Challenges in Choosing Surveillance Cameras

By: 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.

Conclusion

Related Reports

Integrated IR Camera Usage Statistics 2019 on Oct 21, 2019
Virtually every IP camera now comes with integrated IR but how many actually make use of IR or choose 'super' low light cameras without IR? In...
Pelco Sarix Pro3 Camera Tested on Oct 16, 2019
Pelco has released their Sarix Professional Series 3 cameras, claiming "more security detail in challenging scenes with excellent low light and...
Avigilon H5A Analytic Cameras Tested on Oct 07, 2019
Avigilon has released its H5A analytic cameras, claiming to "detect more objects with greater accuracy even in crowded scenes." We tested the...
Wide Dynamic Range (WDR) Guide on Oct 01, 2019
Understanding wide dynamic range (WDR) is critical to capturing high quality images in demanding conditions. However, with no real standards, any...
Vivotek 4K S-Series Camera Tested on Sep 30, 2019
Vivotek's highest-end S-series camera claims "Supreme Night Visibility", "Smart IR II", "Smart Stream II", "WDR Pro for unparalleled visibility in...
Uniview Prime Series 4K Camera Tested on Sep 18, 2019
Is the new Uniview 'Prime' better than the more expensive existing Uniview 'Pro'? In August, IPVM tested Uniview 4K 'Pro' but members advocated...
Panasonic 4K Camera Tested (WV-S2570L) on Sep 13, 2019
Panasonic has released their latest generation 4K dome, the WV-S2570L, claiming "Extreme image quality allows evidence to be captured even under...
WDR Camera Mega Shootout 2019 - Avigilon, Axis, Bosch, Dahua, Hanwha, Hikvision, Panasonic, Vivotek on Sep 04, 2019
This is the biggest WDR Shootout ever, with 23 cameras from 8 manufacturers: We included true multi-exposure WDR and non-WDR models, ranging...
Uniview Pro 4K Camera Tested (IPC3238ER3-DVZ) on Aug 29, 2019
In our 8MP / 4K Fixed Lens Camera Shootout, Uniview's low end 8MP was firmly in the middle of the pack. Does their higher end Pro Series 4K camera...
Wyze Image Quality Tested vs Axis, Hikvision And Nest on Aug 27, 2019
With Wyze's new AI feature, it is strong at analytics, but how good is the camera's image quality? Is it just as good as incumbents like Axis,...

Most Recent Industry Reports

Access Control Door Controllers Guide on Oct 22, 2019
Door controllers are at the center of physical access control systems connecting software, readers, and locks. Despite being buried inside...
Alarm.com Acquires OpenEye on Oct 21, 2019
Alarm.com is targeting commercial expansion and now they have a commercial cloud VMS with the acquisition of OpenEye. In this note, based on...
Government-Owned Hikvision Wants To Keep Politics Out Of Security on Oct 21, 2019
'Politics' made Hikvision the goliath it is today. It was PRC China 'politics' that created Hikvision, funded it, and blocked its foreign...
Integrated IR Camera Usage Statistics 2019 on Oct 21, 2019
Virtually every IP camera now comes with integrated IR but how many actually make use of IR or choose 'super' low light cameras without IR? In...
Alarm Veteran "Demands A Criminal Investigation" Of UL on Oct 18, 2019
The Interceptor's Project pressure against UL continues to rise. Following Keith Jentoft's allegation that "UL Has Blood On Their Hands", Jentoft...
Camect "Worlds Smartest Camera Hub" Tested on Oct 18, 2019
Camect is a Silicon Valley startup that claims the "Smartest AI Object Detection On The Market", detecting not only people and vehicles, but...
Hikvision Global News Reports Directory on Oct 17, 2019
Hikvision has received the most global news reporting of any video surveillance company, ever, ranging from the WSJ, the Financial Times, Reuters,...
Camera Calculator V3.1 Release Improves User Experience on Oct 17, 2019
IPVM has released a new version of our Camera Calculator, V3.1, with significant user experience improvements, a new development plan, and an...
Securing Access Control Installations Tutorial on Oct 17, 2019
The physical security of access control components is critical to ensuring that a facility is truly secure. Otherwise, the entire system can be...
Access Control Course Fall 2019 - Last Chance on Oct 17, 2019
Register Now - Fall 2019 Access Control Course. Thursday, October 17th is the last day to register. IPVM offers the most comprehensive access...