Camera kits

Capturing Wildlife in Super Low-light - all you need to know

Filmmakers wanting to shoot in extreme low light or even no light conditions have never had it so good. Camera technology had advanced to enable the recording of the most unbelievable images in almost total darkness.

The principal beneficiaries of this are natural history filmmakers for whom capturing wildlife in its natural habitat means as little disturbance as possible. 

Most productions will use a specialist low-light camera as a B-camera, used for particular sequences to record unique behaviour, but the nature of much natural history filming means that kit is needed in the field for weeks or months with a consequent knock-on to the budget and this article quotes Natural History film makers' experience using both the Canon ME20 FSH and also Sony A7S Mk II to compare and contrast their capabilities to capture productions in extremely low light.


While filmmakers could choose to shoot infra-red, a method now familiar to viewers in the form of serviceable but generally indistinct black and white images, or military grade thermal images like the Selex, by some margin most decisions centre around the Sony A7S Mk II and the Canon ME20-FSH.

Both Sony A7S Mk II and Canon ME20-FSH are fantastic units for low light shooting but their characteristics - and prices - do differ.

 

The main considerations in choosing between A7S Mk II and Canon ME20

1 Cost. The Canon ME20 is more expensive than the Sony and there is no way around that and no camera truly suitable for low light operation fits in the middle ground.

For a ballpark figure the A7S carries a bookable rate of £85 per day against the approx. daily rate of £250 for the ME20 in EOS mount (£280 per day in PL mount).

 

 

 

 

2. IR versus colour. The Sony A7S Mk II shoots using an Infra Red (IR) filter whereas, the Canon offers this and additionally the ability to shoot in colour at night thanks to a 2.2MP sensor with sensitivity rated in excess of ISO 4 million (+75dB).

 

 

3. HD versus UHD. The A7S will shoot 4K, whereas the Canon ME20 will only record HD (1920x1080). When more and more productions need to meet 4K deliverables, perhaps this is a deal breaker.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A side by side comparison is frequently conducted to assess their suitability for given projects

Because of all these variables, many producers and DPs arrange a side by side test replicating as far possible the expected conditions in the field. We asked those who have used both sets of equipment why they made the selections that they did.

The BBC Natural History Unit (NHU) for example evaluated both cameras prior to embarking on Blue Planet 2 for a scene to record the bioluminescence display of mobula rays.  This required a camera capable of filming in extreme low light and the BBC used both the Sony A7S Mk II and Canon ME20, though the majority of sequences were captured by the A7S Mk II.  Both cameras were mounted in suitable underwater housings to film this sequence which had before been captured.

Clip provided with kind permision of BBC Natural History Unit

Feedback is provided here on the basis of personal experience and does not imply any level of official testing or approval by the Corporation.

Joe Treddenick, Assistant Producer, NHU Landmark, BBC Natural History Unit explains,

After our side by side test at VMI, we deemed that it was possible to push the Canon slightly further in terms ISO before noise became too much of a problem. Also, it produced more randomised noise than the A7S, which was more linear (banding), meaning that it was easier to clean up in post.

He emphasises that the Sony AS7 Mk II is another great option for low light capture.

It's easy to use, cost effective and can record at a good resolution [A7S Mk II]. However, while we used both cameras on this production, we found that the Canon ME20 was easier to effectively de-noise in post than the A7S II.

Producer Robin Dimbleby also found that the A7S II “required a lot more work,” in post than the ME20 in order to clean up image.

Robin Dimbleby says:

You do sacrifice a lot of sharpness in trying to resolve the noise when using the Sony A7S Mk II

Dimbleby has used the ME20 on productions with Offspring, most recently in Kenya filming the nocturnal behaviour of a lion pride for Sky One’s Big Beasts: Last of the Giants with DP Warren Samuels.

“The A7S delivers an electronic rendering of 4K – it is not a native 4K sensor,” explains Dimbleby.

This means that if there is any noise which you try to resolve in post, you are also destroying resolution. If you record a high ISO on the A7S you are no longer shooting in 4K - shooting beyond HD for sure – but not 4K. So, this gives you pause for thought. HD images from the ME20 shot in low light will deliver a much cleaner image with no oversampling in post than with the A7S.

