DIY Security Cameras Technical Guide

Choosing the best security camera system to buy is not easy.  Although you can purchase very high quality cameras for affordable prices there are many different kinds of cameras making it much more difficult to know what to buy. 

Since I’ve gone through the process of buying, testing, and installing a lot of products, I’m going to describe the capabilities and features that i think are important and provide some guidance on how to navigate through the confusion so you can make the best choice for yourself.

I want to apologize in advance for the length of this write-up.  This is a complicated subject and it is difficult to provide useful information without getting into some of the specifics.  This is not meant to be the ultimate reference for the technology and products, so it isn’t an exhaustive “deep dive” but hopefully you will find this more useful than the superficial overview typically published online.

I’m not going to recommend specific models or brands as my choices continue to change and evolve as the products change.  I will describe below the features, functions, and important considerations when choosing digital security cameras so you can make your own informed decision based on your unique requirements, budget, and personal preference. 

Modern security cameras are based on a solid state image sensor.  These are specialized computer chips that are photosensitive – they convert light to a series of electrical signals that can be converted into an image that you can see.  The technology continues to evolve with new cameras providing ever increasing resolution, color quality, and reliability at lower cost.

The most common resolution is similar to high definition (HD) television quality with a resolution of 1080p.  Slightly lower resolution cameras with 720p are also widely available.  At the other ends of the range there are very inexpensive cameras available with lower standard definition (SD) resolution of 480p and there are very high resolution cameras with 4K/Ultra HD 3840p resolution or even higher.

Physical Features
In addition to resolution, cameras differ in their physical capabilities.  Some cameras are suitable for indoor use; others are specially designed to withstand the elements and are certified for outdoor or rugged environments.   Built-in microphones are more common now and other cameras may have an audio jack for connecting an external microphone.

One of the most common additional features is a built-in motorized zoom lens that can also be moved side-to-side and up-or-down under (remote) software control.  These so-called PTZ (pan-tilt-zoom) features have evolved from the cinema and movie industry and are especially useful for outdoor cameras.

Network Connection
To be useful, you’ve got to get the video out of the camera and send it somewhere.  Originally, security cameras were analog and typically used multiple wires with either composite video (coaxial cable) or component video connections – but this isn’t worth delving into unless you want a history lesson as I don’t recommend messing around with analog cameras at all anymore.  Modern cameras are all digital and use the same networking technology as computers, smartphones, and tablets.

These “IP Cameras” can connect to the network using either wired Ethernet or Wi-Fi.  One thing to note is that most IP Cameras use an older 10 megabit (10 mb) or 100 bit Ethernet  speed and not the newer 1000mb (Gigabit) Ethernet.  All newer local networks with faster speeds are fully backward compatible so this isn’t a big problem but you should be aware of the potential for a speed mismatch.

Wireless Wi-Fi networks have evolved through several generations of standards.  Most IP Cameras only support the older 802.11b 2.4 Ghz frequency Wi-Fi networks.  Although modern Wi-Fi access points and routers still support 802.11b along with the faster 802.11n and the newest 802.11ac, some installations turn off the slower 802.11b range so you have to make sure your Wi-Fi network still has 802.11b enabled.

IP cameras vary by manufacturer – some cameras have models that only have a wired Ethernet connection, some have only a Wi-Fi connection, and some have both.  You’ll have to look carefully at the technical specs (ugh!) to determine which network connections are available.  And pay close attention to the product model numbers – with many IP cameras, the difference is only one small letter at the end of a long, cryptic model code.  If you order incorrectly, you’ll be delivered a camera that doesn’t have the connection you need for your home network.

Power Supply
Cameras are sophisticated electronic devices with networking, computing, and image processing hardware built-in so a good power supply is very important.  The most common options are a standard plug-in power supply (the so-called “wall wart”), battery operation (one-time or re-chargeable batteries), and Power over Ethernet (PoE).

