If strobism is not your thing, there's good news. 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 21 top low-light high-ISO cameras.
A new generation of cameras, available from Adorama and powered by the latest advances in imaging sensor technology as well as by 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 completely eschew artificial light and still get great shots.
The great news is that high-performing low-light cameras need not cost thousands. In fact, according to sensor tests performed by DxOMark, some of the least expensive DSLRs on the market today are producing some of the best high ISO low light photos.
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.
There's another rule that also remains true: 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 by the way, will also provide killer photos in ideal shooting conditions—you've come to the right place to learn the state of the art in current digital camera sensors.
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.
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.
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.
How 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.
So, which cameras did the best? I’ve divided the camera world by sensor size: Medium Format, 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. 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 November 8, 2012; all products available for immediate shipment or pre-order as of date of posting:
Pentax 645D 41 Megapixels
Adorama price: $6,996.95
Summary: Big camera, stunning images. Studio shooters, take note.
Tech Details: Among cameras sitting in the nosebleed section (price-wise) of digital camera-dom, the 41MP CCD-sensor-packing Pentax 645D offers amazing bang for your nearly $9K medium format camera buck. A 43.9dB Signal Noise ratio is impressive and the camera never dips below 30 dB, even at ISO 1600. We can recommend this camera for outstanding image quality at all ISOs. Color depth and dynamic range are near the top of their competition as well. While the Mamiya 645DF, Hasselblad H4D and Leica S2 rock, this model is tops in the low-light segment, and for overall image quality among larger sensor cameras. Oddly enough, though, it is not the king of all sensors. That honor belongs to a 35mm sensor DSLR...
Full Frame 35mm
Nikon D800/Nikon D800E
Adorama prices: $2,796.95/$3,296.95
Summary: D800E is the image quality king of all digital cameras; D800 is the queen.
Tech Details: The 36MP Nikon D800E edges out the D800, 96 to 95 in overall sensor scores to claim the title of best overall sensor of all cameras, but it’s really a statistical tie. These two cameras will deliver virtually noise-free (over 30dB) images at as high as ISO 3200! At ISO 100, signal to noise ratio is 46 on the D800E, 45 on the D800. Both numbers tower above all other cameras. Dynamic range exceeds 14 stops at the native ISO of 100, and stays above 10 stops through ISO 1600, also an amazing result.
Adorama price: $1,996.95
Summary: Almost the best, for a grand less. At ISO 3200, it delivers!
Tech Details: At an overall score of 94 points, the 24MP Nikon D600 is also in the upper echelons of DSLR image quality. With a signal-noise ratio that starts at 45.4dB at ISO 100, the D600 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, a stat that is even better than the D800/E. And all this in a camera that is selling at Adorama for just under $2,100, within reach of pro shooters and many serious amateurs. Bang for the buck, this camera’s a winner.
Adorama price: $5,996.95
Summary: Built mostly for speed, but outstanding image quality at ISO 3200 is a welcome bonus.
Tech Details: One of the fastest cameras on the market and built for serious sports and action photography, the pro-oriented, 16MP Nikon D4 completes a Nikon sweep of DxOMark’s 35mm sensor image quality ratings. At an overall sensor score of 89 points, there is a bit of daylight between the D4 and its closest rival, the D600, and pros pay the premium price for its superior build and many other features unrelated to image quality. That said, its performance nearly equals that of the previous cameras, with Signal-noise ratio starting at 45.4dB at ISO 100, and staying above 30dB through ISO 3200. What makes this camera unique is that it boasts an ISO range that tops out at ISO 102,400. No, you won’t get a great shot at this speed, but you’ll get an image in light where it would be completely black with most other cameras. Dynamic range starts at around 13 stops, and stays above 10 stops through ISO 3200 before dropping off at higher speeds.
