PTZ vs. Fisheye vs. Multi-Sensor Cameras - What are the Differences?
For the organizations and security teams evaluating video surveillance cameras, there has never been more variety. Despite the continued proliferation of new camera technologies, accessories, and capabilities, one thing remains fundamentally true: the right camera will depend on:
- Location, placement, and field of view (FoV) requirements
- Integrations and video management system (VMS) support
- Options for live and retroactive incident response
- Footage and zoom quality
- Purchase, implementation, and maintenance costs
Between pan-tilt-zoom (PTZ), fisheye, and multi-sensor cameras, there’s a lot to unpack in terms of similarities and differences, advantages, disadvantages, and cost. The following breakdown explores the pros, cons, and differences between PTZ, fisheye, and multi-sensor cameras.
Jump to each section to learn more:
• PTZ Security Cameras: Pros, Cons, Differences
• Fisheye Security Cameras: Pros, Cons, Differences
• Multi-Sensor Security Cameras: Pros, Cons, Differences
• PTZ, Fisheye, or Multi-Sensor Camera: Which Camera is Best?
Pan-Tilt-Zoom (PTZ) Security Cameras: Pros, Cons, Differences
What is a PTZ camera? Considered a more traditional model, the PTZ camera can rotate left and right, up and down, while zooming in and out as needed. Most PTZs are deployed in larger spaces, such as pedestrian, bike, and automobile roadways, or highways that require a 180- or full 360-degree view. However, you’ll also find PTZs used in environments where security staff need to control the camera’s motions remotely.
- Pro - Relatively Large Field of View: Most PTZ cameras are well-equipped to monitor large areas—even hundreds of acres—though most organizations deploy them alongside fixed or panoramic cameras to avoid the risk of security blindspots. The ability to pan 360 degrees and tilt 180 makes possible some innovative use cases. PTZ cameras can, for example, be set to automatically track vehicles or people within the FoV.
- Con - Gaps in Coverage: A common complaint about PTZ cameras is that they fail to capture an event or incident because it is out of the field of view (either the camera isn’t pointing at the said area, or misses the issue area due to an automatic, preset motion schedule that has the camera focused elsewhere). This can be frustrating, costly, or even dangerous during surveillance and incident response, which is again why many security teams deploy PTZs alongside other camera types.
- Pro - Remote Camera Control by Human Operators: In certain environments, the ability to move the FoV to track persons of interest, or monitor security incidents and suspicious activity, from a remote position is highly advantageous. This is especially true of larger surveillance and security operations, who tend to monitor multiple locations from a central command center.
- Con - Latency Sensitivity: As advantageous as remote camera operation might be, many PTZ models suffer from “command latency”—sometimes as much as two seconds. Any lag between the time a camera operator changes the FoV to when the camera actually responds can lead to malfunction, error, and gaps in security coverage. Operators often compound the problem by issuing another compensatory command, which moves the camera’s FoV further from where it needs to be.
- Pro - Capable of Motion-Triggered Auto Tracking: In many surveillance environments, the ability for a camera to automatically zoom in to track a person or vehicle can be quite useful. A PTZ camera monitoring a restricted area of a parking lot overnight, for example, might be configured to automatically zoom in on and track any person that enters the area between certain hours. Museums and banks commonly use auto-tracking this way.
- Con - Unmanned Auto Tracking & Presets Can Create Surveillance Blindspots: Many PTZ cameras are configured to go through a cycle of preset motions, or set to “auto” or some other default setting—regardless of goings-on within the FoV. Inevitably, the camera will be facing the wrong direction based on a preset and miss a person of interest or incident occurring elsewhere in the normal FoV.
- Pro - Automatic Scanning Based on Time Intervals: PTZ cameras are commonly configured to change scanning positions based on preset intervals. Usually, cameras are set to automatically cycle through a pattern of presets—called “tours”, to more closely monitor specific areas within the broader surveillance area. A centrally located PTZ camera mounted inside a museum might change from front entrance, to ticket queue, to main hall every thirty seconds.
- Con - Errors, Malfunction, and Potential Liability: Even the most advanced PTZ cameras controlled by artificial intelligence (AI) fail. Unexpected on-camera movement, for example, might cause a PTZ to break off its tour and monitor a wrong or random area. Similarly, remotely controlled cameras are prone to error by human operators. Installation can be tricky, too: improperly installed PTZs can lead to costly mechanical faults, or even legal liability should the camera record private property by mistake.
- Pro - Higher Definition Zoom: Whereas many panoramic cameras do not support optical zoom, PTZ cameras can be used to zoom in and identify people, vehicles, and other objects of interest. When monitoring large areas with a PTZ camera, the ability to zoom 20x, 30x, or even 40x is particularly useful when tracking suspicious persons or identifying a suspect’s physical description or vehicle by its license plate.
- Con - High Maintenance Costs: The cost overhead of PTZ cameras, alongside the cost of overhead and maintenance, can contribute to an inflated total cost of ownership over time. Due to their many moving parts, PTZ cameras are known to be less durable than fixed cameras. The components required to pan, tilt, and zoom are constantly in motion, and likely to fail down the line. Because of the high failure rate, the cost of ownership over a PTZ camera’s lifespan is known to be higher than most.
Fisheye Security Cameras: Pros, Cons, Differences
What is a fisheye security camera? Outside of the security and surveillance world, fisheye cameras are known for the unique view their distinctly shaped ultra-wide-angle lenses create—circular and distorted, in most cases. For security professionals, fisheye security cameras create dynamic viewing angles using a single sensor, including panoramic 180-degree and 360-degree views of any area they are installed to monitor.
