Super Low Lux Geovision Minidome Tested

Author: Derek Ward, Published on Apr 10, 2014

'Super' low light cameras have become increasingly common in box and full size cameras. However, no one we know has offered them in a minidome, the most common form factor for many users, valued for their small size, aesthetics and low cost.

Recently, Geovision released its Aurora line of 'Super Low Lux' cameras. A member alerted us to this promotional video:

He asked whether this was too good to be true. Were these claims simply manufacturer marketing hype?

We bought their GV-MFD1501-1F minidome, a 1.3MP, 1/3" imager camera and put it to the test against leading minidomes from Axis, Bosch, Dahua and Hikvision to see if Geovision was telling the truth and whether it could match up against them.

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Comments (47)

Super Low Lux Minidome Tested

Minidome, or microdome....?

Objectively speaking, where's the rule that says something under one size or another is a microdome? And if these are microdomes, what do we call the 1.5" diameter cameras starting to come out? Nanodomes? Picodomes?

Is it a meaningful distinction to make anyway?

Ethan, To your point, on Nano, pico, it made me think of this SNL sketch...

(Sorry for the weird site this is on, but )

Ethan, it would be worth getting a bunch of domes together side by side to contrast how large or small various ones are.

Obviously, whether something is a nano, micro, mini, major, full size dome etc., is subjective and dependent on the aggressivness of manufacturer marketing departments but if we did a real size 'shootout' inlcuding call-outs of dimensions it might help people better understand tradeoffs.

Undoubtedly, size is an important factor for many minidome users.

Hi Derek, thank you for testing this very interesting camera. It claims to have WDR. Did you test it's WDR capabilities? Which length of lens did you use for testing? Thank you for your help.

Luke, the lens was 4mm. We chose that one because it had the lowest F-stop (F/1.5 vs. 1.6+).

As for WDR, we checked it briefly during testing and determined that their "WDR" claim was purely electronic, and essentially amounted to a minor contrast/exposure adjustment. So since it had nearly no effect, we didn't shoot it out in a full WDR scene.

Thank you Ethan. It's funny that the specs mention electronic day/night mode but don't mention that the WDR is electronic. I'll take this as a reminder to always question the specs. Thank you very much for your help!

This is very frustrating albeit common. In fact, several companies have now started resorting to calling WDR cameras 'True WDR' to separate them from the electronic WDR models where the word 'electronic' is ommited. True WDR has a big impact on product price but when everyone calls their product 'WDR', the true WDR cameras lose out when customer is fixated on price. Performance of course is a different story.

Geovision does this in fact. A lot of their cameras are labeled "WDR", but the true WDR cameras are listed as "WDR Pro." It's quite misleading. It's like calling a color camera "day/night" because hey, it works at night (you just can't see anything).

Am I crazy or does it seem that on the graphic for factory focus vs. ipvm focus, that the effective aspect ratio significantly changed also? Is that really possible with a symmetric lens?

That was my thought exactly. Why is his face so stretched out in the original image?

Here's a educated guess that might explain some of it, but use your own judgement:

We know the focus was "slightly soft" when it came in, though still usable. So I think maybe they did the first run thru with all the cameras and the geo being slightly soft. Possibly after reviewing the first run they thought that the focus could be improved on the geo and so did so. Then to be fair they did another run thru with the geo alone, possibly on a different day (explaining the color diff) and possibly with a different camera mount position (maybe explaining the aspect). That would explain why the geo pictures don't match (in terms of Derek's grip) all the other mfrs ones. But you might agree that the factory focus one does seem to match and was probably taken at the same instant as the original ones, but then was replaced in the series by the better focused ones taken later.

Anyway, I'm sure we'll hear soon if there is any explanation...

After looking at it, two things, which compounded to to cause this:

1. Yes, distortion is definitely possible with some lenses, especially these tiny M12 dome lenses. I've seen it in other domes, as well. The interesting thing here, and I can grab some images to show this later, is that the distortion was very localized. Derek's legs are nearly exactly the same proportions pre and post focusing.

2. We did reshoot this, from the same mounting point. Angle changed very very slightly, but enough, combined with the lens distortion, to make it look more different than it was.

I thought maybe Derek was trying to cut and was taking some fast acting water pills.

I can neither confirm nor deny that one.

Howdy Ethan!

How does the focus adjustment work on this rascal? Is it an actual lens (focus) adjustment or does it move the camera sensor distance (back focus)? If its the back focus type, maybe the focal plane adjustment got tweaked off of 90 degrees? Where does the light come from in them "focusing" shots, maybe outside?, otherwise why does the color seem to change more than just a tadpole? Were any other settings changed, besides focus, for the mulligan?

