Last Updated on February 1, 2022 by Devaun Lennox
For most forms of photography, the camera makes little difference. Instead, it’s your creativity that shines. And you can often capture great images even with a smartphone if you refine your skillset. Of course, the right lens, a fast burst rate, super slow motion video, high resolutions, and such all have their place. But, when it comes to capturing better images at night, the right camera makes a world of difference. And not every camera is correctly apt to do the job.
Night photography is an interesting niche but not one without its challenges, namely lighting. And it’s an exciting way to transform a forgettable scene during the day into something magical. Historically, only ultra high-end DSLRs were capable of capturing quality images at night. But with advancements in technology over the years, mirrorless cameras have changed that fate. And now, many modern cameras, even those with APS-C crop sensors, are quite capable at night.
But when it comes to picking the best cameras for night photography, there are certainly winners and losers regarding quality. And there are also many individual factors to consider that aren’t typical standards for traditional daytime photography. As such, we’ve created a detailed guide outlining some of these factors to consider. And we will also cover the best cameras for night photography on the present market.
Jump to a Section
- 5 – Nikon Z6 Mark II
- 4 – Nikon D780
- 3 – Sony A7S Mark III
- 2 – Nikon D850
- 1 – Canon 5D Mark IV
- Buyers Guide
- Why buy a camera for night photography?
- How to choose a camera for night photography:
- Camera Type
- Which is better for low light, mirrorless or DSLR?
- Sensor Size & Resolution
- Is expandable ISO better than native?
- Shutter speed
- Dynamic range
- Battery Life
- Night Photography Tips
- Shoot RAW
- Give Yourself Time
- Use Exposure Bracketing
- Airplane Mode
- In-body stabilization
- Try Aperture Priority
- Electronic Viewfinder & LCD Brightness
- Shutter Release Cables
- Bulb Mode
5 – Nikon Z6 Mark II
The Z6 II is a multimedia powerhouse and their latest mirrorless camera. Released in fall 2020, it has a 24.5-megapixel sensor and native ISO range of 100 to 51,200. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, weather sealing, in-body stabilization, dual card slots, time-lapse, multiple exposures, focus shift, and wireless connectivity.
With this update, Nikon refines their autofocusing system. And while it obtains the same 273-point phase-detect AF system as its predecessor, it flaunts better low light performance. Now, the camera focuses at -4.5 EV. And it also does with 32% more battery life. But crucially, the Z6 Mark II offers in-body stabilization, letting you capture handheld images at 1 second or ISO 12,800 with processing.
Overall, Nikon Z6 Mark II builds on the original model’s strengths and eliminates its shortcomings. And it does so while proving their commitment to refining the Z system camera line.
4 – Nikon D780
The D780 is Nikon’s most versatile SLR. Released in spring 2020, it has a 24.5-megapixel sensor and native ISO range of 100 to 51,200. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, focus stacking, multiple exposures, weather sealing, time-lapse, dual card slots, and wireless connectivity.
The D780 receives the flagship 51-point AF system with 3D-Tracking and -3EV support from the D5. But, it’s their first DSLR incorporating a 273-point phase-detect AF system for live view. And in this mode, you get a bump to -5EV or a whopping -7EV via the Low-Light AF Mode. The combination, well it creates the best focusing camera outside of the new D6. Nikon even updated the native shutter speed, now to 900 seconds, matching the D810A. So capturing long-exposures with an external trigger is a thing of the past. And you can capture 2,200+ of such exposures at ISO 25,600 with processing.
Overall, the Nikon D780 breaks new grounds in capabilities, and it provides an enormous upgrade to a proven platform.
3 – Sony A7S Mark III
The A7S Mark III is the long-awaited update to the acclaimed A7S family. Released in fall 2020, it has a 12.1-megapixel sensor and native ISO range of 80 to 102,400. It also has a 3-inch touchscreen, dual card slots, in-body stabilization, and wireless connectivity.
With this release, the A7S family obtains the Fast Hybrid AF system from the FX9 cinema camera with Real-Time Tracking and a rating of -6EV. Sony’s also improved the camera’s 5-axis stabilization, now rated for 5.5 stops of compensation. But, you’re unlikely to need it given this camera’s enormous ISO range and the fact you can capture usable images at ISO 51,200 with processing. And it delivers such power while sporting the longest battery life of its peer group at 600 shots per charge.
Overall, the A7S Mark III is ultra-niche, but it’s a powerful camera for night photography if it meets your budget. And it continues the legacy the A7S lineup is known for.
2 – Nikon D850
The D850 is Nikon’s latest trailblazing ultra-high-resolution DSLR. Released in fall 2017, it has a 45.4-megapixel sensor and native ISO range of 64 to 25,600. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, focus shift, time-lapse, weather sealing, dual card slots, and wireless connectivity.