Handling gain

While the ME20 records HD in low light with minimal noise, it does record a level of gain (noise) which can prove unacceptable if not handled correctly. To aid filmmakers, Canon has given the ME20 various ‘sweet spots’ to capture extreme low light images with as little perceptible noise as possible. Producers and operators need to be aware of this peculiarity in order to minimise the noise being filmed.

Nocturnal Britain, Pioneer Productions“The ME20 seemed to have a sweet spot at 42 dB, it terms of a minimal grain to light ratio,” reports Treddenick. “But as with all low light filming, the most important factor was having a fast lens on the front of it. We found we could take the ISO slightly higher on the Canon before the grain became too noticeable, but it was marginal.”

Before embarking on Pioneer Production’s series, Nocturnal Britain for Channel 5, the Production team extensively tested the performance of the Sony A7S Mk II and the Canon ME20 FSH prior as primary and secondary cameras for two separate teams.  

“The Canon ME20 performance was significantly better than the Sony A7S Mk II” said Hannah Ward, PD and camera operator.  “However, we also used Canon C300s to shoot the presenter-led pieces and the low light performance improvement of both the ME20 and A7S was so much better than the Canon C300, that we were amazed – where the C300 struggled as soon as the sun went down, the other 2 cameras gave much more scope to continue filming through the night.

The Canon ME20 performance was significantly better than the Sony A7S Mk II”

She added, “We found that the optimal levels of gain settings on the ME20 were 30db and 42db and more than this and in between the noise was noticeable, though 48db was set to be our absolute maximum”.

Another DP found the ME20 to produce excellent results up to 45dbs (approx. 140,000 ISO) “after which noise became noticeable but with noise reduction would still produce incredible results. We got close-ups of the animal's faces with their massive pupils and in colour so we could properly tell their story.”

The Nocturnal Britain team found that the sweet stop for shooting at higher ISOs on the Sony A7S II was ISO128,000.  It performed well against the ME20 but there was universal agreement that the ME20 was superior in terms of noise, image quality and operation.  We aimed to shoot as low ISO as possible but when having to raise it up this was our sweet spot and up to 320,000 as our maximum.

Adding only a very small of artificial light meant that the effective gain used when shooting with the ME20 could be wound right down and even though even 18 and 21db reflects working at 50,000 -70,000 ISO, this is enough to ensure that the ME20 camera doesn’t have to work hard to give amazing noise free images. 

This was the approach adopted by the Nocturnal Britain team, who were unlucky that their shoot coincided with a new moon and so very little moonlight was available to contibute to natural light.  As a result, the production team decided that they would use very low soft key lighting provided by a conventional 1x1 bi-colour LED and their experience was that this would not affect the behaviour of the wild animals being filmed. 

Hannah's Trick - remove the IR Filter to spot and frame!

Using an IR filter means that you shoot images in colour, as opposed to more monochromatic images but this also cuts down the amount of light that the sensor sees.  Conventionally, this is a fiddly operation involving removing a bit of glass but this function is automated courtesy of an electric filter wheel on the ME20 and you can assign a custom buttom on the remote control unit to engage or remove the IR filter.

This function was useful employed by Hannah Ward on Nocturnal Britain.  She removed the IR filter for framing (spotting) her shots, so that the image was brighter and easier to see, and then reenabling the IR filter to shoot her scene in colour, albeit at a lower ambient light level.  She found this massively helpful.

Advanced testing of shooting at these high levels of gain, gave the team confidence that they would be able to grade these dark images well, even though the commissioning channel only had dark images to look at. 

“From the rushes alone, you couldn’t see the full potential of what we had captured on film”, reported Pioneer Productions’ Head of Factual, Peter Collins. “Once we graded, we were all really happy with the results”.

From the rushes alone, you couldn’t see the full potential of what we had captured on film but once we graded, we were all really happy with the results”.

The learning point here is to test the equipment and production process fully in order to give you the confidence to know how much you can push both cameras.

DP Lee Jackson and his AC Garth McConnell used the ME20 in Botswana for a follow up to Naledi: One Little Elephant for Off the Fence Productions.

“You have to be very careful not to use the incorrect ISO,” Jackson warns. “You can experiment with different levels of ISO on location and you can see it change on a monitor. In post a lot of the noise can be removed with software. You need to be careful of the strong pink glare in the IR lights, though. The ME20 only needs minimal IR illumination.

