How to take video in total darkness

All sorts of interesting things happen in the dark, but how do you take video of them? These tips will help you shoot video in even the darkest places.

A cat caught sneaking around home at night

It could be a mysterious animal rustling in your garden or the phantom cookie thief who keeps sneaking into the kitchen in the dark of night. Whatever it is, you want to take some video for proof. But how do you do this without turning on the lights? Neither the mystery animal nor the cookie thief is likely to come out if you leave all the lights on and your camcorder visibly running.

It might seem like an insurmountable problem, but there are a couple things you can do to take video in poorly lit or dark places. You can either make the most of the light you have, or you can add more light that only your camcorder can see.

Use slow shutter speeds
By slowing down the shutter speed of your camera, you give it more time to collect the available light, making more use of the light that is out there. In many situations, such as under street lights or other indirect lighting, using this slower shutter speed mode can be enough to produce usable video, and most camcorders offer a slow shutter speed mode. The resulting video can often be rather jerky and blurry, though; much like a still camera, a slower shutter speed exaggerates both camera shake and the movement of the things that you are capturing.

You can't do much about the blurring from moving objects, but you can minimise the camera shake by mounting the camcorder on a tripod or holding the camcorder in both hands and leaning against a wall or building.

A 39 LED infrared light we bought off eBay

Adding more (invisible) light
The other trick is to add more light. While this might seem illogical, there are types of light that your camcorder can see but that you, and your subjects can't. Specifically, your camcorder can see infrared (IR) light, which is invisible to the human eye. Most animals either can't see it or aren't bothered by it.

To see what we mean, try this: take a remote control, point the end of the remote toward your eye, and press a button. You won't see anything, because your eyes can't see the IR light emitted by the remote. Now try the same thing, but pointing the end of the remote at your camcorder lens. On your camcorder screen, you'll see a brief flash of light from the end of the remote, because the camcorder can see the IR light. And this is what you can use to capture video in situations where there isn't enough light to record normal video: by using IR light, you can illuminate the subject without annoying or distracting it.

In fact, this hack has been adopted by some of the camcorder manufacturers themselves. Many camcorders have a night-vision mode that uses a built-in IR light-emitting diode (LED) light; for instance, Sony labels this feature Super NightShot and it's available in most of its models.

But this single IR LED isn't all that powerful: it can illuminate things to only a few metres away. This is fine if you are considering another Blair Witch knockoff — please don't though; they may have been funny the first five times but not anymore — but it's not much use for things that are farther away.

Infrared video will always appear in monochrome

If you plan to record anything worthwhile, you'll need something a bit brighter, such as an IR illuminator. An illuminator separate from the camcorder means that you can place it near the subject, while remaining at a distance with the camcorder. Some manufacturers also produce their own illuminators. Sony makes one called the HVL-IRH2, that doubles as a conventional light, that works with any of its NightShot-enabled camcorders. However, this works only when connected to the camcorder, and it uses the camcorder's battery.

The downside of using IR mode is that your video turns to black-and-white, because the camcorder is capturing only the IR light, not the full spectrum of colour light. This does make your video look rather like what you see through the night-vision goggles that the military uses.

Get the best results
If you are shooting through a window or have other reflective surfaces nearby, turn off the built-in IR light of the camcorder to avoid reflections.

And don't get confused if you turn on the IR illuminator and don't see any light coming from it: remember that it emits infrared light that you can't see, so the most you'll see with the naked eye is a very dim red light.

These techniques can be useful for keeping an eye on things in low light or total darkness. For example, we work with feral cats, and many of them don't like coming out when people are nearby. So, we use the IR illuminator and camcorder in night-vision mode to watch them without disturbing them.

If you're trying to shoot video of that elusive animal in the bushes, the moon can be your friend. Time your shooting with the full moon, because a full moon can provide enough light to take video if you use the night-vision mode on your camcorder. You can check the phases of the moon at Geoscience Australia's website

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Jan71 posted a comment   

Many camcorders has built in IR filter to remove IR interferance on the ccs/cmos. So this doen't work so well on many models.


grace posted a comment   

thanks! The trick with a remote is a good idea. good info.

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