This time, Nikon overhauled the focusing system, now with the same 153-point AF system of their flagship D5. And this AF system also has Nikon’s 3D-tracking to improve subject tracking accuracy, with a rating of -4EV. But, crucially, this model has a 25% bump in resolution. And its sensor captures outstanding detail and dynamic range. Yet, the noise performance has even improved nearly 2 stops in the process. So, you can now confidently capture ultra-high-resolution images at ISO 25,600 with processing. And you can do so for 1,840 shots, which is the longest battery life in the particular segment.
Overall, the Nikon D850 shows DSLRs are powerful and relevant, despite the trends. And Nikon upped the standard in professionalism while simultaneously delivered their best all-around camera to date.
1 – Canon 5D Mark IV
The 5D Mark IV is Canon’s current flagship 5D series camera. And an ultra-popular release. Released in fall 2016, it has a 30.4-megapixel sensor and native ISO range of 100 to 32,000. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, weather sealing, dual card slots, and wireless connectivity.
With this fourth-generation model, Canon overhauled the focusing system. And it now obtains the 61-point AF system found in the flagship 1DX Mark II. And it also receives their legendary Dual Pixel AF technology rated to -3EV. They’ve even refined the cross-type point, improving its sensitivity, coverage, and rating to F/8 rather than F/2.8. But, crucially, they’ve bumped the resolution 36% or by 8MP over its predecessor, improving its detail. Yet despite that, this sensor still produces superior images with better dynamic range, less noise, and usable photos at ISO 25,600 with processing. And it even has a built-in intervalometer to capture time-lapses with ease.
Overall, the 5D Mark IV remains the top night photography camera and holds the reign as king. And it’s done so ever since its original debut in 2016. It’s quite a workhorse for professionals and among Canon’s best DSLRs to date.
Why buy a camera for night photography?
For most genres of photography, the camera makes little difference to improve your images. It’s usually good lighting, creativity, and proper composition that makes a great photo. Not the camera, per se. But, for night photography, the right camera makes a world of difference. And not every camera is apt for the hash contrast in most night scenes or ready to tackle low light. As such, you’ll want to consider getting a dedicated camera that’s tailored toward these scenes.
How to choose a camera for night photography:
Below are the main factors to consider when looking at night photography cameras.
The two main types of night photography cameras are mirrorless and DSLRs. The main differences are the following: viewfinders, battery life, and form factor. DSLRs are larger in form, making them heavier on average than comparable mirrorless cameras. But, this increase in weight helps provide more comfortable ergonomics and noticeably better handling. Their larger size leads to higher capacity batteries too, which are 2-3x longer in lifespan. But, mirrorless cameras have electronic viewfinders, so you get a real-time preview of the scene beforehand. And this feature removes any guesswork and reshooting, wasting precious time. And these cameras are noticeably smaller and more portable than comparable DSLRs. So there are interesting trade-offs here.
Which is better for low light, mirrorless or DSLR?
This is a personal preference. But if you have large hands or you want superior battery life, then a DSLR is best. Otherwise, opt for a mirrorless camera as they’re smaller and more portable. But know, you will take a hit on the battery life. Even so, the electronic viewfinder helps guarantee you get the desired photo every time. So it’s a worthwhile trade-off.
Sensor Size & Resolution
A camera’s sensor size is critical for night photography. And full-frame cameras are the de facto standard. The reason is that full-frame sensors are large and capture the most light, perfect for when the lighting is scarce. And if the camera captures more light, you’ll receive better images at night.
Additionally, larger sensors offer a better dynamic range and better handle contrast in scenes. So, you’ll also get better photos with deep shadows with detail and avoid blown-out highlights. Because of these two reasons, full-frame cameras are the go-to choice for night photographers. And they always outperform APS-C, Micro Four Thirds, and 1-inch cameras. Sure, they’re heavier and expensive. But, they’re a must if you expect good image quality out in the field.
But, you’ll also want a lower megapixel camera. The relationship between sensor size and megapixels is inverse when shooting night photography. And sure, high megapixel cameras are great for printing. But, at night, higher megapixels produce more noise and artifacts in your photos. And these two factors combine to reduce image quality.
The camera’s sensor is only so large, and a high megapixel count, say 30.3-megapixels, causes each pixel to be smaller in size. And if you look at the sensor as an ice cube tray with a set amount of squares. If all things are equal, each individual square gets larger if the tray’s size increases and holds more water. But, if the tray stays the same size and you add more squares, each square would become smaller and have less water.
In photography now, less water means less light gathered. And as soon as that happens, you lose color information and detail. This is why you want a low-resolution full-frame camera at night. They have the larger sensor sizes and the biggest pixels too. So here you get the best of both worlds. Of course, you lose detail when printing compared to a high-resolution camera. But, for this medium, the overall image quality bump is a better trade-off.
