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How Good is Your Security Camera’s Night Vision?

Anne Dennon

Anne Dennon

Home Technology Writer

3 min. read

With so many new, sophisticated video capabilities out there, night vision can seem old-school. It calls to mind a ghostly green, pixelated image. Probably accompanied by a shaky voice coming through a Walkie Talkie. But night vision is still one of a security camera’s most important features. The technology behind your night vision security camera dictates the sharpness and color balance of nighttime footage. 

Night vision creates light or enhances light

More accurately, night vision either deploys infrared vision or image intensifiers

  •  Infrared (IR) night vision beams out infrared light — that zone on the electromagnetic spectrum between visible light and microwaves, undetectable by the human eye. IR light emitted by inset bulbs enables surveillance cameras to see in the dark.
  • Also known as starlight night vision, image intensification picks up images too shadowed for the human eye to see, then amplifies the light. Starlight cameras can work in low light conditions approaching total darkness, hence the name. They can see by the light of the stars. 

Infrared vision is active night vision: It alters its vision field to improve visibility. Image intensification is passive night vision: It makes the most of what light is available. 

Infrared is the prototypical night vision

IR is the standard night vision tech for home security cameras. It’s also the earliest iteration of night vision — the results of German innovation followed by an American military development program in the 1950s. Starlight night vision took another decade to develop, and is the night vision tech that has undergone continued innovation through the defense department. 

Starlight produces the best color images

You’ll find both infrared and starlight night vision in top-of-the-line security cameras. Depending on the quality of manufacturing, cameras of both varieties can provide detailed nighttime images. The primary difference: color. Infrared cameras produce their best images in black and white; starlight cameras have the sensitivity to show scenes in color. 

No matter the tech, night vision cameras send a strong message

Braden R. Allenby, a professor of Engineering and Ethics at Arizona State University, points out that a good night vision camera could increase your safety even beyond deterring the odd break-in. 

“There’s a very human tendency, because of the way that we see, to think that night gives you more cover than day.” It’s a bit like a child facing a wall to hide. If I can’t see you, you can’t see me. But “if it becomes generally known that many people have deployed a technology that allows video at night… your chances of getting caught go up. Then that kind of crime is less likely to occur.”

Infrared vision alters its vision field to improve visibility. Image intensification makes the most of what light is available. 

In other words, installing a strong night vision camera could help take back the night. Dr. Allenby likened the effect to video doorbell footage: When photographs of porch pirates get blasted on social media and reported to the police, shopping from other peoples’ stoops suddenly seems a lot riskier. 

As the market adopts more security systems and surveillance cameras, Dr. Allenby suggests, we can expect to see a reduction in crime. “Criminals are not irrational,” he says. And indeed, the number of burglaries in the U.S. is dropping year after year, according to data from the FBI. 

Night vision can improve daytime footage, too

While the night hides misdeeds, it is violent crimes — not property crimes — that spike after 9pm. A strong-sighted night vision camera is a great protective measure no matter the nature of the crime. Still, home security is typically leveraged against property crime, and property crime largely occurs during daylight hours in the U.S. 

Great night vision actually comes into play when the sun’s out too. Deep shadows contrasted with a sun-soaked wall could render video footage useless in a dinkier camera. You’d get a washed-out stain of light and an indeterminate splat of black. Security cameras that use starlight night vision and other advanced video technologies are able to present balanced images no matter the time, no matter the light.