Super Low Light vs Integrated IR Shootout 2013

By Ethan Ace, Published Oct 07, 2013, 12:00am EDT

Two of the biggest trends in IP cameras collide in this unique IPVM shootout.

In the past few years, a surge of manufacturers have released integrated IR cameras as well as 'super' low light ones. Indeed, many manufacturer now offer both types.

They both address the same core problem - poor low light performance - but which one is better? and what are the tradeoffs?

The Test

In this shootout, we took 6 cameras - 3 integrated IR ones and 3 super low light optimized ones and tested them head to head.

  • Integrated IR cameras: Avigilon H3 (both 3-9 and 9-22mm models), Dahua and Axis M1114-L
  • Super Low Light cameras: Axis Lightfinder P3354, Bosch Starlight NBN-733v, and Sony Gen 6 SNC-VB600

We then tested them indoors and outdoors, ranging from distances of 6' to 300', and light levels of 10 lux down to 0.1 lux.

Below is a preview of the 14 image comparisons we compiled from our tests:

The Questions

Our test results answered the following questions:

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  • Which cameras provided the best details?
  • How did the results vary across light levels (e.g., who was better at 0.1 lux, 1 lux, 10lux, etc.)?
  • How did the results vary across distance? (including a special long range 125' - 300' test)
  • How did the results differ indoor vs outdoors?
  • Which cameras did better in minimizing bandwidth consumption? Is IR's advantage here real or a myth?

Key Findings

These are our key findings from this test:

  • In a lit outdoor parking lot (< 5lux), low light cameras outperformed integrated IR models, providing better detail at close range, and superior detection at further ranges, up to 125'. Only the Avigilon H3 (3-9mm) bullet provided details close to low light models.
  • Outdoors, with the lights out, ~0.1 lux and below, IR cameras provided much better imaging than low light models, with details at close range and detection at longer ranges. Low light cameras produce only detection at very close range, and no usable images beyond.
  • At long range (up to 300'), Avigilon's 9-22mm IR bullet, at its maximum focal length, outperformed low light optimized cameras with the same FoV. The Avigilon bullet was able to detect a subject up to 300' away, while the NBN-733 provided detection at ~125', but not beyond. The Sony VB630 was unable to detect subjects at these ranges at all.
  • Indoors, in our tests up to 20', integrated IR cameras clearly outperformed low light cameras, with better detail and reduced visible noise.
  • With outdoor lighting on, color mode provided superior image quality in low light cameras compared to their monochrome, due to increased contrast and color information. However, with outdoor lighting off, monochrome mode performed better than color.
  • Bandwidth consumption, contrary to conventional wisdom, was not split between the two categories. Among integrated IR models, Dahua used more bandwidth than the low light models at all light levels. Avigilon's H3 bullet had the highest consumption of any camera in our tests with lights off. Finally, the Bosch 733's bandwidth usage was lower than some integrated IR models.

Pricing

Low Light Cameras:

Integrated IR Cameras:

  • Avigilon IR Bullet 3-9mm / 9-22mm [link no longer available]: ~$650 USD estimated street price.
  • Axis M1144-L: ~$560 USD Online
  • Dahua HFW3200SN [link no longer available]: $250 USD Online [link no longer available]

The 8-50mm lens used was the Tamron M13VG850IR (~$165 USD Online).

Recommendations

In very low light scenes below 1 lux (outdoors with no lighting), integrated IR cameras offer details at close range where low light models do not, and detection of subjects at greater distances, where low light cameras produce little to no usable images. Factoring in their typically lower cost, integrated IR is the strongest option in these scenes.

At higher light levels, 5 lux and below (such as lit parking lots), low light cameras are likely the best choice, due to improved details and color information instead of a monochrome image. This is especially true at closer ranges where identifying details may be captured.

In indoor low light scenes, integrated IR cameras are typically the best option. IR illumination is often more effective in these scenes due to the reflectance of walls and other objects in enclosed spaces, resulting in less noise and lower bandwidth than low light optimized cameras.