- Pro - Panoramic View for Expansive Surveillance Coverage: Fisheye cameras are commonly deployed to monitor large areas. Their ultra-wide-angle lenses are ideal for baseline surveillance of large interior spaces, such as warehouses and retail stores. Some fisheye cameras use varifocal lenses with variable focal length, which allows security teams to adjust the camera to a specific distance.
- Con - Can Require “Dewarping”: In exchange for the ultra-wide view afforded by fisheye lenses, the circular images these cameras deliver are inherently distorted. A good video management system (VMS) with dewarping capabilities can automatically adjust these distortions. However, the need for dewarping will require additional security infrastructure, which comes at a cost.
- Pro - Strong Image Resolution Overall: Today, relatively high-resolution sensors are common among most fisheye cameras—3MP (2048 x 1536 pixel) capable of recording up to 50% greater detail than 1080p. The generally high resolution for fisheye streams is a major selling point in the market, for its security implications vis-a-vis monitoring and incident response. Compare with the D80 Fisheye, which comes equipped with 12MP, for reference.
- Pro - Use PTZ with Already Recorded Footage: While fisheye cameras do not offer PTZ functionality in real-time, the wide angle of many fisheye lenses make it possible to simulate the actions of a PTZ camera within the prerecorded frame. This can help avoid coverage gaps and give camera operators another way to investigate people or vehicles of interest and isolate the panoramic view to a specific area.
- Pro - Low Risk of Camera Failure: Using only a single sensor and a comparatively simplistic design, fisheye cameras are inherently less prone to failure (especially compared to PTZ cameras). They’re known for lower maintenance costs and don’t require special software or training to “stitch together” footage and images from multiple cameras. This can help defray total cost of ownership thanks to the longer warranty periods commonly offered with fisheye cameras (Verkada, for reference, offers a ten-year warranty on all camera products, including fisheye cameras).
- Pro - A Discreet, Low-Profile Surveillance Solution: There’s a reason fisheye cameras are so common in casinos, large banks, and even schools. Fisheye cameras are far smaller and thus more difficult to spot than most PTZ or bullet cameras. Yet, at the same time, these cameras can provide up to 360 degrees of coverage in a single view.
- Con - Placement and Installation: Improperly placed, a panoramic camera’s potential coverage area and monitoring capabilities will not be realized. This can not only impact security coverage, but total cost of investment. Corners are usually poor choices for fisheye cameras, as they reduce the FoV significantly. While each space is different, a properly planned installation will help reduce upfront equipment costs and deliver better ROI in the long term.
Multi-Sensor Security Cameras: Pros, Cons, Differences
What is a multi-sensor camera? The ability to provide up to 360° of coverage is not limited to fisheye cameras. Multi-sensor cameras also provide panoramic viewing, but they use multiple image sensors to do so. This multi-sensor design has a number of advantages and disadvantages that distinguish it from single-sensor fisheye cameras.
- Pro - A Seamless Composite View from Multiple High-Quality Streams: Because each sensor in a multi-sensory camera records its own footage, these cameras rely on a process called “stitching” to create single, panoramic video images. Stitching can provide a greater level of detail across a wider coverage area, including 180°, 270° or 360° fields of view.
- Con - Increased Risk of Component Failure: Because multi-sensor cameras inherently use more hardware—much of it more complex than the traditional, single-sensor panoramic camera—there’s more that might go wrong. However, most premium multi-sensor cameras do operate at a relatively low failure rate.
- Pro - Unique Zoom Capabilities & Longer FoV: Whereas single-sensor cameras are limited in where they can zoom, each sensor within a multi-sensor camera can be used to zoom in on specific areas. The result is that a single multi-sensor camera can provide more flexibility and detailed coverage within the FoV than even multiple single-sensor cameras can. The ability to render certain parts of the 360° FoV in greater depth and detail can be very useful when identifying persons or objects of interest.
- Con - Potential for Blind Spots: The use of multiple sensors can impact some coverage area and depth of field. Adjustments might need to be made to cover the space directly below the camera, for instance, which can impact depth of field significantly. Finding the optimal FoV, depth of field, and coverage while minimizing (or eliminating completely) gaps can be challenging.
- Pro - Additional FoV Configurations: Traditionally, the images recorded by each sensor are stitched together to build a full FoV. However, some organizations configure each sensor to provide better coverage for specific areas outside of the FoV (outside building corners are a common example).
- Con - Not Ideal for Smaller Spaces: In smaller spaces, such as studios, storage areas, and closets, multi-sensor cameras might run into coverage issues. Fine-tuning of the camera’s sensors is usually required, which can be challenging—or unfeasible—depending on the environment.
- Pro - Less Installation Time, Cabling, and Cost: In most environments, security teams need fewer multi-sensor cameras to achieve the same coverage they might get from a higher number of fixed, single-sensor cameras. This translates to lower installation costs, including far less cabling and, as well as less installation time overall. Over time, the need for fewer units will help keep maintenance costs down.
PTZ, Fisheye, or Multi-Sensor Camera: Which Camera is Best?
What many organizations are finding is that there are modern panoramic cameras with digital zoom capabilities PTZ cameras unnecessary. This means avoiding the high upfront cost, resource needs, and potential for human error so common to PTZ units.
Still, there are use cases for which PTZ cameras make the most sense. There are also use cases in which achieving the right combination of FoV and image resolution is a challenge with panoramic cameras. However, today’s premium, high-quality panoramic camera will often satisfy even the most challenging security needs. The key is to take a strategic approach to how to approach surveillance system design and installation altogether—one that takes into account the distance, vantage point, and type of lens and you need for your particular environment.