HomeSoftwareArchiveTop TipsGlossaryOther Stuff




Security cameras are everywhere these days, now they’re starting to appear outside people homes. Rick Maybury looks at how you can put together your own surveillance system, to keep an eye on your valuables



Whether we like it or not these days there are very few public places where you are not being spied upon by the unblinking gaze of video surveillance cameras. That’s a price most of us are prepared to pay for the proven benefits it brings, in terms of improved safety and security. Until fairly recently the cost and complexity of closed-circuit television (CCTV) technology meant its use was largely confined to commercial organisations, Government agencies and local authorities, but now, thanks to the mighty microchip and spin-offs from domestic video, it’s available to everyone.


We’ll look at the legal implications of countless ‘Little Brothers’ watching over us later on, but first, how easy is it set up a home CCTV system? If you have a camcorder and VCR you have all the necessary elements, in fact there have been a number of well publicised cases of householders catching vandals and burglars unwittingly going about their business, using an ordinary domestic camcorder.


However, there are several disadvantages. Firstly there’s the problem of the relatively short running times of camcorder cassettes. An hour or two is the most you can hope for, which makes unattended surveillance difficult or impossible. A few machines have interval recording facilities, which can extend recording times to several hours, though ‘snapshot’ recordings, lasting just a few frames, spaced several seconds apart, can easily miss important activity.


It’s possible to rig up a remote trigger on some models, that will switch the machine to record when an alarm or sensor is activated, but this is beyond the scope of most users. It may also involve modifying the machine or elaborate control systems, that would probably turn out to be more complicated and expensive, (and a lot less reliable), than a purpose-designed CCTV and alarm system.


One easy way to extend recording times, is to use the camcorder simply as a camera, and connect it to a VCR. The camcorder -- powered by its mains adaptor -- needs to be set to record-standby mode; its AV output is connected to the VCR, which is set to record. Most camcorders will ‘time-out’ after a few minutes if they’re not recording. O a lot of machines the solution is to leave the cassette door open. Incidentally, it’s a good idea to cover up the camcorder’s tally light, there’s been at least one case of a thief pinching a ‘surveillance’ camcorder, after seeing the tell-tale red glow...


A 4-hour (E-240) VHS tape lasts for up to 8-hours in the LP recording mode, which is just about enough to cover an overnight or day-time surveillance operation. You may even be able to track down some BASF E300 (5-hour) tapes, which give up to 10 hours uninterrupted recording time. Time-lapse VCRs, that can record up to several weeks worth of images on standard VHS cassettes are still quite expensive -- £1000 plus -- but machines with 24-hour recording times are now coming down in price, with several models selling for less than £500.


To be honest camcorders do not make very satisfactory surveillance cameras. Apart from their size, difficulty concealing them and vulnerability to theft, their low-light capabilities are not that good. A lot of machines can operate down to 2 or 3 lux, but unless you’re only interested in daylight surveillance, or the scene is brightly-lit, the images produced by most camcorders at night will be of little or no use for identification purposes. Purpose-built surveillance cameras, on the other hand, need very little light. Many general-purpose CCTV cameras are rated at 0.1 lux; 0.05 down to 0.01 lux isn’t uncommon. Such cameras can produce a watchable image with just the light from a nearby street lamp or a bright moon.


Even if there’s no light at all surveillance cameras can be fitted with infra-red illuminators and image intensifiers, that can literally see in the dark!  As a matter of interest a lot of security cameras -- in particular those expected to work in poor light -- are monochrome. Generally they have a much higher resolution and better low-light response than colour cameras, plus they’re cheaper. In any event, colours can be difficult to distinguish in weak or artificial light.  Some more advanced CCTV cameras have the facility to switch from colour to black and white operation, according to the lighting levels.


