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17 Best Cameras For Digital Low-Light Photography: Tested and Compared!

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Mason Resnick is the editor of the Adorama Learning Center and a lifetime photography enthusiast.

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17 Best Cameras For Digital Low-Light Photography: Tested and Compared!

You won't believe which digital camera is the new King of Darkness! Updated for Summer 2014

Boosting your ISO is an effective way to capture images in low light—and many digital cameras are getting better at handling low light photography. Here are 17 top low-light high-ISO cameras.


Based on independent DxOMark lab test results, when looking at overall image quality when shooting at high ISOs, the recently introduced, retro-designed Nikon Df is currently the best of all cameras, no matter what format, for shooting in low light and delivering noise-free images at higher ISOs.

A new generation of digital cameras, available from Adorama and powered by the latest advances in imaging sensor technology and more sophisticated software, have made it possible to shoot nearly flawless photos in low light. Even though more and more photographers are embracing the blow-em-out-of-the-water multiple-flash “strobist” approach, the tools are here now if you wish to eschew artificial light.

Who Benefits Most From Using Top High ISO Cameras?

  • Wildlife photographers using long lenses;
  • Sports photographers shooting indoors in poorly lit arenas;
  • Candid photographers who need to shoot unonbtrusively;
  • News photographers who need to handle a wide variety of light.


Note: The cameras that top this list may not necessarily be the best cameras for your needs. Ergonomics, weight, creative features, lens set and other intangibles may have greater influence on your next camera buying decision. But if your goal is to get the camera that will perform best in low light—and will also provide killer quality in ideal shooting conditions—you've come to the right place.

 

How are the top cameras determined? I explain the process in detail at the end of this article, but if you want to find out about the top high ISO low light cameras, let's get right to it!


The Winners Are...

So, which cameras did the best? I’ve divided the camera world by sensor size: Full Frame 35mm, APS, Four Thirds, and Small (i.e., pocket cameras, EVFs etc.) I’ll present the top three (or more, if there are ties) currently available cameras in each category. (The most recent medium format camera was introduced in 2011 and sensor technology has changed since then; full-frame 35mm cameras exceeed medium format in high ISO performance, so I'm leaving that category out), Of course, there are other factors besides overall image quality that must come into play when deciding on a camera. But if your focus is getting the best possible shots in low light, these cameras are all winners. Prices and information accurate as of July 17, 2014; all products available for immediate shipment or pre-order as of date of posting:


Full Frame 35mm

 

Sony A7s: The New King of Darkness
Adorama price: $2,498  
Summary: With an overall low-light ISO rating of 3702, the Sony A7s edges out the Nikon Df as the new low-light champ.
Tech details: The second generation of Sony's critically acclaimed A7 series, the A7s is also the smallest and lightest camera in its ISO performance class thanks to its mirrorless design and high-resolution electric viewfinder which comes in handy when shooting in low light. It sports a new 12MP sensor with an ISO range of 100-102,400, expandable to 50-409,600), and delivers 4K ultra high-definition video as well (via a pricey external recorder.) Signal to noise ratio drops from 45dB at ISO 100 to 31.4dB at ISO 3200—clean images throughout. It dips slightly below 30 at ISO 6400 but can still produce good quality images at that setting. Although it scores a bit worse overall than its predecessor the A7R (87 vs. 95) that is mainly in the color depth and portrait areas. If you are going to do low-light shooting, the A7s has the clear edge.

Nikon Df

Summary: Second-highest "Clean" ISO Of All Digital Cameras
Tech Details: When the retro-styled Nikon Df was introduced last year, critics mused that it was more about form than function. Not so: Based on DxOMark's independent test results, it turns out that the Df delivered the best image quality at the highest ISO of any digital camera currently on the market—ISO 3279 when it was released, and it still delivers the best image quality of any 35mm-sensor DSLR. It has a signal to noise ratio that starts at 44.6 dB and remains over 30 dB right through ISO 3200. In other words, at normal viewing distances, images will not have any visible graininess at ISO 3200. The Df's dynamic range at ISO 100 (13.1 stops) is very good but not top of class, and its 24.6 bit color depth is about 1 bit shy of the leaders. But for sports and wildlife, where long focal lengths, limited apertures and lower light come into play, this is the camera to get.


 
Honorable mention: At an overall score of 94 points, the 24MP Nikon D610 is also in the upper echelons of DSLR image quality and a good value. With a signal-noise ratio that starts at 45.4dB at ISO 100, the D610 delivers very high quality images (above 30dB) at ISO 3200. Dynamic range starts at over 14 stops at ISO 100 and remains above 10 stops through ISO 3200. And all this in a camera that is selling at Adorama for just under $1,699, within reach of pro shooters and many serious amateurs.

Rising star: Nikon claims the Nikon D810, the $3,296.95 successor to the D800 and D800E, will deliver "clean" images through its entire native ISO range up to ISO 12,800. We eagerly await the results as DxOMark puts it through its paces.


