The 9 Best Cameras for Low Light Photography

The 9 Best Cameras for Low Light Photography

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.

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!

High ISO noise caused by camera sensor sensitivity

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)

best-low-light-camera-1

Taken by Silentmind8 with a Nikon D5 and 50mm lens. ISO 2000, f/1.4, 1/100th of a second.

Nikon D5

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)

best-low-light-camera-2

Taken by R Otaviano with a Sony a7SII. ISO 2000, 1/100th of a second.

Sony Alpha A7s II

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.

3. Canon 5D Mark III

($129 for 7 day rental, $2,600 retail for body only)

best-low-light-camera-3

Taken by Paulo Valdivieso with a Canon 5D Mark III and 24-105mm f/4L IS lens. ISO 640, f/4, 1/8th of a second.

Canon EOS 5D Mark III

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.

Nikon D5 Sony Alpha A7s II Canon EOS 5D Mark III
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
Changeable Lenses Yes Yes Yes
WiFi Yes Yes No
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)
MSRP $6,500 $3,000 $2,600

 

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)

best-low-light-camera-4

Taken by David Eastwell with a Nikon D7200.

Nikon D7200

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)

best-low-light-camera-5

Taken by Zengame with a Sony a6300 and 35mm FE f/1.4 ZA lens. ISO 100, f/11, 20 second exposure.

Sony a6300

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.

3. Canon 7D Mark II

($78 for 7 day rental, $1,600 retail for body only)

best-low-light-camera-6

Taken by micadew with a Canon 7D Mark II and 70-200mm f/2.8L lens. ISO 200, f/2.8, 1/200th of a second.

Canon 7D Mark III

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)

best-low-light-camera-7

Taken by sara penn with a Nikon D5500 and an 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 lens. ISO 1600, f/8, 1/80th of a second.

Nikon D5500

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.

Nikon D7200 Sony a6300 Canon 7D Mark II Nikon D5500
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
Changeable Lenses Yes Yes Yes Yes
WiFi Yes Yes No Yes
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)
MSRP $1,050 $1,000 $1,600 $750

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.

1. Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II

($73 for 7 day rental, $1,100 retail for body only)

best-low-light-camera-8

Taken by naql with an Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II and an Olympus 12mm f/2 lens. ISO 1000, f/2, 20 second exposure.

Olympus OMD EM5

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.

 

2. Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4

($83 for 7 day rental, $1,300 retail for body only)

best-low-light-camera-9

Taken by Studio Incendo with a Panasonic GH4 and a Panasonic Lumix G Vario 100-300mm f/4-5.6 lens. ISO 200, f/7.1, 1/640th of a second.

Panasonic Lumix DMC GH4

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.

Olympus OMD EM5 Panasonic Lumix DMC GH4
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
Changeable Lenses Yes Yes
WiFi Yes Yes
Display Screen 3″ flip screen 3″ flip screen
Weight 0.9 lbs (body only) 1.2 lbs (body only)
MSRP $1,100 $1,300

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

The following two tabs change content below.
Vivian Liu specializes in family and pet photography. She also spent 2 years as a photographer for Rebuilding Together Peninsula, which rehabilitates homes and community facilities for low-income homeowners and neighborhoods. Her passion is making photography accessible to everyone with straightforward recommendations and approachable tutorials.

24 Comments

  1. Hi, just wondering why the Nikon D3s was not mentioned, it has a very good low light performance.

    Reply
    • D5 is newer and I think she wanted to only include 1 pro body form factor DSLR in the Nikon brand in the list. But, yes, there are several others with good dynamic range that didn’t make it in the list.

      Reply
    • The reviewer must have lived on planet x for a long time. He also forgot to mention one of the kings of low light: Nikon D700

      Reply
  2. List is not complete without Nikon D500 . ..

    Reply
  3. ” Increasing ISO allows you to decrease your shutter speed, which is especially useful if you are shooting handheld or trying to capture objects in motion”.
    Increasing ISO should allow you to increase shutter speed.

    Reply
  4. LOL! Nikon D3s was not mentioned….

    Reply
  5. what about nikon D750? almost beat sony a7sii

    Reply
  6. The Sony A7RII destorys nikon hands down….

    Reply
  7. you left out the D500, idiots….

