Shooting in low light is a camera’s worst nightmare and the fear of even the best cameras on the market. But, photography is all about capturing the nuances of light. So it makes sense that scare light is a real challenge indeed and one of the toughest around. But, how do we tackle such a problem?
Well, in comes a low-light camera. Low light cameras have a wide range of use cases, from the night sky, star trails, concerts, street photography, and much more. And today’s low light cameras boast redesigned CMOS sensors with backside-illumination, better processing, and sophisticated autofocusing systems. All of which culminate into a device that’s ready to tackle the perils of digital noise at even higher ISO settings, unlike the cameras of years prior, which would cower in fear. So no longer are we held back by slow shutters, external triggers, and artificial lights. No. Instead, capture your vision and rejoice, as night photography is dramatic and immensely rewarding.
Even so, what makes a good low light camera? And what are the most important factors when considering a camera for these purposes? Sure, camera technology is improved. But not so much every camera is apt to do this job. And this is an area of photography where you get what you pay for. Most modern cameras take great pictures during the day, but only a few ready for night’s difficulty. And at night, those differences become apparent. As such, you will eventually want a specific camera for these kinds of demands. With that, we compiled a detailed guide outline the factors to consider in low light oriented cameras. And we’ll also cover the best low light cameras 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
- How to choose a low light camera:
- Camera Type
- Which is better for low light, mirrorless or DSLR?
- Sensor Size & Resolution
- Is expandable ISO better than native?
- Shutter speed
- Dynamic range
5 – Nikon Z6 Mark II
Nikon’s Z6 II is their latest mirrorless camera and a multimedia powerhouse. Released in the fall of 2020, it features a 24.5-megapixel sensor and a native ISO range from ISO 100-51,200. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, in-body stabilization, weather sealing, dual card slots, time-lapse, multiple exposures, focus shift, microphone and headphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
With the Mark II, Nikon refined the autofocusing system. While it still uses the same 273-point phase-detect system as the original model, they’ve refined its low light performance. And the camera now focuses at -4.5EV, half as much light as before. They’ve also refined the battery, which provides 32% more life than its predecessor. But, crucially, this camera provides in-body stabilization. And you can capture handheld images up to 1 second or ISO 12,800 with minor processing.
Overall, the Z6 II continues building upon the original model’s strengths and fixes any of its initial shortcomings. And it proves they’re committed to refining the Z system lineup.
4 – Nikon D780
Nikon’s D780 is their most versatile DSLR to date. Released in 2020, it features a 24-megapixel sensor and a native ISO range from ISO 100 to 51,200. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, weather sealing, focus stacking, multiple exposures, time-lapse, dual card slots, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The D780 uses Nikon’s 51-point AF system with 3D-tracking and -3EV support taken from the flagship D5. But, it was the first DSLR to incorporate a 273 hybrid phase-detect AF system as well. And using Live View on this camera bumps the AF support to -5EV or a whopping -7EV, with the Low-Light AF mode. And it’s the best focusing camera outside of the D6. Nikon’s also updated the camera’s shutter speeds. And it obtains a maximum shutter of 900 seconds, similar to the D810A. So no need for an external trigger. Plus, you can even capture over 2,200+ usable images up to ISO 25,600, which only require minimal processing.
Overall, Nikon’s D780 breaks new ground in SLR capabilities, and it’s an enormous upgrade to an already proven platform. But a worthwhile upgrade indeed.
3 – Sony A7S Mark III
Sony’s A7S III is the long-awaited overhaul to the acclaimed A7S lineup. Released in 2020, it features a 12.1-megapixel sensor and a native ISO range from ISO 80-102,400. It also has a 3-inch touchscreen, in-body stabilization, dual card slots, microphone and headphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
The A7S III obtains Sony’s latest Fast Hybrid AF system from the FX9 cinema camera plus Real-Time Tracking and support to -6EV. But, this camera offers 5-axis in-body stabilization, which is updated to provide 5.5 stops of compensation. Even so, with its enormous ISO range, you can capture usable images up to ISO 51,200 with minimal processing, so it’s helpful but in some ways unnecessary. Yet, even with such power, it still sports the longest battery life of its peers at 600 shots per charge.