APS Sensor Cameras

 

 

Nikon D3300
Adorama price: $596.95 with kit lens
Summary: As proof that price doesn't necessarily guarantee the best low-light performance of a digital camera, the least expensive camera in the Nikon APS DSLR line has, surprisingly, turned in the best performance when measuring for low-light high-ISO image quality.
Tech Details: The Nikon D3300 edges out its nearest, more expensive  (by $100) competitor with a low-light high ISO rating of 1385. Signal to noise ratios starts at a noise-free 42.2 dB at ISO 100, and stays above 30db through ISO 1600. While color sensitivity and dynamic range ratings fall slightly short of some other cameras, if you are looking for a low-light monster, the D3300 gives you the best bang for the buck.

Sony A6000 
Adorama price: $648
Summary: The highest-rated APS-sensor MILC, the Sony A6000 has eye-level viewing, is half-the weight of a DSLR, and has a blazingly fast 11fps burst rate.
Tech Details: It may come in a close second when strictly measuring image quality, but the Sony A6000 offers greater resolution (24.3MP), fast performance thanks to a fast 179-point phase detection AF sensor, and an ISO range of 100-25,600. In the lab it got a low-light high-ISO rating of ISO 1347. Signal-noise ratio is just under 42 at ISO 100, and stays above 30 through ISO 1600. Dynamic range is about 13 stops at ISO 100 while color sensitivity tops out at over 24 bits, an excellent result. While it's not a DSLR, the A6000 has a high-resolution electronic viewfinder can show the live view more clearly than an optical finder when shooting in low light, which is an advantage.

Nikon D5300 
Adorama price: $746.95 (body only)
Summary: Edged out by the Nikon 3300 and Sony A6000, the Nikon D5300 is the former category leader and still impressive.
Tech Details: The Nikon D5300 offers Low-Light ISO score of 1338, with an increased ISO range of 100-6400, pushable to ISO 51,200. The two cameras are tied for overall image quality with an 83 score. However, the D5300 consistently does better with signal-to-noise ratio at all ISO settings, and stays comfortably above 30dB through ISO 1600. At ISO 1600, image quality will be a tad better than its competitors but between these three cameras, it's almost a three-way tie.


 

Honorable mention: Surprisingly, the first runner up is a pocket-sized APS compact, the Nikon Coolpix A ($1,096.95). With an overall score of 80, it has an impressive low-light ISO rating of 1164, fourth best in the entire APS category—as well as 12.4-bit color depth and a superb 13.8-stop dynamic range. Yes, it can play with the big boys. While we have no test data yet for the Fujifilm X-Pro 1 ($1,078), our field tests showed results that are, at the very least, comparable to the Sony NEX-7. DxO is currently working on a method to test the X-Pro 1's sensor, which is can't be tested using DxO's current methods due to its unique semi-randomized pixel array. As soon as they get that ironed out I believe we will see the X-Pro 1 deliver measurable lab results that will be at or near the top of the charts for this sensor category.


Four Thirds Sensor Cameras

 

Olympus Pen E-P5 
Adorama price: $799 (body only)
Summary: Best of breed for high-ISO image quality.
Tech details: The big news with the E-P5 is not necessarily its ISO performance, which is one of the tops in its class, but rather a new stabilized platform that helps reduce blur on five axes, adding a few more stops of usable images in low light. The three cameras that deliver the highest image quality at higher ISOs in low light are all made by Olympus and share the same 16MP sensor; differences are minor. However, the E-P5 wears the crown because its Low-Light ISO 895 rating edges out the E-PL5, although in all other areas the two cameras are in a dead heat. One caveat with all the Olympus models is that the measured ISO tends to be nearly 1 stop lower than the manufacturer's specs, so ISO 400 is really closer to ISO 200. That said, the E-P5's signal to noise ratio stays above 30 at the measured ISO of 802. At the native ISO 100, the EV range tops out at 12.4 and stays above 10 stops through ISO 800.


Olympus Pen E-PL5 
Adorama Price: $599.00
Summary: Almost identical image quality, but lower price
Tech Details: The Olympus E-PL5 offers similar image quality to the E-P5, but at a much lower price tag. As with the other cameras in this listing, the E-PL5 has a listed ISO range of 100-12800, and will deliver good quality through ISO 800.


Olympus OM-D E-M10
Adorama Price: $699 Body Only
Summary: Olympus competes a sweep of the Micro Four Thirds category.
Tech details: The EM-10, which offers the same outstanding sensor as the other two winners, but with an improved autofocsing system and of course, a see-in-the-dark EVF. Test results, as expected, are identical to those of the E-PL5.


Honorable mention:  While the Panasonic GH4 ($1,697.99 body only) edges out the Olympus E-M10 with its overall image quality score (74 vs. 72), its maximum low light high-ISO measurement was ISO 791, which falls slightly short. That's still very respectable, with a 39.4dB at ISO 100 and just slightly shy of 30dB at ISO 1600. A touch of noise suppression should take care of that. As the only Micro Four Thirds camera with 4K video recording capability, it's a serious camera that's worth considering.