This is great, thank you!

Lens F number and image sensor (pixel) size are the most important for estimation of light sensitivity.

Just compare images on 2 lux with these parameters:
GV MFD1501 F1.5 1/3"
AXIS M 3004 F2.8 1.4"
Bosh Flexidome F1.2-1.6 1/3"
Dahua HD2100N 1/3 F1.8
Hickvision HS-2CD7164-E 1/3 F1.8

Bosh Flexidome has shown result worse than expected. Other cameras shown results according to their F-number and sensor sizes.

In the Conference Room (<1 lx) GV MFD1501 turns on hight AGC+noise reduction therefore its image seems more bright than HD2100N and DS-2CD7164-E.
In other respects sensitivity of GV MFD1501, HD2100N and DS-2CD7164-E is the same. If HD2100N and DS-2CD7164-E turn on the Hight AGC+NR, their images must be simular to GV MFD1501.

"Lens F number and image sensor (pixel) size are the most important for estimation of light sensitivity."

Disagree. While I concur that lens F number is important, the variation in image processing is critical in low light differentiation and that cameras differe material in low light image processing / gain control. See: Wrong: Why Imager Size Is NOT Key To Low Light

Before performing any image processing we need to get initial image information. In low light the number of photons caught by each pixel is directly proportional to square of this pixel, the size is proportional to image sensor size. At the same time noise of the pixel is not directly proportional to the size. Therefore the more the size is the better is signal/noise ratio of initial image.

Influence of the pixel size is simular to influence of lens F stop. The more F stop is the less photons are caught by each pixel with the same noise. You agree than F stop is important, but disagree with importance of sensor size. Why? Both things have influence on the initial image quality as well as scene illumination.

Further a camera can process the image, increase exposure time, increase AGC, use NR, but initial image quality depends of the sensor size and F-stop. Of course, performance of sensors of different generations can differs. there are better sensors (higher transfer efficiency, lower noise) which produce better initial image with the same pixel size. Therefore it is correct to compare sizes of sensors of the same technology.

Stanislav, you are off topic. If you want to discuss imager size, go to the imager size post.

I thought Stanislav's comment was totally on topic and excellent. The test is low light performance and Stanislav is commenting on the basic physics of low light performace, how could it be any more on topic?

He's making a theoretical point about imager size and low light performance, ignoring the real research we have already done, not about any of the cameras tested.

Equally importantly, he is wrong and misleading readers on this comment: "If HD2100N and DS-2CD7164-E turn on the Hight AGC+NR, their images must be simular to GV MFD1501." All the cameras tested here were set to max gain and the Geovision deliver a brighter, more detailed image in the dark scene tested.

Again, low light image processing is a major differentiatior, far above and beyond imager size.

Here is the image at <1Lx, but a little processed. Just contrast of all images except Geovision was increased. Firstly it shows that Dahua and Hikvision have a reserve to increase AGC gain.
Not so big difference in noise with close contrast, agree? Difference in details caused by compression.
On all images except Geovision compression was applied on dark low contrast images therefore compression have eaten all small details.
If the AGC gain of Dahua and Hikvision would higher, then the compression will applied to high contrast images and we will see much more details on their images.

Again, theoretical, unless you want to run all your images through photoshop.

The reality is that cameras vary significantly in the maximum gain / processing they support internally and that this difference substantially impacts low light image quality for real life video surveillance monitoring.

Hight AGC=increase of contrast costs zero. It is not even processing, it is just tuning of camera circuit.
It is common mistake to estimate camera sensitivity by AGC gain. Initial sensitivity is determined by signal and noise. The more the signal is the less the noise the more is the sensitivity.
Camera processing can't increase the initial sensitivity. When we amplify signal we amplify the noise too. NR can decrease noise but with loosing small details. Image after NR can't contain more information than before NR. It can seems better visually, but some info was lost.
Increasing exposure time can increase signal/noise with loosing resolution of moving objects.
Only the initial sensitivity is the most important.
I am very surprised that these basic knowledge causes heated argument here.

Stanislav, you are ignoring the practical elements of real world surveillance cameras and monitoring. These cameras are all using their highest gain settings. There is nothing else we can do to the cameras, as sold and provided, to improve the low light performance.

You could export specific images to photoshop after the fact but that is not realistic for day to day surveillance monitoring that needs the most detailed image possible immediately when calling up the video.