Runners-up: The 18MP Canon EOS 1Dx (Adorama price, $6,799) and 24MP Canon EOS 5D Mark III (Adorama price, $3,499) each scored an overall 82 on image quality, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Both cameras produced nearly identical signal-noise results, and the are very encouraging. Both started at ISO 100 with a signal-noise ratio of 44dB, and both retained at least a 30dB measurement at ISO 3200. The big difference is Dynamic range, where they both start at just under 12 stops; they stay in the 11-12-stop range through ISO 1600 but then drop. The D1x’s ISO range rivals the Nikon D4, topping out at ISO 102,400, while the 5D Mark III stops just one stop shy, at ISO 51,200. While they fall short of the standard set by Nikon on dynamic range, their image quality is comparable in just about all other categories and certainly when it comes to high-ISO performance. We eagerly await DxOMark’s test results for the recently announced, $1,999, 20MP Canon EOS 6D.
APS Sensor Cameras
Adorama Price: $696.95 (body only)
Summary: The top APS camera for low-light image quality is Nikon's mid-range model. It's low price indicates great bang for the buck.
Tech Details: The Nikon D5200 is in a virtual dead heat with its flagship APS sibling, the Nikon D7100. Both cameras have identical sensors, with an ISO range of 100-6400, pushable to ISO 25,600. The high pixel density 24MP DX sensor delivers an overall DxOMark sensor rating of 84, with a color depth of 24.2 bits and a dynamic range of 13.9 EV. Measured ISO sensitivity is consistently 1/3 stop slower than indicated. Signal to noise ratio stayed above 30dB through ISO 1600, so that's the highest recommended setting for acceptable noise levels. Dynamic range also stays above 10 stops through ISO 3200, which is impressive, and color sensitivity stays at acceptable bit rates through ISO 800.
Adorama Price: $1,196.95 (body only)
Summary: With almost identical test results as the D5200, the Nikon D7100 adds a bevvy of high-end features.
Tech Details: Statistically, the 1-point rating difference between the Nikon D7100 and the D5200 is negligible, but this camera's higher-end features and durability make it a great choice for more advanced shooters.
Pentax K5 II/Pentax K5 IIs
Adorama Price: $996.95/$1095.95
Summary: Rugged and high-quality low light performance make this a choice for tough shooting.
Tech Details: The Pentax K5 II/IIs's predecessor, shares the same outstanding sensor as the later model and got the same rating of 82—no longer quite enough to be the leader of the pack thanks to the two Nikons' test results, which edged it out, but nonetheless a can't-lose proposition. With an ISO that reaches 51,200, both the K5II and IIs have a signal to noise ratio that starts at about 42dB, and doesn't dip below 30dB until just after ISO 1600. Both models tested to at least 10 stops of dynamic range through ISO 1600. The difference between the II and IIs? The IIs doesn't have the low-pass filter, meaning that the signal will be purer, but there may be moire patterns when photographing some fabrics, which would need to be eliminated using software.
Runner up: The Sony NEX-7 barely misses the top three but is still outstanding, with an overall score of 81—tied with the Nikon D3200. While we have no test data yet for the Fujifilm X-Pro 1, 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 different due to its unique semi-randomized pixel array, and 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 OMD EM5
Adorama price: $999
Summary: Near-APS performance raises the bar for MFT-based camera low-light performance.
Tech details: With its new 16MP sensor, the Olympus OMD-EM5 is the clear leader among cameras with Four Thirds sized sensors with an overall score of 71. That's 10 points above the closest competitor and, surprisingly, rivals typical DSLR quality circa a couple of years ago. At the lowest ISO of 200, the camera offers a Signal-noise ratio of 39 dB, which leads the category; it dips under 30dB after ISO 800. Dynamic range is also best in class at 12.3 stops at ISO 200, dropping below 10 stops by ISO 1600. The camera's only downfall—which is easily compensated for—is that its indicated ISO range is optimistically high, and the actual ISOs are a full stop lower at all speeds. So, while its claimed ISO range is 200-25,600, its measured sensitivity is closer to 100-12,800. Nevertheless, this camera sets a new standard for Four Thirds cameras.
Panasonic DMC G5
Adorama price: $598
Summary: Acceptable image quality at ISO 400; may need a little post-processing help at 800.
