You can improve how well your security cameras see at night by keeping these tips in mind when installing and troubleshooting your surveillance system.
It's easy to make some simple mistakes that can severely degrade your cameras ability to get a useful image in low light conditions if you don't know what to watch out for.
Keep reading to see what to do and what to avoid in order to get the best image possible from your cameras.
1. Add more visible lighting
This may seem too obvious to even mention, but also it's too important to leave out of this list. Adding the right light source can be almost like turning night into day when you can evenly illuminate the area being viewed by a security camera. A good light can even allow a good camera to operate in color mode all night as if it were daytime.
One example would be a driveway or parking area with several vehicles parked there. A small porch light on the side of a nearby building might light the area a little bit, but the lighting would be uneven and full of shadows.
You might be able to improve things by adding several more similar lights if the area layout allows it, but I think the best solution is a powerful light designed to illuminate large outdoor areas like that. Something like a mercury vapor light up high on a building or on a pole will evenly and brightly light a large area, and the mounting height will greatly reduce the number and size of shadows around objects like vehicles.
2. Install additional infrared light sources
There are many places around the house where people want coverage from a security camera but they don't want a bright visible light turned on all night.
Many cameras come with built-in infrared LEDs that light up the area directly in front of the camera allowing it to see in complete darkness. Unfortunately, many of these built-in lights don't provide even coverage and most aren't strong enough to illuminate anything at a reasonable distance. Of course some cameras including many high end ones don't include IR lighting at all, but there's a reason for that. Keep reading to see why.
Adding one or more external infrared illuminators is an ideal way to light up an area without using bright visible lights , and if done correctly can give you an awesome camera image in what appears to be complete darkness to the human eye.
Depending on the particular models that you choose to use, the price can range from very inexpensive for smaller consumer models to relatively expensive for larger commercial models. Wide angle or narrow beam, weaker for short range or stronger for long range, there are many different configurations available to suit pretty much any application that you can think of.
I am using several different models of external IR illuminators. For a smaller model with a narrower beam, see my review of the Univivi U06R. For a larger wide angle model, see my review of the CMVision CM-IRP12-850.
3. Keep bright lights out of the camera's view
Be aware of all of the light fixtures around the location where you will be installing a camera. Do not place the front of the camera near a bright light, and never allow a bright light to be directly in the camera's field of view.
A nearby bright light can cause problems even if it doesn't appear in the image viewed by the camera. It could cause the day / night light sensor to not function correctly, and bright light hitting the class over the camera lens can many times get enough light to the image sensor to make it see poorly. Whether it's light directly from the bulb or first reflected off of a nearby surface, it all has the same effect on the camera.
If you must place a camera near a bright light you should try to keep the light to the side and rear of the camera so the light doesn't directly hit the front at all if possible.
The worst case happens when you want to view an image in low light, and you also have a bright light in direct view of the camera lens. The image sensor may be able to handle a bright image and a dim image, but it can't do both extremes at once. If you make it view a bright light it will no longer be able to see very well in the darker areas of the rest of the image.
Preventing extra light like this from skewing the dynamic range of the image sensor is one of the most important things to keep in mind, and it's an easy thing to accidentally get wrong if you're not careful.
Here are some extreme examples of what a bright light can do when allowed to be in view of a security camera. You'll even see some people on the Internet recommending this as a method to temporarily disable security cameras. Here I am shining a SureFire G3 Nitrolon Flashlight towards these cameras, not even directly into the camera lens, but it is a very bright light.
4. Reduce or eliminated nearby reflected IR
You might be able to guess what I'm going to say here if you understood the importance of the last section. You can also sabotage the ability of your camera to see in low light conditions if you allow extra unwanted infrared light to fall on the front of the camera. This is easier to do than you might think and it can affect the night image of many cameras without the owner even realizing that it is happening.
Suppose you mount a camera on a building and get it pointed where you want, and you find that the daytime image is great but the night time image seems bright enough but you can't really make anything out in the darker areas.
One common cause is the infrared light from the camera's built-in IR LEDs reflecting off of a nearby surface like the wall or soffit around where the camera is mounted. Just like with the visible light in the section above, that surface reflecting the IR light back at the camera doesn't even have to be in view of the lens and image sensor to cause problems.
Also, just like with visible light, the worst case is when the nearby building surface or another object is reflecting IR light back at the camera and is in view of the lens and image sensor. Then you are pretty much guaranteed to blind the camera with reflected infrared light.
It doesn't matter if the light is visible, from the built-in IR, or from an external IR illuminator. Direct or reflected, in view or just nearby, any extra undesired light like this will degrade your camera's ability to see at night.
These two pictures were taken while I work on my review of the CMVision IR-130 illuminator. The built-in IR for both of these cameras is disabled, but sticking my hand in front of the CMVision illuminator I am able to create enough IR light reflection towards the cameras to pretty much ruin the night image on them.
5. Turn off your camera's built-in IR
Say what, Steve? That's crazy talk! I know it's not intuitive, but hear me out. Suppose you've got the camera with built-in IR properly mounted, no nearby lights affecting it, and no nearby objects reflecting the IR from the camera back at it.
