Making Movies: Shooting in the Dark

The word photography comes from the Greek words phot (light) and graphos (writing). So, photography is writing (or, more poetically, painting) with light. Likewise, video is about capturing, recording, and reproducing light. But what do you do when there isn't a lot of light to paint with?

You can do one of two things: Make the most of the existing light, or add more. In this column, I'll talk about the various things you can do to make the most with what you've got; in my next column I'll focus on how you can add more light.

Using Low Light Mode

There are plenty of situations when you are shooting video and can't just turn up the lights. For instance, my wife and I foster stray cats that are looking for homes. One of our foster cats recently gave birth to five kittens, and shortly after they were born, I decided to start videoing them. However, the mother was a semiferal cat that was already rather freaked out by the whole business of being caught and giving birth. She had taken shelter in a dark corner. Had I started shining lights at her, she probably would have panicked and could have injured the kittens. So I had to make the best use of the available light.

The video produced by the NightShot low light mode was extremely jerky and blurry.
The video produced by the NightShot low light mode was extremely jerky and blurry.
Fortunately, the camcorder I was using (a Sony DCR-PC109) has features that can help make the most of dim lighting. The first one I tried was the low light mode, which Sony calls NightShot. Different vendors have different names for this feature: For example, Panasonic calls its MagicPix. Low light modes work by slowing down the camcorder's shutter speed to a quarter of a second, allowing the sensors to capture more light. This definitely made the video brighter, but it looked awful. The slow shutter speed made the video jerky and extremely blurry, which is a real problem with a subject that moves as fast as a hungry kitten.

Shooting in Infrared

Next, I tried a mode that Sony calls Super NightShot Plus. This is perhaps cheating a bit because it does add light, albeit light that you can't see: It uses an infrared LED on the front of the camcorder to illuminate the scene. The human eye can't see this light, but the camcorder can (and the mother cat didn't seem to be bothered).

The Super NightShot Plus mode produces video that lacks color.
The Super NightShot Plus mode produces video that lacks color.
But again, the results were rather disappointing. The video was a lot smoother, but video shot this way comes out in an odd grey-green color that makes me feel like I'm a war correspondent filming planes flying over Baghdad. Practically all of the color is gone: You can't even see the color of the kittens. In this still from the video, you probably can't tell that the kitten the mother cat is cleaning is ginger-colored.

Editing With Filters

Finally, I decided to try a different approach. I put the camcorder into manual mode, slowed down the shutter speed, and opened up the aperture. This meant that the camcorder would capture as much light as possible, but the video wouldn't be jerky and would still have some color in it.

The video this produced was still extremely dark, but I imported it into my PC and used the filters within the video-editing program Adobe Premiere Pro to improve it. I used a combination of the color-correction filter to boost the color and a noise-reduction filter to reduce the resulting noise in the image. (Other video editing programs have similar filters.) However, the results were mixed: The video had more color and motion was smooth, but it was very noisy, with random static patterns in the darker areas.

To be honest, none of the tricks I tried produced particularly great results; they all looked unpleasant in one way or another. This underlines an old maxim of video: You can't replace light. All of the tweaking and fiddling in the world could never make the video look as good as it would have if I'd just added more light.

But sometimes you've just got to do the best with what you have. Adding light would have upset the mother cat, and may even have sent her running away. And, as any wildlife camera operator will tell you, the last thing you want to do is to annoy the big cats.

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