Overall, Sony’s A7S III is quite a niche product, sure. But, if you want the best full-frame low light camera and your budget allows it, this is it. The A7S lineup is long known for unrivaled low-light power. And this third-generation model simply continues the suit.
2 – Nikon D850
Nikon’s D850 is their latest trailblazing high-resolution DSLR. Released in 2017, it features a 45-megapixel sensor and a native ISO range from ISO 64-25,600. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, weather sealing, focus shift, time-lapse, dual card slots, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
With the D850, Nikon overhauled the focusing system. And this new model now obtains the same 153-point AF system from the flagship D5 with 3D-tracking and -4EV support. This model also boasts a 25% increase in resolution over its predecessor with class-leading detail and dynamic range. Yet, low light performance has also improved by nearly 2 stops. And you can now confidently capture high-resolution images at ISO 25,600 with minimal processing. Plus, you get the longest battery life in this segment at 1,840 shots per charge, doubling its nearest rival.
Overall, Nikon’s D850 proves DSLRs are powerful, despite the trends. And it ups the standards in detail and professionalism, yet remains their best all-round camera to date.
1 – Canon 5D Mark IV
Canon’s 5D Mark IV is the current flagship of the 5D series and an ultra-popular camera despite its age. Released in 2016, it features a 30.4-megapixel sensor and a native ISO range from 100-32,000. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, dual card slots, weather sealing, headphone and microphone ports, and wireless connectivity.
With the Mark IV, Canon’s overhauled the focusing system. And it now uses the same 61-point AF system from the flagship 1DX II with their legendary Dual Pixel AF technology and -3EV support. This new system also obtains refined cross-type points with better sensitivity, coverage, and support to f/8 rather than f/2.8. They’ve also bumped the resolution up 36% or 8MP, from its predecessor 22.3MP to capture greater detail. But, even so, this sensor produces superior image quality, better dynamic range, less noise, and usable images to ISO 25,600 with processing. And it also offers a built-in intervalometer to capture time-lapses with ease.
Overall, Canon’s 5D Mark IV stays steadfast as the top low-light camera. And it’s held the reigns as such since its debut in 2016. It’s a workhorse for professionals and easily among their best DSLRs to date.
How to choose a low light camera:
Below are the main factors to consider and the components that separate low light cameras.
The two main types of low light cameras are mirrorless and DSLRs. The main differences between these two cameras are the following: viewfinders, battery life, and form factor. DSLRs are heavier than mirrorless cameras. But, that weight helps them provide more comfortable ergonomics and handling.
Their larger size also means manufacturers can install larger capacity batteries, which often are 2-3x longer than most mirrorless cameras. However, Mirrorless cameras use electronic viewfinders, which gives you a real-time preview of the scene while shooting. So you won’t have to shoot, make a change, then re-shoot again, wasting precious time.
Which is better for low light, mirrorless or DSLR?
The camera style that’s best here comes down to personal preference. If you have large hands and want superior battery life, then DLSRs are best. Otherwise, mirrorless cameras provide similar quality in a more portable form factor. You will take a hit on battery life in most cameras, but the electronic viewfinder will at least ensure you get the desired photo.
Sensor Size & Resolution
The camera’s sensor size is critical for low light photography. And full-frame cameras are the gold standard in this arena. The reason is that these sensors are the largest and capture the most light, which is critical when the lighting is scarce. And the more light the camera captures, the better its images in dark scenes.
Additionally, larger sensors also improve dynamic range, a measure of how well the camera handles contrast. So, you’ll get better photos in settings with deep shadows and bright highlights. As such, full-frame cameras will always outperform crop (APS-C) and Micro Four Thirds cameras. So, while heavier and more expensive than a smaller sensor camera, they’re a must if you want good image quality.
The next factor on this front is the relationship between sensor size and megapixels. Having a high megapixel count is useful for printing. However, in low light photography, higher megapixels results in more noise and unwanted artifacts in photos, reducing image quality. This occurs because the sensor is only so large, and the higher the megapixel count, the smaller each pixel. Think of a sensor as an ice cube tray, where each square is a pixel.All things being equal, if the size of the tray increases, each ice cube will be bigger and hold more water.
