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.

Conclusion

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

Axis Door Station Tested (A8105-E) on Jul 19, 2017
Axis continues their push into niche markets, especially audio, with network speakers, an IP horn, and video door stations. We bought and tested...
Axis P3225 Mk II Tested Vs. Original on Jun 20, 2017
Axis has released a number of 'Mk II' versions of their cameras, which are the same fundamental camera but with specific improvements. We tested...
VMS UI - Light vs Dark Preferences on Jun 16, 2017
Several VMS manufacturers have the ability to choose a user interface with either a light or dark color theme. 150+ integrators told us which they...
Axis 20MP Q1659 Camera Tested on Jun 13, 2017
Axis has joined the super high resolution camera trend with their Q1659, a 20MP model equipped with Canon's APS-C sensor. We tested the Q1659...
Avigilon Announces New Lowest Cost Camera (Mini Domes) on Jun 06, 2017
Avigilon's first Micro Dome (see IPVM's test) is now 4 years old. Since that time, low-cost fixed focal Chinese manufacturer dome usage has...
Samsung SmartCam A1 Totally Wireless System on Jun 06, 2017
Hanwha is keeping the Samsung brand alive in consumer cameras with the SmartCam A1, a new offering combining an autotracking 1080p camera with base...
IP Camera - 15 Year Shootout on May 22, 2017
How far have IP cameras come? We bought and tested 4 cameras across the past 15 years to understand how much and where performance has...
48MP 180 Camera (Digital Watchdog) Test on May 10, 2017
Camera resolution continues to advance, with Digital Watchdog offering the MegaPIX PANO 48MP 180° camera, the highest resolution mainstream camera...
Hanwha 9MP Fisheye Camera Tested (PNF-9010R) on May 09, 2017
12MP sensor fisheye panoramic cameras are becoming increasingly common. We have tested Hikvision's DS-2CD63C2F as well as Panasonic's SFV481 4K...
Axis Lowest Cost Outdoor IR Camera M2025-LE Tested on Apr 24, 2017
Axis has lagged offering low cost IR cameras while their Asian competitors have made IR standard even in their most entry level cameras. Recently,...

Most Recent Industry Reports

Axis Door Station Tested (A8105-E) on Jul 19, 2017
Axis continues their push into niche markets, especially audio, with network speakers, an IP horn, and video door stations. We tested Axis'...
Manufacturer Favorability Guide on Jul 19, 2017
This 120 page PDF guide may be downloaded inside by all IPVM members. It covers our 20 manufacturer favorability rankings and 20 manufacturer...
$8 Billion Utility Georgia Power Enters Surveillance Business Offering Avigilon And Genetec on Jul 19, 2017
Utilities are typically considered major customers of surveillance integrators but one utility, Georgia Power, with $8+ billion in annual revenue...
Knightscope Laughs off Robot Drowning on Jul 18, 2017
A day after a Knightscope robot drowned, Knightscope has issued an 'official statement' making fun of the issue: The implied message is that...
Microsoft Video AI Cloud Services Examined on Jul 18, 2017
Microsoft has released one of the most amazing video analytics marketing videos ever. In it, they detect oil spills, track individual people giving...
Hikvision USA Head of Cybersecurity Exits on Jul 18, 2017
Hikvision USA's Head of Cybersecurity has exited the company. In this note, we review the move, share Hikvision's feedback and examine the...
'Suicidal' Knightscope Robot Drowns on Jul 17, 2017
Knightscope continues its hyper growth, at least when it comes to controversy, this time with a 'suicidal' robot in Washington DC. And here is...
March Networks Company Profile on Jul 17, 2017
March Networks was one of the most well-known video surveillance manufacturers of the 2000s. In 2012, March was acquired by Chinese / American...
Milestone Beats OnSSI In Court on Jul 17, 2017
The litigation between former partners Milestone and OnSSI has finished, confirmed by both parties. In April 2016, OnSSI sued Milestone and in...
Power For Burglar Alarms on Jul 14, 2017
In order to operate, alarm panels require the high voltages found in electrical outlets be converted to the low voltages they run on. In this...

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