IP Network Cameras

There are a number of important factors to be considered when selecting an IP camera. It is quite likely that you will need a range of cameras, each optimised for to its location and installation environment.

Much like a car dashcam, you really want IP cameras to be 'fit and forget'. Most of the time, you won't want to know about the cameras and the media that they have captured. When the time comes though, you need to be confident that the required media (and potential evidence) was captured and can be easily retrieved.

Note that we are not covering multi-channel, continuous video recording devices in this section as this is not really good use of IP cameras in our view.

Media Consumption

The most important factor in deciding what IP cameras to use is this: How do you want to consume the content their produce? What are you looking to do with the still images and/or video captured? Only when you have an answer to this question, will you be able to make an informed purchase decision. This will determine the interfaces and services you need on your IP cameras.

Typically, this will involve searching and browsing through the captured media. To make this as easy as possible, it is best to store it in such as way that this is easily done. In our home all media is stored in a separate folder for each year, then zone, then month - e.g. Cameras/2018/Drive/01/20180115_134556.mpg. This makes it very easy to locate or search for footage on a particular date, zone, etc.

Media Storage

The second most important factor in choosing IP cameras is where do you want to store the captured media? A lot of IP cameras come with cloud storage capability but you are often tied to this cloud service and may also have to subscribe to a service or purchase additional storage space. Whilst cloud storage services are useful for sharing content with several people, they are a weakness in a security product.

For reliability, security and privacy reasons we do not use any IP cameras that use cloud storage. Our smart home does synchronise some media to (our chosen) cloud storage service, to enable the whole family to gain access to it.

Resolution

An important factor in choosing which digital camera to buy is its resolution. Higher resolution provides a sharper and clearer picture but at the cost of higher bandwidth and storage requirements. Entry-level security cameras typically work at a resolution of 640 × 480 pixels. Many of the cheaper cameras only support 1280 × 720 pixels (HD) and this is about as low a resolution as you would want to go. Many support 1920 × 1080 pixels or full-HD video and this is the lowest resolution we use in our smart home.

Lower resolutions are fine if you want a general view of activity but if you want to identify faces, require a wider field of view or cover longer ranges, then a higher resolution is required.

Aspect Ratio

The aspect ratio of the images are typically 4:3 or 16:9. This could be important, depending on your application and installation environment.

Indoor v Outdoor

If the camera is to be used outside, it is important that the camera is designed to used like this. Outdoor IP cameras have moisture resistant cases and seals for the required cables. When installing cameras outside, it is important that they don't face directly at sun, as this will damage the sensor.

Day & Night

Some cameras support the capability to work at night. Cheaper ones often have IR LED lighting that provides them with the ability to light up the area in front of the camera at night but, these have limited range and this is not a true night time capability. True day/night cameras have sensors that work in low light conditions combined with a switchable IR cut-off filter and they usually switch from colour to black & white in this mode.

Viewing Angle / Field Of View

Most cameras have a fixed viewing angle and field of view. Some support optical or digital zoom though. Some cameras are also available with different lenses, for different installation environments. It is important that you choose one that covers the required area for a given installation location.

360º View

The AXIS M3007-PV is an example of a camera with a 360º view.

Pan, Zoom & Tilt (PZT)

Pan, zoom and tilt (PZT) functionality is required if your camera is covering a large area and is often being monitored by a person. It allows them to look at specific areas or objects in more detail and track them across the field of view. This is less useful for unmonitored cameras but can be useful during the initial installation.

Enclosure

Outdoor cameras generally have a fully waterproof enclosure. Some are also vandal resistant. Others have built-in lighting using LEDs. Some also have shades but be aware that these can restrict the movement of both manually installed cameras and those with PZT.

Power

The power required is often an important installation factor and a suitable power supply or feed may not be close to the installation point. Consideration should also be given as to whether a protected power supply is required, in case of mains power failure. You don't really want this key security feature to fail if the power was cut to your home.

The ability to support Power over Ethernet (PoE) is becoming more common. This simplifies the installation and wiring by powering the camera over the Ethernet network cable. This requires a switch or router that supports this capability too.

Network

Our view is that wired networks are more reliable, more secure and provide higher bandwidth. We avoid wireless networks where ever possible. That said, sometimes it is not physically possible to run cables to all locations and a wireless network might be the only solution. Bear in mind that Wi-Fi is a weak point in any security system as it is subject to interference and is more easily compromised.

