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The night vision camera – A Short History

In writing a short history of the night vision wildlife camera, we realised that the blog post has to answer the following questions too: who invented night vision, and why? What was the turning point for making use of the technology in wildlife documentaries?

In this article, Wild Films is looking to explore the world of night vision cameras, what they actually are, and where the tech for these kinds of cameras began.

When were night vision cameras invented?

Germany developed primitive infrared devices before World War II, which had to have large, heavy infrared keys and beams mounted on giant trucks. After the War, the technology was seldom seen for at least a decade as it was advanced by the Allies in the 1950s.

By the mid-1960s, scientists had now created what’s considered as the “first generation” of passive night vision devices which were more portable and didn’t need giant, vehicle-mounted infrared illuminators to function.

The 1970s brought the biggest breakthroughs in thermal imaging, which was improved upon vastly through the years, with the ultimate goal being to create handheld, battery-powered and rechargeable devices, which are much closer to the technology that we have today – enjoying far shorter image processing times in the 21st century!

What is Night Vision?

Night vision is the ability to see in low-light conditions. It is made possible by the following factors: sufficient spectral range, and sufficient intensity range. Generally, night vision involves the ability to see in low light without the use of a supplemental light source.  The distinction between “day” and “night” vision is important, because it can influence the type of video cameras and/or binoculars that are appropriate for your natural history production or the task at hand. 

For instance, low light conditions often require larger optical systems than they would if a flash was being used to illuminate the scene. Instead of using light (because you don’t want to scare your wildlife away) – infrared light might be used instead – or what typically is a night vision camera.

How do THESE cameras work?

So, some night vision cameras that you use might be near infrared, or visible-infrared based – much like the footage you see on ‘magazine’ style local wildlife shows, which can look a lot more like security camera footage than anything else (which use infrared up to 50,000 times to light up a space a night for continuous filming and is, overall, cheaper to produce and process than thermal imaging). You might see some interesting cameras that look like a normal camera, but are actually night vision.

Because the human eye can’t see the ‘colour’ in infrared light, IR night vision footage always looks black and white simply because of how your eyes differentiate colour – much easier contrast for your brain to process than red and blue. Because of that, most night vision cameras switch to a monochrome filter to make it easier for us to see the image or the footage. That’s right, the black and white footage you see as the result of night vision is “photoshopped” (to use the terminology in the way that most audiences will understand it), as the “real” footage will be a blur of red and blue.

An appropriate camera for night vision when filming wildlife will often actually be thermal, depending on the environment (like a cave or burrow), the footage desired and the data you are looking to capture – and in order to achieve a diverse spectral range (how much infrared and ultraviolet light it can see). Infrared cameras and thermal imaging cameras that are suitable for documentary productions don’t come cheap, which is why many choose to hire their equipment for their projects instead. The Pulsar Helion is an great example of this and is most affordable for most natural history production houses.

Pulsar Helion XP50 thermal camera

Hire our industry leading thermal camera, the Pulsar Helion XP50, at the best price in the UK (from £360 per week).

The ability to capture the digital data and geographical information can be the difference between life and death for the latter sort of users of night vision. In military operations, night vision cameras and weapons systems have been used to identify and locate combatants in situations where traditional lighting is banned. Night vision systems that are widely used in military and law enforcement applications have to obtain real time, high definition images. As such, they need to be rugged, weather-sealed, be able to withstand high-impact or volatile environmental testing conditions, and are often deployed in extremely challenging conditions. Generally speaking, the more extreme the temperature on Earth in which you’re filming, the more you may need to seek out more advanced night vision equipment.

Advanced night vision cameras and specialist military equipment (including night vision wearables or “goggles”) deploy infrared with complex photo-electron tubes that ‘blast’ the image into brightness before being filtered into a phosphor screen for viewing… that familiar green look which we see in Hollywood films where night vision is represented, is supposed to represent the colour monochrome effect from a filtered-phosphor image or video. (But of course, it might make more safety and financial sense for filmmakers to capture and refine their cinematography in normal B&W monochrome, then fix it in post to create that verisimilitude…)

In wildlife production, we often witness the line being crossed between life and death when using night vision cameras for night-time predators — or we might capture something as glorious and uplifting as nestling birds, or night feeding. The possibilities are as endless as the narrative you’re producing

Do any animals or creatures have natural night vision?

Some animals such as the mantis shrimp and trout can see using much more of the infrared and/or ultraviolet spectrum than humans. Humans have extremely fuzzy, blurry night vision compared to most animals, in part because the human eye lacks a tapetum lucidum in the back of the eye, that reflects light back through the retina (many mammals like wildcats, deer and mice, dogs and rabbits have these).Notably, mantis shrimp, trout and even more significantly, mushroom and plants can see using much more of the infrared and/or ultraviolet spectrum than humans, which could mean that they also experience colours in daylight that human cannot. Trippy huh? Because humans don’t have these in their eyes, they therefore don’t enjoy sharp focus in night light conditions.

How about CAMERAS today?

Night vision cameras come in all shapes and sizes, from IR security cameras, to thermal imaging cameras for wildlife, through to phosphor goggles which literally turn photons into electrons for viewing. Most wildlife documentaries won’t need military grade night vision for their productions.

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