Challenges in Choosing Surveillance Cameras

Author: John Honovich, Published on May 10, 2009

With hundreds of manufacturers to choose from and little comparative information available, choosing the 'right' surveillance camera can be difficult. Worse yet, specifications provided by manufacturers are often unhelpful or misleading.

In the camera testing I am now performing, here are four fundamental challenges that continue to arise:

  • How well does the camera work in low light
  • How well does the camera work in bright sunlight
  • How much detail does the camera provide
  • How hard is it to configure the camera for optimal image quality

Handling Low Light

As critical as low light performance is for many security applications, it is as difficult to assess. While numbers are provided, they are not to be trusted. First, everyone measures low light performance slightly differently, making it difficult to compare. Secondly, most manufacturers only include partial information. Third, there is no standard or definition of what an acceptable image is, leaving this up to subjectivity of the manufacturer. All of this results in many manufacturers playing games with these specifications.

If you are trying to assess low light performance, throw these numbers out, do a test yourself in the location you want the camera to be deployed or ask someone you trust what their experience is with the camera. [Note: If you are interested in a comprehensive breakdown on low light performance, see Axis' note on measuring illumination.]

Dealing with Bright Sunlight

While darkness and sunlight may be opposites, they pose equally difficult challenges for surveillance applications. The problems with sunlight are not limited to outdoors. Anytime you have windows or doors that open to the outside (obviously very common), you are at risk to issues with bright sunlight ruining your surveillance video.

The category of cameras that are designed to address is are Wide Dynamic Range or WDR cameras. However, good luck comparing the specifications of various WDR cameras. Often cameras labeled WDR have no technical specifications and those that do usually measure the range in dBs. However, it's not clear how much better an image is created with a 100 dB range than a 60 dB range. Also, manufacturers may measure this differently.

Seeing Details

Capturing details of a scene are at the core of conducting surveillance. This is critical in determining if your camera meets its security objective and it's also increasingly important for reducing camera count (by using megapixel).

The stated resolution of a camera is the obvious primary indicator (e.g., Standard Resolution, 1.3MP, 2MP, etc.). However, this is better viewed as the pixel 'potential' than the definite resolution you will obtain.

First, lighting can dramatically reduce the actual details that your camera can produce. To the extent that you have issues with sunlight or darkness (which are very common), your camera will provide details far less than its stated resolution.

Secondly, and this is a special concern for megapixel cameras, not all megapixel cameras, even rated for the same pixel count will deliver the same level of detail.

Determining How Hard Configuration Is

When you see cameras at trade shows or from manufacturer supplied videos, they almost always look outstanding. This happens because:

  • Manufacturers have technical experts who know all the configuration options of a camera and have significant experience experimenting with various combinations of settings.
  • Manufacturers know what lighting conditions work best with their cameras and are careful to set up cameras to avoid known areas that expose flaws

If you are integrating or using cameras, you cannot avoid areas that need coverage and you are unlikely to have or want to spend the time becoming an expert at the camera's configurations.

As such, determining how well cameras work 'out of the box' is important. If a camera's image quality can only be made to work well with adjusting multiple settings, the risk of performance problems become high (especially if multiple techs are needed to setup cameras).

Equally critically, be careful in making judgments about camera performance based on manufacturer supplied videos. Like head shots of actors or people's wedding photos, they tend to show an ideal scenario, unlikely to be matched by real world use.


These are some key considerations for choosing surveillance cameras but certainly not the only ones. Other important topics include reliability, bandwidth/storage consumption, information security and more. I look forward to more discussion and debate on these topics.

Related Reports

IR Camera Reflection Test on Oct 17, 2016
All that might stand between good video and bad in your IR dome is a ring of foam rubber, keeping infrared from reflecting into the lens....
Bosch First Starlight 1080p Camera Tested on Oct 13, 2016
Bosch has released their first 'Starlight' 1080p camera, the Flexidome IP starlight 7000 VR. We tested this new dome against competitive super low...
4 Biggest Low Light Problems on Oct 10, 2016
100 integrators told IPVM what their biggest problems were with low light images. The most commonly cited themes were: Limited IR Range Uneven...
Samsung 'Q' Low-Cost 1080p Dome Tested on Oct 10, 2016
The most competitive part of the market is for low-cost cameras. Hanwha Techwin / Samsung has released its new low-cost Q series to go after this...
Axis 4MP Camera Tested (M3046-V) on Sep 28, 2016
Axis has brought 4MP to its camera line in the new M3046-V, the highest resolution model in their revamped M30 series. We bought and tested this...
History of Video Surveillance on Sep 22, 2016
This is a concise history of video surveillance covering the past decade.  The goal is to help professionals newer to the industry understand...
Camera Course September 2016 on Sep 15, 2016
This is the only independent surveillance camera course, based on in-depth product and technology testing. Lots of manufacturer training exists...
Hikvision 4K Camera Tested on Sep 09, 2016
Hikvision is the most common choice for low price entry level products but they are also competing with low light models, smart CODECs, WDR...
Pelco Optera 270° Camera Tested on Sep 06, 2016
Multi-imager cameras are typically 180° or 360°. Pelco has released a fixed 270° versions of their Optera intended to cover exterior building...
Panoramic Camera (Fisheye / Multi-Imager) Guide on Aug 31, 2016
Panoramic cameras, including fisheyes and multi-imagers, have become increasingly widespread, with most manufacturers offering fisheyes and an...

Most Recent Industry Reports

The Xiongmai Botnet 'Recall' Will Not Work on Oct 25, 2016
The Xiongmai 'recall' has been the topic of global news, following the unprecedented bot net attacks that use their equipment, among...
Hikvision Partners With Intel Movidius For Artificial intelligence Cameras on Oct 25, 2016
The world's largest camera manufacturer is partnering with the worlds largest semiconductor company to create a series of intelligent...
Intel Movidius Targets Video Surveillance Market on Oct 25, 2016
The most commonly used chips in IP cameras come from Ambarella, Hisilicon or TI. Now, Movidius, who Intel announced acquiring in September, is...
Favorite Access Control 2016 on Oct 25, 2016
Integrators told us "What is your favorite access control management software/system? Why?", and the responses are interesting indeed. While no...
Video Surveillance Manufacturers Risk Lawsuits For Botnet Attacks on Oct 24, 2016
The unprecedented scale of internet outages on October 21st from botnet attacks risk triggering lawsuits against video surveillance manufacturers,...
Mobile VMS Top Integrator Problems on Oct 24, 2016
In an IPVM survey, integrators report 4 problems most consistently with using mobile VMS applications: Network setup / cybersecurity...
Chinese Company Xiongmai Threatens Legal Action Against Western Accusers on Oct 24, 2016
The Chinese video surveillance manufacturer, Xiongmai, whose equipment numerous sources blame for driving massive Internet attacks over the past...
"WTF?!?!? Who is Brian Karas?!?" Exclaims Knightscope on Oct 21, 2016
Knightscope co-founder Stacy Stephens emailed us: He may not have intended to send it to us and he probably can figure out who Brian Karas is,...
Security Consultants Speak Episode 1 - Protus3 on Oct 21, 2016
This is a first of a series of conversations with security consultants. If you are a security consultant that wants to talk and can share frank...
Sony and Samsung Breaking VBR on Oct 21, 2016
For years, users have known variable bitrate (VBR) as one thing only: bandwidth varies, compression stays the same. This is not an accident but an...

The world's leading video surveillance information source, IPVM provides the best reporting, testing and training for 10,000+ members globally. Dedicated to independent and objective information, we uniquely refuse any and all advertisements, sponsorship and consulting from manufacturers.

About | FAQ | Contact