if you’re going to pay to get a power socket installed for a camera, you may as well run a data cable instead and enjoy the reliability and speed of Ethernet over wi-fi.
With PoE cameras, you don’t necessarily need an expensive PoE switch. PoE injectors sit between the switch and the camera, providing a cheap way to get power to your cameras. It’s often better to spend $30 or so per camera on PoE injectors than hundreds, or thousands on a PoE switch, where you’re paying extra for all the ports to be powered. Network video recording devices (which we will get to later) also often have a PoE switch built in, negating the need for a separate PoE switch or using PoE injectors.
You obviously want a camera with the best video quality you can afford. How many times have you seen blurry or pixelated CCTV footage on the news that looks practically useless at identifying licence plates or faces? You want a minimum of 720p (aka 1 megapixel), ideally 1080p (aka 2.1 megapixels), but resolution isn’t everything – bitrate also matters. The higher the bitrate of the footage, the more latitude you have in zooming in whilst retaining legibility. Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to know from specs alone what the output quality will look like. It’s worth chucking the model number of the camera you’re interested in, into YouTube and seeing if someone has uploaded a sample.
Many cameras now have infra-red (IR), or night vision capabilities. Be weary of this feature, particularly outdoors, as the IR beam on cheaper cameras may not project very far, only illuminating a small area. It may be worth also installing a traditional sensor light at the same time and area as the camera, so if there’s motion detected, you get proper flood lighting to improve the quality of the video instead of simple infra-red light.
For basic cameras to use indoors, D-Link, Netgear, TP-Link and Belkin sell a variety of units that are pretty much the same. If you’re after something a bit higher quality, or to use outdoors, brands like Foscam, Hikvision, Ubiquiti and Axis make higher end units.
A huge thing to consider is how to view and store the footage your camera or cameras generate. Popular these days are cloud services. These are generally vendor specific – for example Netgear’s Arlo cameras have their own service, TP-Link cameras use the “TP-Link Cloud” and D-Link has its mydlink service. Cloud services let you store a week or so for free and if you want more storage, you need to pay. You can pay more or less depending on the quality of the vision recorded and how many frames per second stored. You then access your recorded footage from a smartphone app or web browser.
If you’re unhappy with the included cloud service, there are third party ones such as Mangocam, CameraFTP and AngelCam. If your camera supports the ONVIF standard, it will work with the plethora of third party security camera software packages. Practically all NVRs and cloud services let you use your smartphone to view a live stream of the camera from any location.
The downside of cloud services are that they use precious, precious bandwidth. It’s possible that your Internet connection can’t handle uploading video to the cloud without interfering with your regular Internet usage and the more cameras you have, the more bandwidth you need. It can also be cheaper to store video locally than on a cloud service in the long run. You may also want to store footage for a while and be able to go back to review footage from weeks or months ago, or store higher quality video than most cloud services allow. This is where storing the video yourself can be useful.
Most camera manufacturers also sell what’s called a network video recorder (NVR), which pretty much acts like a VCR for your cameras. The cameras plug into the NVR box via Ethernet cable and the NVR has in it one or more hard drives and a web interface that you can interact and configure the cameras with.
NAS manufacturers such as QNAP and Synology include surveillance software on their NAS units, which can be handy if you already own one. Their surveillance software turns your NAS into an NVR, so you can store your video footage alongside your backups and other data.