DIY: home surveillance with IP network cameras

CCTV-Experts_35726_imagesecurity cameras are everywhere these days. You pass them walking down the street, at the ATM, in nearly every store you walk into. But when it comes to bringing the technology into your home, the whole idea can easily end up in the too-hard basket.

No more. Thanks to a hard push downwards into the consumer market, makers of networked home security cameras now offer more, and easier, options for watching your house while you’re away. For a relatively modest outlay, you can get a basic networkable security camera with all the frills — motion detection, low-light operation — even Wi-Fi connectivity, so you don’t have to run cabling around your house.

Pair it with an app on your smartphone, and you can keep tabs on your prize alpaca, look over your stash of gold bullion or make sure the ratty neighbours’ kids aren’t destroying your camellias again — whether you’re on the beach in Thailand or elbowing your way through a Moroccan souq.

But how do you actually get it to work? Techniques for getting devices online tend to work sometimes, but fail spectacularly just as often. But once you start wanting more options, things can get more complicated; you’ll need to have a good sense of how to manage IP addresses for your various devices.

While getting ready to go away for a short trip recently, we decided to set up some cameras to keep tabs on the family dog, who was going to have the backyard all to himself for the duration (no need to call the RSCPA — family were going to come by to visit, feed and pamper him). For good measure, we decided to install a camera in front of the house too. Here’s how we did it.


For the purposes of this exercise, we’re going to assume that you are connected to the internet using an ADSL or cable modem that also acts as a network router. Routers intelligently direct traffic between devices in your home and the big, bad internet.

If you’re keen to set up your cameras in a location that’s far from the router providing your fixed connection — for example, in a warehouse where broadband isn’t installed — you may want to consider a wireless broadband router, like Netgear’s 3G+ Mobile Broadband Wireless-N Router (MBRN3000), which takes a standard mobile-broadband dongle and sets up a wireless hotspot that routes all traffic over your mobile-broadband connection.

Setting up such a device is straightforward, and we’ll assume here that whether you have a fixed or mobile-broadband connection, you have a router of some sort that is connected to the internet. Whether by Wi-Fi or using a fixed network cable, this router is going to provide the conduit to link you with your camera or cameras.

Spying anywhere

While cameras vary in terms of resolution, most have a relatively consistent baseline of functionality. They’ll include some sort of zooming capability — low-resolution digital zoom on low-end units, and optical zoom on the high-end devices — as well as motion detection, a built-in memory card, the ability to broadcast audio as well as video and the ability to store video on a network-attached storage (NAS) server.

High-end models may include pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ) features; complex scripting features to control how stills and video are sent to you when motion is detected; and even support for third-party plug-ins. Nearly all are now designed with web interfaces that can be accessed via the internet, and most vendors also now provide an iPhone or iPad app that lets you quickly check up on your cameras from wherever you happen to be.

One deal breaker relates to the availability of power points. If you have power points but no network ports available where you want to put your camera, consider getting a camera with built-in Wi-Fi support; such units will simply latch on to your home Wi-Fi, recording video either on a local NAS or an on-board SD card. You’ll need to plug the unit in to your router for initial set-up, but once it’s working, the router will be configured to automatically hone in on your Wi-Fi network whenever it’s plugged in.

That offers tantalising possibilities — sit it on a window ledge across the house to watch the birds in your yard; install it outside (under shelter, of course) to see who’s at your doorstep; or put it in your roof space to watch the possums snuggle up for a good day’s sleep.

We tested the D-Link DCS-942L, a palm-sized Wi-Fi unit that offers a special night mode and can be unobtrusively mounted pretty much wherever you like (the middle of an eave is a pretty good choice, as it provides a great vantage point, but keeps your camera out of the weather).

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