WebCams on the cheap

WeatherCam HousingI have been singularly disappointed with the quality:price ratio of just about every web-oriented camera I have seen. For example, I have a D-Link DCS-900 IP cam which I bought cheaply second-hand. While it does the job, the image quality is fairly poor. I guess it's not really aimed at my particular purpose, but if I'd paid full retail price for it I'd have been pretty disappointed. I decided I needed to make something either better or cheaper. Better has eluded me until recently, so I went for cheaper in the interim.

The first prototype

Weathercam thumbnailI bought a 'refurbished' Logitech QuickCam Pro 4000 USB WebCam for about $50.00 on eBay (which was pretty cheap back in 2005). I then set about constructing a suitable outdoor housing for it. I used a short section of 100mm PVC sewer pipe with a glue-on cap on one end and a screw-down inspection cover (with O-ring seal) on the other. I cut a circular hole in the centre of the cap and glued a piece of window glass over it using silicone sealant so the camera could see out. A short section of pipe cut at an angle and split to enable it to stretch around the end cap made a handy shade hood. In the inspection cover end, I drilled a large enough hole to get the USB plug through, then slipped a rubber grommet over the cable to seal the hole against the elements. A bit of silicone between the cable and grommet helped here too. I used a strip of malleable metal to fashion a mounting base inside the tube. I made its diameter slightly larger that the pipe, so it holds in place by 'spring' pressure against the inside and meant no holes had to be drilled to mount the camera.

USB issues

Icron Rover in situ Of course, the DCS-900 connects via the local area network, so the camera can be located anywhere that cat5 cable can be run. The QuickCam Pro, on the other hand, is a USB device, so is limited to about 5 metres. This was fine while I had the camera mounted under the verandah roof outside my study window, but not much use when I wanted to move the camera onto the peak of the roof (about 15 metres away by cable) for a better view. The answer to this was an Icron Rover USB extender. These little gadgets allow USB devices to be connected over vast distances (up to 100m) using cat5 cable. Fantastic, but at nearly $300 they are not really in the 'cheap' category. eBay to the rescue again, and I got a brand new set for $80.00 - a relative bargain, but I had now spent more on the 'cheap' camera than on the DCS-900! Still, the combination works flawlessly (within the limitations of the camera lens), so I can't complain. And the rover will have other uses later.


Fwink Software Numerous webcam-capture packages are out there, but I wanted something light and simple without all the bells and whistles. A freeware programme called FWink (written by Canadian Chris Lundie) proved ideal. It is set to take a photo every 5 minutes, overlay the text and upload to the web site via FTP as well as saving a local copy. The Windows XP task scheduler is set to start it at dawn and shut it down at dusk. The only intervention required from me is to adjust the start/stop times every month or so as the day length changes. I use the (free) personal edition of URobot to grab each image and rename it according to time of capture, so they are all ready to be made into movies each night.

The movies

Windows movie player Another freeware programme called JPGVideo compiles the days images into an AVI movie every night at 9:00 (courtesy of the task scheduler again). These in turn are renamed with today's date using a command-line utility called namedate by Swiss programmer James Green. The xxcopy utility then copies the most recent movie to a webdrive, which acts to map the webpages' FTP site as a local network drive. Next, the Microsoft forfiles utility (from the old NT resource kit) deletes any movies older than 7 days from the webdrive/server so that I don't exceed my disk space allocation. Finally, the now-redundant JPG files are deleted ready for the next days photos. All this 'scripting' is done in a good old MS-DOS batch file. The only paid software in the process is the webdrive, and it's worth it for the flexibility that it affords in managing files on remote FTP sites. It allows the old command line utilities to operate just like they were acting on a local drive, plus it makes maintaining the website a breeze.

Weatherproof enclosure?

Over summer, I noticed some condensation was starting to fog up the glass window on the camera enclosure. When I opened the case, there was about 2mm of water lying in the bottom of the pipe. I'm not sure if it was accumulated condensation or had been driven in by recent storm rains. Either way, it was a problem. I dried out the puddle, but there was still condensation present that couldn't be removed without wrecking the camera alignment. I tried a little pack of silica gel dessicant, but that failed to have any impact two days later. I ended up stuffing one of my baby daughters nappies (diapers) in the back of the housing (unused, of course) and the fogging was gone by that afternoon. I suppose the annual maintenance will now include changing the nappy as well as brushing off the spider webs!

A new webcam?

For all its reliability and simplicity, the Webcam Pro is really not designed for capturing landscapes in any sort of detail or quality. It has trouble with the high contrast of the outdoors, and streaks are common on bright, cloudy days. There are now a growing number of webcams based on old Olympus digital cameras. The first one I saw was set up by Ben Quinn in Brisbane, and I was very impressed with the quality. The guys at EVS in the US have kindly supplied their software for free. I have bought a cheap used Olympus C-700 ultrazoom camera, which is supposed to work under computer control, but so far no luck. My C-750 works great, but it is still in daily use so I am not prepared to sacrifice it to webcam work! This one is a work in progress ... watch this space!

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