Do you want a camera that will capture amazing shots in low light? In this article, I break it all down. I’ll share with you the five best low light DSLR options you can buy.
As camera technology advances, DSLRs get better and better at handling the low light demands of photographers. Ten years ago, you would feel uncomfortable pushing ISOs past triple digits; now, ISO 3200 and ISO 6400 are common settings. And low-light autofocus lets you do some much more compared to 2010.
Of course, if you want these low light capabilities, there is one caveat:
You have to have the right camera. Because while some cameras perform admirably in low light conditions, others are still less than impressive.
You’ll come away knowing which DSLR you need to grab – if you want the best low light capabilities out there.
Let’s dive right in.
Dslr Low Light
1. Overall winner: the Canon 5D Mark IV
The Canon 5D Mark IV is an all-round great camera. And its low light performance is, well, amazing.
First, the Canon 5D Mark IV features strong low-light autofocus. The camera is rated down to -3 EV, and the autofocus does well when acquiring focus in the dark.
But where the Canon 5D Mark IV really shines is in its high ISO performance. The 5D Mark IV’s sensor easily outperforms the 5D Mark III, the 6D Mark II, and every Canon crop-sensor DSLR ever produced.
Images are great up through ISO 1600, and still usable at ISO 3200, 6400, and even 12800. This makes the Canon 5D Mark IV perfect for those who need to carry on shooting, even in ultra-dark conditions, such as wedding photographers and astrophotographers.
Plus, the Canon 5D Mark IV is just great across the board, packing a 30.4-megapixel sensor, dual card slots, 61 AF points with 41 cross-type points, and 7 frames-per-second continuous shooting.
Note that the Canon 1D X Mark II (Canon’s $5000+ flagship camera) does give better photos than the Canon 5D Mark IV, especially at ISO 6400 and 12800. But the unspeakably high price makes it a non-starter for pretty much every enthusiast and even semi-professional photographer, so I opted to leave both it and its Nikon equivalent, the D5, off the list.
2. Incredible alternative: the Nikon D850
First things first:
The Nikon D850 is one of Nikon’s top DSLRs and an amazing low light shooter in its own right.
In fact, the Nikon D850 edges out the Canon 5D Mark IV when it comes to low-light focusing. The Nikon D850 can lock focus in almost complete darkness, and it’s rated by Nikon down to an AF sensitivity of EV -4. In other words, the D850 is a strong option for event photographers, as well as anyone else looking to shoot moving subjects in low light.
Where the Nikon D850 falls short is in terms of ISO performance – though “falling short” is a bit of a misnomer in this case, because the D850 features amazing high ISO capabilities.
(It’s a credit to the Canon 5D Mark IV’s outstanding low light performance that it comes in ahead of the Nikon.)
The D850 offers beautiful photos up to ISO 1600. Images are still usable at ISO 3200. After this, color casts begin to distort the D850’s photos, though noise performance is still impressive.
If you’re comparing the D850 versus the 5D Mark IV, it’s worth noting the higher resolution of the D850 (45.7 megapixels) with the same frame-per-second rate (7 fps). Add to that 4K video capabilities, and you’ve got yourself a tremendous competitor.
3. Good budget option: the Nikon D750
The Nikon D750 is a few years old now (it was released in 2014), but that doesn’t stop it from offering up impressive low light performance, five years later.
The biggest benefit the D750 offers in terms of low-light capabilities is its autofocus; while it can’t go down to the -4 EV AF sensitivity featured on the D850, it offers autofocusing at a respectable -3 EV and does extremely well (better than the D810) at acquiring focus in low light.
The D750 packs impressive high-ISO capabilities, as well. You should be able to shoot comfortably up through ISO 1600. At ISO 3200, some noise will be present, increasing at ISO 6400, but remaining usable.
Other features include a 6.5 fps continuous shooting speed, a full-frame, 24.3-megapixel sensor, and an adjustable LCD screen. Where the D750 shows its years is in terms of its accessories: there’s no touchscreen, and no 4K video.
But it’s easy to find used D750s on sale for under 1000 dollars. So if you’re looking for a stellar low-light camera on a budget, the D750 may be the way to go.
