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Shot In The Dark: What Makes A Digital Camera Good At Low-Light Photography?

Last updated on 01/18/2013

Photography in poor lighting is difficult, and cameras that can pull off such a feat are in high demand. Gauging a camera's low-light capability is more difficult than checking the zoom range or megapixel count, so we've put together a rough guide to help you figure out if a compact camera will dominate the darkness.
By Liam McCabe

The number one question we read in our comments section is “How well does this camera perform in low light?” Unless it’s about a dSLR or mirrorless model, the answer is usually “not well.” Concerts, bars, dancehalls, foggy nights, or any dim settings are just hard to capture without turning on the flash.

In the past year, and the past few months in particular, we’ve seen a modest but significant increase in the number of compact cameras marketed as low-light performers, capable of capturing poorly lit scenes without the flash. Not all of them are created equal, though, and there’s still a lot of confusion about what allows a camera to perform well in poor lighting. Let’s take this new wave of low-light heavy-hitters as an opportunity to re-examine what makes a camera dominate the dimness, and how you can identify these factors through spec sheets. We’ll even shine some light on a few promising models for you, too.

Bigger Is Better: Sensor Size and Type

The most central part of any digital camera is its sensor, and it plays a huge role in determining low-light performance. A large sensor is the single most important factor for great image quality in any setting, especially a dim one. These big chips cost more, but if you’re willing to pay a bit extra for that extra quality, take a look at the Canon G12, Panasonic LX5, or any Fujifilm camera with the EXR tag in the model name, like the F80EXR or F300EXR.

Sensor type is important as well. Cameras with CMOS sensors tend to be much more forgiving in poor lighting than CCD sensors, inch-for-inch. They are also more expensive, inch-for-inch, but generally it’s more economical to change the sensor type than to increase its size. CMOS-based compacts include the Canon SD4000, Panasonic FX700, or Sony TX9.

If you don’t see a compact camera’s sensor size or type listed on a spec sheet, that means that it’s likely the unimpressive 1/2.3-inch CCD sensors that are in the vast majority of point-and-shoots.

Eye Wide Open: Lens Aperture

There’s no point in having a big, sensitive chip if no light can get to the sensor in the first place. A wide maximum lens aperture bolsters low-light performance by allowing more light to enter the camera. By current standards, any camera with a maximum aperture of f2.5 or wider can be considered light-loving, though some like the Canon S95 or the aforementioned LX5 go as wide as f2.0. Even a camera like the Panasonic FX75, built with an unimpressive CCD sensor, gets the low-light-shooter tag because of its fast f2.2 lens. Dubious, perhaps, but not entirely false.

It’s worth noting that as a camera’s zoom range extends, the maximum aperture tends to shrink, so most low-light shooters have a zoom range of 5x or lower. There are a few CMOS-based cameras with generous 10x zooms -- the Canon SD4500 and the Nikon S8100 -- but they have, as expected, relatively slow lenses to allow for the long ranges. Reviews are mixed; since they try to be everything to everybody, they end up disappointing a lot of users. Still, for folks who want a long zoom and good low-light performance in a small camera, these are solid bets.

Superior Software: Image Processor and ISO Sensitivity

The image processor or “engine” can make or break a low-light image. Darker settings call for a higher ISO sensitivity. As ISO increases, so does the amount of image noise, those white specks smattered all over the image. The processor applies noise reduction to eliminate that grainy effect. Sometimes, the noise reduction software overcompensates and leaves a blurry, undetailed mess that looks more like a painting than a photograph, but a good processor can reduce noise without smudging details even at ISO 800 or even 1600 (any higher and graininess is a given).

Some compacts go as high as ISO 12800, and in theory, the higher the ISO ceiling, the greater the low-light capabilities. But all that extra sensitivity just turns photos into a fuzzy mess without a good processor, so don’t rely on the maximum ISO specs to be an accurate indicator of low-light performance.

Processor capability is one of the hardest specs to quantify, so you have to go on reputation. Canon’s DIGIC IV processor has an excellent track record. Panasonic’s new Venus Engine FHD looks promising as well. In any case, some reading is required to determine how well the noise reduction works.

I Can See Clearly Now

There are two morals to this story. One: Cheap cameras do not perform well in poor lighting. Some are better than others, but in general, low-light shots from low-cost compacts will be blurry, grainy, or bland unless you turn on the flash. Better to have a bright, blown-out picture than a dim, grainy one.

Two: Just because a camera costs more than $300 does not mean that it will perform well in low light. Low-light performers do tend to cost this much, true, but there are plenty of $350 superzoom cameras that can’t hack it with the lights down low.

In short, you’ll need to do a little bit of reading, either on review sites like this one or within the nitty-gritty of camera spec sheets, to gauge a camera’s low-light capability. But at least now you know where to start looking.

Image Credits: Sensor by Filya1, Aperture by Chineeb at Wikimedia Commons.