Security Camera Buyer's Guide
If you’re buying security cameras for the first time, all the specifications, acronyms, different brands, and options can be overwhelming. The last thing you want to do is buy a camera that ends up being useless for your location which why we compiled this security camera buying guide. Reading this guide will give you a basic understanding of what to look for when buying security cameras so you can get the right camera for the job.
If you’re looking for buying guides on other types of security equipment, we also have a DVR buying guide, NVR buying guide, and security camera system buying guides in the works.
TYPES OF SECURITY CAMERAS
Before you get into the nitty gritty of which features your security camera will have, you should know what type of camera you need first. Most locations will make do by using dome cameras, bullet cameras, or traditional box cameras and you can read our previous article to learn more about those types of surveillance cameras. However, there are certain applications that have non-standard requirements and need a non-standard solution.
Fisheye cameras look like little more than a small frisbee on your wall or ceiling and make use of an ultra-wide-angle fisheye lens to capture video in both 180° and 360° fields of view. These panoramic and hemispheric views let fisheye cameras cover the same amount of area that would normally require multiple regular CCTV cameras.
The locations that gain the most benefit from fisheye cameras are those that need to monitor a large area in high definition, but in the short to medium range. Think retail stores, large office spaces, restaurants, bars, etc.
Because fisheye cameras require high resolution to capture detailed video and specialized software to manage the video feed, they’re almost exclusively used in IP camera systems. This makes the cameras (and their respective systems) on the more expensive side which can be cost prohibitive for users with tight budgets. However, fisheye cameras are worth every penny.
View our selection of fisheye cameras.
PTZ cameras get their name from the pan, tilt, zoom functionality. This allows them to capture video in multiple areas of interest, at different FOVs, and at different distances from the camera. They can be controlled remotely via keyboard or joystick and can be programmed to automatically switch between preset locations or automatically follow a “patrol” path for the area.
What makes PTZ cameras especially useful is that they capture video at a high resolution (2MP+) and can zoom in on specific details over long distances. For example, we have one installed on our building and there’s a gas station roughly 2,000 feet away. The camera can zoom in on and capture details of the people filling up their vehicles while still being able to monitor the area around our building, which is impossible for any other type of camera.
Using a PTZ camera is only a sensible choice when you need to monitor multiple points of interest over a large open area. Shipyards, farmland, large parking lots, a large open warehouse, military bases, etc.
View our selection of PTZ cameras.
License plate recognition cameras capture and catalog license plates on vehicles that pass through the camera’s FOV. The vast majority of LPR cameras capture only black and white video due to the IR cut filter. This cancels out all ambient light and prevents the license plate from being washed out by the headlights.
LPR aren’tjust cameras. They’re a camera & software bundle because you need the software to detect, recognize, and catalog the license plates captured on camera. Without that software, it’s just a camera with an IR cut filter. The software also allows you to create a database of plates that can be used to create alarms, track arrival times, etc.
View our selection of LPR cameras.
Spy cameras are small cameras that are capable of discreetly and covertly monitoring an area. Spy cameras can be housed in motion detectors, sprinkler heads, clocks, and smoke detectors as well as tiny pinholes to prevent people from knowing that they’re being monitored. These covert cameras are capable of capturing 1080p video and most spy cameras can record video in very low light environments.
View our selection of spy cameras.
CCTV CAMERA SPECIFICATIONS
You can use any type of camera indoors, but any camera you install outdoors needs to be weather resistant. Exposure to the elements will damage, if not break, your camera leaving you with an expensive paper weight.
There are two main concerns for weather resistance and they’re dust / debris and moisture. If either one gets inside the camera housing, the internal electrical components can overheat, corrode, or short circuit.
While some cameras have “weatherproof” or “weather resistant” on their data sheets, you should only buy CCTV cameras with at least an IP66 weatherproof rating. IP66 is where complete weather protection begins so you can rest easy knowing you can install those cameras in virtually any climate. (Read more about what a camera’s IP rating means.)
Analog vs. HDTVI vs. IP
There are three types of security cameras worth mentioning; analog cameras, HD-TVI cameras, and IP cameras. The differences between these cameras are their type of video signal, how they transmit video, and the video resolutions they can capture.
Analog cameras: Traditional surveillance cameras that have been in use for going on 20 years. These low resolution, low cost cameras record in resolutions less than 720p and transmit video over coaxial cable.
IP cameras: Capture video at resolutions from 720p up to 8MP+ and transmit video over Cat5 ethernet cable. These cameras record the highest quality video, but also cost the most and they require an active broadband connection to transmit data.
HD TVI cameras: These cameras capture video from 720p to 3MP and transmit video over traditional coaxial cable.
HDTVI security cameras have become some of our most popular cameras because they’re capable of recording high definition video while still working with legacy RG59 Siamese cable runs. This makes them perfectly suited for locations that want to upgrade their existing systems without running a new cable network.