Conversely, if the tray stays the same size, but you add more cubes, each ice cube becomes smaller. As such, each cube holds less water. In photography, less water equates to less light. And when that occurs, you lose detail and color information. So ideally, you want a low-resolution full-frame camera. These cameras have the larger sensors and the largest pixels.
And comparing two full-frame cameras with different megapixels counts, the lower resolution camera will be best. Sure, you trade resolution here for printing the images. But, the overall image quality bump is well worth it.
ISO is a measurement of how much light the sensor captures. And the camera’s maximum setting is another thing to consider outside of sensor size and megapixel count. But, higher ISO values often result in digital noise and grainy looking images. Generally, the higher a camera’s maximum ISO, the more capable it is in low light.
And you typically can shoot at two settings below its maximum and capture acceptable images. However, the settings where each camera begins to produce grainy images varies. And some cameras are better at high ISOs than others. But, it’s fair to say most cameras can handle shooting at ISO 6,400 and 12,800, with minor processing. And shooting at these values is useful when capturing photos handheld. And you can use this higher value to increase the shutter speed to reduce blur.
Is expandable ISO better than native?
The expandable ISO settings let you capture even more light than what the camera sees natively. How? These settings fill in light digitally, overextending the camera’s native sensitivity. But, they don’t make the sensor more sensitive to incoming light. The result is digital noise and loss in color fidelity. As such, we don’t recommend these settings. Instead, use ISO values that are two stops below the maximum extended setting and stick to the native ISO range.
The shutter speed you select will vary based on the light in the scene and the action you wish to capture. The more light, the higher the shutter speed. But, in complete darkness, you’ll want to use a slow shutter speed to capture every precious bit of light.
Now, when it comes to shutter speed, most cameras offer a bulb mode, allowing you to keep the shutter open indefinitely before releasing it. But, not every camera offers shutter speeds above 30 seconds, which is typically the industry standard. Having a longer value in-camera prevents the need for an external trigger. And it’s a solid option to consider if you plan on doing consistent long exposures. Otherwise, ensure that the camera offers a bulb or dedicated long-exposure mode.
Dynamic range is the amount of latitude images have between shadows and highlights. And it’s the feature that differentiates colors and tones within a photo. This measurement comes in stop values, where a 12 stop latitude is typically the industry standard. But, if you plan on shooting strongly contrasting nightscapes, 12 stops may prove insufficient. As such, investigate the dynamic range of each camera, and opt for cameras with a greater range as you’ll have more flexibility in post-processing that way.
Digital noise is the distortion that occurs when a camera overextends itself, and it’s the most significant challenge to low light photography. In appearance, it’s similar to film grain, with variations in brightness and colors throughout the photo. Additionally, it also reduces sharpness and contrast. However, some cameras have more pleasing digital noise renderings than others. You can remove some noise in post-processing.
But, this is an area of consideration if you plan on shooting high ISO values, say ISO 32,000, often. Even so, look at test samples to assess the highest usable ISO value that offers good color reproduction, saturation, and detail.
Not all cameras can focus reliably in low light. And it’s rare to find cameras that have excellent low light focusing while simultaneously producing clean images. Most cameras tend to excel in only one area. Even so, low light autofocus may or may not be necessary to you. But, if it is, look for cameras that offer AF support to -3EV, at a minimum.
This EV measurement is how manufacturers notate what light levels a camera can focus in. And -3EV is a rough equivalent of ISO 6,400. If the camera doesn’t provide autofocusing below 0 EV, you’ll have to use manual focusing while shooting, which will be challenging at night.
Image stabilization is critical if you plan on shooting handheld, as you’ll likely need a slow shutter speed. Relying on stabilization, be it internal (IBIS) or optical (O.IS), helps you avoid increasing the ISO. And it allows you to get sharp photos with less noise.
When shooting low-light photography, the lens you use matters. And you want a fast lens that gathers as much light as possible. With that, you want a lens with a maximum aperture of f/2.8 and less. Otherwise, you’ll have to use long exposures, stabilization, or increase your ISO to capture images in some scenes.