Night photography is an exciting genre. The results are often breathtaking but the approach and the patience it takes to set up and post-process often turn photographers off. The key to making great night photography depends on two aspects. First is the tools that you use to make the images. The second is the post-processing aspect. In this discussion, we are going to look at the first part – the best camera for night photography.
- Sony Alpha a7 III (Best Overall)
- Canon 5D Mark IV (Best DSLR for Night Photography)
- Nikon D850
- Panasonic Lumix GH5S (Best in Micro Four-Thirds Segment)
- Sony a7S III
- Pentax K-1
- Nikon D780
- Sony a6400 (Best Budget Night Photography Camera)
- Canon EOS RP
- Sony a7 II
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Large full-frame back-illuminated sensor. 15-stops of dynamic range.
The Sony Alpha a7 III is not an unlikely candidate for the title of the best camera for night photography. Sony has been known to produce some of the most fantastic cameras for low light imagery.
We picked the Sony alpha a7 III for its noteworthy low light performance.
The a7 III is powered by a full-frame 24-megapixel CMOS Exmor R BSI sensor. Back-illuminated sensors are the best when it comes to night time photography in particular and low light photography in general.
Plus, the new sensor incorporates a gapless sensor architecture along with anti-reflection coating to ensure that the lens is able to accumulate a lot of light even in low light conditions. Overall, the benefits of all these are truly visible when shooting night photography.
Paired with the sensor is a BIONZ X image processing engine and a Front-End LSI.
The Sony Alpha a7 III features a Fast hybrid auto-focusing mechanism. It is composed of 693 phase-detection AF points and 425 contrast-detection points.
And it helps that the AF sensors are able to focus down to -3EV. The 15 stops of dynamic range ensure that a lot of detail is captured in the shadow areas.
A native ISO range of 100-51200 and a DxOMark Sports rating of 3730 states that the Sony Alpha a7 III is a beast when it comes to night photography. The native ISO range can be pushed to 50-204800.
But it is not how much you can push. But whether images shot at such insanely high ISOs are usable. And this is where the a7 III beats many of its more illustrious competitors. Some of them from the Sony stable itself.
To its credit, the Sony Alpha a7 III comes with built-in image stabilization. The five-axis image stabilization is rated up to 5 stops.
We rank the Sony a7 III as the best camera for night photography overall considering the features and the price point at which it has been introduced.
Great all-round camera. Particularly great for shooting night photography.
This camera is powered by a 30.4 megapixel CMOS full-frame sensor and DIGIC 6+ image processor.
While we discuss the low light prowess of this mid-range full-frame DSLR, it must be noted that the dynamic range of the older 5D Mark III was not up to the same standards.
It is often suggested that the 5D Mark IV is ISO invariant. But this is not completely true.
For those of you unsure about what ISO invariance is, read below. If you’d like to skip this step, feel free!
Let’s say that you take a picture at ISO 200. And later find out that the image is about 3 stops underexposed. Which is unlikely, given the quality of Auto Exposure mechanism in today’s camera systems, but let’s assume for the sake of this example.
So what you do?
You open the image in your favorite photo editing application and bump the exposure by 3 stops. Right? But when you do that you also increase the noise in your image. Noise, or digital noise as we call it in digital photography, is always there. Even at ISO 100. Along with the amplification of the signal, you are also amplifying the noise.
Now, an ISO invariant camera is one that allows you to shoot an image at whatever lower ISO you want and then gives you the convenience to increase the exposure in post-processing without adding a lot of noise during that exposure amplification. In other words, the camera does not capture a lot of threshold noise in the first place.
The advantage of this is you can capture a lot of detail in the highlights by deliberately shooting at a lower ISO whilst still capturing details in the shadows. And as the camera does not capture a lot of threshold noise when you pull the shadows in post-processing, there is not too much noise amplification.
Why the 5D Mark IV Is Not Fully ISO Invariant
The reason why I say that this camera is not completely ISO invariant is that images shot at lower ISO numbers when pushed two, three, or more stops in post-processing definitely demonstrate a large amount of noise.
