While most modern cameras can take good pictures, not all can do it in tough conditions. The more challenging the shooting environment, the better the camera needs to be. Photography is all about capturing light and situations with very little light can often provide a challenge to even the best of cameras.
While you may think that good low light capabilities are only important for photographers whose focus is on taking pictures in dark concert venues or chasing the Northern Lights around the night sky, there are actually low light applications for all sorts of shooters. Sports photographers must be able to shoot high ISOs on darkened fields or in arenas and wedding photographers may need to take clear photos in dimly-lit reception halls. Street photographers often find that a lot of a city’s most interesting people come out at night. Landscapes can often look way more dramatic in the dark and astrophotography is a lot of fun.
But all of those things require a camera that excels in low light conditions.
In this article we will talk about what makes a good low light camera and tell you about some of the best ones on the market. These aren’t just cameras that are capable of shooting well at high ISOs– these are really good all-around cameras that just happen to excel in the dark.
The Best Cameras for Low Light Photography
Things to Consider in a Low Light Camera
Sensor size – Sensor size is relevant to most areas of photography but when it comes to shooting in dark conditions it becomes even more important. Full frame cameras (those with sensors equivalent to 35mm film cameras) are the gold standard and capture the most light. Capturing more light is always useful but it becomes even more so when light sources are scarce. A full frame camera will almost always outperform a crop sensor (APS-C) or Micro Four Thirds (MFT) camera in low light conditions.
Unfortunately, full frame cameras do have their downsides. Full frame cameras are generally heavier and more expensive than their crop sensor or MFT counterparts. Photographers who don’t want to spend a lot of money or haul around a super heavy load may want to look at a camera with a smaller sensor even though it probably won’t perform quite as well when things get dark.
ISO – ISO is the measure of how much light your sensor can capture. Increasing ISO allows you to increase your shutter speed, which is especially useful if you are shooting handheld or trying to capture objects in motion. High ISOs come with significant downsides, however. The higher you push your ISO, the more noise you will get in your image—but some cameras handle high ISOs better than others. In other words, just because a camera can shoot at a high ISO doesn’t mean that you will want to!
Noise – Noise is the distortion that happens in digital photos when the ISO is pushed high and it can be a challenge when shooting in low light situations. Similar to grain in film photography, noise appears in an image as variations in brightness and color in the photo—and it doesn’t look good. A noisy photo will not be sharp or pleasing to the eye. Noise levels can be avoided by shooting at lower ISOs using wider apertures.
With all that in mind, let’s talk about some of the best cameras out there for photographers who shoot in low light situations.
Best Full Frame Cameras for Low Light Photography
Full frame cameras are far and away your best bet when it comes to low light photography. The cameras on this list may be heavy and pricey but the images they produce in dark settings will be much better than those from cameras with smaller sensors. For serious photographers who see themselves spending a lot of time shooting in the dark, these are the way to go.
1. Nikon D5
($352 for 7 day rental, $6,500 retail for body only)
Yes, the Nikon D5 is expensive but it might just be the best low light camera on the market. This camera blows its competition out of the water when it comes to the ability to take sharp, clear images in the dark. Not only can this camera shoot a maximum ISO of up to 3,280,000 (although you probably won’t want to shoot ISOs anywhere near that high due to poor image quality), but it also has a 20.8 MP sensor and the ability to shoot at speeds of up to 14 FPS. If you love low light photography and aren’t afraid to drop some coin to get the best camera for your craft, this is the way to go.
2. Sony a7SII
($171 for 7 day rental, $3,000 retail for body only)
Sony made the a7sII with the low light photographer in mind. This full frame mirrorless camera may come in a small package but it is mighty when it comes to low light photography. This camera’s 12.2 MP sensor is able to shoot at ISOs of up to 409,600. While you probably won’t want to push the ISO that high due to problems with noise, it’s good to know that you can. This camera is also widely known for its ability to lock in focus in near darkness, something that other cameras struggle with. The a7SII is a good choice for photographers who want to be able to take exceptionally high quality photos in low light situations but don’t want to haul around a heavy full frame DSLR to do it.
($129 for 7 day rental, $2,600 retail for body only)
The 5D Mark III is Canon’s perennial workhorse of a camera and it has earned its high standing among the ranks of professional grade DSLRs. While this camera may not have the staggeringly high ISO capabilities of some of the others, it makes the list because it works really well in all conditions—including those that are seriously lacking in light. Can it match the D5’s shocking ISO rates? No, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not a really good option for low light photographers. The 5D Mark III’s ability to shoot in low light and do so at a fraction of the price of its nearest competitors make it a powerful tool for the night time photographer.
|Camera||Nikon D5||Sony a7SII||Canon 5D Mark III|
|Type||Full frame DSLR||Full frame mirrorless||Full frame DSLR|
|Resolution||20.8 MP||12.2 MP||22.3 MP|
|ISO Range||100-102,400 (Extended Mode: 50-328,0000)||100-102,400 (Extended Mode: 50-409,600)||100-25,600 (Extended Mode: 50-102,400)|
|Max Burst Rate||14 FPS||5 FPS||6 FPS|
|Display Screen||3.2″ touchscreen||3″ tilting LCD||3.2″ LCD|
|Weight||3.11 lbs (body only)||1.4 lbs (body only)||1.9 lbs (body only)|
Best APS-C / Cropped Sensor Cameras for Low Light
Full frame cameras may be the best for low light photography but they aren’t an option for everyone. If you are on a budget or don’t like the idea of carrying a heavy professional level DSLR, these APS-C sensors cameras are your next best bet. What they lack in that huge sensor they make up for in being slightly lighter in weight and way more affordable.