Small Sensor

 

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 III
Adorama price: $798
Summary: Delivers outstanding image quality near ISO 500, nearly 1/3 stop better than nearest competitor.
Tech details: Despite its high pixel density of 20MP, the Sony DSC-RX100 III has a convincing overall score of 67, and delivered clean image quality through ISO 495. With noise reduction, this camera can easily deliver great images through at least ISO 800. Dynamic range starts at about 12.3 stops—best in its class—and stays above 10 stops through ISO 800. The only caveat:  The Sony RX100's actual ISO range is about half a stop lower than the claimed 80-6400 except at ISO 80 and 100, where it is accurate. Combine this with its built-in zoom lens that opens to f/1.8 at 28mm and you get an impressive pocket-sized low-light camera.


Sony RX10
Adorama price: $998
Summary: Almost the RX100's equal when the light is low.
Tech Details: Following close behind the RX100 is the RX10, a larger superzoom 20x lens camera with a built-in electronic viewfinder. With a Low Light ISO rating of 474 it's just a tad slower, while its overall image quality rating, 69, is best for a smaller-sensor camera. In all other areas, it's just shy of a statistical tie with the RX100III.

Nikon 1 AW1
Adorama price: $746.95 with kit lens
Summary: Decent low-light performance at ISO 400, and ready for a swim.
Tech Details: There's a bit of daylight between the Sony and the Nikon AW1 when it comes to image quality—made up for by the fact that the AW1 is the only interchangeable lens that works underwater as well as on dry land. You can shoot up to ISO 400 (Low Light ISO rating: 428). Overall score of 51 for image quality is pretty good, and with 20.2 bit color depth and 10.9 stop dynamic range it is fine if not exceptional.


Honorable mentions: The Nikon 1 J4 ($596.95 with 10-30mm kit lens) turned in similar image quality results to the AW1, but we're giving the AW1 higher marks because it's not only the best-performing small-sensor low light underwater camera. It is, in fact, the only one.

 


How we determine High ISO Low Light rankings

Our rankings are based on our own careful analysis of lab test results provided by DxOMark, an independent testing facility that is considered a trusted industry standard that has built a reputation for measuring and rating cameras and lenses using rigorous hardware testing procedures and industry-grade laboratory tools. Because of our expertise in analizing their results for guides and articles such as this one, Adorama Learning Center is a DxOMark editorial partner and has permission to republish and interpret DxOMark data. DxOLab data is available to anyone and you are free to browse their site.

DxOMark analyzes  sensor information based on RAW image data. To determine each camera's best ISO low light image quality, DxOMark tested each camera's signal-to-noise ratio (which indicates how much digital noise will be produced), expressed as dB, and charted performance at each ISO setting.

measured iso

 

DxOMark’s goal was to determine the highest ISO at which a signal-to-noise ratio of no more than 32dB could be attained. At the same time, they looked for a dynamic range of at least 9EVs (or 9 stops). Lower than 32dB indicates an unacceptable level of noise (decibels), while less than 9EVs means the dynamic range is too limited and gradations between shades and colors will not be smooth. Note that the Low Light ISO number might not fit squarely within any given camera's actual ISO settings. The nearest ISO setting is the highest one at which acceptable signal-to-noise ratio will be achieved.

Some rules of physics remain true: The key one is that the larger the camera’s sensor, the less digital noise. It is also still true that more pixels on the same sized sensor will lead to greater image degradation at higher ISOs, while fewer pixels will, counter-intuitively, lead to improved overall image quality.

Not all sensors are made the same

 

That said, not all 18MP APS sensors (for example) will produce identical results, even under lab conditions. Variables in manufacture, sensor type (CCD or CMOS) and method of conversion of the signal from analog to digital can all affect image quality. Backside-illuminated sensors are proving, both in the lab and in the field that they can deliver better low-light images. That’s why DxOMark’s tests are such a valuable tool in helping to determine which cameras perform best in low light, which have the widest dynamic range, and so forth.



sensor scoresHow we determine rankings

Using DxOMark’s data as a starting point, I looked at each currently-available camera’s low-light ISO (Sports) overall sensor scores (see chart, right), the camera’s overall score (which includes dynamic range, color depth, ISO accuracy and other criteria) and the camera’s SNR (signal-noise ratio) 18% chart to determine the highest ISO at which each camera could deliver acceptable images. This chart tells me the camera can produce good pictures at up to ISO 2290, but since the camera doesn't offer an ISO 2290, we go to the nearest ISO—3200—because according to that camera's ISO accuracy chart, the camera's ISO 3200 setting was measured to be ISO 2290! I took these issues into account when determining which cameras did best.

All DxOMark lab test data courtesy DxOMark.com. Used with permission.

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