It is at around ISO 400 you start to notice that the underexposed images pushed in post-processing demonstrate the same amount of noise if you had shot them at the proper ISO in the first place.
So, the 5D Mark IV is an excellent camera in a lot of ways. It is a great camera to be shooting night photography with. We recommend it as the best DSLR for night photography. But it is not the best overall.
3. Nikon D850
Excellent all-round camera. Also great for shooting night photography.
One of the major advantages of using a camera like the Nikon D850 is the lower threshold ISO. At 64, it is one of the lowest among all the cameras discussed here. What does this mean for someone doing night photography?
The first thing that you need to understand is that a lower ISO number suggests that the sensor is capable of capturing something in a bright light without necessarily clipping the highlights. It means you have the option to use the camera in bright light, shoot with a really fast lens, something like an f/1.8, and not have to use an ND filter.
Another major advantage of using the D850 is its dual-gain sensor design.
With dual-gain sensors, a camera has two threshold ISO numbers. Each one handles a higher ISO number as if that is the base ISO.
The advantage of this is that the higher ISO threshold allows a much cleaner image to be taken compared to what the result would have been if you had taken the shot in a normal camera.
Another feature of the D850 is the low sensitivity level of -4EV. And that means the D850 is better than something like the D780 in terms of low light auto-focusing capabilities.
It also helps that the D850 has 153 AF points out of which 99 are cross-type. 15 out of those points are capable of being used down at f/8.
4. Panasonic Lumix GH5S – Best in Micro Four-Thirds Segment
Dual gain sensor. Excellent image quality.
The reason we specifically picked a micro four-thirds camera (considering that they have a much smaller sensor size) is that this one, the Panasonic Lumix GH5S, comes with a newly developed high sensitivity sensor. Plus, it has dual-ISO sensitivity levels.
As already explained above a camera with a dual sensitivity sensor (in effect a dual gain sensor) is in a better position to capture a much cleaner image.
The GH5S is powered by a 20.3-megapixel Live MOS sensor. There is no Optical Low-pass Filter. And the benefit of it is that the sensor is able to capture a higher amount of detail.
But be careful when shooting very fine patterns and weaves and stuff like that because sensors without an OLPF tend to show up moiré and false colors when such items are photographed.
The camera has a native ISO sensitivity of 200-25600. But can be further extended to 100-25600. We hear all sorts of crazy ISO sensitivity numbers. But the real question seems to be how much of that is actually usable.
The thing is, if your camera specifications say that it is capable of firing frames at ISO 51200 or even 102400 don’t always try and push your luck to actually shoot at those numbers, noise is going to be far too extreme in these cases.
It is more important to have a camera that has excellent noise handling at reasonable ISO levels rather than the ability to shoot at crazy ISOs.
In this case, however, the dual-gain ISO feature of the camera does give you some leverage when shooting at a higher ISO.
Because of the dual ISO sensor you are going to see a considerable jump in the quality of low light images made by this camera.
The absence of built-in image stabilization is going to hamper handheld night photography, to an extent. You will need to carry a tripod to stabilize your camera, especially when using long shutter speeds.
5. Sony a7S III
This is a perfect camera for those looking to splurge on the latest tech and get stunning night photos. Its cost, however, may be a limiting factor in whether you purchase this camera.
The Sony a7S III is one of Sony’s latest and greatest releases. Its predecessor, the a7S II was great for night photography, so the newer model can only be better!
Along with the newly developed 12.1-megapixel BSI full-frame Exmor R CMOS sensor, you now have the newly developed BIONZ XR image processing engine. A processor that is said to be 8-times more powerful than the outgoing tech.
Another major improvement is the claimed 15-stops of Dynamic Range that the camera has. Greater the dynamic range higher is the chance that you are able to pick details from your shadow areas. Even when you are practically exposing for the highlights.
ISO levels have certainly improved over the older model. The a7S III has a native ISO range of 80-102400 which can be extended to 40-409600. That means it is now easier to preserve a lot more details in the shadow areas.