CCTV has become an affordable option for householders thanks to the development of the sub-miniature ‘board’ camera. The image sensor chip, ‘pin-hole’ lens and processing microchips -- close relatives of the chips used in domestic camcorders -- are mounted on a single printed circuit board, often not much larger than a postage stamp. All that’s needed to produce an image is a 12 volt DC power supply. Virtually all board cameras generate a standard 1 volt peak-to-peak PAL/CCIR composite video signal, that can be piped into the video input socket of any monitor, TV or VCR. Board cameras are now being produced in vast numbers in the far East, and can be brought  from electronics specialists like Maplin Electronics, for less than £100.


A thriving industry has grown up around these cameras. Companies like surveillance specialists GBC supply board cameras fitted inside everything from conventional-looking cases to so-called ‘covert’ housings. These are everyday objects -- smoke alarms, room thermostats, clocks etc. --  with a video camera hidden inside. Many covert cameras are sold to commercial organisations for internal security, usually for keeping an eye on employees. Think about it, the next time you help yourself from the stationery cupboard...


Most domestic CCTV cameras -- generally sold as video door entry systems --  come with an RF modulator, so the camera output can be viewed on a spare TV channel, without affecting the normal operation of the TV. The output can also be recorded -- using the VCR’s timer if necessary -- when the householder is out. Several models like, the Seelex Domineye have IR illuminators, so the callers face can be seen at night. A wide range of housings are available, from obvious camera shapes --  the incredibly small Viewmate Telecam is a good example -- to anonymous-looking black domes, and disguised or covert housings, that resemble alarm sensors, such as the Response TV2000 and Security Technologies Xtra View outfits.


Installation is normally pretty straightforward -- no more difficult than a doorbell or porch-light, say --  most competent DIYers can fit a simple system in under a couple of hours but there are plenty of specialist companies who can do it for you. Prices vary from around £130 for a basic DIY system, to around £300 or more, if you choose to have one professionally fitted.


The recent influx of low-cost, easy to fit systems are a valuable addition to the home security arsenal and the fight against crime. Video surveillance is a proven deterrent and leaving aside moral or ethical arguments, the bottom line is simple, it works!




As far as the law is concerned video surveillance is one big grey area. Specific legislation is very thin on the ground but industry organisations representing installers and operators, in both the public and private sectors, generally adhere to strict codes of practice. They cover everything from camera installation, to rules about flogging recordings to TV stations. TV shows based around surveillance footage obtain their tapes from a variety of sources, usually from shop owners and small companies, but it has to be said some of it originates from unscrupulous security guards, tempted by adverts from TV companies, offering payment for ‘interesting’ recordings. Program makers normally screen out identifiable faces not connected with an incident, though if the camera is operating within a ‘public place’, and your face pops up in the crowd on one of those programmes there’s really not a lot you can do about it.


Aggrieved members of the public have successfully prevented commercial video recordings of security tape footage, and most famously, surgical operations carried out an NHS hospital, from being sold. However, in the most recent highly publicised cases the injunctions were served some time after the tape had gone on sale, moreover the extra press and TV coverage attracted even more unwelcome publicity to those doing their best to avoid attention in the first place... 


There’s nothing to stop anyone installing a CCTV system on their own land, property or premises, providing it’s not used to invade or infringe upon anyone else’s privacy. Clearly it is illegal to install a camera or surveillance device in or on anyone else’s property, without their permission. As far as selling your own home made security tapes to TV companies are concerned, there’s no law against that either, if the people and events taking place are on your own property.




Augur Industries (Viewmate), (01283) 510888

GBC, (01438) 714069

Hitachi Business Systems, 0181-849 2000

JVC Professional Products, 0181-896 6000

Maplin Electronics (01702) 55400

Philips Observation Systems, 0181-781 8800

Response Electronics, (01372) 722330

Security Technologies (01276) 36565

Seelex Ltd., telephone 0800 281330



Ó R. Maybury 1997 2001



[Home][Software][Archive][Top Tips][Glossary][Other Stuff]

Copyright (c) 2005 Rick Maybury Ltd.