1. Nikon D7200
($65 for 7 day rental, $1,050 retail for body only)
The D7200 by Nikon is the best camera for low light photography for those who don’t want to spring for a full frame DSLR. This APS-C sensor camera was designed with low light photographers in mind. This camera has the ability to shoot at ISOs up to 102,400, which is far higher than any of the other APS-C DSLRs or MFT cameras on our list. As with all cameras, noise increases significantly with high ISOs but the D7200 handles it as well as any APS-C camera can. This is a camera that hits the sweet spot between value and quality.
2. Sony a6300
($68 for 7 day rental, $1,000 retail for body only)
The a6300 is a crop sensor mirrorless camera designed for photographers who want a high quality, smaller rig at an affordable price. This camera’s ISO maxes out at 51,200 and it can shoot up to 25,600 ISO with very minimal noise. Sony has become the world leader in low light mirrorless cameras and while the a6300 can’t quite stand up to the extremely powerful A7s II, it’s also a third of the price. The a6300 is an ideal option for photographers who want a well-priced mirrorless APS-C camera for low light photography.
($78 for 7 day rental, $1,600 retail for body only)
The 7D Mark II is one of the best crop sensor DSLRs for low light photography. This camera, which was designed with sports and wildlife photographers in mind, has one of the most powerful autofocus systems on the market with a whopping 65 cross-type autofocus points. While it won’t take low light photos as well as any of the full frame bodies above, its ability to capture useable photos at moderately high ISOs make it a good choice for photographers who want an APS-C camera for low light photography.
4. Nikon D5500
($58 for 7 day rental, $750 retail for body only)
If you are looking for an entry-level DSLR with excellent low light capabilities, look no further than the Nikon D5500. This camera is the little brother to the D7200 described above and it does a pretty good job of keeping up. Like the D7200, the D5500 has a 24.2 MP APS-C sensor and the ability to handle high ISOs well. Where it falls behind a bit is in things like durability, weather-sealing, and autofocus capabilities. But that doesn’t mean that it’s not a worthy camera. The D5500 is an excellent option for photographers who are looking to get their feet wet with low light photography and don’t want to spend over a thousand dollars to do so.
|Camera||Nikon D7200||Sony a6300||Canon 7D Mark II||Nikon D5500|
|Type||APS-C DSLR||APS-C Mirrorless||APS-C DSLR||APS-C DSLR|
|Resolution||24.2 MP||25 MP||20.2 MP||24.7 MP|
|ISO Range||100-25,600 (Extended Mode: 51,200-102,400)||100-25,600 (Extended Mode: 100-51,200||100-16,000 (Extended Mode: 100-51,200)||100-25,600|
|Max Burst Rate||6 FPS||11 FPS||10 FPS||5 FPS|
|Display Screen||3.2″ LCD||3″ tilting touchscreen LCD||3″ LCD||3.2″ swivel touchscreen|
|Weight||1.5 lbs (body only)||.89 lbs (body only)||2.0 lbs (body only)||.92 lbs (body only)|
Best Micro Four Thirds Cameras for Low Light
Many mirrorless camera systems, notably those made by Olympus and Panasonic, have MFT sensors. These sensors are even smaller than those in APS-C cameras – but so are the cameras! While a camera with a MFT sensor generally won’t perform as well in low light situations as full frame or APS-C cameras, they are also way easier to carry around.
MFT cameras are perfect for photographers who want to be able to take decent low light videos using the smallest camera body possible. These are some of the best low light compact cameras on the market for photographers who want something small and reasonably priced.
($73 for 7 day rental, $1,100 retail for body only)
The E-M5 Mark II may be tiny but it’s a beast of a camera when it comes to image quality and low light capabilities. This 16.1 MP camera is able to shoot at ISOs up to 25,600 – and do it well. Yes, the images will have more noise at high ISOs than those farther up on our list but this is also a much lighter, more affordable body than most. The E-M5 Mark II is a good option for the serious amateur photographer who wants a small camera capable of taking excellent photos during the day and really good ones at night.
($83 for 7 day rental, $1,300 retail for body only)
Panasonic’s Lumix GH4 is one of the most capable, well-priced mirrorless cameras on the market. It shoots very well in all conditions, including in the dark. Will the GH4 be able to hang with a full frame or APS-C sensor camera in low light? No. But for an MFT camera it does very well. With a fast lens on the front the GH4 can handle ISOs up to 1600 without noise becoming too much of a problem. And it does very well during the day. The bottom line here is that if you want a small camera that takes excellent daytime photos, can handle low light photography reasonably well, and won’t cost you several thousand dollars, the GH4 is an excellent choice.
|Camera||Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II||Panasonic Lumix GH4|
|Type||Micro Four Thirds||Micro Four Thirds|
|Resolution||16.1 MP||16.05 MP|
|ISO Range||200-3,200 (High Sensitivity Mode: 100-25,600)||200-25,600 (Extended Mode: 100-25,600)|
|Max Burst Rate||10 FPS||12 FPS|
|Display Screen||3″ flip screen||3″ flip screen|
|Weight||0.9 lbs (body only)||1.2 lbs (body only)|
We hope this article has helped you figure out which camera best fits your needs for low light photography. If you are having a hard time deciding whether to drop all that cash on a full frame camera or if an APS-C or MFT camera will get the job done, remember that you always have the option of renting.
Nikon D5 CC Image courtesy of Silentmind8 on Flickr
Sony A7s II CC Image courtesy of R Otaviano on Flickr
Canon 5D Mark III CC Image courtesy of Paulo Valdivieso on Flickr
Nikon D7200 CC Image courtesy of David Eastwell on Flickr
Sony a6300 CC Image courtesy of Zengame on Flickr
Nikon D5500 CC Image courtesy of sara penn on Flickr
Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II CC Image courtesy of naql on Flickr
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 CC Image courtesy of Studio Incendo on Flickr