“Our regular max was 48db, though sometimes we pushed to 52 db,” Jackson informs. “Our post guys did some noise reduction with some of our early footage and reported back with promising results. This allowed us to push some of our shots, especially when there was no moonlight.”

Shooting in IR or shooting in colour

The traditional method for filming in low-light conditions makes use of infrared illumination, a technique that only yields footage in black and white. The ME20 is uniquely capable of capturing colour video in similar conditions without the need for an IR filter.

“It is useful to have the option to film in IR when filming species that cannot tolerate anything but red light, but in terms of overall capability the ME20’s ability to record in low light in colour is the camera’s best attribute,” says Treddenick.

Off the Fence filmed the live birth of an elephant in Naledi: One Little Elephant using IR lights. For the follow up, the producers wanted to film another elephant birth in colour.

“This time, we wanted something different, something original,” says Jackson.  “We were monitoring gain in complete darkness using the Odyssey 7Q+. I found the IR function to be best used as a monitoring application, switching to colour mode when [animal] behaviour changed.

“We found that there was usable footage with colour in the shadows, however, there need to be at least a gentle fill,” he says.

In Nocturnal Britain, “We frequently adopted a wipe effect so that viewers could see how dark it was and also what images they were seeing on the show.  We were really surprised just how successful the results were since this was a world that we don’t usually get to see and even we hadn’t seen before”, said Pioneer Productions' Head of Factual, Peter Collins. 

Another producer added, “Rather than seeing something that has already been filmed and seen, which are heavily lit night time and infrared sequences, you can push the boundaries of what is possible and set your show apart by using full colour at night,”

Unlike the A7S Mk II which records on-board, the ME20 requires the use of an external recorder.  Hannah Ward’s experience was that the light given off by the Odyssey recorder can be distracting when working in a hide, though this can be covered when in use or covered with ND film and the addition of a viewfinder is a useful accessory.


Field work

For Dimbleby, the ME20 is the “go-to camera in the field” not least because of its sturdier metal construction. He has taken it to Indonesia for another block of NHNZ filming.

It’s a heftier unit, more waterproof and battle hardy whereas the A7S is a smaller, more fiddley camera to deal with for most operators.   

The A7S is a lot lighter but it doesn’t balance the same way. Even if you use a shorter lens it won’t balance so well since it’s all to do with weight of the glass. (nb this is all personal preference though, as some camera operators would not agree).

Plus, the sheer physical heft of the ME20 means you can trust it won’t break. You’d more likely use your AS7 in a housing or camera trap, whereas we’ve filmed with the ME20 uncovered in rain and never had a problem. We’ve had issues with condensation and water ingress in the lenses but not the body.

Jackson’s experience of the ME20 is that it’s “a relatively light rig” but one that “could be a little clumsy if you were moving ‘run & gun’ style.”

He adds, “It has a solid industrial body, a simple menu construction and cooling fans which handle condensation well allowing it to remain running for long periods. Fans also keep the sensor cool allowing for a cleaner IR image.”

Conclusions

The Canon ME20-FSH, which only captures HD and is up to three times more expensive to rent than a camera such as the Sony A7S Mk II, is consistently being chosen by producers and DPs for ground-breaking wildlife sequences.

On balance, and provided due consideration is given to handling levels of noise, the ME20 is widely voted a superior tool to deliver full colour HD images in all conditions, including the dead of night.

“Disturbing elephants while they were sleeping at night was most definitely a ‘no, no’ but the ME20’s ability to literally see in the dark enabled us to achieve the look that the director’s wanted,” says Jackson. “It’s a super powerful IR HD camera.”

Providing some balance, Colin Jackson, Innovation Lead, BBC NHU concludes,

Overall the ME20 in extreme low light situations has a marginal edge over the A7SII generally in terms of noise. But for many requirements in low light, the A7SII is a simpler and more cost-effective solution.

Dimbley advises,

If you end up with a muddy looking shot you won’t want to use it even if it’s in 4K. Resolution is a bit of a myth for filmmakers since most of us want to prioritise the story rather than enter a resolution arms race. That’s why we retain a lot of HD sequences in programming destined for 4K delivery [meeting Sky’s delivery specification]. The ME20 delivers the more ground breaking modern image that audiences want to see.

Images courtesy of Pioneer Productions, Off the Fence, Vulcan Productions and Hannah Ward

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