How Well do IP Cameras Work in Low Light?

Author: John Honovich, Published on Jun 06, 2009

[2016 Update: Camera technology has changed substantially since 2009. The same pattern occurs but cameras are generally much better in low light. For newer tests on this, see:

IP cameras have a bad reputation of working poorly in low light conditions. It's part of a greater problem with all surveillance cameras - as critical as low light performance is to video surveillance, high quality low light performance can be difficult to achieve.

There's no way to get this from manufacturers as they provide cryptic (and often overstated) illumination statistics. Plus, they usually provide still images that mislead more than inform.

Over the last two months of IP camera testing, the importance of measuring and understanding tradeoffs of camera settings has become clear.

As we examined in our report on lux meters, measuring light levels is crucial. Image quality degrades over a range of light levels (almost always higher than what the manufacturer states). You need to determine what those light levels are and how bad the image quality becomes at each light level.

Secondly, significant video quality tradeoffs exist in manufacturer's low light optimizations. These functions can distort moving objects, introduce significant artifacts and change the appearances of objects.

This premium report digs into these elements, explaining and sharing actual video samples that demonstrate these issues over a wide range of light levels.

Image Quality Degrades

Image quality in low light conditions does not suddenly go from good to bad. It is not as if at 2 lux, the image quality is perfect and at 1 lux, the image is entirely black.

Usually, image quality degrades over a wide range of lux levels. Unfortunately, a lot of surveillance video needs to occur within the degradation range where capturing video is neither ideal nor impossible.

Get Video Surveillance News In Your Inbox
Get Video Surveillance News In Your Inbox

For example, let's say at .5 lux, the camera generates an all black image - it cannot see anything useful. By contrast, at 50 lux, the camera generates its best image (an image that's as good as it is at 500 lux or greater). Between 50 and .5 lux, the video quality continuously degrades.

The degradation ranges from problems in seeing fine details (at the high end) to only being able to see the outlines of large objects (at the low end).

Determine the Camera's Objectives

How low a light level a camera can handle depends on the surveillance objective of the camera:

  • If all you need is to see if something or someone is there, you will be able to use a light level at the low end of the range. The picture won't be pretty but it will be good enough.
  • If you want to see the details of someone's face or specific actions that a person is making, you will need a light level at the higher end. Lower levels will have noise or blurring effects that can distort those details.
  • If you want to do video analytics, you will likely need a higher level. The noise and distortions found at lower levels and with low light enhancements used can significantly increase false alerts.

Tradeoffs of Low-Light Optimizations

Manufacturers offer a number of functions to increase low-light performance. However, these increases usually have negative side effects that users need to carefully consider. Here are the 3 general categories of low-light optimizations:

  • Black and White mode: Cameras provide better low light quality when switched to B&W mode. This is accomplished by the use of a mechanical cut filter and are usually labeled as being Day/Night cameras. [Note: a few cameras provide 2 imagers - one B&W and another for color]. This is the one feature that works the best with the least tradeoffs. Black and white mode almost always provides a substantial better image than the color mode at the same light level. The obvious tradeoff is capturing color.
  • Slowing Shutter speed/ lengthening exposure: If there's very little light, one way to get more light is to take a longer time to capture the image. Instead of using a 1/30 second exposure, it could be lengthed to 1/5 second or even 1/2 second. The two significant drawbacks of this is: (1) reduces frame rate and (2) causes issues with motion blur. If a car or person is moving quickly across the camera, the long exposure can distort details - rendering the image potentially useless. Manufacturers obscure this problem by showing still images of stationary objects.
  • Increasing Gain / enhancing images: Manufacturers can artificially enhance images to increase details in the image. The problem is that these techniques routinely introduce noise (e.g., the appearance of 'snow' or lines in the image). These artifacts can create new problems, especially if you are attempting to see fine details or perform video analytics. In our videos below, these issues can be seen very clearly.

Analyzing Video Samples

In the screencast below, we present and comment on the series of sample videos recorded:

Note: The camera tested a day/night model with a mechanical cut filter that was rated to .05 lux minimum illumination (that's all the details provided on the data sheet). Obviously, looking at the test results, there's no usable video at any lux level close to .05 lux. However, this camera was one of the better ones tested.

Download Video Samples

All of the video samples from the low light test may be downloaded:

2 reports cite this report:

How Do You Solve the Problem of Bad Surveillance Video? on Jun 30, 2009
One of the most frequent complaints by both industry outsiders and megapixel camera vendors is how bad surveillance video is. It's so bad, many...
Training: Using a Lux Meter on Jun 06, 2009
Getting good images at night is one of the most challenging problems in video surveillance. Making this worse is that generally you cannot trust...

