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Saturday, September 23 2017 @ 02:24 AM CDT

Cameras Overview

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The cameras you use for your live wildlife streaming will be chosen for any of many reasons. You may already have one that works for you, or you may simply purchase as inexpensive one as you can find. On the other hand, you may opt for something fancy and designed to weather extended use in harsh environments. Whatever you choose, you should choose it from a base of knowledge that it will function in the live streaming environment, rather than just purchase it and hope for the best.

Here I'll let you in on some potential problems and why cameras that work fine for taking your holiday videos or in an industrial security application simply won't work for live internet streaming video of any kind, let alone that of the harsh environments found in true wildlife situations.

We’ve used all manner of cameras for our live viewing but they break down into 4 broad categories:

  • Industrial composite video "raw" board cameras
  • Pre-packaged composite video
  • Industrial IP-based
  • Consumer (which breaks down to:)
    • Web cams
    • Video recorder/cameras

Of these, we have mostly the industrial composite video cameras at this time because they are the easiest to set up at sites where power and internet are up to a mile away by cable from the camera site. We use a single coaxial cable to carry power to the camera and microphone, and bring back the video and audio signal to the encoder computer. We’ve deployed these in many nest sites as well as underwater.

The good quality cameras (about $150 each and up) have excellent light dynamic range and low-light ability and have lasted many seasons with no problem. They are small, typically about 1.5” square and 1/2” deep. They don’t require a lot of power, and they provide good enough resolution that today’s stream quality is only dependent upon the network bandwidth available, not the quality of the camera.

Bob Chappel with underwater cameras for the Chehalis hatchery outfallWe’ve used a consumer video camera once in a situation where we could connect it directly by Firewire to the PC in the same room. In this case we fitted it with a 2.5X telephoto extender and got an effective look at the blue heron nests in Stanley Park from about 250’ away in an apartment that overlooks the nest site. The camera was inside the apartment looking out through the window.

The pre-packaged composite video cameras we’ve used include both consumer “helmet” cameras and industrial surveillance cameras with built-in zoom lens but otherwise bare of all else, intended for mount in a camera housing with an external pan/tilt head. The prime example of this is the installation in 2006 of the camera on the crane for the first view of the Sidney nest chicks. Today we’d probably use a full PTZ IP camera, even if we had to run the video through a separate encoder since the industrial pan/tilt head and the camera’s zoom lens were designed for older, serial-based, controls that meant I had to go to the site if we wanted to change things as the cable was only about 100’ long. There are even better solutions to that problem today, with one company’s external IP encoder offering control ports for these older Pan/Tilt heads and in-camera zoom facilities.

The helmet cameras are good in that they are already weatherproof. They tend to be more expensive than the smaller industrial cameras but they work well and some come with microphone too.


Today the typical live camera stream is about the same resolution as standard TV. The standard for NTSC television is 525 lines of resolution but by the time the TV set crops the top and bottom to get rid of “overscan” and various ills of the analog TV transmitters, the actual resolution is pretty close to 320x240 pixels of digital, even though the camera you use might be 640x480 pixels “native” resolution. This is our target for our “standard” wildlife camera transmission, and it can fit into as little as 200 Kbs (kilo bits/second) network bandwidth or about 60 Gbytes of data per month – well within the typical limits of a DSL or cable modem account here in North America.

On the other hand, faster accounts with higher data allowances per month are coming on stream today, so we’re preparing our systems for higher resolution by installing higher resolution cameras as time and money allow.
A typical low-priced consumer video camera today with “letterbox” or “wide screen” (6x9 ratio) ability is likely 720x480 pixels, whereas one that is not wide screen (4x3 ratio) would be 704x576 pixels.
Here is a list of the acronyms and sizes for some typical video camera sizes:


Pixel Format (width X height)
1920x1080 (interlaced)
1920x1080 (progressive)

Note: Interlaced vs. Progressive has to do with frame rate and how many frames it takes to send a full image. Interlaced takes two frames to send a full image. This has to do with the transmission method as much as it has to do with the resolution. Some encoders will “de-interlace” video.

The camera does not have to match the resolution you send at. In fact, the higher the resolution the camera is, the better the output will be no matter what the final resolution is, since the compression algorithm has more data to work with.

You can also use the extra resolution to re-frame a scene electronically by cropping top/bottom/sides before the image is actually encoded and sent out. This is mostly done in the actual encoder software as an option.

Of course the higher the resolution, the harder the encoder CPU has to work to boil the video down to any particular stream size, so having a faster CPU is best with the higher resolution cameras. This is also why the industrial IP cameras are only slowly going toward high resolutions. The small enclosure these cameras have for the CPU and limited power they have simply don’t allow today’s really high-power CPUs to be used. There are some new generations of hardware coming that will to some extent fix this, but power (in the electrical sense) is still the key to faster computers, and power also means heat – and heat does not like small spaces.

Update: When I first wrote this in 2009, 720x480 was expected to be the next major size for live streams of any length. Few sites would show you anything with higher resolution or even allow you to upload hi-res for the site to re-encode to its chosen resolution. Today, in mid 2011, Google is piloting 1080P hi-res (1920x1080) and many of the streaming content sites will allow you to upload hi-res, then will re-encode it to several different resolutions including full 1080P and the more typical 720P that only 2 years ago was scarce.

Hancock Wildlife Foundation has 5 full 1080P cameras in place in 3 different nests, and is looking to standardize on this format for the coming year. The technology is advancing quickly and prices for network bandwidth to distribute the video are coming down quickly too.

Tag: cameras webcam handycam video camera industrial camera axis 214 composite video ip camera resolution underwater camera housing resolution

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