The ‘IP’ in ‘IP cameras’ stands for ‘Internet Protocol’. IP cameras, also known as ‘network cameras’ are security cameras that operate via the Internet. It’s really that simple.

In this clear and concise guide, we aim to tell you everything you need to know about IP cameras: how they work, what their advantages and disadvantages are and whether or not they’re right for your home or business’ security setup. Let’s get started.

What is an IP Camera?

In simplest terms, an IP camera is a digital camera that can send and receive data via a network or the Internet. An IP camera functions in the same basic way that a webcam does, although IP cameras are almost exclusively used for surveillance.

Because they can operate via the Internet, IP cameras can be accessed and operated remotely from almost anywhere in the world.

IP cameras also boast a number of other advantages over their analogue counterparts. These advantages include having generally better image resolution, offering increased security (due to their ability to encrypt data), having fewer cables, the ability to record data to two formats simultaneously and the presence of sophisticated image algorithms that greatly reduce the number of false alerts sent out by the IP camera.

At present, the security industry is rapidly transitioning towards making IP the standard security IP camera technology.

How Does an IP Camera Work?

When it comes to initially capturing images, an IP camera works like any other digital camera. However, after compressing the files, IP cameras transfer them over the network or the Internet instead of recording them directly to a memory card or DVR setup.

This makes IP cameras quick and easy to install, with fewer cables and no pressing need for wired electricity. They can also be easily removed and then re-installed in different areas, as well as being accessed remotely.

What Types of IP Cameras are There?

IP cameras come in many different shapes and sizes. Among the most common types are ‘bullet’, ‘dome’, ‘covert’ and ‘PTZ’. Each of these has a different function, so it’s important to select the right model for your specific needs.

Bullet cameras are so called because they are shaped somewhat like bullets. They are very flexible and can be placed in a number of different positions. However, they  are somewhat vulnerable to vandalism.

See our Guide to the Best Outdoor Cameras

Dome cameras tend to be smaller than bullets and are generally more hardwearing and tamper-proof. They are harder to install than bullets, however. Domes make particularly good outdoor cameras due to their shape.

Covert cameras are generally made to be discreet, with dark colouring and a small, nondescript design. Whereas bullets are designed to be easily noticeable in order to act as a deterrent, coverts are designed to be hidden and to take footage without drawing attention to themselves.

PTZ or ‘Pan, Tilt, Zoom’ cameras are capable of greatly increased movement. As the name suggests, they can move around and zoom in on specific details, offering the greatest amount of options when it comes to capturing footage from multiple angles or catching suspects on camera.

There are also Floodlight and Spotlight cameras to consider. These are security cameras that are connected to security lights, which activate alongside the cameras. Floodlight cameras throw up a wide beam of light designed to illuminate a large area, such as a car park or garden, whereas spotlight cameras focus a tight beam of light towards a specific source, typically a person or animal.

What’s the Difference Between IP Cameras and CCTV?

Closed-Circuit Television (CCTV) consists of a fixed number of IP cameras installed around a particular area. Footage captured by these cameras is then displayed on monitors and/or recorded onto a memory device, such as a DVR (Digital Video Recorder). Many Wireless CCTV systems work by connecting several cameras to one DVR unit, that records and stores images and video.

IP cameras, by comparison, transmit their footage via the Internet or a specific network and use a digital signal. An IP Camera connects to a computer network the same way a printer or wireless device might. This allows IP cameras to do many things that CCTV cannot.

IP Cameras for Home Security

IP cameras are usually designed for either internal or external use. Cameras designed for internal use may not be used outside, but cameras intended for external use can be mounted indoors.

It is useful to consider where you want to place an IP camera in question before purchasing them. It is also beneficial to decide whether you want your cameras to be easily visible (thus acting as a deterrent to would-be intruders) or discreet (in cases where you wish to catch a person in the act of committing a crime). Covert or ‘spy’ cameras are perfect for such secretive activities, whereas bullets may act as the best overall deterrent.

Dome cameras make very good indoor cameras, as they do not need to be placed especially high up in order to capture a good image.

Remember that all outdoor cameras will need a decent IP rating. This has nothing to do with IP cameras, but instead applies to all outdoor technology.

An IP (or ‘Ingress Protection’) rating is a combined score given to any piece of technology that has been designed for use outside. The rating consists of two numbers. The first number tells you how good the device is at keeping out particles of dirt, sand or small objects and the second number tells you how effectively the device will keep water out. A rating of ‘0’ or ‘X’ in either category means that the device does nothing to keep out the substance in question, while a rating of 6 or higher in either category is generally good.

