Digital Night Vision: Is It Worth While?

    Actual night vision is typically rather pricey. While there are cheap night vision like Gen 1 and some heavily used Gen 2, most people want Gen 3 night vision and they cost a couple thousand dollars and in some cases are upwards of five figures. Digital night vision is slowly becoming a reality. There are two digital camera systems that turn night into day.

    When I think of “digital night vision” I usually think of the cheap digital cameras that have the IR filter removed so the sensor can see IR light. This is not night vision since it doesn’t amplify light. It is like those IR security cameras. True night vision amplifies light. Well now there are two examples of digital night vision that have CCDs that have high sensitivity.

     

    Sionyx Aurora: Digital Night Vision Camera

    Photo from Business Wire

    Sionyx Aurora is a digital night vision camera that has a high sensitivity and it can see IR light. The Sionyx Aurora retails for $800 MSRP. One benefit it has over high sensitivity cameras is its ability to see IR light. Do you remember when Sony Cyber-Shot cameras had “NightShot” mode? Well the Sionyx Aurora can see IR light when set to the NIGHT mode.

    Here is a video comparing a GoPro and the Sionyx. 34 mins into the video, TexasSheepdawg21 uses a chinese IR light and the beam shows up rather well under NIGHT mode.

     

    Here is another video that compares a PVS-14 to the Sionyx Aurora. The video seems a bit misleading. First of all it appears that the PVS-14 has an amber filter. Those filters should only be used if you are looking through the PVS-14 for extended periods of time. The filter softens the light shining into your eye and eases eyestrain. It is not suited for filming as it makes the image seem darker than it is. Also I am not sure if Blackford Oakes dialed up the gain on his PVS-14. The image from the Sionyx Aurora seems grainy and pixellated compared to the video above by TexasSheepdawg21. Another problem is where the video was filmed. There is a considerable amount of ambient light which will engage the autogating feature of the PVS-14. This is a rapid shutting of the power supply on and off to save the tube from burning out. This results in a dimmer image.

     

    Sony A7S: The King Of High ISO Sensitivity

    Now Im sure you are going to say “Hey that is just a Sony camera” and yes while that is true, this camera can see in the dark. Traditionally cameras use long exposures to saturate the sensor or film with what little available light there is. However you can’t really do this with moving objects. Well Sony has been making a series of cameras called the A7S with a remarkable high ISO. ISO is the light sensitivity rating on film and digital camera sensors. The higher the number the higher the sensitivity but there is usually a compromise. The higher the sensitivity the more noise you will have in your image. However Sony has been doing some sort of sorcery to get ridiculously high sensitivity in their sensors with less noise than anyone else. This results in a clearer image in the dark. Most cameras go up to 25k ISO the Sony A7S goes up to 406k.

    Here is a comparison of a few cameras with similar high ISO settings but the noise makes their images almost unusable compared the clear image from the A7S.

    Here is a screen shot from an airsoft video shot at NIGHT!

    Look at the video below. This was shot at night. It looks like the sun is setting. And yet you can clearly see camouflage patterns and colors. Pay attention to the guys wearing night vision. The green glow is rather prominent.

    One downside to the A7S is that it has a hot mirror which blocks IR light so it cannot see IR light or IR lasers.

    Here is a very good video by TREX ARMS comparing the A7S mkII to a PVS-14 with White Phosphor.

    In that video above, they used a clip of Lucas shooting with night vision. Here is the full video below. It was filmed with the A7S mkII and they removed the IR flter so the camera sensor can pick up the IR light from the various IR weapon lights and lasers.

    Both the Sionyx Aurora and Sony A7S are decent options for filming at night. I do not think they are good enough to mount to a gun or helmet but they do a decent job seeing in the dark. The Sony A7S mkI can be found for under $1k if you buy used but note that it is not cheap to remove the IR filter. There are companies out there that will do this modification but it is around $300-$400 for this modification. The Sionyx Aurora does not have the image resolution of the Sony but it is under $1000 and can see IR light without any modifications. They are both not as sensitive as true image intensifier night vision but they are much more affordable. If you are looking for a way to augment your vision at night then these might be something to look into.

    Nicholas C

    Steadicam Gun Operator
    Night Vision & Thermal Aficionado
    Flashlight/Laser Enthusiast
    USPSA competitor

    Any questions please email him at [email protected]


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