Surveillance Equipment Is Not Always What’s Seen In Movies

This will be a brief article, but the main point of it is to get across the fact that the surveillance equipment and spy gadgets you see in the movies are not necessarily realistic examples of what’s available in the marketplace. In fact to be blunt, NO we do not have a camera the size of a pin that can see two miles away with perfect clarity while being powered by a battery and using wireless transmission for a month on end, all at a price of under $100. Now to be fair I am exaggerating the example here a bit, but most surveillance dealers will recognize the type of questions we get in this example. So to help set the record straight we will go over one main example of the difference between real life as compared to the movies and why they’re not yet a possibility.

Image Enhancement (The Movies)

A lot of times in the movies you’ll see some computer analyst take an old surveillance video and enhance it to perfect clarity and resolution. For example they will take an old analog video with a 640 x 480 standard resolution and the subject of the video will be 300 yards away. They will then take that video and “enhance” it so that the subjects front and center on the screen and the resolution is now a crystal clear HD image. This is probably the biggest misrepresentation of what can be done with your surveillance video of them all.

In reality when a video is recorded, it is set to a certain number of pixels (small dots) that comprise the image. To zoom in on the subject you would have to start stretching and blowing the pixels up to make the subject appear closer to the screen and more prominent. Now while this is possible, as you start to stretch the pixels you begin to lose the clarity and resolution of the image. It’s like trying to take a newspaper picture (that’s somehow elastic for the purpose of this example) and trying to stretch it out to cover a billboard. You may get it to work, but it’s going to look like crap in the end.

Image Enhancement (Real Life)

To play devil’s advocate for myself I will state that with advanced video editing programs there is a minimal amount of enhancement that can be done with pixel filling programs and the like, but it’s still nowhere near the examples they like to show in movies and TV shows.

Now in real life if you want to have a good quality video that captures your subject clearly and features them prominently in the foreground, then there’s some planning that’s required because you can’t rely on trying to enhance the image later on.

First and foremost the best quality video available (currently) for surveillance is either IP or HD-SDI camera systems with HD resolutions. These systems aren’t cheap by any means, so you should expect to pay a premium for movie like HD resolution; however in comparison to a few years ago they have become surprisingly affordable.

One other important thing to note is that movies have great lighting and image composition, so even with a great HD resolution from an HD-SDI or IP camera, it most likely will still not be as good looking as what you see in the movies.

Next you will need to plan out the areas you want your cameras to view and then get cameras that have appropriate lenses and viewing angles to cover them; sometimes this may require cross coverage from multiple cameras to get exactly what you need. In fact it’s a good idea to have a professional surveillance installer help you through this if you’re unsure of what to do.

Finally the last step will be to acquire a DVR or NVR with enough storage to record the number of days, weeks, or months you want to be covered and stored before being overwritten. This may require a bit of testing depending on the number of cameras you have and the type of recording you’re doing (motion or constant).

Ultimately there is a lot more involvement and innovation that will be required before the movies (as they stand now) are accurate representations of what the surveillance industry has to offer, but it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact James Bond style spy gadgets such as wristwatch cameras, pen cameras, and others are now actual products that can be bought and used by the general public. Heck even satellites now have the capability to zoom in on someone’s house and look in their windows if they wanted to (although this is not a general consumer product by any means).

So in the end when you go looking for surveillance equipment, just understand there are a lot of great products and gadgets out there, but don’t go into it looking for movie quality devices at rock bottom prices; you’re sure to be disappointed.

Christian M Gillman has worked in the surveillance industry for over 7 years. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter, learn more about surveillance, and find great products at

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