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Best cameras for low light photography

Fujifilm X-T30 is one of our favorite cameras for low light photography
(Image credit: Fujifilm)

Low light shooting is notoriously difficult. After all, cameras are designed to capture light and record it, so if there’s less light, it’s harder for the camera to do its job. There are a few things you should look for when considering whether or not to purchase one of the best cameras for low light shooting. 

The first is its ability to ramp up light sensitivity, outlined in its ISO range. The higher the ISO sensitivity can go, the better the camera will be at capturing well exposed images in dark scenes. However, higher ISOs also bring more image noise which distorts the photograph or video. Therefore, a larger image sensor (preferably with slightly fewer megapixels) is preferred as it physically takes up more space and can capture more light.

Raw file shooting is also important since these picture and video files contain much more data in which to edit later on in post-processing software, meaning exposure can be enhanced and image noise can be eradicated.

Autofocusing is useful for maintaining sharpness on a subject, but when things go dark autofocus systems in cameras can struggle. That’s why taking a look at the lowest exposure value (EV) range is important, as the lower the number, the better it will be at autofocusing in low light. It's what we look for in our best cameras for astrophotography too.

Other features include in-body image stabilization which can steady stills photos and keep longer handheld exposures sharp without the need for a tripod, or smooth out shaky video footage. In addition to this, finding a camera with a fast lens, (or an interchangeable lens system that offers wide aperture lenses) is helpful to maximize light input through to the image sensor. If you need lens advice, we have guides to the best lenses for astro, and the best zoom lenses too.

Size, weight, compatibility, and ergonomics play a big role in the choice you make to get your favorite low light shooting companion, and we know price does too. So we’ve been sure to include a wide range of cameras so there’s something for you, no matter your skill level or budget.

Best for low light photography overall

Nikon Z6 II

(Image credit: Nikon)
A great low light autofocus and exposure metering system in a premium mirrorless body

Specifications

Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 24.5
Lens mount: Nikon Z
ISO Range: 100-51,200 (expandable 50-204,800)
Stabilization: 5-axis sensor-shift

Reasons to buy

+
5 stops of image stabilization in-body 
+
Great range of Z-mount lenses perfect for low light 
+
Good value for money, especially for enthusiasts 

Reasons to avoid

-
ISO range isn’t the widest in its class 

Part of the issue when shooting in low light is the ability to use autofocus, which hunts and struggles when there’s less light. Fortunately, the Z6 II (and original Z6) has one of the best autofocus and exposure metering systems of any camera and can autofocus in the dark down to -6EV.

Due to this, the camera can take advantage of its eye-detection autofocus and animal-detection autofocus which automatically tracks focus on subjects without any correction from the photographer. That makes it easier to get sharp portraits and pets even when indoors or outside during twilight hours.

Its ISO handling is also impressive, with minimal image noise in stills photos. That’s all thanks to using the same image sensor as its more expensive pro model the Z7 II but a drop in resolution which can help alleviate noise. While not quite the highest ISO range in its class it’s more than capable for any kind of low light shooting thrown at it as it reaches 51,200 natively or expands up to 204,800. 

Keeping shots steady in low light is tricky because longer shutter speeds must be used to gain valuable light input for images and video, but the Z6 II’s 5-axis in-body image stabilization provides up to five stops of stabilization. This also applies to older F-mount lenses originally designed for Nikon's DSLR camera bodies, and endows lenses that don’t have stabilization with up to 3-axis stabilization for steadier shots when used with the FTZ lens mount adapter.

Best for low light video recording

Sony a7S III

(Image credit: Sony)
Best for low light video recording for filmmakers and online content creators

Specifications

Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 12.1
Lens mount: Sony E
ISO Range: 80-102,400 (expandable 40-409,600)
Stabilization: 5-axis sensor-shift

Reasons to buy

+
High-end video resolution and performance 
+
Best ISO handling in its class 

Reasons to avoid

-
Low resolution stills compared to others 
-
Relatively expensive if not into video

Released in September 2020, the Sony a7S III is an astoundingly great mirrorless camera and perfect for low light shooting. Its main aim is to please the videographers and filmmakers who want a powerful, compact mirrorless camera that records 4K video at 120fps for ultra-slow motion. Not only that but it keeps up with professional video workflows with a 16-bit RAW HDMI output while it records simultaneously in-camera.

It captures 12.1MP stills photographs that are incredibly low compared to the latest mirrorless cameras, but it doesn’t pretend to be a stills-oriented camera either. Though it does include 5-axis in-body image stabilization that steadies frames up to a fantastic 5.5 stops for sharper handheld low light photos and smoother video recording.

The maximum expandable ISO range of 40-409,600 is, quite frankly, astounding. This makes it perfect for low light shooting as users can ramp up the ISO sensitivity, making the most of the light available without having to alter their aperture or shutter speed too much to compensate. Combine this with the a7S III’s hybrid autofocusing system that can operate as low as -6EV and you have a recipe for steady, sharp shots no matter how dark it gets.

Raw images and video can be pushed even further in post-production thanks to the camera’s wide 15-stop dynamic range thereby capturing more detail and data in scenes with extreme contrasts in brightness, for example, a dimly lit portrait on the street next to bright street lights.