ISO describes how much light the sensor captures, and it’s something to consider. In general, cameras with a high maximum ISO are better in low light since they’re more sensitive to ambient light. And you’ll often shoot two settings below a camera’s maximum ISO setting out in the field. But, understand, high ISO values will introduce digital noise and create grainy-looking images. And, sadly, not all cameras are great when shooting at high ISOs. Plus, the specific setting where each begins to produce grainy images varies wildly. For some, image quality takes an unprofessional appearance at ISO 6,400. For other ISO 51,200.
Even so, it’s fair to conclude, based on our knowledge, that most modern cameras can handle shooting at ISO 6,400. And you can also use ISO 12,800, with minor processing and noise reduction. And this is great news, as shooting at a high ISO value helps capture sharp photos handheld since you can increase the ISO rather than the shutter speed to decrease blur.
Is expandable ISO better than native?
Expandable ISO lets you capture more light than what the camera sees natively. How? By filling in the light digitally, which overextends the camera’s native ISO sensitivity. But, doing so doesn’t physically make the sensor more sensitive to incoming light. As such, you’ll see more digital noise and loss in color fidelity with these settings. Therefore, we don’t recommend using these settings. Instead, use an ISO value two stops below the maximum extended setting and stick with your camera’s native ISO range.
The shutter speed you choose will change based on the light in the scene and the amount of action you want to capture. The less light, the longer the shutter speed. And, in complete darkness, you’ll want to use a slow shutter speed to catch every valuable bit of light.
Now, when it comes to shutter speed, most cameras have a bulb mode. This mode keeps the shutter open so long as you depress the release. But, not every camera has a bulb mode above 30 seconds though, as this is typically the industry standard. If it does, a longer value in-camera will remove the need for an external trigger. And it’s something to consider if you plan on doing long exposures. Otherwise, assure that the camera has a bulb or dedicated long-exposure mode. Then consider getting an external shutter release to compliment.
Dynamic range represents the latitude images have between shadows and highlights. And it’s a defining characteristic of some cameras. This measurement happens in stop values, where a 12 stop range is typically the industry norm. But, if you plan on shooting contrasting nightscapes or cityscapes, 12 stops may prove lacking. The reason is that you’ll likely underexpose your photos, then lift the shadows in post-processing. And without enough range, you won’t recover shadow detail without introducing noise and degrading the image. As such, examine the dynamic range of each camera, and go for one with the greatest range in your budget, as you’ll have more flexibility in post-processing that way. And it’ll also produce the cleanest images with the least amount of noise.
Digital noise represents the distortion that occurs as a camera overextends itself, and it’s a considerable challenge to night photography. In appearance, it’s comparable to film grain, with fluctuations in brightness and colors throughout a photo. Additionally, it also reduces the photo’s contrast and sharpness.
However, it’s important to note some cameras have more pleasing noise renderings than others. And you can also remove some noise in post-processing. Even so, it’s something to consider if you plan on shooting at high ISO values, say ISO 32,000, often. Consider looking at test samples to assess the highest usable ISO value with good color reproduction, saturation, and detail. This will ensure you purchase the right camera for your workflow.
Not all cameras focus well in low light. And it’s unusual to find cameras that have exceptional low light focusing that also produce clean images. Most tend to excel in only one area. Even so, autofocus may be necessary to you. And, if it is, look for cameras with AF support to -3EV, at a minimum. EV is a measurement that notates what light levels a camera can focus in. And -3EV is roughly the equivalent of ISO 6,400.
Avoid cameras that don’t autofocus below 0EV, as you’ll be stuck manually focusing, which can be challenging at night. And we don’t recommend manually focusing unless you have a mirrorless camera with focus peaking.
If you plan on shooting handheld, image stabilization will be critical. Either optical (O.IS) or internal (IBIS) stabilization will help avoid increasing your ISO. And it will let you shoot at a slower shutter speed while still capturing sharp photos.
If you want to take things a step further, consider getting a camera with in-body stabilization and pairing it with an optically stabilized lens. Here you can get up to 6.5 stops of compensation and shoot handheld at 5 seconds if you’re steady. And doing so removes a good amount of need for a tripod.
If you plan on capturing nightscapes handheld, the lens you pick matters. Ideally, you want a fast lens to gather as much ambient light as possible. In that case, look for a lens with a maximum aperture of F2.8 or even F1.8. With this aperture, the lens will gather substantially more light than an equivalent F/4 lens, reducing some of your need to increase the camera’s ISO or use long exposures and stabilization.
But if you don’t plan on shooting handheld, consider getting a fixed lens with a slower aperture. And now you can shoot at the midpoint of the lens, somewhere around F/8 instead. Doing so ensures you get sharper images, as most lenses aren’t fully sharp wide open.
