The Super Low Light Shootout 2016

By: Ethan Ace, Published on Mar 28, 2016

How good are surveillance cameras in low light? With the advances in integrated IR, image processing and larger imagers over the past few years, we wanted to find out.

We tested 12 cameras in two key scenes, a dark field, below 0.1 lux, and a parking lot with outside lighting, 1-2 lux, seen below:

Cameras Tested

We used a total of twelve cameras in this test, representing a range of cost, quality, and featuresets. 

We included low, medium, and high end IR models, including new 4MP and 4K models from Hikvision and Panasonic, as well as large imager super low light models from Axis and Hikvision. Finally, 1/3" super low light models were included, along with a standard, non-low light optimized model.

Key Findings

Here are our key findings from this test:

Integrated IR Being Caught By Super Low Light

In very dark scenes (<0.1 lux) and short to medium ranges, integrated IR generally provides better details, with more details at close range and detection at longer ranges. However, newer generation super low light models, especially 1/2" large imager models, have narrowed this gap significantly in the past few years. 

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For example, the image below shows a 1080p integrated IR models versus large imager 1/2" and typical 1/3" super low light models. The 1/2" model performs similarly to the integrated IR model, while the 1/3" is only modestly worse.

In past tests, integrated IR was much better than non-IR low light models, as this example from our 2013 test shows. The non-IR model produced nearly no image, while the IR camera provided strong details of the subject.

We review these findings in the video below:

Super Low Light Advantages In Brighter Scenes

In brighter scenes, such as the lit parking lot (ranging from 1-2 lux), super low light models produce image details similar to integrated IR, though with the added advantage of color images. For example, in the 1/3" and 1/2" low light models below, the subject's black jacket and blue jeans can clearly be seen, where both simply appear grey/white in the IR model. The green stripe of the van behind can also easily be seen.

We review footage from these cameras in the video below:

Super Low Light Beats IR At Long Range

At long ranges, large imager super low light models provide moderate advantages over IR cameras, with better detection in our tests due to increased contrast between moving objects and the background, especially when forced into color mode, seen below. This example shows the Avigilon H3 9-22mm bullet versus the 1/2" Hikvision Darkfighter 6026, with the subject easily visible in the color image, but blending into the background in the IR model:

In this video, we review these findings in more detail:

Limited Benefit to New High Resolutions in Low Light

4 MP and 4K/12 MP integrated IR cameras provided few practical benefits over 1080p IR models, making the test chart slightly more legible, but producing no additional details of the subject:

Low Cost IR: Good Close Range/Poor Long Range

Low cost IR bullets, such as the Hikvision 2042 in this test, provided image quality similar or better than much more expensive integrated IR and super lower light models at close range.

However, at longer ranges, beyond these cameras' limited IR range, other models provide better detection of the subject, who can barely be seen in the 2042 below:

 

Average Low Light Models

As a baseline comparison, the image below shows "average", non-super low light model compared to others. Images are notably dimmer, with less contrast than the 1/3" and 1/2" low light models and both integrated IR cameras.

Test Parameters

Cameras were tested using default settings with the following modifications:

  • H.264, 10 FPS, ~28-30 quantization was used
  • 1/30s maximum shutter speed

IR cameras were tested one at a time to prevent interference between models.

The following firmware/software versions were used:

  • Avigilon 2.0W-H3-BO2: 2.6.0.118 
  • Avigilon 2.0W-H3-BO1: 2.6.0.118 
  • Avigilon 3.0W-H3-B2: 2.6.0.116
  • Axis M1125: 5.75.3.3
  • Axis P3225-LVE: 6.10.1.1
  • Axis Q1615: 5.80.1.3
  • Axis Q1635: 5.80.1.3
  • Hikvision DS-2CD2042WD-I: 5.3.6 Build 151105
  • Hikvision DS-2CD4132FWD-IZ: 5.3.4
  • Hikvision DS-2CD6026FHWD-A: 5.3.5 Build 151218
  • Panasonic WV-SFV781L: 1.07
  • Samsung SNB-6004: 3.03_150918

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Comments (18)

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Just 5 years ago, people routinely warned about using megapixel in low light. And there was certainly a lot of truth in that as many cameras performed extremely poorly.