Best for beginners and enthusiasts on a budget

Fujifilm X-T30

(Image credit: Fujifilm)

Fujifilm X-T30

A feature-rich mirrorless in a small body makes this ideal for beginners or travel photographers

Specifications

Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 26.1
Lens mount: X-mount
ISO Range: 200-12,800 (expandable 100-51,200)
Stabilization: None

Reasons to buy

+
Compact design makes for easy portability 
+
Great budget-friendly crop-sensor option 

Reasons to avoid

-
No in-body image stabilization 
-
Not full frame image sensor 

As APS-C cameras of this class go, Fujifilm's X-T30 can’t quite compete with the big hitters of full frame, but it’s great value for money and would suit beginners and enthusiasts well. A maximum ISO of 12,800 expands to 51,200 when pushed to keep dark scenes well exposed. The X-T30 user will also have access to the superb X-mount lens range which includes some stunning lenses with wide apertures and sharp optical quality. Take a look at the XF 50mm f/1.0 lens if you really want to let more light into the camera and make the most of every photon in a low light situation.

Its autofocus coverage is almost 100% of the frame which helps nail focus on any part of the scene. The blackout-free continuous burst shooting also offers up to 30FPS stills shooting using the electronic shutter (or 8FPS with the mechanical shutter) so that you have plenty of options to choose from when shooting in low light, able to discard blurry images and keep the best.

Despite being packed into a tiny body that weighs just 383g it shoots large 26.1MP stills and 4K30p video so it can keep up with content creators who want to make creative work for YouTube, Twitch, and other video sharing sites.

Best DSLR for low light

Nikon D850

(Image credit: Nikon)
Possibly the best DSLR for low light photography and videography with features that can match or outcompete contemporary mirrorless models

Specifications

Type: DSLR
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 45.7
Lens mount: Nikon F
ISO Range: 64-25,600 (expandable 32-102,400)
Stabilization: None

Reasons to buy

+
Huge stills resolution with excellent cropping options 
+
Outstanding ISO range for a DSLR 

Reasons to avoid

-
DSLRs are being phased out 
-
Not as good at low light focusing as its mirrorless counterpart 

A camera favored by professionals, the D850 is a real workhorse and is built to last in a variety of environments because it’s fully weather sealed and made from a magnesium alloy which means it’s lightweight but durable. Equally useful in the hands of an enthusiast it has a great ISO range considering its age, and expands up to 102,400. The full frame BSI CMOS sensor handles ISO noise well thanks to the processing ability of the EXPEED 5 image processor 

Sadly, because it’s a DSLR there’s no in-body image stabilization but F-mount lenses can offer up to 4.5 stops of stabilization (which Nikon calls Vibration Reduction) to steady shots in low light. Choose from a series of stills when shooting in continuous burst mode that captures up to 9FPS, which may not sound like much but when you consider each image is 45.7MP that’s a serious amount of data capture. It keeps up with the competition in terms of video too by offering 4K30p video recording with zebra stripes that help identify areas of potential exposure issues.

It’s also well equipped for low light video as it autofocuses down to -4EV with an Multi-CAM 20K autofocus sensor module that has TTL phase detection and 153 focus points to choose from. On the body there’s a hot shoe and PC sync connection for linking up with on and off-camera lighting when low light scenes need a little extra splash of fill light. Face-priority autofocus enables easier autofocusing on portrait subjects, without the need to switch to manual.

Best compact camera for low light

Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III

(Image credit: Canon)

Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III

If you want to keep it simple and small, this is a great pick

Specifications

Type: Compact
Sensor: APS-C
Megapixels: 24.2
Lens mount: N/A
ISO Range: 100-25,600
Stabilization: Four stops

Reasons to buy

+
In-body stabilization 
+
Raw file shooting  

Reasons to avoid

-
Fixed lens design 
-
A little costly for a point-and-shoot  

Generally, compact cameras, that is - cameras with fixed lenses, aren’t all that good for low light photography because their image sensors are small and can’t handle image noise very well. But Canon have stepped over this issue by issuing the PowerShot G1 X Mark III with a DSLR-like APS-C image sensor with 24.2MP.

It can also shoot raw files which makes it easier to remove image noise, enhance exposure, and style images in editing software. Where it doesn’t quite keep up with modern DSLRs though, is that it only shoots full HD 1080 60p video. However, when you consider that this camera is aimed at beginners hoping for more manual options to expand their skill set, this is more than enough to start creating video content if required. When shooting movies the 5-axis Advanced Dynamic IS keeps things smooth for professional-looking movie quality.

The all-in-one design centers on the fixed lens, which zooms from a wide 15mm to 45mm in focal length for 3x optical zoom. Its electronic viewfinder helps photographers and video shooters alike to see in the dark, able to ramp up perceived brightness of low light scenes. When shooting in low light and at longer handheld exposure times, the camera benefits from four stops of image stabilization to steady the scene and maintain sharp photos. Fast and reliable focusing comes from the Dual Pixel CMOS AF and continuous shooting of 7FPS means you should have plenty of opportunities to choose from.