OK, I see from your images that Geovision can provide higher AGC gain, than other cameras. But it is impossible to understand why other cameras have not an option to increase AGC gain. It costs zero, only one switch, all cameras must have such option, but with possibility to disable it

Firstly it shows that Dahua and Hikvision have a reserve to increase AGC gain... ....If the AGC gain of Dahua and Hikvision would higher...

Sir, what do you mean 'have a reserve', like an untapped one?

What do you mean by 'if the AGC gain... would higher', do you mean 'if the AGC gain... would only go higher'?

John says the gain is maxed on the camera, is there some actual setting that you feel should be changed?

Finally you assert:

Lens F number and image sensor (pixel) size are the most important for estimation of light sensitivity...

Do you agree that in the last 5 years that the performance of the best low-light cameras (lightcatcher style) has increased tremendously? Has f-stops gone lower? Has pixel densities decreased?

So other factors must explain it, right?

Do you agree that in the last 5 years that the performance of the best low-light cameras (lightcatcher style) has increased tremendously? Has f-stops gone lower? Has pixel densities decreased?

So other factors must explain it, right?

More than 5 years ago in my own testing cameras with Sony ExView HAD CCD B/W 1/3" 752x582 in strictly fixed conditions (F1.2, exposure time =20ms SNR=17dB, incandescent lamp, no NR) showed sensitivity of 0.04lx. Color cameras with the same sensor (no day/night) showed about 0.5lx sensitivity. Day night with removable IR filter - 0.1-0.2lx in B/W mode.
Here is a model of an image with 17dB SNR.

Today, on this test, cameras F1.8 1/3" 1280?1024 (approx in 4 time smaller pixel sqare) show visually close images at 1-2lx illumination with unknown exposure time, but I suppose the time is much more than 20ms.

Thus I don't see tremendously increasing performance.

Stanislav,

The key is in the "4 time smaller pixel sqare (sic)". As I'm sure you know, pixel size is everything. Over the last 5 years, the industry has sacrificed low light performance for resolution. Sure, they could have just made the imagers bigger and preserved pixel size, but then you'd have 1"-2" imagers and the lens costs would be 10X the camera cost, and dome cameras would be impossible to make smaller than 10" dome.

So instead, the industry went with more densely packed imagers, and sacrificed low-light sensitivity for resolution. At the same time they improved the amount of light transferring through the bayer filter and reaching the actual pixel register, thus making it more efficient at reading light. This advancement hasn't cancelled out the smaller pixel size disadvantage, but it's mitigated it a lot.

But, the truth is, a 1/2" 704x480 CCD from 10 years ago is more light sensitive than the 1/2.8" 1080p 2MP imagers of today. It's just simple physics. Large telescope mirrors can see further into space than the 10" Schmidt-Cassegrain scope sitting in your garage.

Physics.

On the other hand, things like Wide Dynamic Range have improved by several orders of magnitude over what we had 5 years ago.

I totally agree.

Nice test rig, Stan.

So why don't you give me an exact camera model/spec from > 5 years to be your low-light ambassador. Something that was high end but available from the usual suspects. I'll try to match it with a modern day equivalent, and maybe we can find some already run comparisons. I won't nit pick, if I don't see a major difference, you win.

Different cameras with the same sensor and lens showed very close sensitivity results.
Here are some of tested by me cameras with Sony ExView HAD CCD 1/3":
ACE-EX560CHMAI
STC-3010/0
QN-B309
WAT-137HL
But you can take any camera with Sony ExView HAD CCD 1/3" HR and get the same result. These results are close to results of CCTV Focus magazine testing of cameras with the same sensor.

This is the case for analog cameras, "Different cameras with the same sensor and lens showed very close sensitivity results."

With IP cameras that process / encode on the edge, there are great differences in what they can do and this leads to a wide range of low light performance for cameras even using the same sensor and lens.

Again, all of these cameras tested are IP, so your contention here is irrelevant.

Yes, IP cameras with unknown exposure time and constant NR can't be correctly tested by the technique based on measuring noise.

It is obligatory to control exposure time and turn off NR while testing sensitivity of IP cameras.

We also need to control resolution, because of IP cameras can increase one parameter and decrease other. We should be careful with testing IP cameras.

Stanislav, all the camera are fixed to the same 1/30s exposure.

Turning off noise reduction / gain control / image processing is silly as this is part of the differentiation across camera manufacturers and what people are using (and want to use) in real use.

Lets try to roughly recalculate old analog color camera sensitivity to new IP camera.
Lets take into account proportion of pixel square (*4)
Proportion of lens F number (1.8*1.8)/(1.2*1.2) =2.25
Proportion of exposure time 20ms/33ms=0.6

Then multiply 0.5lx*4*2.25*0.6=2.7 lx. It is very close to result of your testing.