Local Image Storage
All IP Cameras will give you a live, real-time image of what the camera lens sees.  For some smart home uses, this may be sufficient but most of us want some kind of storage – we have a life and are not planning on sitting in front our computer or smartphone watching the video feed 24 x 7.  The choice of storage options is intertwined with software and automation systems (described in the next sections), but it useful to know that many IP Cameras will include a slot right inside the camera or camera base that allows you to insert a small memory card, just like a digital camera.

The local storage card slot will be empty but you can plug-in a standard SD memory card or a Micro SD memory card.  This is a handy way to have basic no-hassle image storage.   Without any software on your computer, smartphone, or tablet, the IP camera, on it’s own, will store video to the memory card.  With the included manufacturer software you can view the recorded video directly or remove the memory card and use it offline with your favorite video playback or editing software.

Cloud Storage
In addition to the local storage option, IP cameras provide the capability to send video to another system for viewing and storage.  The camera will stream the live image and the computer/server on the other end is responsible for handling the storage and later retrieval.  This can get complicated quickly with a lot of options, operating modes, and confusing details, but the choice boils down to two options – sending the video to the cloud or sending the video to another computer that is installed in your house and connected to your local area network.

Cloud based storage solutions are simple and very popular.  Just click a few options on the software or camera setup screens and the camera will send it’s video feed over your Internet connection to a bottomless storage system located somewhere “in the cloud” in a data center far away.  You don’t have any hardware or software to babysit and you don’t have to manage anything.  No computer to worry about, no software updates, no security fixes to install, and no crashes to recover from.

The biggest disadvantage of cloud storage is money – there is a monthly cost for this service and the cost is based on how much storage you need and how many cameras you have.  Some services are priced based on traditional storage measurements such as gigabytes, while others base their charges on time – do you want to store 24 hours, a few days, a week, a month, or a full year’s worth of video.  This is further complicated by whether you are storing continuous video or only storing video clips which are controlled by manually (you turn the camera on or off or tell it to start or stop recording) or automatically (so-called ‘motion-detection’ or smart recording systems).

There’s no shortcut here – you’ll have to do the research and compare options.  If you plan on using cloud storage, you’ll really need to analyze this carefully.  The choice of camera to buy might be based on the storage options first and not the actual camera features because, and this is the big ‘gotcha’ – in today’s market most camera manufacturers want to hold you hostage.

If you buy a camera from company “A” you cannot use the cloud storage service from company “B”.  If you choose company “A”, you are stuck using the cloud storage from company “A”.  If you later want to change to company “B”, you have to throw out your cameras and buy new cameras from company “B”.  (Please note this is a simplification and there are workarounds or exceptions, but for most DIY consumers, your choice of cloud storage system will be limited to the same company that makes or sells the camera you are using.)

Since the price of cloud storage can range from $5 per month per camera to as much as $30 per month per camera, the cost is very significant.  An outdoor security system with 4 cameras (front yard, backyard, driveway, garage area) might cost as much as $120/month – just for cloud storage.  Of course, there are usually discounts for multiple camera subscriptions and prices vary a lot.  Some companies have flat-rate prices and may cover multiple cameras at no additional cost so so you’ll be dusting off your spreadsheet skills before you are done here! 

Since we are talking about yearly costs from $60/year (one camera, $5/month) to $1440/year (4 cameras, $30/month each) you can see that the initial purchase price of the camera is the least expensive part of the whole system.  I’ll put it another way – when you look at the total ownership cost you just might want to spend a little more for the fancier camera with the better resolution or motorized pan and zoom because the lifetime cost difference for only the camera is minuscule.

I should warn you that most camera manufacturers offer a brief free trial period for their cloud storage plans.  Just like a drug dealer that passes out free samples, they are trying to get you hooked on the convenience and simplicity of cloud storage before they shock you with the price tag after you have already determined you can’t live without it.

Local Network Storage
So now that I’ve scared you with the true costs of operating an IP camera, what’s the alternative?  Instead of paying a cloud service, you can simply use a software program to receive the live video stream from the camera and store it locally on a hard drive or SSD drive.  Pretty simple, right?  Absolutely!  This is a simple concept but the implementation, unfortunately, “gets complicated”.

