Sony 35mm Super Low Light Camera Tested
Sony is making a big push for their SNCVB770 camera, touting its low light capabilities that they claim can deliver true color in pitch black darkness.
While the 'super low' light market segment is definitely growing, Sony's SNCVB770 has a dramatically larger 35mm imager than top low light cameras which generally are ~1/2". For example, here is the Sony SNCVB770 compared to one:
Does Sony's approach make a real difference? We tested the SNCVB770 vs top low light performers from previous tests, the Axis Q1635 and Hikvision Darkfighter as well as the Sony SNC-VM772R to see how well the SNCVB770 really performed head-to-head.
In this test report, we review our full results, including light levels from ~6.5 lux to below 0.01, with competitors in color, monochrome, and with IR on, as well as bitrate comparisons, configuration issues, and more.
The Sony SNC-VB770 provided better performance than any other super low light camera we have tested, producing better images at very low lux levels (below ~0.01lx), with clear detection of our test subject at 500'+, with detection capability similar to thermal cameras in our past tests. Moreover, since the SNC-VB770 is 4K, while other top low light cameras are 1080p (or less), the Sony here delivered more details during the day as well.
However, there are several key drawbacks to consider, as well:
- High price: At over $5,000 estimated street price (including added lens and outdoor housing), the SNC-VB770 is priced similarly or higher than thermal cameras instead of visible light cameras, even $2000+ models such as Panasonic's WV-SFV781L or Sony's own SNC-VM772R 4K cameras or the Hikvision Darkfighter tested (which is sub $1,000).
- Uncontrollable compression: Because the VB770 (and VM772R) does not include any compression control in its VBR codec setup, coupled with bitrates running well below the VBR cap even in high motion scenes, compression artifacts were significant in our tests, reducing image details.
- Low frame rate multi stream/WDR: When using multi-stream mode, the 4K stream is limited to 10 FPS. Turning WDR on reduced FPS to 5. Many other 4K cameras do not have these limitations, allowing 30 FPS on the main stream in both cases.
- 12MP MJPEG mode limited: The VB770 uses a 12MP sensor and may be set to 12MP when using MJPEG. However, frame rate is limited to 2 FPS, very low even for wide open areas.
- High bandwidth: The VB770's bitrates are notably higher than many common 4K cameras (~8 Mb/s average vs. <1 Mb/s in others), many of which now include smart codecs.
Overall, if absolute best low light detection performance is the goal and budget, bandwidth, and framerate are not a concern, the VB770 is a strong choice.
The SNC-VB770 has an MSRP of $7000 USD, not including lens or housing. Based on this price and dealer discounts, we estimate its street price to be ~$5,500 USD including lens and housing.
This is more than twice the price of even the most expensive standard imager size 4K cameras, such as the Panasonic WV-SFV781L (~$2,000) and Sony's SNC-VM772R (~$2,300).
Image Sensor Size Comparison
The image below shows the size difference between the SNC-VB770's 35mm sensor and a typical ~1/2" sensor from a super low light model.
Note that sensor size is only one factor in overall performance. This comparison is shown here for reference, since this imager is drastically larger than typical cameras.
Most notably, the VB770 is significantly larger than typical box cameras, especially with added E mount lens. Aside from side and lens differences, port configuration is generally similar to other cameras, with audio, I/O, power, and PoE as others.
We look at the physical features of the camera in this video:
The VB770 is compatible with Sony E mount lenses. Sony offers multiple lens options, but any E mount lens may be used. Note that the camera does not support lens functions, such as motorized focus, zoom, stabilization, etc., only auto back focus.
Lenses vary widely in size, seen in the comparison below, between the 35mm fixed lens and 70-200mm varifocal. Users should beware of this when selecting an outdoor housing, to ensure the selected lens will fit in the selected housing.
We tested in an outdoor parking lot/field with exterior lights on and off. Light levels ranged from ~6.5lx with lights on near the cameras to below 0.01lx with lights off in the field. Note that the light seen to the right side of the test FOV below did not come from the exterior of the building, but from sports fields over half a mile away. Lux measurements take this added light into account.
Subject Tracking (<0.01lx)
In the example below, we track a subject from over 500' as he walks towards the cameras. Light levels in this scene were low, below 0.01lx in the field.
Download this clip (~80 MB .avi)
By contrast, when using the integrated IR 4K model, the subject was not visible until about ~200' range, much nearer.
Download this clip (~65 MB .avi)
Compared To Thermal Cameras
Based on our past tests, the VB770's low light detection performance is similar to or better than thermal cameras at longer ranges. For example, the comparison below shows both cameras side by side with the subject at ~500' range, both clearly visible.
However, nearer the camera, at ~150' range and closer, the VB770 provides details not seen in the thermal, with rough ideas of clothing, color, etc.
Exterior Lights Off, All Cameras "Best Case"
We first tested with all cameras set to their "best case" settings: monochrome in non-IR cameras and IR on in the SNC-VM772R. Note that the SNC-VB770 is color only and not IR sensitive.