4. Canon 6D Mark II
The Canon 6D was considered an exciting full-frame option for enthusiasts. Unfortunately, its successor, the Canon 6D Mark II, debuted to less critical acclaim.
That said, the Canon 6D Mark II does have a few features worth noting, including its low light ISO performance, which is outranked only by the 5D Mark IV among Canon’s semiprofessional and APS-C DSLRs.
On the 6D Mark II, you can push your ISO to 1600 without worrying about intense noise. Even ISO 3200 gives useable, though somewhat noisy, images.
Low light focusing is good, with the 6D Mark II acquiring focus down to an EV of -3, and featuring a strong AF center point (as part of a 45 AF point spread).
All in all, the Canon 6D Mark II is a solid low light option, especially for those not willing to shell out the money for a Canon 5D Mark IV (or its Nikon competitors).
5. Best APS-C low light option: the Nikon D7500 (and the Canon 80D)
Full-frame cameras are better low light shooters, hands down. The larger pixel size gives better noise performance, and top brands channel their best features into semi-professional and professional full-frame bodies.
That said, there are some great low-light crop-sensor options out there.
In particular, the Nikon D7500 offers some impressive low-light capabilities at a very reasonable price (and is just an all-around solid option).
First, the ISO range is outstanding: ISO 100 to ISO 51,200, with an extension to the whopping ISO 1,638,400 (not that you should ever use it).
ISO 1600 shows noise, but nothing serious. Images at ISO 3200 are surprisingly good for an APS-C camera, and even ISO 6400 is usable with some noise reduction for smaller print sizes.
On the Canon side of things, the 80D doesn’t quite match the low-light performance of the Nikon D7500 but is still worth a look. Images become noisy around ISO 1600, increasing with ISO 3200 and beyond. I’d also recommend checking out the new Canon 90D; while the noise performance will no doubt be scrutinized over the coming months, initial tests indicate that the 90D is close to equivalent with the 80D at high ISOs.
Here’s the bottom line:
For entry-level shooters looking to grab a strong low-light performer, the Nikon D7500 or the Canon 80D might be the way to go.
The 5 best low light DSLRs you can buy: conclusion
You should now have a good sense of the best low-light DSLRs out there – and the right one for your needs.
If you’re looking to do some serious shooting and you have the cash to spare, the Canon 5D Mark IV or the Nikon D850 is the way to go.
But the Canon 6D Mark II and the Nikon D750 are solid backups.
And for the entry-level photographer, the Nikon D7500 and the Canon 80D both feature good high-ISO performance, even if they are APS-C bodies.
How to Buy a Digital Camera
1. Determine what you need
A mistake I see some digital camera buyers making is that they get sucked into buying cameras that are beyond what they really need. Some questions to ask yourself before you go shopping:
- What do you need the camera for?
- What type of photography will you be doing? (portraits, landscapes, macro, sports)
- What conditions will you be largely photographing in? (indoors, outdoors, low light, bright light)
- Will you largely stay in auto mode or do you want to learn the art of photography?
- What experience level do you have with cameras?
- What type of features are you looking for? (long zoom, image stabilization, large LCD display etc)
- How important is size and portability to you?
- What is your budget?
Ask yourself these questions before you go to buy a camera and you’ll be in a much better position to make a decision when you see what’s on offer. You’ll probably find the sales person asks you this question anyway – so to have thought about it before hand will help them help you get the right digital camera.https://da360a56a245c0803c5da779cd8113ff.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
2. Megapixels are NOT everything
One of the features that you’ll see used to sell digital cameras is how many megapixels a digital camera has.
When I first got into digital photography, a few years back, the megapixel rating of cameras was actually quite important as most cameras were at the lower end of today’s modern day range and even a 1 megapixel increase was significant.
These days, with most new cameras coming out with at least 5 megapixels, it isn’t so crucial. In fact at the upper end of the range it can actually be a disadvantage to have images that are so large that they take up enormous amounts of space on memory cards and computers.
One of the main questions to ask when it comes to megapixels is ‘Will you be printing shots’? If so – how large will you be going with them? If you’re only printing images at a normal size then anything over 4 or so megapixels will be fine. If you’re going to start blowing your images up you might want to pay the extra money for something at the upper end of what’s on offer today.