Related Post: HDR Night Photography Tips
The a7S III has 759 phase-detection AF points and 425 contrast-detection AF points. They are capable of auto-focusing down to EV -6. Which should provide enough support for shooting in low-light and locking focus.
Finally, one more aspect of the new camera that we love is the fully-articulated LCD screen. Now, whether an articulated LCD screen would be of value to a night photographer is a matter of debate, I’ll leave this to you to decide. But I personally feel that for night photography it is definitely a plus. Because many times you are going to set your camera down for a long exposure. And in those situations, an LCD screen would give you that slight advantage over the EVF.
6. Pentax K-1
Low light results are better than what the specs say about the camera. Good budget pick for low light.
The Pentax K-1 is a relatively older model. But that said, the camera has a few interesting features which make it relevant as one of the best cameras for night photography, even in 2020.
The native ISO range of the camera is 100-819200.
Auto-focusing on the camera is powered by the SAFOX 12 AF mechanism. It consists of 33 focus points. 25 out of which are cross-type. The camera can meter down to -3EV.
Actual auto-focusing performance in low light conditions is very slow. This is partly due to the number of AF points and also because, for some reason, in Single-Shot AF mode the camera tends to hunt for focus for a while before finally nailing it.
Auto-focusing with the continuous auto-focusing mechanism is a much better option than to set the camera to single-point autofocus.
That said there are some other issues with the AF system.
The area of coverage of this type of AF sensor is very low. It only covers about 1/7th of the frame and everything is clustered towards the center.
To add to that, there are no dedicated options to select your desired AF point. That can cause problems when you are trying to achieve an off-center composition.
But not all is lost with this camera!
A standout feature that that deserves a mention is the Pixel-Shift technology.
Pixel-Shift technology is becoming very common these with an increasingly larger number of cameras getting launched with this feature. In this, the sensor inside the camera shifts by a few pixels in all four directions. There are many applications of this. But the most important application is probably to capture a set of three, four or more frames (in this case four) and combining them to create one really large frame that produces a lot more detail than a single capture.
The secondary benefit of that is the camera is able to produce images with a lower noise threshold. Needless to say, this is very handy when shooting in low light. But the drawback is that this technology is unsuitable when the scene is changing. And second, you cannot effectively use this without a tripod.
That mostly eliminates portrait photography and even cityscapes if there are plenty of moving aspects in the image. It will only work when everything is standing still.
There are a lot of nifty touches across the whole design of the camera. But we like one in particular more than the rest. And that is the illuminating LED lights. There are four at the back of the camera (actually at the back of the LCD screen). These allow you to work the controls in extremely dark conditions.
There are similar LED lights at the card bay, the remote release port, and also one to illuminate the lens mount for easy change of lenses in the dark.
7. Nikon D780
Large pixel size, reasonable autofocus performance, and decent low light performance.
The Nikon D780 is the upgrade for the older full-frame Nikon D750. It is based on a 24.5-megapixel full-frame BSI CMOS sensor. Paired with the sensor is an EXPEED 6 image processor.
The D780 is a major improvement over the D750 in terms of low light performance. In that regard, the camera’s performance is on par with that of Nikon’s mirrorless Z6.
The D780 being a full-frame camera it is not unusual for it to be often compared with the D850, which is also a full-frame DSLR in round about the same segment in the Nikon line-up (though officially listed as a professional DSLR on the Nikon USA website). As a matter of fact there are a few areas where the D780 even beats the D850.
These would be the image processing engine. The D780 has EXPEED 6 image processor compared to EXPEED 5 on the D850.
Additionally, the individual pixel size on the D780 is larger compared to the pixel size on the D850. 5.93 µ vs 4.35 µ.
The native ISO range of the camera is 100-51200. It can be further pushed to 50-204800.
A useful feature of the D780 is the 900 seconds or 15 minutes of exposure time that comes default in the menu option. So, for normal night photography you don’t have to use the bulb mode. You can set the exposure time from the menu and don’t have to hold on to the remote trigger/shutter release button.
