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20 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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20 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 Winter 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 21 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 June 19, 2013; all products available for immediate shipment or pre-order as of date of posting:


Full Frame 35mm

 

Nikon Df: King of Darkness
Adorama price: $2,746.95
Summary: Highest "Clean" ISO Of All Digital Cameras
Tech Details: When the retro-styled Nikon Df was introduced late 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, and 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! While the Sony A7r and Nikon D800E have the edge for overall image quality especially in lower speeds, when it comes to high ISO image quality the Df is the clear winner. 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.

Nikon D800/Nikon D800E
Adorama prices: $2,796.95/$2,996.95
Summary: D800E is the image quality prince of all digital cameras; D800 is the princess.
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 except the Df, which they edge out. Dynamic range exceeds 14 stops at the native ISO of 100, and stays above 10 stops through ISO 1600, also an amazing result.

Nikon D610
Adorama price: $1,996.95
Summary: Almost the best, for nearly 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 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, a stat that is even better than the D800/E. And all this in a camera that is selling at Adorama for just under $2,000, within reach of pro shooters and many serious amateurs. The D610 shares the same sensor as the D600, but with some preformance improvements. Bang for the buck, this camera’s a winner.

 
Runners-up: The 36MP Sony A7R ($2,298 at Adorama), deserves recognition for its almost perfect overall score of 95 and superior 25.6-bit color depth and 14.1EV dynamic range...and an outstanding Low-Light ISO rating of 2746. The dB rating at its native ISO 100 is an impressive 45.2 and it almost keeps up with the top three as ISO is cranked up. Likewise, The compact 24MP Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1 (Adorama price $2,798) and RX1R ($2,798) were also nearly the best for low-light performance, with an overall score of 91 that includes a low-light ISO rating of 2537 but also an impressive 25-bit color depth and 13.6-stop dynamic range.


APS Sensor Cameras

 

 

 

Nikon D5300 
Adorama price: $796.95 (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: While its predecessor, the Nikon D5200, was in a dead heat with its more advanced sibling, the D7100, the Nikon D5300 pulled away, witha  Low-Light ISO score of 1338 vs. the D7100's 1256. The N5300's ISO range has been increased to 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.


Nikon D7100
Adorama Price:  $1,146.95 (body only)
Summary: Nikon D7100 adds a bevvy of high-end features, and Low-Light ISO is just a tad slower.
Tech Details: The Nikon D7100 lags only slightly behind the D5300, with a Low-Light ISO rating of 1256. One can confidently shoot at ISO 1200 and expect "clean" results. In other parameters, it is statistically in a dead heat with the D5300.

Pentax K3 
Adorama price:
$1,296.95 (body only)
Summary:
Rugged build and high-quality low light performance make this a choice for tough shooting conditions.
Tech details:
The Pentax K3's 24MP CMOS sensor delivers outstanding overall image quality that is just a few decimal points behind its competitors. Low-Light ISO is rated at 1260—again, almost no noise if you set the camera at ISO 1200—with impressive 23.7 bit color depth and 13.4 EV dynamic range when shooting at the native ISO of 100. Signal-noise ratio barely dips below 30 by ISO 1600. Bang for the buck, it's an impressive performance and if you need an all-terrain camera, this one wins.

 

Runner up: 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: $999 (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: $549.00
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.

Panasonic Lumix GH3
Adorama price: $998.00
Summary: Prosumer camera produces clean images at ISO 800.
Panasonic's current flagship EVF MILC, the 16MP Lumix GH3, competes admirably against Olympus with an 812 Low Light ISO rating, while its color depth (22.7 bits) and dynamic range (12.4 stops) is very respectable.


Honorable mention:  Although the Olympus OM-D E-M1 ($1,399 at Adorama) edged out its competitors overall with a 73 score (vs. 72's) its Low Light ISO rating of 757, while good, is not quite as good; best low light ISO setting would be 640.However, it does boast the best dynamic range of all the Four Thirds cameras, 12.7 stops, and slightly better color depth at 23 bits.

Small Sensor

 

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II small sensor digital camera

Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100 II
Adorama price: $748
Summary: Delivers outstanding image quality near ISO 500, nearly 1/3 stop better than nearest competitor.
Tech details: Despite its high pixel density the Sony DSC-RX100 has a convincing overall score of 67, and delivered clean image quality through ISO 480. With noise reduction, this camera can easily deliver great images through at least ISO 800. Dynamic range starts at about 12.5 stops—best in its class—and stays above 10 stops through ISO 400. 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: $1,298
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 RX100II.

Nikon 1 AW1
Adorama price: $796.95 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 J3 ($396.95) and Nikon 1 V2 ($896.95) 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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