    Reply
    • The D500 is, indeed, another great one. But the author was trying to find a range of brands and price points without weighing too heavily on any one, hence the D500’s omission. It is featured in another lists for sure, though!

      Reply
  8. Where is the Samsung NX1??

    Reply
  9. Pentax K-1…..Title should have been The 9 best “mainstream” cameras for Low Light Photograpy

    Reply
  10. this is wrong the real tip of the good low light camera is about pixel low pixel number = good low light sensor
    what about nikon DF nikon D3s canon 6D sony a7s canon 1Ds

    Reply
  11. naturally full frame camera with low number of pixels that the best way to know if the camera is good or not in low light situation mark these words .

    Reply
  12. Good lineup. Thanks for the list.

    Reply
  13. What would be a good camera for taking pictures inside the club, I am tired of lugging all those extra lights with me when I go do a job.

    Reply
  14. For those of you looking for real information on the best low cameras for low light photography, BE WARY OF THIS ARTICLE! I bought my first DSLR based on articles like this and I’m sorry to say that some of these reviewers must just be disingenuous. Why? because they gravitate toward Canon and Nikon. If you go over to Imaging Resources and use their “comparometer” you will see what I mean. They have the exact same images at high ISO of differing cameras so you can compare all of the cameras this article mentioned and then for the heck of it select the Pentax K-1 and come back here and tell people what you found. I think what what you will find is that this article is a joke, because if they wanted different brands and different formats as they mentioned in one of their replies, then the K-1 should easily have been on this list. The nikon D5 is a great low light camera and deserves to be on this list: $6500. The Sony a7S ll is a great low light camera and deserves to be on this list:$2700 The Canon 5D Mark lll is a great low light camera and deserves to be on this list: $2650 …The pentax K-1? It is a great FULL FRAME low light camera and deserves to be on this list: $1800 Better than numbers 4-9 on the article list though???? Not even close! Go over to imaging resource for yourself and and I think you’ll agree.

    Reply
    • For completeness, this list should include the Canon ME20F-SH.

      Reply
  15. Get your facts straight – low light sensitivity is NOT related to sensor size ! It is a function of how the manufacturer obtains higher ISO values and the manner in which the data from the sensor is manipulated. I have had several APS-C sensor cameras all of which had very different low light sensitivities despite each being the same size. Another point – all sensors, irrespective of size, require exactly the same amount of light per unit area for correct exposure otherwise our ISO system is all b’s’t and our exposures are guessomatic !

    Reply
  16. I believe there might be a typo. The Canon 7D Mark II is an APSC DSLR, not a mirrorless (in the chart)

    Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. The 15 Best Cameras for YouTube Videos 2017 - BorrowLenses Blog - […] due to its myriad of features, small size, and incredible video quality. While it lacks the low light capabilities…
  2. Canon 6D vs 5D Mark II: Battle of the Full Frame DSLR - BorrowLenses Blog - […] standard for professional photographers and serious hobbyists due to their larger sensors, improved low light performance, and the clearer…
  3. How to Set Up 3 Popular Interview Lighting Techniques - BorrowLenses Blog - […] If you’re looking for more lighting tips and tricks, take a look at our guide for the best low…
  4. The Ultimate Lightweight Camera for Night Photography - BorrowLenses Blog - […] below. If you’re shooting when the sun goes down make sure to check out our guide on the best…
  5. The Sun: A Photographer's Ultimate Lighting Source - BorrowLenses Blog - […] If you’re shooting once the sun goes down, make sure you take a peek at our guide on the…
  6. The 12 Best Cameras for Beginners in 2017 - BorrowLenses Blog - […] you have your gear, make sure you check out all of our tips and tricks including our guide for…
  7. The 7 Best DSLRs/Mirrorless Cameras for Video - BorrowLenses Blog - […] Also, don’t forget to check out our other tips and tricks including this guide for the best low light…
  8. 17 Portrait Photography Tips Everyone Should Master - BorrowLenses Blog - […] subject near windows to catch that natural light. You can also take a peek at our guide for the…
  9. T blog - […] The 9 Best Cameras for Low Light Photography […]
  10. Capture Stunning Cityscapes At Night – Stargazer - […] night, all but the very best of cameras will have trouble finding focus on their own especially in low…

Leave a comment, a question, or show us your work!