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Big Brother: 5-minute guide to cameras on the cheap!


One of the problems of owning a place in another country – is keeping an eye on it. I guess this really applies to anyone with two properties – or perhaps an SME with a small office or factory unit.

Not everyone can afford expensive cameras and most people would not have a clue how to fit them. Costs mount up and so for most people, camera security is simply something that the larger companies use.

Well, that certainly does not have to be the case. Here’s my “5-minute guide to remote cameras on the cheap”.

When we got our place in Spain it was always going to be the case that it would be unoccupied some of the time – you can’t be in two places. I started to investigate the cost of camera systems – most of which can be very expensive. Your traditional COSTCO multi-camera packages are useless for remote viewing and assume you’ll plug in a monitor. That’s not much use when you’re thousands of miles away sitting in a restaurant and wondering if someone’s breaking onto your office.

And so without further ado – here’s my adopted solution.

There are a number of cameras on Ebay and elsewhere called “IP Cameras” – that is the camera runs on your WIFI or wired network… and can be accessed from a web browser anywhere in the world. All you need is broadband and a mains socket!

Sadly they vary a lot – the largely Chinese suppliers have major difficulties with the language and seem to pin up manufacturer’s specs without even checking them.  I’ve seen umpteen ads for cameras “with sound” and when checking with the supplier this was a mistake and they’ve changed the ad.

External IP CameraI was basically interested in two kinds of camera – Internal IP Camerathe external weather-proof kind (see image on the left)– and the internal variety with pan and tilt control (see camera on the right). It seems in the low-cost area you can’t have both in one.   Also external cameras tend to need more LED LIGHTING as the distances viewed tend to be greater. On camera left, note the increased number of LED lights around the lens. They vary from model to model.

I settled on cameras who’s manufacturer is Foscam – at least, that’s the name you’ll see on most of them – there’s a very limited set of chips out there and various manufacturers are actually producing more or less the same thing. I’m not going to get into specifying models here – you’ll need to look at what’s out there. But I can make recommendations…

  • Make sure you don’t get old models that will only work with Internet Explorer
  • Internal – make sure the photo shows an audio socket (round) if you need audio – and make sure it specifies 2-way if you want to talk as well as listen. Does the camera have an internal speaker and mic or do you need external.
  • External – make sure the camera has lots of LEDs around the lens.
  • Check carefully – prices vary. Expect to pay around £45-£90 (inc postage) depending on models and quantity – and expect to wait 2 weeks if you’re ordering from China.

Back of internal cameraThere is some setup to do and you get instructions with them – you’ll need a PC to set them up and either wired or wireless connectivity. To access these remotely, if your service provider doesn’t give you a fixed IP address you’ll want to go to a DDNS company like no-ip to ensure that even if you lose connectivity at the other end temporarily and end up with a changed IP address – you still get to talk to your cameras remotely.

Most of these cameras also have motion detect in an a control output (for a lamp) but that’s beyond the scope of this article as they are generally 5v inputs and outputs and you’d have to do your own interfacing. Personally I plan to make a relay setup so I can control a floodlight remotely.

So – you have your camera, wired or wirelessly hooked into your broadband – it’s got power, you’ve set it up and can now see your place from anywhere in the world… how best to do this?

For some time I’ve been using a program called Mobiscope to monitor several cameras – but it has the disadvantage that although it handles multiple camera types and is available on both PC and iPhone, it has no control over the camera so if you find the camera whiting out due to extremes of light – you can’t control it…. no pan and tilt etc.

So you can imagine my joy when I discovered that there are now several programs (variations on a theme) for iPhone to fully control these cameras (which is why I specified Foscam). One program called EASYN for iPhone does a CRACKING job, offering controls which vary with the camera. In the case of the models shown above, it will control the output, brilliance and contrast of the EXTERNAL camera, while on the internal camera, in addition it offers pan and tilt control and the ability to turn auto-scanning on and off – and take snapshots.

Incidentally, from the PC interface, all of these cameras can be set to automatically upload single images to a website – or even email you when they detect movement.  Yes, amazingly for the price these features are becoming commonplace.

Internal controlsExternal controls

So there you have it – for WIFI operation you need no wires, simply plug the camera into the wall socket, set it up and you’re off.

So – to get started – go to Ebay and look up “IP Camera” – you’ll find plenty to choose from – choose well. With the right software and hardware you can monitor and interact with several cameras all over the world, from the comfort of your car, hotel or local pub!

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