Best cameras for low-light photography
February 22, 2022
Not every camera handles low-light photography equally effectively. Damien Demolder enlightens us with the stand-out models
Since the dawn of photography we have been gradually moving to a position where we need less and less light to make a picture. While bright sunshine, head clamps and heavy-duty tripods were the order of the day in the mid-1800s, today’s advances in camera, lens and sensor technology allow us to shoot handheld in dimly lit places with an excellent chance of achieving a usable image. Even the least advanced camera on the market today is streets ahead of the best offering of just a decade ago.
We really are very lucky. Of course the elements that allow easy photography in low light are not solely in the gift of the camera, as fast-aperture lenses play a major role in making the most of any light that is available – so we need to look at camera systems as a whole when choosing equipment to suit our needs. It is also important to appreciate that each of the attributes that makes a system good for low-light photography will not necessarily make it good for all low-light work.
The main characteristics to look for are:
Long shutter speeds
The most obvious action to take in a low-light situation might be to increase the length of time the shutter remains open, so looking for a camera that allows exceptionally long shutter speeds seems like a good starting point. Long shutters are great if you have a tripod or camera support, but they are no good if you need to record a scene or subject that is moving.
Image stabilisation (IS)
Modern image-stabilisation systems are really remarkable, with some shifting the sensor to keep up with the movements of the camera and others using a group of elements in the lens. These systems allow us to handhold the camera at much longer shutter speeds than would usually be the case. As with all long shutter speeds though moving subjects will be blurred even with the best IS system.
To achieve a short enough shutter speed for moving subjects, a high ISO setting might be desirable. Many cameras offer high ISO settings but not all manage the noise produced by dramatic amplification as well as others. However well noise is managed, high ISO speeds will deliver lower overall image quality.
Using a lens with a wide aperture makes life a whole lot easier when it comes to shooting in low light. When we use a lens that lets in more light focusing is easier, and we don’t need the high ISO settings and long shutter speeds quite so much. This means we can handhold the camera more often, should we need to.
At a glance
- Max ISO 102,400
- 8 stops of IS (upto)
- Full-frame 20MP sensor
- AF down to -6.5EV
Full-frame cameras are, almost by default, better in low-light situations than smaller- sensor cameras at the same ISO and with the same resolution, and when a full-frame sensor is asked to house only 20 million pixels each of those pixels can be large and can gather more light. The sensor of the Canon EOS R6 also has a benefit of using the power of the DIGIC X processor for noise reduction, so the already low-noise pixels get extensively polished before being saved to the card.
This allows exceptional noise performance at ISO settings right up to ISO 12,800, and good performance even beyond that. Noise performance here has the advantage that there is a limit to how far you can enlarge a 20MP image so no one can look too closely, but even so the images this camera produces are remarkably well controlled. Noise doesn’t become overpowering until ISO 102,400, but it can extend to ISO 204,800 in an emergency.
The camera’s autofocusing system is also remarkably sensitive, and can operate right down to -6.5EV – the dimmest working conditions for any EOS R camera. This makes it ideal for stage performance as well as night-time news. Demands on both noise performance and the IS system are eased somewhat though by the collection of very fast lenses Canon has in the RF line-up. We have standard and portrait lenses in f/1.2 as well as an f/2 28-70mm standard zoom. Those all make life a lot easier for the low-light worker.
Star turn: image stabilisation
The R6’s image stabilisation is the key low-light feature. The camera on its own can use its sensor shift to stabilise any lens that can mount on it, but when it is coupled with the right RF lens it comes into its own. The image-stabilisation systems of both camera and lens will work together to produce up to 8EV of stabilisation. In real terms that means we should be able to handhold a 50mm lens for a four-second exposure, or a 500mm lens for a 1/2sec. Much is dependent on the lens in use though, as some RF lenses allow only 6EV – such as the RF 100-500mm f/4.5-7.1 IS.
The extended imaging circle of many of the RF lenses is partly responsible for this as they produce a much wider-than-usual area for the camera’s sensor to move around in – and this makes it possible to compensate for more dramatic movements. So, R6 users can really slow down the shutter speed while still staying sharp handheld.