The D850 has a much larger resolution and therefore it is best suited for photographers who like to crop after shoot. With the D780 you are limited with what you can do in terms of cropping.
That said the D780 has its own advantages. It has an improved Live-View shooting mechanism. This is a hybrid auto-focusing system featuring 273 phase-detection AF points. Almost covering the whole of the frame and giving you an improved subject and eye-tracking results. This particular system works in low light situations down to -4EV. When using the dedicated low-light AF mode you can use this at -6EV.
8. Sony a6400 – Best Camera for Night Photography on a Budget
Budget full-frame camera with Sony’s E mount
This is a crop-sensor camera powered by a 24.2 Megapixel sensor and paired with a BIONZ X image processing engine.
If we check out the DxOMark score of the Sony a6400 for sports mode it is 1431. It is arguably the best camera for night photography on a budget.
DxOMark’s sports score is actually an ISO number. This is the highest ISO number at which a camera strikes a delicate balance between image quality and visible noise. Anything above and the noise becomes too obvious for any useful results.
Why do they use the term sports mode? Well, this comes from the demands of sports photography. Sports photographers routinely push the ISO number of their cameras to shoot sharp images with the highest accompanying Shutter Speed possible. So high ISO shooting is one of the requirements of sports photography and one of the areas where their capabilities are tested to the max.
They use a complicated formula for determining this. We are not going to go deeper into that. But the Sony a6400 is no doubt one of the best cameras for night photography if used with the right lens.
And being a Sony E-mount camera it comes with the backing of a huge number of OEM and compatible third-party lenses for you to choose from.
The camera has 425 phase detection autofocus points and 425 contrast detection auto-focusing points.
One of the things that determine how good a camera is when shooting in low light is the minimum lighting in which the camera is able to lock focus. And in the case of the a6400, it is -2EV. That may not sound much when you compare that to something like the a7S III or the D850, but it is still respectable when you consider that the a6400 is a budget interchangeable lens camera.
9. Canon EOS RP
The most compact full-frame camera you can come across. Powerful sensor great low light performance.
Canon's EOS RP is the perfect mix of a lightweight camera with a powerful full-frame sensor with excellent low light performance. And since we are discussing low light photography capabilities that is what interests us.
Before we go any further you should know that the sensor inside the EOS RP is actually the same as that of the EOS 6D Mark II. Plus it is paired with the latest DIGIC 8 image-processing engine.
The native ISO range of the camera is 100-40000. But that is a blown-up statistics because nobody shoots at ISO 40000. DxOMark gives the sports rating of the camera at 2978. That indicates that it is safe to shoot at around that ISO number and get away with images with the right balance between detail, color, and contrast on one side and noise on the other.
At reasonably high ISO’s such as 800 or even at ISO 1600 the camera produces stunning images with little to worry about noise.
And add to that the wonderful dynamic range of the camera, you’re sure to get some stunning night photography.
10. Sony a7 II
Great low light performance. Overall great buy.
The Sony a7 II is an old camera. But despite being old it is still relevant in 2020 considering its excellent low light photography qualities. Now, when we talk about low light photography or night photography, the a7s comes to mind almost immediately. Let me clarify that the a7 II isn’t as good as the a7s or its latest iteration the a7S III. But that said, it does get a very high rating from DxOMark.
The a7 II is powered by a 24.3-megapixel full-frame Exmor CMOS sensor. Paired with it is the BIONZ X image processing engine.
At 2449, it is ranked higher than the Nikon D5 (the recently replaced flagship sports camera in the Nikon stable). Does that mean that there are no noise-related issues with the camera? Noise is present as you can imagine it does with all cameras. But the noise is rather well suppressed with built-in noise suppression.
Speaking of noise and low light abilities, the a7 II native ISO range is 100-25600. It can be further extended to 50-25600.
There are a number of other parameters that help the a7 II make excellent captures in low light situations.
One of them is the built-in 5-axis SteadyShot Image Stabilization system. The system compensates for up to 4.5 stops of movement. Built-in image stabilization helps because you are not dependent on stabilized lenses. All compatible lenses are automatically stabilized.
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