Many outdoor cameras will feature a rating of IP65, which is perfectly serviceable. However, we advise looking for a camera rated IP66 or 67 if you want to be totally covered. 

Camera Specs

So far, we’ve been discussing the ‘IP’ part of ‘IP camera’, now it’s time to focus (if you’ll pardon the pun) on the ‘camera’ part.

The specifications of any IP camera are very important. Even the camera on your phone will be more or less reliable dependent upon the overall quality of its component parts. Security cameras are no different. Here’s what you’ll be looking for if you want to purchase a decent IP camera.

Resolution – A camera’s resolution is determined by the total number of pixels that make up any given image captured by that IP camera. This is usually expressed via the number of pixels that appear in the width and height of a particular image. For example, an HD image is 1920 pixels wide and 1080 pixels high. When these two numbers are multiplied together, they give the total number of pixels in the image overall (2,073,600 – in case you wondered). This is why ‘High Definition’ or ‘HD’ is sometimes referred to as ‘1920 x 1080p’ or just ‘1080p’.

High-definition images are important if you want to be able to discern details such as facial features or vehicle number plates. 4K, which contains around 4 times as many pixels as regular HD, is always a strong choice for this very reason.

Lens – The type of lens you opt for determines the focal length of the IP camera. Essentially, cameras with a smaller lens have smaller focal lengths and IP cameras with a larger lens have larger focal lengths.

The focal length dictates what type of image your camera will be able to capture. For example, a smaller focal length will capture a wider image (hence why these lenses are referred to as ‘wide angle’), albeit at the expense of significant detail. Wide angle lenses are good for surveying open areas, such as car parks and gardens.

Larger focal lengths are much better at capturing specific detail but have a far narrower field of view (FOV) and due to this are better cameras to place above entrances and exits or places like front porches.

Motion sensor – Your IP camera motion sensor is also very important. The two main types of motion sensor technology you’re likely to encounter are Passive Infrared (PIR) and Computer Vision (CV). Both have benefits and drawbacks specific to their respective designs and operating methods.

PIR sensors monitor ambient heat and activate the IP camera whenever there is a significant build up of heat anywhere near it. PIR generally works well, although it cannot operate through windows because it cannot detect any heat through them.

Computer vision relies on a specific algorithm (which varies from manufacturer to manufacturer). This algorithm monitors changes in the footage on a frame-by-frame basis. When a significant number of pixels have been altered, the algorithm understands this to be motion and activates the camera.

CV is an up-and-coming technology that shows a great deal of promise but has yet to be perfected. Nevertheless, its high level of programmability is definitely a plus.

Both systems are notorious for giving off false alerts. However, the system that never does this has yet to be invented, so don’t look for perfection on this front. Instead, seek reliability and suitability for your specific security needs.

Night vision – Night vision is another important feature. The ability to ‘see in the dark’ is definitely a plus when it comes to security equipment. Infrared night vision works via infrared LEDs attached to the front of the IP camera. These lights automatically activate when the IP camera detects lower light levels (e.g., the coming of night).

Because infrared light is invisible to the naked eye, human eyes can’t see it. However, the IP camera essentially has an invisible floodlight in front of it that allows it to work almost as well as it does in daylight. The main problem is that infrared LEDs don’t actually put light out that far, which means that somebody will have to venture relatively close to the IP camera in order to activate it.

IP Protocols – Any IP camera you choose should support the ONVIF and RTSP protocols. This is a compatibility issue that, if ignored, could cause you headaches in the future.

WiFi & Security

WiFi is not a particularly good choice for IP cameras. For the most part, we recommend a wired connection. WiFi can work in a pinch, but only for relatively small networks consisting of only 1 or 2 IP cameras. If you do use WiFi, you should always be totally sure that the connection is safe and secure before getting started.  

Be sure also to select an IP camera that encrypts its data (SSL or TLS encryption is best). Failure to do so leaves you wide open to being hacked.

Your IP camera should also support current security protocols like WPA2.

Whenever you use your IP camera setup, remember to take similar security measures to those you would when using your home computer or preferred portable device. For example, you should use a strong, hard to guess password, ensure that any related mobile app adequately encrypts data and keep all your software up to date. You should also always remain logged out when the system is not in use.