And now, there are megapixel cameras, without IR, in very dark scenes, producing images that rival IR. It's amazing progress.

If this continues, what does this mean for integrated IR and for thermal? Does integrated IR become more of a cheap low light option where super low light cameras are the high end, even for very dark conditions? Does thermal get relegated for very niche applications, even further than today?

We have had really good results with the Bosch Starlight series of cams. They come in PTZ, dome and box configurations. In Florida we have to deal with the sea turtle nesting season. All lighting along the coast must be minimized to the point our beach surveillance was compromised or non existent during the nesting season. We replaced the beach cams with Bosch 7000 series Starlight and the difference is night and day no pun intended. We were so happy with the Starlight cams we installed them at remote well sites with equally good results. You guys mightn't try testing the Starlight cams also.

Terry, we have tested multiple Bosch Starlight cameras:

They are certainly good but the market keeps on advancing and there has been many strong new offerings from rivals in the past year.

I missed those tests. Thanks John.

Is there any particular reason IPVM chose to test discontinued H3 cameras? http://avigilon.com/news/security/discontinuation-of-the-avigilon-h3-portfolio-of-cameras/

Because the Avigilon H3 IR cameras were quite strong in our tests and were used as one of the examples of high performing cameras. The Avigilon H3 Non-IR cameras were used as an example of an 'average low light camera'.

Given the H4 HDs were just recently announced, we plan to test them in the near future. This test was actually already in the works before the H3 discontinuation and we're still waiting for our H4s to arrive.

Yes, but 2 or 3.0C-H3A would have much better results also.

Good job, IPVM. So next expected step for manufacturers can be super low light cameras with integrated advanced IR, which can outperform thermal cameras on detection range, resolution and price?

...super low light cameras with integrated advanced IR, which can outperform thermal cameras on detection range, resolution and price?

They are already clobbering them on resolution and price. As for detection, although super low-light and advanced integrated IR cameras will have improved detection range, it's fundementally different than the way thermal detects, and I'm not sure they are directly comparable.

Since thermal is working off a heat differential, it can detect people hiding in the grass, or hiding in a car etc. Of course at low resolution.

Hybrid thermal/visible cameras on the other hand may benefit by having the ability to illuminate in the visible that which is detected in the infrared, with enhanced resolution.

As super low light already outperforms thermal cameras on resolution and price, two of your criteria are already true (and has been true since thermal cameras were introduced).

As for detection range, as long as we're talking perimeter protection, I am certain that thermal cameras will continue to reign in this area (with the exception of a select few scenarios) for the foreseeable future. Although thermal cameras are not immune to poor conditions (fog/rain/snow/pollution) they are much more resilient to such conditions and will provide much more consistent results for perimeter protection.

The false alarm rate is also lower overall for thermal cameras, something that has to be considered.

The gap between regular cameras and thermal cameras will however certainly be smaller, and keep shrinking, making it more cost efficient to use regular cameras for simple/low-risk scenarios.

Ola,

Good points. In an upcoming thermal vs super low light shootout, we plan to test both video quality / ability to capture details as well as video analytics performance. It will be interesting to see how close (or not) super low light cameras do given their noise and the risk of stray lighting impact their performance.

Would you test Hikvision Low Light (Darkfighter) with integrated IR? i.e. DS-2CD4A26FWD-IZ

In my opinion you guys should be testing with Avigilon H4 bullet cameras as they have light catcher and adaptive IR technology. The H3 is older and being phased out

Avigilon H4 test report is being released on Monday.

Thanks John

Our Avigilon H4 test is published. We tested two cameras, the 4K (to see the state of 4K integrated IR models) and 5MP (which Avigilon specs as their most light sensitive model). Neither really moves the needle per se, or has huge impact on the results of this test, and general findings remain the same.

However, the 5MP Avigilon H4 (left) is clearly more light sensitive than the H3 3MP (right). This is most noticeable in non-IR scenes at night seen here.

The 4K Avigilon H4 is slightly/moderately better in some scenes than other 4K models, but ultimately, as we say above, 4K's benefits in low light are few, if any, versus 1080p/3MP.

See our full test here.

FYI, street prices on the H3 cameras went way down

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