Surveillance camera manufacturers are always producing new technology, and it’s human nature to want it. After all, who wouldn’t want a 7K HD Pro camera for a crisp and detailed image of a cityscape or an industrial warehouse? Well, you. Unfortunately, your monitors won’t display that resolution anytime soon, no matter what your new camera specs say (especially since you’d be hard-pressed to find anything better than a 4K monitor at the moment). It turns out the newest surveillance cameras are a bit before their time.
Video Compression & Storage: A Brief History
We all know the newest surveillance cameras are increasing in resolution with each iteration, but what does that mean for you? It means you need more and more storage space and bandwidth to support the massive amounts of data that your servers need to handle. In fact, any meetings about new surveillance cameras will undoubtedly require your network administrator’s presence.
Higher resolution equals more data, which means your company or agency will have to purchase additional equipment to support the network. To combat the enormous loads of data, image software must compress the data, a process which has improved over time.
It used to be common for security cameras to run on analog; in fact, some manufacturers still sell them today. With analog, each camera must connect to a Digital Video Recorder (DVR), where the data is recorded, processed, and stored. It’s a relatively cheap and straightforward configuration, but it comes with a major setback: it can’t handle very much data. Analog cameras produce a low resolution and aren’t effective for zooming in and retrieving fine details.
Since analog, we have been in the rise of IP (Internet Protocol) cameras, where the data is transferred over a computer network and the Internet. Because of this shift, it has become necessary for the transferred data to be compressed in order for the servers to handle it. This started with M-JPEG.
In this process, each video frame is compressed as an individual JPEG image. The main benefit is that loss of a single frame won’t affect the footage because each frame is converted independently of the others; this also makes it useful for analyzing footage. However, this standard doesn’t use any compression techniques to reduce the overall data. It also produces lower-quality images compared to later standards, such as H.264.
H.264 & Beyond
A lot of changes happened since the introduction of M-JPEG (such as the adoption of MPEG-4), but the most relevant compression standard today is H.264. Currently considered one of the most common methods for compressing and distributing video, H.264 is a process that cuts data to about a quarter of its original size. It does this by only refreshing the changes in each frame, instead of compressing every frame individually, even if there were no changes from the frame before it. The image quality is consistently better than M-JPEG and MPEG-4, plus it requires less bandwidth.
While this is the currently adopted standard, there are potential successors such as the likely H.265 (or HEVC), which can compress the data down to a sixteenth of its original size and uses much less bandwidth than H.264.
(Source: Video Converter Factory)
Manufacturers are Leading the Industry
The problem today is VMS (video management software) platforms and server manufacturers are trying to play catch-up. Camera manufacturers are constantly putting forth the latest and greatest cameras, but even with an H.264 compression, servers and VMS platforms cannot handle the massive amounts of data these high-resolution cameras produce. End users are left dissatisfied with the image quality or have to fork out a ton of money just to increase bandwidth or add servers and other equipment.
For example, to run a 20-megapixel camera today, you would have to spend thousands of dollars per camera to set up a dedicated link. The newest surveillance cameras aren’t always the best in this case.
How to Pick the Best Camera for Your Needs
So if the newest surveillance cameras are too powerful and expensive to use, how do you decide which cameras to purchase? While we recommend speaking to a security systems integrator who can identify cameras that satisfy your needs and work within your budget, the most important thing to understand is that your camera should reflect your goals.
Video Resolution: The 4 Levels of Surveillance
First, you need to consider the clarity and depth (zoom) you need from your camera, both of which are determined by your surveillance goals. We’ve identified four different levels of surveillance, each requiring more depth and image clarity than the last.
- Level 1: General Overview—you want to monitor an area but aren’t concerned with fine details
- Level 2: Detection—you want to be able to discern and identify objects from its surroundings
- Level 3: Identify—you want to see specific features on a person’s face so you can identify them
- Level 4: Small Print/License Plate Recognition—you want to read small print or license plates
Range of View
You’ll also need to consider how much range you want your cameras to cover. Do you need to only cover a small, defined area? Then your camera(s) doesn’t need to have a wide range of view. If you need to cover all directions from a single point, however, you will want a 360° camera. The wider the range, the more expensive the camera, so make sure you only purchase what you need.
Active or Passive?
Another thing you’ll want to consider is how the footage will be viewed: actively or passively?
Actively viewed footage will be monitored by a staff member as it occurs, which means you will be searching for security issues as they happen. In addition to paying staff members to monitor the footage, you will also have to pay more to ensure a high-quality stream and image. Also, assuming you have multiple cameras being streamed at once, you will have to purchase enough storage space to hold the massive data load.
Passively viewed footage is just the opposite. Instead of watching a footage stream, you will view the footage when you know or think something has already occurred. The benefit is that you potentially save costs on manpower and storage (depending on the number of cameras), but the drawback is that you are reactive—not proactive—to incidents. This option is more common for smaller agencies or those on a tight budget.
Don’t Purchase the Newest Surveillance Cameras — Yet
While camera manufacturers make great cameras, you’ll want to wait before you write a check for their 7K HD Pro camera. Manufacturers are pushing the industry, forcing everyone else to catch up and leaving end-users like you with a hefty bill and a less-than-adequate video resolution.
As the technology advances on the VMS and server sides, you can expect for the higher-resolution cameras to find a place in your network. In the meantime, before you purchase any surveillance cameras, consider your goals and whether or not those needs can be satisfied by an older or lower-resolution camera, potentially with less functionality. As always, we recommend consulting a security systems integrator and your network administrator before making any final decisions.
In the comments below, tell us what you think about the newest surveillance cameras and any problems/successes you may have experienced. And as always, be sure to share and subscribe for future content!