How to Shoot Low Light Video with Little Noise

  • Thread starter Cameron
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May 10, 2021
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Noise is a huge problem when it comes to shooting video. For many people who are new to the hobby or profession, noise in video files might not seem like much of an issue. When I first began shooting video, I thought that all I needed to do was flip my camera on and press the little button to start recording. It wasn't until I began recording in low light and at night did I notice the "grain" problem. And wow, what a problem it was. I can remember shooting at dusk once after I had closed down my aperture to get a nice deep depth of field. Everything seemed fine until I looked at my file later on at home on the big screen. Unfortunately, what I had recorded was absolutely unusable. I wondered what I had done wrong.

I'll get to the punch right now. The reason noisy video exists is the same reason noisy photographs exist. Not enough light. When too little light hits the camera's sensor, whether in photo mode or video mode, the camera is forced to crank up its ISO value. If you aren't familiar, the higher the ISO value, the more the lightwaves coming through the lens are amplified. All that amplification comes at a cost - noise, grain, whatever you want to call it.

High ISO values are a huge problem for beginner photographers and videographers. The inexperienced think ISO is a get out of jail free card. They think they can simply increase the value and all of their "dark" problems will go away. The brightness increases and they are able to close down their aperture and quicken up their shutter speed. Everything is cool, right? Not exactly. When it comes to taking video, everything comes at a cost and I just explained the cost of ISO abuse.

I suppose it's not all the videographer's fault. Camera manufacturers advertise their insanely high ISO capabilities, so users basically think they should go ahead and use those high values. Here's a tip: don't do it. Stay below ISO 800. That's pretty much the max most cameras can use before the noise enters the scene.

The question is, what can we as video enthusiasts do to avoid noisy video? Well, I'll use the rest of this post to explain the situation. I'll give you some easy tips to follow that can help out tremendously.

Tips for Reducing Noise in Video​

Tip #1: Don't shoot above your camera's base ISO. I tested my own Canon camera out a few years ago. The base ISO of it was 800. Anything above that, I'd begin seeing noise in my photos and videos. For photography, I set the ISO high limit to 800 because of this. I don't care what happens; I don't want grain in my images. So I limited my camera's ability to go anywhere over that 800 value.

Tip #2: Shoot at a lower frames per second. The old rule for setting video shutter speed is to set it to double your frame rate. So if you're shooting video at 24fps, set the shutter speed to 1/48 of a second. If you're shooting at 30fps, set your shutter speed to 1/60 of a second. Don't go over these values because the faster the shutter speed, the less light that's going to be allowed into the camera to touch the sensor.

You may ask, if this is the case, why can't I reduce my shutter speed a whole lot to let more light in? The reason you should stick to the rule is because at slower shutter speeds, you'll get video trails (motion blur) and that's not what you want. What you want is a cinematic looking video that makes sense. And yes, if you want to shoot at 60fps, that means you'll need to bump up your shutter speed to 1/120 of a second. That's going to be dark in many cases.

Tip #3: Use big aperture prime lenses. Most zoom lenses offer pretty small apertures. For many of them, the largest aperture you'll get is around f/4.5, which isn't great for low light and night video. When it comes to prime lenses, the largest aperture sizes are substantially different than those offered in zoom lenses. I've got a Canon 5mm lens that offers a huge aperture of f/1.8. I've also got a Canon 24mm that offers an aperture of f2.8. Both of them area great for low light video.

If you aren't familiar with aperture, it's basically the word people use to describe the hole in the lens that allows light through. The bigger the hole, the more light. It's that simple. Big apertures are great for video.

Tip #4: Use a full frame camera. The smaller the camera sensor, the less light the sensor will be able to absorb, which can be problematic at night. Think about solar panels on people's roofs. The bigger the panel system, the more electricity they can make. If a solar panel was only one inch by one inch, virtually no electricity will be created. It simply wouldn't be able to catch many rays. Many cameras come with tiny little micro 4:3 and cropped sensors (phone cameras, GoPros). These are usually great in lighted situations, but video becomes very grainy in the dark. So when purchasing a DSLR or mirrorless camera that you'll be using for video, consider the sensor size and try to buy a full frame if it's in your budget.

Tip #5: Shoot where there's light. Even the best cameras with the best lenses still can't shoot very dark scenes. When heading out to shoot night video, try to find street lights or some other type of lighting that will make your life easier. With that lighting, the settings I shared with you above should work out just fine.

Do you have any tips for taking video in low light situation? What have you done to avoid noise? I'd love to hear what you have to say. Also, if you've got any questions on this topic, please ask down below. Thanks!
How to Shoot Low Light Video with Little Noise was posted on 08-30-2021 by Cameron in the Video forum.

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