Focal Length & Field of View
A camera’s field of view (FOV) is represented by an angle (40°, 72°, 180°, etc.) which tells you how much of the area in front of the camera can be captured on video.
This angle is heavily dependent on a camera’s focal length, which is the size of the camera’s lens (2.8mm, 8mm, 100mm, etc.). The shorter the lens, the wider the field of view and the more horizontal area that can be viewed, but at a shorter distance away from the camera. The opposite is true as well. Longer lenses have narrower fields of view, which capture less horizontal area, but are better at long distance recording.
So, if you want to install a security camera in your home’s living room, you’ll need a camera that has a shorter lens (~2.8mm) for that wider field of view to cover as much of the room as possible. If you want to monitor a parking lot that’s 200 feet away from a central building, you’ll need a camera with a long lens (50mm+) to capture details clearly.
2.8mm -> 103°
3.6mm -> 82°
4mm -> 73°
6mm -> 46°
12mm -> 22°
16mm -> 18°
129mm -> 2.11°
* Bear in mind, FOV’s can vary from manufacturer to manufacturer and image sensor to image sensor so be sure to double check your FOV before buying.
There are also two types of lenses; 1) fixed, which are lenses with a single focal lens (2.8mm, 3.6mm, etc.) and 2) varifocal, which are lenses that have an adjustable focal length (2.8 - 12mm, 4 - 129mm, etc.). Varifocal lenses are more versatile than fixed lenses since they can be adjusted to focus on objects at varying distances from the camera.
Your CCTV camera’s light sensitivity specification tells you how long that camera can record in color. The lower the minimum illumination the less ambient light is needed to maintain color recording.
If the camera has IR LEDs, an infrared cut filter (ICR), or electronic day/night functionality, this number will generally be irrelevant to you. Your camera will automatically switch over to night vision mode to clearly monitor in low to zero light environments.
The only time you have to worry about this specification is if you’re installing a camera that doesn’t have night vision capabilities. Then you’ll need to find a low lux camera with the right minimum illumination for your application.
Below is a quick guideline for the lux levels of different times of day and night.
|100,000 - 130,000 Lux|
|Full daylight, indirect sunlight||10,000 - 20,000 Lux|
|Overcast day||1,000 Lux|
|Indoor office||200 - 400 Lux|
|Very dark day||100 Lux|
|Deep twilight||1 Lux|
|Full moon||0.1 Lux|
|Quarter moon||0.01 Lux|
|Moonless clear night sky||0.001 Lux|
There are super low lux cameras that capture full color video even in incredibly low light conditions, but that doesn’t mean they’re capturing the details you need. Things like shapes, facial features, and objects can be completely hidden by dark shadows.
Night vision cameras are capable of clearly capturing video at any time of day or night and whether an object is in a slightly shaded area or totally hidden in complete darkness.
Infrared LEDs: When ambient lighting dips below a set point, the camera’s IR LEDs turn on and floods the area with infrared light. The camera’s image sensor then uses the IR light in place of visible light.
Infrared Cut Filter: Like IR LEDs, the cut filter only allows infrared light to pass through the camera’s lens to the image sensor which then uses the IR light in place of visible light.
Thermal: Thermal cameras use specialized technology to pick up on differences in temperatures within a camera’s FOV. These cameras don’t capture fine details like regular cameras and only record vague shapes in different colors corresponding to their temperature.
The most common type of night vision camera makes use of IR LEDs since they record in color during the day and then switch to black and white mode at night. Cameras with an ICR are typically in black and white mode all day and are typically used in license plate recognition applications. Thermal cameras aren’t widely used since they're best suited for detection rather than monitoring.
View our selection of night vision cameras.
One of the primary weaknesses of a security camera is that it can’t work if someone breaks it. (Weird, right?) This is precisely why many criminals try to damage or tamper with them before committing a crime. Most surveillance cameras aren’t built to be vandal resistant, so their housings, lenses, lens covers, and mounting brackets aren’t sturdy enough to stand up to a thrashing. If they’re struck, they can easily break or have their FOV altered enough to not capture worthwhile footage.
Vandal proof cameras are built to withstand punishment. Depending on their vandal rating, they come with hardened metal or plastic housings with polycarbonate lens covers as well as a metal mounting bracket and mounting ring to keep their FOV from being altered.
If you’re installing a camera that needs to be vandal resistant, don’t skimp on protection. Get an IK10 vandal rated camera (the highest rating) so it’s rugged enough to take whatever is thrown its way.
View our selection of vandal proof cameras.
Wide Dynamic Range
The WDR feature on surveillance cameras helps them capture clear video feed when installed near entrances, exits, and exterior windows. The harsh difference between the foreground and background lighting can cause details to be washed out or hidden in shadows. Wide dynamic range corrects that out by taking the brightest and darkest version of the video and overlaying them atop one another create a balanced video feed where the previously hidden details are clearly visible.
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