Related Reports on Low Light

Axis Lowest Cost Outdoor IR Camera M2025-LE Tested on Apr 24, 2017
Axis has lagged offering low cost IR cameras while their Asian competitors have made IR standard even in their most entry level cameras. Recently,...
Ring Floodlight Cam Tested on Apr 20, 2017
Ring has released their latest entry, the Floodlight Cam, calling it the "Evolution of Outdoor Security", touting motion activated floodlights,...
Hanwha Lowest Cost WiseNet X Camera (XND-6010) Tested on Apr 13, 2017
IPVM bought and tested the lowest-cost WiseNet X model, the indoor 2MP fixed focal XND-6010 dome, continuing our testing of Hanwha's new WiseNet X...
Pelco Surevision 3 Tested on Apr 12, 2017
Pelco has released generation 3 of its Surevision cameras, claiming improved performance in both super low light and WDR performance. We bought...
Hanwha Wisenet X Tested on Mar 27, 2017
Hanwha has released their latest generation, the Wisenet X series, powered by their new Wisenet 5 processor. This new series claims improvements...
SimpliSafe Camera Tested on Mar 07, 2017
SimpliSafe is one of the most controversial companies in the industry, as they have become the symbol of the DIY threat to traditional alarm...
Vivotek 3MP 180 Wall Mount Camera Tested on Feb 28, 2017
Purpose-built wall mount panoramics have become an attractive niche to cover entranceways. In 2013, we bought and tested Vivotek's 1MP...
Uniview (UNV) IP Cameras Tested on Feb 22, 2017
"We're #3," in China says Uniview (UNV). While the company significantly trails Hikvision and Dahua in total sales, one notable difference is that...
Arecont Vision MicroDome Duo Tested on Feb 14, 2017
Arecont Vision is back with another multi-head camera, this time thinking smaller with the MicroDome Duo, a two-imager model, with the tagline...
Hikvision PanoVu Multi Imager Tested on Feb 08, 2017
Hikvision has entered the multi-imager market with their 180° PanoVu DS-2CD6986F-H, an 8MP, 4-imager model equipped with ~1/1.8" imagers and...

Most Recent Industry Reports

IPVM First Dean's List W2017 - Thomas Atkinson, Matt Hurly and Fredrik Lundqvist on Apr 24, 2017
IPVM is happy to congratulate and celebrate our first "Dean's List", the top students in our courses. For the Winter 2017 IP Networking course...
Axis Posts Strong Q1 2017 Financial Results on Apr 24, 2017
Axis posted strong numbers for Q1 2017, after having some challenges in 2016 (Q1 2016, Q3 2016). Inventory levels and overall spending show...
Axis Lowest Cost Outdoor IR Camera M2025-LE Tested on Apr 24, 2017
Axis has lagged offering low cost IR cameras while their Asian competitors have made IR standard even in their most entry level cameras. Recently,...
Splicing Alarm Circuits Guide on Apr 23, 2017
Alarm installers commonly connect multiple sensors to a single zone. They do this by splicing the wires together. In this report, we will explain...
IP Networking Course May 2017 on Apr 21, 2017
NOTE: Registration ends this Thursday. This is the only networking course designed specifically for video surveillance professionals plus it...
PureTech Video Analytics Examined on Apr 21, 2017
PureTech's analytics were chosen for a US border protection system (see related post), which the company claims no other analytics vendor was able...
US Border RVSS / Video Analytics System Examined on Apr 21, 2017
US Customs and Border Protection has been rolling out a video analytics-based detection system along the US/Mexico border, with detection ranges...
Beware The "Hit List" Ranking on Apr 21, 2017
The hit list. Kirschenbaum's recent newsletter complained about a 'hit list', bemoaning how a company took aim at ADT. Alas, that's the Google...
Ring Floodlight Cam Tested on Apr 20, 2017
Ring has released their latest entry, the Floodlight Cam, calling it the "Evolution of Outdoor Security", touting motion activated floodlights,...
Lenel President Is Out on Apr 20, 2017
Lenel's challenges continue. Now, Lenel's President is out, suddenly. This follows increasing challenges for the company who has broadly upset...

The world's leading video surveillance information source, IPVM provides the best reporting, testing and training for 10,000+ members globally. Dedicated to independent and objective information, we uniquely refuse any and all advertisements, sponsorship and consulting from manufacturers.

About | FAQ | Contact