At a glance
- £1,400 body only
- Excellent high-ISO JPEGs
- Good in-body stabilisation
- Multiple very wide-aperture lenses
- Great noise performance up to ISO 12,800
The Fujifilm X-T4 is only the second Fujifilm X model to feature an in-body image stabilisation system, but the company seems to have learnt how to make the most of this technology pretty quickly. It felt like a great step forward when the first Fujifilm IBIS system was introduced in the X-H1 and that camera’s larger body was well able to accommodate it.
The X-T4 however is a much slimmer and compact camera in line with the previous X-T series, so the system had to be miniaturised to make it fit. Smaller though it is, it is still very effective and with many of the Fujifilm X lenses it offers 5-axis compensation at up to 6.5 stops. With independent lenses and those without their own IS systems, we get 3-axis stabilisation of up to 3 stops.
If you are a tripod user and like a really long exposure, the X-T4’s Bulb mode allows the shutter to be held open for up to 60 minutes. Another massive help in low-light conditions is the camera’s excellent control of image noise at high ISO settings – in both raw and JPEG settings. JPEG files tend to be a little smooth and lacking the fine detail that raw files contain, but they also are free of speckles, coloured bruising and unpleasant textures.
Right up to ISO 6400 they look pretty good, and allow those Fujifilm users who prefer to set their styles using JPEG colour and contrast settings to continue to do so. A great low-light choice.
Star turn: Fast lenses
X-T4 users can take advantage of the system’s superpower – the enticing brace of fast-aperture lenses for low-light shooting. The leader of the pack is obviously the XF50mm f/1.0 R WR which gives us an angle of view similar to that of a 75mm lens on a full-frame system. This makes it a very happy street lens and is ideal for ambient light portraits.
The super-wide maximum aperture means we can work in very dark conditions without having to push the ISO up too high but still maintain a shutter speed short enough to freeze moving people. The company’s XF56mm f/1.2 lenses afford us similar benefits but with a slightly longer focal length, while a collection of six f/1.4 lenses offer us focal lengths between 16mm and 35mm – nicely covering the sweet spots of 24mm, 27mm, 35mm, 50mm and 52mm in full-frame terms. And if you want longer lenses there’s a range of seven lenses with f/2 apertures that includes focal lengths between 18mm and 200mm.
At a glance
- £1,600 body only
- First-class image-stabilisation system
- Live Bulb/Time modes
- Live Composition mode
- Starry Sky AF
It is certainly true that by default smaller sensors are at a disadvantage when it comes to low-light photography, but in the OM-D E-M1 Mark III Olympus is working hard to make this Micro Four Thirds model compensate for its small pixels with a range of excellent features. The camera’s ISO range might top-out at just 6400 in the standard settings but Olympus does all it can to ensure we don’t have to crank the sensitivity up that high very often.
In fact at ISO 6400 the camera produces images with a well-controlled and not unattractive noise profile, but there is still more noise than you would expect from a modern full-frame model. The Micro Four Thirds system though is well-populated with super-fast lenses from Olympus’s own f/1.2 Pro series as well as those from Panasonic and the f/0.95 primes made by Voigtländer. The Olympus OM-D E-M1 III also has one of the best image-stabilisation systems on the market, offering 5-axis compensation of 7 stops using just the shifting sensor.
This allows vintage lenses and those without their own stabilisation to be used handheld with very long shutter speeds. When this in-body stabilisation is combined with one of Olympus’ stabilised lenses the compensation creeps up another half stop to 7.5EV. That translates to being able to handhold a standard lens (25mm in this case) for up to three seconds – which is very impressive. Obviously that’s no good for moving subjects, but it will mean you have to use a tripod much less often. Good news for many shooters.
Star turn: Live Bulb
Olympus has a number of ‘Live’ shooting modes that really help for judging exposure with long shutter speeds. Live Bulb, Live Time and Live Composite all allow the user to monitor how exposure is being built-up during a long shutter opening, by displaying the progress of the exposure live on the rear screen. A faint image on the display becomes brighter during the exposure; the user can see in real-time how the light is being recorded, so the exposure can be stopped when the image reaches the required brightness.
This takes all the guesswork out of long-exposure work and saves time-wasting experiments. Live Bulb works while the shutter button is being held down, Live Time works between two presses of the shutter button and Live Composite records the build-up ofmultiple exposures. Olympus is unique too in being able to create low-light situations to shoot in – or at least the impression of low light.