If you want to use your own computer plan on leaving it running 24 x 7 x 365.  So you more realistically want to re-use an existing computer or purchase a new computer just for this purpose.  Receiving a live video stream and storing it to disk is not so hard for one camera, but when you start growing into a system with 4, 8, or even more cameras, you need the right equipment.  It may not be like Jaws “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, but your going to need a high-performance computer, lots of memory, and big disk storage capacity.  But this is a one-time purchase!  You could be saving anywhere from $60 to $1440 per year, or more but plan on investing some of this savings up-front to have the right equipment for the job.

Although technically you might be able to get away with a simple “storage server” that provides FTP (file transfer protocol), NAS (network attached storage), or other shared storage on your local network, you’ll most likely need to purchase a software program designed for this job.  The prices are reasonable (given what they do) but they will cost from $50 to $200 or more.  I recommend Blue Iris for PC based systems or SecuritySpy for Mac based systems.

If you don’t want the headache of an extra computer, a new software package to install, learn, and operate, and the ongoing chore of managing yet another computer (operating system updates, hardware changes, etc.) but don’t want to pay for a cloud storage service, you do have another option.  Several companies make self-contained systems that you can buy and plug in to your network.  This Network Video Recorder (NVR) box is a plug-and-play device so there is much less work involved in setting them up and using them.

The downside to using an NVR appliance is there is less selection, they tend to be expensive because they are a niche product, and most of the vendors are smaller unknown companies so the quality of both the hardware and software is questionable.  Can you tell I don’t like this option myself?  That’s why I’ve never used them and I cannot recommend any specific company or product.  In my book, you either DIY your own “NVR server” yourself or buy a cloud service subscription for a completely hands-off, easy solution.  However, for some of you, the NVR box could be the right solution under the right circumstances so I’m including it here for completeness.

Software Usability
The “dirty little secret” about IP cameras is that the most of the product design is standardized.  There are only a few manufacturers that actually make the sophisticated image sensors and image processors that are at the heart of every camera.  A large number of mid-tier companies are primarily assemblers taking standardized components and putting them together in a common design.  They may change the physical enclosure/packaging, but the guts are all the same.  Only the larger manufacturers or specialists actually design their own devices.

This is not necessarily good or bad.  Standardized parts and design means the raw parts are lower in cost and with a lot of manufacturers assembling finished cameras, there is healthy competition resulting in very affordable products that only get cheaper every year.  (In the past 6 months a few companies have brought out new low-end IP cameras with prices as low as $25 each!)

Higher prices doesn’t always mean higher quality, but you will certainly see more advanced hardware and features in the more expensive cameras.  The Nest IQ camera which sells for a whopping $299 has a resolution of 1080p but the built-in sensor is capable of 4k resolution.  This unique hardware design allows the Nest software to provide a special algorithmic image zoom function instead of a motorized zoom lens.  The advanced hardware in combination with their cloud storage and cloud processing allows them to offer a unique facial and person recognition system to automatically identify people in the camera’s field of view.

For many products, the primary difference is the external design and the software – both the internal built-in firmware and the apps and user software used to setup, control, and operate the system.  Although there is common generic software that some of the companies use by simply putting their own logo on it, a lot more companies will write some of the software themselves or modify the generic software to create a better, more customized product.

Evaluate the software as thoroughly as possible.  A lot of the capability of the camera is lost or unavailable if you cannot navigate the software easily or if the software lacks what you deem important for your use.  Since the software and hardware work together closely, you cannot test the software separately; Purchase from a reputable source where you know you can return everything if it doesn’t measure up.  Buy one camera or the minimum system, test, test, test and only when you are satisfied go forward with buying the additional cameras and accessories that you need.

Are you currently using or considering the purchase of one or more IP cameras? Let me know what you think.


Automation technologist and problem solver

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