One of the key downsides of mirrorless cameras is their notoriously short battery life. And if you plan on shooting for hours on end, the last thing you want is a dead battery mid-shoot. So, it’s critical to ensure you have sufficient power to last throughout the night, particularly if you’re doing time-lapses and long exposures.
Most mirrorless cameras only offer 350 shots per charge on a single battery, which isn’t much. And features such as wireless connectivity, always-on displays, and high-resolution sensors can quickly reduce this performance. As such, consider purchasing a spare battery or two. And also, investigate whether the camera you’re considering offers USB charging. With USB charging, you could avoid much of the expense of purchasing genuine manufactured batteries and save money, as power banks are much more affordable.
If you want to excel at night photography, you’ll certainly need a tripod to do so as you’ll be working primarily with shutter speeds that are difficult to use handheld.
When it comes to tripods for night photography, you’ll have many options with various designs and price points. But in general, carbon fiber tripods are lighter and more robust, making them a good choice for hiking long distances to your location. Aluminum tripods, however, are slightly heavier but are substantially more affordable than carbon fiber tripods. And their larger size typically makes them more stable under windy conditions. But in either case, choose a tripod that works for your budget and meets your needs for traveling.
Night Photography Tips
Now that you understand the factors to consider and some of the best cameras for night photography, here are some tips to help capture even better images.
While shooting JPEG is convenient and saves both time and storage space, shooting in RAW provides more flexibility. And it’s the superior format when it comes to night photography. The reason is RAW captures the full dynamic range of your camera. And it also doesn’t apply in-camera noise reduction or sharpening. Combined, this results in better images with more detail and less noise. So, if you plan on printing and publishing your night photos, shooting in RAW is best.
Give Yourself Time
Regardless of your particular subject, capturing rewarding night photos requires patience. So give yourself time to experiment with the settings and composition so that you can capture the best image of your scene. Also, expect to take test shots before finalizing each image. And keep in mind many of these test shots will be long exposures, so plan accordingly.
Use Exposure Bracketing
If your camera has a built-in Exposure Bracketing, use it. Exposure Bracketing lets you capture three images sequentially that vary in exposure by one stop. And you can combine these images in post-processing to create high dynamic range (HDR) images. Compared to a single exposure, HDR images capture more dynamic range and detail in both the shadows and highlights. And it’s a valuable option, as it’s usually hard to get the perfect exposure at night in one shot. But say your camera doesn’t have this option, then play around with the exposure compensation or vary the exposure manually. With either technique, you can achieve the same result. So no worries there.
If you’re shooting Astrophotography or time-lapses in remote locations, battery life will become a huge concern. And the best thing is to use airplane mode, especially if you have a mirrorless camera, as they already have poor battery life. Airplane mode disables the camera’s wireless connectivity, which you’re unlikely to use out on location. Doing so increases the camera’s battery life, somewhere, on average, by 10%. It’s a noticeable difference.
However, if you want to trigger the camera’s shutter from your smartphone wirelessly, you’ll want to leave this feature enabled. But, understand, it will dramatically reduce your camera’s battery life. As such, consider getting a wired cable release or using the self-timer function instead.
While in-body image stabilization helps shoot handheld with slow shutter speeds, night photography is best reserved on a tripod instead. Tripods offer superior stability so that you can shoot long exposures of up to one hour in length. And capturing such an image, it’s virtually impossible by holding the camera alone. As such, disable stabilization when using a tripod. And only enable it when doing street photography and capturing fast moving subjects.
Try Aperture Priority
While it’s often best to shoot in manual to have the most control, aperture priority removes much of the guesswork in caption while exposed images. And it’s a great tool for beginners looking to get started immediately. Just choose the appropriate aperture that gives you the depth of field you would like, mount the camera on a tripod, and let it do the rest.
Electronic Viewfinder & LCD Brightness
If you have a mirrorless camera, consider dimming the brightness on both the rear display and the viewfinder. Doing so will preserve the camera’s battery life. And it will also maintain your night vision while reducing eye strain.
Also, consider disabling the electronic viewfinder altogether and using only the rear LCD, if possible. Most cameras do this automatically if you enable a power-saving mode. But simply changing the display settings to this configuration will dramatically improve the battery life. And it’ll help give you more time out in the field.
Shutter Release Cables
If you plan on capturing long exposures, consider getting an external shutter release cable. A dedicated cable will prevent camera shake and motion blur in your images from depressing the shutter. And doing so captures perfectly still images with utmost detail.
Consider experimenting with your camera’s Bulb Mode, if it has one. With the Bulb Mode, the shutter remains open for anywhere from 30 seconds to 15 minutes, as long as you depress the shutter button. And mode helps capture light-painted images, star trails and dramatic Astrophotography.