Using Live ND mode the camera can create the effect of shooting through an ND filter of up to 5 stops using a multiple exposure technique, so we can get movement in the clouds and running water even in bright conditions.
At a glance
- F/1.7-2.8 24-75mm lens
- Micro Four Thirds sensor
- Stabilised lens
- Max ISO 25,600
Compact cameras are not usually ideal for low-light work, but at the same time they are very often the only camera we have with us in low-light situations on social occasions. A trip out to dinner, to the theatre or out for an evening stroll are rarely chances to take our full kit, so finding a compact that can handle low light can be important if we want to maintain decent image quality. The Lumix LX100 II makes itself ideal as a carry-around low-light camera with its combination of a fast zoom lens, a larger-than-average image sensor, image stabilisation and a good maximum ISO setting of 25,600.
As this is the same sensor as used in the Lumix GX9 interchangeable lens camera, we get big-camera performance in a small body – and very usable images from ISO 6400. While the sensor has 20 million pixels the whole sensor isn’t used at the same time, so the best resolution comes in 4:3 aspect ratio with 17MP, but the sensor and pixels are still very much bigger than those found in cameras that use 1in sensors.
Regular shutter speeds can be set for as long as 60 seconds, but a Time mode allows the shutter to be held open for up to 30 minutes, and Low Light and Star Light AF modes mean the camera can focus in the lowest illumination levels.
Star turn: Fast lens
There are compact zoom cameras with physically larger sensors than the 20MP Micro Four Thirds sensor in the Lumix LX100 ll, but few with an image- stabilised lens that offers a maximum aperture of f/1.7. In this model the lens gives us the views we’d expect from a 24-75mm lens on a full-frame camera, and even with a variable maximum aperture we can open up to f/2.8 at the longest end of the zoom.
With these wide apertures we can handhold the camera much more often; it also means we can avoid the high ISO settings too. Panasonic doesn’t tell us how much stabilisation the OIS system in this lens offers us, but we can assume it is at least three stops, so again the camera can be handheld in dim conditions more often than it could without that in-lens system. All good, but not so good if the lens is a let-down. Fortunately, this lens offers exceptional sharpness and contrast, and performs extremely well at f/1.7 and f/2.8.
At a glance:
- From £4,675
- f/1.7 28mm lens
- 47MP full-frame sensor
- Stabilised lens
- Max ISO 50,000
It is an unfortunate truth that many good things cost a lot of money, and sometimes so much money we just have to content ourselves with standing back to admire them rather than actually owning them. One of those things is the Leica Q2 – well, all Leica cameras come into this bracket actually. The Q2 however is an excellent choice for low-light workers because it offers a number of attractive features.
The most obviously attractive feature is that it uses a full-frame sensor and that the sensor houses over 47 million pixels. The general rule is that more densely packed sensors don’t have the noise performance of those with fewer and bigger pixels, but the Q2 is still able to offer a maximum ISO setting of 50,000 – and very good noise performance all the way up to 6400.
With so many pixels of course we don’t always need to use the images at full size, and smaller prints will offer even better noise appearance. For tripod work the Q2 offers a longest shutter speed of 60 seconds with the mechanical shutter, which will be enough for most urban night scenes and which allows low ISO and small-aperture shooting. Even in moderate lighting conditions a tripod might be a good idea as using the middle apertures offers the best from the lens, but also the base ISO setting provides exceptional dynamic range.
And although this is a relatively small camera it is also solidly built and consequently quite heavy. At 734g the body provides the ballast needed to help users to keep it still during handheld work.
Star turn: F1.7 aperture lens
As this is a compact camera, and Leica has tried to keep it relatively small, squeezing in a lens with an aperture as wide as this is quite an achievement. The lens is also very sharp, and while resolution does decrease as the aperture is stopped down, the maximum f/1.7 is more than usable. There are three aspherical elements in this lens to ensure it is sharp edge-to-edge as well as when it is used at anything other than the middle aperture settings. Shooting wide open offers more than enough sharpness, as well as the chance to avoid the highest ISO settings.
This lens also features an optical image-stabilisation system that helps to minimise camera shake in long exposures so we can use the camera handheld in a wider range of situations. As the lens is a 28mm wideangle, it makes it easier to hold without the effects of camera shake showing as much as they would if you were using a longer focal length.