Getting the Most Out of Your Camera in Low Light

So, you have a video camera and want to start filming you and your buddies hunt. A key issue when filming, especially deer hunting, will always be light and the amount of light available while filming. So, lets see what the expert, Aaron Coston has to say. Aaron is the owner of Aaron Coston Image Studio, editor of Top Outdoor Producer, and an image consultant at Campbell Cameras.


Whether you have a $300 Canon Vixia, or a $19,000 Sony 350K, getting the most out of your camera in a low light situation comes down to one main topic: Exposure.  Exposure is a general term used to describe the lightness or darkness of the image you capture.  If the video is too dark, it’s “under exposed.”  If it’s too bright, it’s “over exposed.”

Your camera’s exposure depends on 3 main factors: iris, shutter speed, and gain.  Let’s address each one of these individually.



The iris (also known as F-stop or aperture) acts as a gate keeper for light.  It determines how much light to allow through to the camera’s image sensor.  Check out the example to the side.  When you adjust the iris settings, you open or close the gate.  Common iris settings may be f1.4, f3, f8, and up through f22.  It may seem counter intuitive, but the lower the number, the more amount of light is allowed to pass through.


Shutter Speed

If the iris determines the amount of light getting to the image sensor, the shutter determines how long that light is exposed to the sensor.  Imagine a door opening and closing constantly.  Sometimes 60 times a second.  Often hundreds of times a second.

The longer that door is open, the more light gets to the sensor, and the brighter the image.  And, the slower the shutter speed, the longer that door is open.

Shutter speeds are shown like this.  1/60, 1/120, 1/800, etc.  What does this mean?  A 1/60 shutter speed means the shutter will open and close 60 times in one second.  Some cameras, like the AX2000, will even allow you to drop the shutter speed under 1/10!  Sounds great right?  It’s not what you think.  Going that low will cause massive amounts of motion blur in the video, making it virtually unusable.  There really is only one use for dropping the shutter speed that low, and that is making sure all animals are out of the field before you get out of the stand.  You can literally see in the dark by dropping your shutter speed that low, and that’s one of the key advantages of cameras like the Sony AX2000.



Very similar to ISO on DSLR’s, gain is generally considered a curse word too many videographers.  But, to many outdoor producers, when it’s in the last minutes of daylight, and that monster you’ve been chasing all year finally steps out of the timber, gain quickly becomes your best friend.

Gain is the digital amplification of available light.  It’s like digital zoom for exposure, and with it comes many of the same downfalls.  The higher your gain setting, the “noisier” your image gets.  When you move from a 0db gain to a +12db gain, your image isn’t as clean anymore.  It looks grainy, and in bad cases, like it’s snowing.  And honestly, most outdoor television networks won’t allow anything over +12db gain.

But, not all cameras are the same.  The image from a Canon XF105 at +12db gain will look totally different than an image from a Sony EX1R at +12db gain.  The larger sensor of the EX1R will outperform the XF105 every time, resulting in a cleaner image.  But, that’s also reflected in the price difference.


Is that all?

So it sounds simple right?  Open the iris, drop the shutter speed, and bump up the gain to the maximum amount allowed, right?  When light is the main concern, pretty much yeah.  But, there is one other aspect to consider if you’re in the market for a new camera.  As a general note, the larger the sensor, the better low light performance.  A 1/4 or 1/3 inch sensor camera won’t match the light gathering ability of a 1/2 or 2/3 inch sensor.  We’ve had users in the industry tell us that filming with a 2/3 inch sensor camera, like the Sony PMW 350K, is almost cheating.  Compared to cameras they were using before, they estimate they gained another 15 minutes of shooting light in the morning and evening, giving them another 30 minutes of filming light each day.  When your lively hood depends on it, that’s huge!  Even 1/2 inch sensor cameras like the Sony EX1R, EX3, or PMW-200, have a huge advantage over the 1/4 and 1/3 inch sensor cameras when it comes to low light performance.

But, when all else fails you still have one more option.  Get a light.


Written By Aaron Coston