3. Keep in mind the ‘extras’
Keep in mind as you look at cameras that the price quoted may not be the final outlay that you need to make as there are a variety of other extras that you might want (or need) to fork out for including:
- Camera Case
- Memory Cards
- Spare Batteries/Recharger
- Lenses (if you are getting a DSLR)
- Filters (and other lens attachments)
- External Flashes
Some retailers will bundle such extras with cameras or will at least give a discount when buying more than one item at once. Keep in mind though that what they offer in bundles might not meet you needs. For example it’s common to get a 16 or 32 megabyte memory card with cameras – however these days you’ll probably want something at least of 500 megabytes (if not a gigabyte or two).
4. Do you already own any potentially compatible gear?
Talking of extra gear – one way to save yourself some cash is if you have accessories from previous digital cameras that are compatible with your new one.
For example memory cards, batteries, lenses (remember that many film camera lenses are actually compatible with digital SLRs from the same manufacturers), flashes, filters etc.
5. DSLR or Point and Shoot?
While digital SLRs are getting more affordable they are not for everyone. Keep in mind that they are usually bigger, heavier, harder to keep clean (if you’re changing lenses) and can be more complicated to operate than point and shoot. Of course there are some upsides also.
If you’re trying to make a decision between a point and shoot and DSLR you might want to read my previous posts titled Should you buy a DSLR or a Point and Shoot Digital Camera? and it’s companion piece How to Choose a DSLR.
6. Optical Zooms are King
Not all ‘zooms’ are created equal.
When you’re looking at different models of digital cameras you’ll often hear their zooms talked about in two ways. Firstly there’s the ‘optical zoom’ and then there’s the ‘digital zoom’.
I would highly recommend that you only take into consideration the ‘optical zoom’ when making a decision about which camera to buy. Digital zooms simply enlarge the pixels in your shot which does make your subject look bigger, but it also makes it look more pixelated and your picture ‘noisier’ (like when you go up close to your TV).
If you’re looking for a zoom lens make sure it’s an optical zoom (most modern cameras have them of at least 3x in length – ie they’ll make your subject three times as big – with an increasing array of ‘super zooms’ coming onto the market at up to 12x Optical Zoom).
7. Read reviews
Before buying a digital camera take the time to do a little research. Don’t JUST rely upon the advice of the helpful sales person (who may or may not know anything about cameras and who may or may not have sales incentives for the camera they are recommending).
Read some reviews in digital camera magazines or online to help you narrow down the field. There are some great websites around that give expert and user reviews on virtually every camera on the market – use this wonderful and free resource.
A little self promotion here – one such site is my Digital Photography Blog which is a site that collates the reviews of many sites from around the web. To use it best enter the camera’s model name that you’re looking for a review on in the search feature in the top right side bar. It’ll give you a link to a central page that has information on the camera as well as links to any reviews published online on that camera from around the web.
8. Hands On Experience
Once you’ve narrowed down your search to a handful of cameras head into your local digital camera shop and ask to see and play with them. There’s nothing like having the camera in your hands to work out whether it suits your needs.
When I shop for a camera I generally use the web to find reviews, then I head into a street in my city with 4 camera shops side by side and I go from shop to shop asking for recommendations and seeing the cameras live in the flash. In doing this I generally find the same camera or two are recommended in most shops and I get to see them demonstrated by different people (this gives a more well rounded demo). I also get to play with it and get a feel for which one I could see myself using.https://da360a56a245c0803c5da779cd8113ff.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html
After you’ve selected the right digital camera for you it’s time to find the best price.
Once again, I generally start online (on a site like our store) and do some searches to find the most competitive prices on the models I’m interested in. With these in hand I’m in a good position to be able to negotiate in person with local stores and/or with online stores. I generally find that retail stores will negotiate on price and will often throw in freebies. Online stores are more difficult – most bigger ones don’t give you the ability to negotiate but smaller ones often will if you email them.
Don’t forget to ask for free or discounted bonuses including camera cases, memory cards, extra batteries, filters, free prints, cases etc. I even know of a couple of stores that offer camera lessons that you can ask to be included. Some stores will also consider giving you a trade in on older gear.
I generally do negotiating from home on the phone and only go into a store to pick up the camera after a price is agreed upon.