All of our IP cameras are connected to a Gigabit switch that has a protected power supply, so they all continue working in the event of a power failure.

Security

A lot of security cameras on the market have vulnerabilities but the biggest of these occurs when users don't change the default security settings:

  • You must always set/change and admininstrator password.
  • You should create another user on the camera with viewing only permissions and use this user id on a daily basis, rather than use trhe camera with as the administrator user.
  • You should also switch of camera services that you are not using.
  • You should ensure you are using the latest firmware on your IP camera, as manuifacturers often update this to address security issues and fix bugs.

Audio

Some cameras support audio capture and transmission as part of the video feed. A suitable mechanism for viewing and listening to the audio is required. This can be useful for external cameras and some also support external microphones to capture audio from a better location, e.g. microphone at ground level for a camera mounted up at roof level.

Triggers

It's really important to understand how you want to trigger your cameras to capture images and video. Obviously, this is not an issue if your cameras are doing 24 x 7 recording to storage though. These are the various trigger options.

  • Some cameras provide electrical connections for a sensor, such as a PIR sensor or door contact sensor.
  • Motion detection based on analysing the current view.
  • Audio trigger based on noise level. Requires the camera to have a microphone
  • Some cameras support face detection and recognition and this can be configured as a trigger.

In our experience, motion detection is prone to false events. This can be from birds flying past, insects, trees blowing in the wind, clouds overhead, washing blowing on the washing line, a light being switched on, etc. It is much better to use an external trigger such as a PIR sensor or door contact sensor but this assumes the camera has a suitable interface to then take action.

Actions

Equally important as the triggers is the action taken when one of the triggers occurs. Most IP cameras can be configured to perform specific actions on triggering. Typically this may be to FTP or email an image or video to a specific server/service. This can be useful if all you want to do is to capture the footage. One advantage of this technique is that the camera can often capture a few seconds before the trigger occurred.

Our smart home is much smarter than this though. Because it has whole home context, it 'sees' all the triggers and can intelligently determine what action to take. Typically this involves making an authenticated request for an image or video clip, which is then stored locally, using our preferred file structure and naming convention. Our smart home will then see these new files being stored and can process them.

Search & Retrieval

As mentioned before, it is really important that you can easily search and retrieve captured media at a later date. Those cameras tied to cloud storage services don't store media for long and when the time comes and you need to look back a few days or weeks, you may find the required media has been deleted.

Backup

If media is being centrally stored, then it is important that a backup is made. We use an automated process to achieve this.

Archiving

Archiving of 'old' media ensures it is kept for usage later if required and also ensures that there is enough storage space for new media being captured. Typically, we archive off old footage at the end of each year.

Software & Apps

There are various ways to access netcams from a web browser, to Smartphone apps. Our preferred method (which works both at home and away from home) is the iPhone 4 Cam Viewer app. These cameras require you to set up routes through your firewall, if you want to access them remotely and the feeds should be authenticated (best to do this anyway). Some cameras also allow you to encrypt the video feed.

Whole Home Context

Our smart home has whole home context and we use this to adapt the behaviour of all of the IP cameras under its control. This means the cameras work differently depending on whether our home is occupied or not, who is at home, etc. The mains reason to do this is because we don't need lots of pictures and video of us moving around our home and garden.

Because all of our IP cameras are under smart home control, we have also enabled request management, so that multiple triggers do not drive competing requests for IP camera resources. This is effectively an intelligent clash management and load management system.

Network Monitoring

Our smart home has a network monitoring capability and we use this to check that all cameras are still online and connected to the network. If a camera disconnects from the network, we will be alerted to the fact.

Face Recognition

Some higher end IP cameras can do face recognition. This is usually limited to a small set of known individuals though. Because our smart home has access to all camera media captured, it can process it straight away and generated alerts or take action based on known or unknown people being spotted. This is covered in more detail in our face recognition project.

Artificial Intelligence

Our smart home has Artificial Intelligence (AI) and we can use this with all our cameras as it knows about them all and models them all, including all of their capabilities. So for example we can ask our smart home: "show me who is at the front door" and it will send an image or video clip.

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