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 be a challenge for even the best cameras.
Good low light capabilities is not just for dark concert venues or the Northern Lights. There are low light applications for all sorts of shooters. Sports photographers must be able to shoot high ISOs in arenas and wedding photographers may need to take clear photos in dimly-lit reception halls or churches. 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 – not to mention the challenges of astrophotography!
All of those things require a camera that excels in low light. There are cameras that specialize in this, such as the Canon ME20F-SH. But at nearly $20,000, a camera like that isn’t attainable for most. The following is a list of cameras that can handle almost all lighting situations but are suitable for a variety of shooters and budgets.
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 for a variety of price points and skill levels.*
Great Cameras for Low Light Photography
- Nikon D5
- Sony a7S II
- Canon 5D Mark III (Update: Canon 5D Mark IV)
- Nikon D7200 (Update: Nikon D7500)
- Sony a6300 (Update: Sony a6500)
- Canon 7D Mark II
- Panasonic GH4 (Update: Panasonic GH5)
Things to Consider in a Camera
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 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 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.
Cameras for Low Light Photography in a Range of Price Points/Skill Level
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.
Nikon D5 ($220 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)
The Nikon D5 is expensive but it might just be one 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.
Sony a7S II ($77 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)
Sony made the a7s II 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 shooting. 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 a7S II is a good choice for photographers and videographers who want to be able to take exceptionally high quality imagert in low light situations but don’t want to haul around a heavy full frame DSLR to do it.
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Canon 5D Mark III (Update: Canon 5D Mark IV)
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. For an updated version of this camera, see the Canon 5D Mark IV.
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.
Nikon D7200 (Update: Nikon D7500)
The D7200 by Nikon is a good 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. For an updated version of this camera, see the Nikon D7500.
Sony a6300 (Update: Sony a6500)
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. For an updated version of this camera, see the Sony a6500.
Canon 7D Mark II ($53 for a 3 Day Rental – See More)
The 7D Mark II is a good 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 in its price point 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 usable photos at moderately high ISOs make it a good choice for photographers who want an APS-C camera for low light photography.
Panasonic GH4 (Update: Panasonic GH5 and GH5S)
Panasonic’s 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.
We hope this article has helped you narrow down which camera best fits your needs and budget 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 a crop sensor camera will get the job done, remember that you always have the option of renting.
*As of this writing. Pricing and cameras subject to change.
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 D7200 CC Image courtesy of micadew on Flickr
Panasonic Lumix DMC-GH4 CC Image courtesy of Studio Incendo on Flickr