Tech Details: Second place is a virtual dead heat, with the edge going to the 16MP Panasonic DMC-G5 with an overall 65. Its lowest ISO scored a 36.2dB signal-noise level, and by ISO 800 it was just a tad below 30dB. You can certainly get usable shots at this speed but should probably stick to ISO 400 or less for most work. Dynamic range of 11.5 stops at ISO 100 is in the middle of the pack, but it drops below 10 stops by ISO 800.
Canon PowerShot G1X
Adorama price: $649
Summary: Best image quality and low-light performance for a compact camera with a built-in lens.
Tech details: With a sensor that is just a tad larger than Four Thirds, DxOMark has included the 15MP Canon PowerShot G1X in this category, despite the different sensor size and the fact that its lens isn't removable—and so will we. Signal-noise ratio is a respectable 37.8dB at ISO 100, putting it between the Panasonic and Olympus, and it likewise produces 30dB at ISO 800. Its best dynamic range, just under 11 stops, falls short of its competition, but it stays above 10 stops through ISO 800, putting it in the middle of the pack.
Runner up: We don't have official test results for the recently-introduced $699.99 Olympus E-PL5, but Olympus sources tell us this camera uses the same sensor as the OMD-EM5, so you can expect similar image quality and low-light performance from this smaller new model.
Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100
Adorama price: $648
Summary: High-resolution produces category-leading image quality, augmented by fast lens.
Tech details: With its 20MP, 8.8x13.2mm-sized sensor—the same size as the Nikon 1 J2, one might expect the two cameras to deliver similar image quality, but Sony's story is very different from Nikon's. Despite the higher pixel density, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX10 delivered the highest score of all "smaller sensor" cameras currently on the market with a 66. The main reason is dynamic range: With a best-in-breed 12.4-stop dynamic range at ISO 100 that stays comfortably above 10 stops at ISO 800, the RX100 delivers a good range of shadow to highlight detail. The digital noise race is tighter, with the Sony in a virtual tie with the Nikon 1 J2 at all speeds, starting with a signal-noise ratio of 36.1dB at ISO 100 and 31dB at ISO 400. It falls well below acceptable noise ratings by ISO 800, which is typical for a small-sensor camera. 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.
Nikon 1 J2
Adorama price (with 10-30mm kit lens): $546.95
Summary: Minimal noise through ISO 400; small sensor means small lenses for compact flexibility in low light.
Tech details: The 10MP Nikon 1 J2 keeps up with the Sony RX100 in the important Signal-Noise measurement, starting at 36.5dB at ISO 100 and staying at 31dB at ISO 400, dropping below 30dB by ISO 800. Its dynamic range is 10.8 stops at ISO 100 and stays at or above 10 stops through ISO 800, and that's a key factor that brought its overall sensor image quality score down to 54.
Canon PowerShot S100
Adorama prices: $349
Summary: Two different designs, similar results. Low grain through ISO 200, but faster lens buys you another stop.
Tech details: There's a tie for third place among smaller sensor cameras, between the Canon PowerShot S100 and Fujifilm X10. The pair couldn't be more different in design: Canon is lower priced but with a minimalist design, while the Fuji has an optical viewfinder and more manual control options available. The Fuji has a slightly larger sensor—6.6x8.8mm vs the Canon's 5.5x7.5mm—but both had overall scores, 50. But the real story is the subtle differences between the two cameras. The Canon does slightly better than the Fujifilm on dynamic range, getting as high as 11.6 stops at ISO 100, falling below 10 stops by ISO 400, while the Fujifilm starts about 1/3 stop lower at 11.3 stops and stays slightly higher than the Canon at lower speeds. The Signal noise ratio ratings give Canon a statistically insignificant edge. Both cameras have zoom lenses that open up to f/2 at 24mm, giving them good low-light capabilities.
Runner-Up: The 10MP, $348 Panasonic Lumix DMC LX7 has not yet been tested by DxOMark, but our initial field results show it to be an impressive low-light camera by virtue of the fact that its zoom lens opens up to a category-leading f/1.4. So, even if its score falls in the middle of the pack, it has at least a half-stop advantage over the nearest competition.
All DxOMark lab test data courtesy DxOMark.com. Used with permission.