0.1lx*4*2.25*0.6=0.54 lx. for TDN cameras

Stansilav, please do not comment again about this. You have had your say. Each time we explain to you why your presumptions are wrong (gain control disabled, unknown exposure times, etc.), you simply come up with a new hypothetical counterargument.

No problem, I can be silent

No problem, I can be silent

Evidently not.

I am more than happy to discuss points with anyone but you have now posted 13 comments on this thread, ignoring what we actually tested, repeatedly making wrong presumptions and then launching hypothetical counter arguments.

Feel free to test these actual real cameras and share your results. Otherwise, please spare us the rest.

I'm thinking that Stanislav hijacked the thread. It's okay, that type of thing happens. But let's be clear, just because you see more gain in the resulting image of one camera doesn't mean the other manufacturers had "gain in reserve" (or any other tuning metric) that could have been applied, but they artifically limited it.

Every DSP (Ambarella, Sony, Vatics, Panasonice, etc.) processes the data coming from the imager differently, and every imager reports the data differently. While how to optimize that data is fairly well understood, the end result will still vary. This is true of any electronic family of devices. No two manufacturer's HDTV's function exactly the same, no two manufacturer's digital still cameras produce the same quality images, and certainly no two IP surveillance cameras perform the same.

In my extensive experience, and this goes all the way back to the analog days a decade ago, pretty much any camera can apply far more gain to the image than is practical to use. Gain is just amplification and it not only amplifies the usable video, but it amplifies the distortion (noise). Little post-process tricks like 2DNR and 3DNR can reduce that noise, at the expense of motion blur.

Let's be clear on another topic, increasing gain and thus noise destroys the compression efficiency of a camera. Noise is viewed by almost every CODEC on Earth as motion; and motion and compression efficiency are mortal enemies, even with H.264. In worst-case-scenarios, in a CBR environment, turning up the gain too much will cause extreme compression to be applied (or frames to be dropped), which then kills any advantage you may have gleaned from turning up the gain. If you have hi-cap VBR, then of course the tradeoff is bandwidth and file size, and I know of NO end-users out there that suddenly want their entire array of cameras to spike bandwidth and storage just because it got dark.

There are no magic bullets. Camera manufacturers optimize their hardware to provide a good as possible images for the vast landcape of applications. They all attack it a bit differently to be sure, but to make a statement that "X manufacturer would be better if they just opened up their gain setting." is generally a sign that the person making that claim doesn't really understand how to tune a surveillance camera.

There are no magic bullets. Camera manufacturers optimize their hardware to provide a good as possible images for the vast landcape of applications. They all attack it a bit differently to be sure, but to make a statement that "X manufacturer would be better if they just opened up their gain setting." is generally a sign that the person making that claim doesn't really understand how to tune a surveillance camera.

There can be different tasks. In many tasks, noisy but bright image is preferable because of such image looks more clear for watcher, than dark one. NR can make such noisy image even more clear.
One of such tasks loving high AGC is this testing on IPVM:)
Thus additional option of increasing max AGC gain would be useful for getting higher rating here:)

I respectfully disagree. For starters, most cameras won't even apply gain in bright conditions, unless you increase the gain floor, also known as gain bias. this is almost NEVER a preferable position to force the camera into because of the washed out loss of contrast that inevitbly occurs.

Sorry, you didn't understand me, probably I was not clear. I wrote about maximum AGC gain which is applied only in dark. Here is my article where AGC working is described in details with images and diagrams.

Okay thank you, I understand better. But in most IP cameras I'm aware of, you can tweak the upper and lower limits of the AGC. It can be as simple as "2X, 4X or 8X" but in many cameras built within the last 2-3 years you can actually control the bias of the AGC in eV settings similar to a DSC.

Stanislav,

You claim:

"It is impossible to understand why other cameras have not an option to increase AGC gain. It costs zero, only one switch, all cameras must have such option, but with possibility to disable it"

First of all, all of these cameras tested have an 'option to increase AGC gain'. And in these tests, all of them go to their max possible gain setting for each individual camera automatically and by design.

I am dumfounded you continue to make definitive assertions without even a basic understanding of those cameras.

Secondly, there is absolutely a cost in achieving this. IP cameras vary greatly in processing power available to do digital processing that improves low light performance. Plus, manufacturers vary greatly in the expertise and resources dedicated to implement techniques / algorithms to accomplish this.

Net/net, the top performing low light IP cameras have improved greatly and the variance between the 'best' and the 'worst' here has grown.

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