Finally, though integrated IR cameras sometimes consume less bandwidth at night than low light modes, users should be aware that severe spikes may occur even with them. VBR with a cap is strongly recommended to avoid wasting bandwidth and storage space.

Outdoors, Lights On

Our first test scene was a parking lot and field, with outdoor light on, varying from below 1 lux to ~10.

At 6', the integrated IR and low light cameras are closest in performance. The low light cameras perform better overall, providing more detail of the subject's face and clothes. Some overexposure was present in both IR and low light models from Axis.

At 25', low light cameras perform moderately better, still providing more details and higher contrast in most cases.

At 60', the performance gap widens. IR illumination begins to fade on all cameras at this range, and contrast is lost, with the subject blending into the background and obscured by noise. The low light cameras still offer color information and accordingly higher contrast between background and subject. Neither provide much detail of the subject.

At 125', the subject is nearly lost on all integrated IR cameras, while still clearly detectable in the low light models.

Outdoors Lights Off

Turning the lights off, monochrome mode performed better than color in low light optimized cameras. Light levels dropped to ~0.1 lux throughout.

At 6', the integrated IR cameras deliver facial and clothing details of the subject, while the low light optimized models provide detection only.

The IR cameras continue to outperform low light models at 25', clearly showing the subject. Low light cameras at this range produce only noise.

At 60', the subject is still noticeable in integrated IR cameras, though noticeably more difficult to detect.

Finally, at 125', the subject is difficult to detect even in integrated IR models.

Long Range

To test further ranges, we used Avigilon's 9-22mm IR bullet, along with two low light models equipped with 8-50mm megapixel lenses. We found in previous tests that Avigilon's 60m specified IR illumination range in this model was accurate, though power is greatly reduced at maximum range.

Starting at 125', the IR bullet is clearly superior to low light models. The Bosch NBN-733V is marginally able to detect a moving subject, but the VB630 is not.

At 200', Avigilon still easily detects our subject, while the 733 is still marginal.

Finally, at 300', the IR bullet has difficulty detecting the subject, though he is still visible. Other cameras produce no usable images.

Indoors

Finally, we tested in our standard indoor conference room to get a baseline of image quality and see performance tradeoffs in smaller spaces.

At 20' range, around 1 lux, The IR cameras produce better images than low light models, with the test chart more visible, and some facial detail possible. Low light cameras suffered from higher noise and artifacting.

In full light, performance is close, with cameras generally performing close to the same. The Axis M1114-L suffered from more artifacting than other models in this test, obscuring some details.

Bandwidth

The integrated IR cameras in our tests generally consumed less bandwidth than low light optimized cameras, as seen in the charts below. Note that the Avigilon H3 bullet, Dahua HFW3200SN, and Bosch NBN-733V were outliers in this, however. Dahua consumed more bandwidth than low light cameras outdoors with lights on, while Bosch consumed less than most IR cameras. Most notably, with the lights off, the Avigilon IR bullet consumes the most bandwidth of any camera in the test, near its VBR cap of 12 Mb/s, a 4x increase over its bandwidth with lights on.

Test Parameters

The following firmware versions were used in this test:

Low Light Cameras

  • Axis P3354: 5.40.17
  • Bosch NBN-733V: 73500580
  • Sony SNC-VB600: 1.5.1
  • Sony SNC-VB630: 1.5.0

Integrated IR Cameras

  • Avigilon 2.0W-H3-B01-IR (3-9mm bullet): 2.4.6.24(8181)
  • Avigilon 2.0W-H3-B02-IR (9-22mm bullet): 2.4.6.26(8383)
  • Axis M1144-L: 5.40.10.6
  • Dahua HFW3200SN: 2.210.General 01.0.R,build:2013-05-17(V4.1.1)

Cameras were standardized at 1/30s maximum default exposure. Other settings were left defaulted.

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