A great all-rounder

Panasonic Lumix S5

(Image credit: Panasonic)

Panasonic Lumix S5

The perfect all-rounder captures stills and movies equally well

Specifications

Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: Full frame
Megapixels: 24.2
Lens mount: L-Mount
ISO Range: 100-51,200
Stabilization: 5-axis

Reasons to buy

+
 Hybrid image stabilization 
+
 Articulating rear touchscreen
+
 High resolution mode  

Reasons to avoid

-
 Autofocus isn’t as good as some 
-

Great things come in small packages, and that’s certainly Panasonic’s thinking with the Lumix S5. A wide ISO sensitivity range topping out at 51,200 will expose even the darkest nights. A sophisticated image stabilization system built into the camera also combines with stabilization of any lens that has IS built-in to produce smoother results. In movie mode some IS options disappear but E-Stabilization or digital boost IS can be switched on. E-stabilization works by cropping in slightly on the picture within the sensor and electronically (digitally) moving it around to add further smoothness to shots. Boost IS works in a similar way but is much more extreme and is used to emulate a tripod shot where the camera is still while shooting handheld.

Photographers that also want to capture high resolution video footage will be pleased with the 4K 60p video capture, offering enough detail to match any competitor model out there except all but the very latest and highest end cameras.

The Lumix S5 is a great all-rounder camera doing everything from stills to videos well. The electronic viewfinder offers a good view of the scene with 2.36 million dots on the OLED display and runs at speeds of up to 120FPS with 0.005 sec of lag. Autofocus boasts 225-area points and comes with automatic face, eye, body, and animal detection down to -6EV.

Budget-friendly pick

Panasonic LX100 II

(Image credit: Panasonic)

Panasonic LX100 II

A premium compact camera

Specifications

Type: Compact
Sensor: Micro four-thirds
Megapixels: 17
Lens mount: N/A
ISO Range: 200 - 25,600 (expandable 100 - 51,200)
Stabilization: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Post focus refocusing feature 
+
Compact body with large MFT sensor 

Reasons to avoid

-
Competitors beat these specs 
-
Fixed lens means restricted use 

Billed as a premium compact camera it houses a large micro four thirds image sensor to capture 17MP stills and 4K 30p videos, which, when paired with the fast f/1.7-2.8 24-75mm Leica DC Vario-Summilux lens makes it a great camera for low light shooting.

The micro four thirds sensor takes a real step up in low light ability compared with a standard compact camera’s 1-inch sensor, capturing more detail and light to render decent exposures. The wide aperture range of the lens lets the camera drink in as much light as possible to keep shutter speeds shorter and therefore allow darker low light handheld shooting. 

There’s plenty of creative control over imaging on this compact camera, with controls on the top of the camera reminiscent of an SLR or rangefinder camera with separate dials for shutter speed and exposure compensation. 

The LX100 II has another unique feature up its sleeve in the form of post focus. Post focus allows photographers to choose the focus point (within reason) in a photo after the image has been taken. That’s crucial for low light photography where autofocus notoriously struggles with nailing focus, and even manual focusing isn’t ideal since it’s hard to see the subject. It means that even if the focus point is missed the photographer can move it after the fact and perfect photos without missing the moment.

Best micro four thirds shooter

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV

(Image credit: Olympus)

Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV

An excellent MFT camera that captures gorgeously detailed stills

Specifications

Type: Mirrorless
Sensor: Micro four thirds
Megapixels: 20.3
Lens mount: Micro four thirds
ISO Range: 80 - 25,600
Stabilization: 5-axis

Reasons to buy

+
Incredible stills resolution for MFT sensor 
+
Lightweight and portable 
+
Comprehensive 5-axis IBIS 

Reasons to avoid

-
Plastic construction feels a little cheap 

The latest in this series of mirrorless MFT cameras, Olympus have pushed their technology seemingly to the limits by boosting the image sensor detail, whilst retaining an interchangeable lens system which favors beginners and enthusiasts that want the option to expand their kit when needed.

The in-body image stabilization is truly superb which works across the 5-axis range to provide an equivalent of 4.5 stops of optical stabilization, which is impressive when you consider its price point. A fast 8.7FPS burst speed is more than capable of capturing action as it unfolds, giving low light shooters who are sometimes disappointed with single shot mode shooting due to camera shake blur, plenty of extra chances to nail the shot. 

The electronic viewfinder is big and bright with 2.36 million dots for a detailed display, and the rear screen is a tiltable 3-inch touchscreen that allows for more awkward shooting angles without the photographer having to lay down or climb up to see the composition. It even flips down 180 degrees for selfie shooting.

Being an inexpensive MFT camera does have its limits though, and the autofocus detection range is where it suffers compared to the much more expensive mirrorless models on this list, managing only -2EV autofocus range, but the ISO range is still impressive topping out at 25,600.

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Jason Parnell-Brookes is an Internationally award-winning photographer, educator and writer. He won Gold in the Nikon Photo Contest 2018/19 and was named Digital Photographer of the Year in 2014. Jason is a qualified teacher, Masters graduate and works with many high profile international clients.