Close to the cameras, with PPF very very high (~180) the SNC-VB770 produces moderately better details of the subject than other cameras, including the integrated IR VM772R. However, the test chart was more legible in others, including the 1080p Axis and Hikvision cameras.
Note that due to noise and compression artifacts, none of the cameras produced the extremely detailed images expected at PPF levels this high.
At ~60 PPF, the VB770 produces on legible line of the test chart, not seen in any other cameras. The subject is similarly detected in both the Sony 4K models, but cannot be seen in the 1080p super low light models due to increased noise.
Finally, at ~40 PPF (~100' distance), no details are displayed in any camera, but the VB770 still easily detects the subject.
Exterior Lights Off, All Cameras Color
For comparison, we performed the same test with all cameras in color mode. Performance of the SNC-VM772R was most notably reduced, with the subject unseen due to digital noise. The Axis and Hikvision 1080p 1/2" models provide detection of the subject and 3-5 lines of test chart legibility.
At ~60 PPF, the subject is undetectable in all cameras except the SNC-VB770.
Exterior Lights On, ~6.5-0.5lx
We next tested with exterior lights on, with lux ranging from ~6.5lx near the building to ~0.5lx at ~100' distance.
At this light level, the subject is partly washed out in the SNC-VB770, though totally in the Hikvision and VM772R cameras. Only the Axis Q1635 does not wash out the subject or test chart, providing the best details.
Moving back, at ~60 PPF, the SNC-VB770 produces the best details of the test chart and rough facial details of the subject, not seen in other cameras.
Finally, at ~40 PPF, the VB770 still produces some facial details (skin tone, facial hair) and one legible line of the test chart.
In a well lit daytime scene, the VB770 provides the clearest details of any camera tested at all ranges.
Starting at ~180 PPF, details are extremely high in all cameras, especially both 4K models, though finder test chart text is slightly more legible in the SV770.
At ~60 PPF, details in the 770 and 772R stay high, while they are reduced in the 1080p models, especially the Axis Q1635. Smaller text of the chart is again more legible in the 770.
Finally, at ~40 PPF, the VB770 still provides recognizable facial details of the subject, better than the 772R. The test chart is still legible to line 3, as well, while it is washed out past line one in the 772R.
As with their first 4K model, the SNC-VM772R, the VB770 does not include true VBR streaming. Instead, their "VBR" implementation includes a "target" bitrate and cap. However, in our tests, target bitrate had only limited impact on bandwidth, with actual bitrates typically lower than target, though typically much higher than other 4K cameras even with no motion in the scene.
Moreover, the camera appears to increase compression despite bitrates remaining significantly lower than the cap set in the web UI, resulting in compression artifacting and reduced details. Because of this, in comparison images, "60 PPF" does not look the same as "60 PPF" in typical cameras.
We show the VM772R's "VBR" implementation in action in this video:
The SNC-VB770's bitrates are slightly higher than Sony's older 4K model, the SNC-VM772R, both day and night. VB770 bitrates actually decrease slightly at night, most likely due to the removal of tree/leaf/grass details seen during the day.
Note that this is significantly higher than many current 4K cameras, especially as smart codecs become more common. For example, testing three 4K cameras in our Smart H.265 Samsung Test, all averaged well under 1 Mb/s in an outdoor daytime scene, and both the Wisenet P and Panasonic cameras were near 1.5 Mb/s at night.
However, it should be noted that those with the budgets for the VB770 are unlikely to see this increase in bandwidth/storage as a major concern, and they are unlikely to be deployed in large quantities, unlike less expensive models.
The SNC-VB770 retains two streaming limitations found in the SNC-VM772R, and not typical of other 4K models:
The camera offers two 4K streaming modes, single and multi-stream:
- Single 4K30 stream: In this mode, the camera outputs one 4K stream, up to 30 FPS, with no sub-streams. This makes multi-streaming impossible, requiring VMSes to display the full resolution stream regardless of window size, which increases bandwidth and CPU needs.
- Multiple streams: In this mode, up to three streams may be configured, with the first up to 4K resolution, but limited to 10 FPS. Second and third streams may be 1080p and VGA, respectively. No 30 FPS streaming is possible in this mode.
WDR Cuts Framerate
When turning WDR on, framerate is reduced by 50%, to a max of 15 FPS in single stream mode and only 5 when multi-streaming. Note that WDR does not function in 12MP mode (though the control is still shown in the web UI).
We review the issues above in this video:
Cameras were tested using default settings, with the following settings applied to all cameras:
- Shutter speed was set to a maximum of 1/30s
- H.264, 10 FPS
- Sony cameras were set to target bitrate 16 Mb/s and max bitrate 32 Mb/s
- Other cameras set to ~Q28, before smart codecs were enabled
The following firmware versions were used:
- Sony SNC-VB770: 1.0.0
- Axis Q1635: 188.8.131.52
- Hikvision DS-2CD6026FHWD-A: V5.4.0
- Sony SNC-VM772R: 1.0.6