Unfortunately, some camera designs just aren't all that great. Available in several different housing styles, the camera design with the lens in the middle and a number of small infrared LEDs in a ring around the lens has been around since the old analog CCTV days. It's very inexpensive to manufacture and it gives consumers what they want, a low priced camera with built-in IR night vision.
Even though manufacturers try to keep those LEDs separated from the lens, sometimes the IR light can reach the lens area and we saw in the section above what that causes. Yep, we can't see as well in low light as we should be able to. There is a reason that most higher end professional security cameras do not have built-in IR like this, it degrades their performance.
Most cameras with built-in IR lights have a setting that will you you to turn them off for testing or permanently if you want, but not all cameras allow them to be turned off. My review of the Reolink RLC-411WS shows that it's one of the cameras that does not allow you to turn them off.
6. Use the proper camera housing
This sort of expands on the last section, and the absolute worst camera housing to use with built-in infrared lighting is the dome camera. Some manufacturers make great dome cameras with built-in IR but some do not, and no matter the manufacturer you have the greatest chance of problems with visible and IR light reflection and other night vision problems with dome cameras than with any other housing style.
That leaves us primarily with bullet and turret camera housings and either one can be great and much better than a dome. Lower end models will use the ring of smaller LEDs around the lens that are less desirable than the newer models with larger LEDs that are mounted further away and more isolated from the lens. These newer LED designs also provide much more powerful and uniform infrared light output.
My review of the Vivotek FD8134V shows an extreme example of terrible built-in IR problems on a dome camera. Perhaps the worst camera that I've ever owned.
Here are links to my reviews of the Hikvision DS-2CD2342WD-I Outdoor Turret Camera, the Dahua IPC-HFW4431R-Z Outdoor Bullet Camera, and the Dahua IPC-HDW5231R-Z, which all have more advanced IR LED designs.
7. Get a better low light camera if you need it
Sometimes you just need a better camera if you want to be able to see in the dark. This is especially true if you're using a camera in an area with no lighting, insufficient lighting, and where additional IR lighting is not realistic. An off-grid solar powered cabin would be a good example of a location like this.
There are cameras that have been specifically designed to perform well in low light conditions. They typically have larger, more advanced, more sensitive, and higher quality image sensors. They are also not high resolution because a lower resolution allows for larger pixels on a given sensor size, and larger pixels can gather more light.
Here's my post showing some of the best low light night vision security cameras that I am aware of on the market right now at a reasonable price.
I own a couple of the models listed and they really do work better in low light than your average cameras do.
8. Use a camera with a mechanical IR-cut filter
True day / night cameras will actually have a separate day mode and night mode. During the day an infrared filter is physically placed in front of the lens. This IR-cut filter blocks infrared light from reaching the image sensor, which allows the sensor to accurately reproduce colors. Since the image sensor can detect infrared as well as visible light, the colors in an image would be drastically altered if the filter was not in place.
This IR-cut filter is physically moved away from the image sensor when the camera switches to night mode, and the camera also switches to black and white mode instead of color.
You can be sure that a camera without an IR-cut filter is not going to perform well during the day or at night, so always double check just to be sure what you're getting.
9. Keep the front of cameras and illuminators clean
You'll want to keep the glass in front of your camera lens clean for the best possible view both day and night. Dirt and debris can be extra troublesome on some cameras at night though, especially those using built-in infrared lights.
Bugs and spiders seem to love cameras and infrared lights for some reason. I find that I need to clean the face of my cameras at least two or three times each year, usually Spring, mid-Summer, and Fall. Besides normal dust accumulation from being outside, the cleaning is primarily needed to get rig of the spider webs and junk that bugs leave on there.
The biggest issues are with fine spider webs of silk strands from that you can't even see during the day, but become brightly lit up by the internal IR lights when they switch on at night.
10. Don't try to see through window glass
I shouldn't be surprised by how many people try to do this, because I actually tried this when I got my first camera with built-in infrared light about 10 years ago.
You place your new camera inside so it's looking outside through a window, and it actually gives you a pretty good picture during the day.
Night time comes though and you suddenly have a useless image when the camera switches to night mode. Yep, all you can see is the reflection of those built-in IR LEDs reflecting back from the glass and nothing else. I mean nothing else too, this is an extreme example of how infrared light reflecting back into the camera can make it useless.
You might have noticed that there are only a couple of basic principles behind all ten of these tips to help you get the most out of your security cameras at night.
Add visible or infrared light to the area that you want to view at night. Even inexpensive cameras that don't normally work well in low light conditions can be made to work great if you properly light up the area that they are viewing.
Keep undesired visible and infrared light from overpowering the image sensor so it can be as sensitive as possible and see the best that it can in low light. Your eyes work in a similar way as the camera's image sensor. Both can see well with lower levels of light, but not if someone is shining a flashlight at them at the same time!
Choose a bullet or turret camera over a dome. Choose more advanced IR LED designs over the older ring of small LEDs around the lens if possible. Use external IR illuminators instead of built-in IR for best performance in complete darkness.
Buy a camera specifically designed for low light performance if needed, and keep all camera faces clean for best performance.
Please leave a comment below, and feel free to let me know if I missed something or if you have some other ideas on this topic.