For the vast majority of photography, the camera doesn’t matter. The images you create are a combination of composition, lighting, subject, and creativity. As Chase Jarvis (CEO of CreativeLive) famously says, “the best camera is the one you have with you,” and we truly believe that.
Of course, having a fast lens will enable you to capture very shallow depth of field for portraits, for example. Similarly, having a camera with a very high frames per second (fps) will be better for capturing objects in motion, like with sports photography. However it is misguided to think that having a camera with higher megapixels, improved spot-metering, or faster auto-focus will inherently result in you capturing better images. Real improvement comes from learning how to work with the camera that you have, by learning how to read the light, and by training your eye.
Now take everything that I just said, and ignore it for now. Because I am about to describe how the best cameras for night photography actually do make a huge difference when it comes to being able to capture epic images in low light.
What are the settings for night photography that matter? What are the features and capabilities that actually make a difference, and why?
Glad you asked.
ISO – This is one of the largest challenges for a camera that is designed to be ideal for night photography; performing well at high ISOs. In order to capture a scene that has very low ambient light, you will typically be shooting at ISO 3200, 6400, or even higher.
Dynamic Range – If you have an underexposed image, which will often be the case when shooting at night, it is really important that your camera be able to lift the shadows in post-processing, without serious degradation to your image. Being able to lighten the shadows or dark areas of your scene, without introducing an unacceptable amount of extra noise, is definitely a must for the best cameras for night photography.
The Best Cameras for Night Photography
During the filming for Night Photography Week in the Alabama Hills, California, instructor Lance Keimig went into great detail about his recommendations for the best cameras to use for night photography.
Lance says that it used to be the case that nothing short of an ultra high-end full-frame DSLR would be able to capture quality images a night. However, he says that with the major advancements in camera technology in recent years, it is more important that you have a recent or modern camera, rather than relying on it being full-frame. This is good news for anyone who has more of a mid-range APS-C crop sensor DSLR and wants to be able to shoot at night.
That being said, most professional night photographers will agree that full-frame is the way to go, as it allows you to shoot a wider scene, which is often the desired composition for night photography.
This is Lance’s preferred camera, specifically because it performs very well at high ISOs. It also gives him significant power to be able to lift underexposed shadows in post-processing.
Sensor: 24.3MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 100-12800 (Extended Mode: 50-51200)
This is the highest end Nikon camera for landscape and night photography available. While most people don’t necessarily need the additional megapixels, those that use this camera swear by it.
Sensor: 36.3MP FX-Format CMOS Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 64-12800 (High Sensitivity Mode: 32-51200)
Sensor: 20.2MP APS-C CMOS Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 100-16000 (Extended Mode: 100-51200)
Relatively light, relatively affordable. And performs fairly well at high ISOs.
Sensor: 20.2MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 100-25600 (Extended Mode: 50-102400)
These cameras are great, but Lance argues that you don’t necessarily need to jump to the most expensive models for this type of photography, primarily because you don’t need the faster frame rate of these high-end cameras. You also don’t have a need for the sophisticated auto-focus, because for night photography, you will almost always be in manual focus.
Sensor: 22.3MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 100-25600 (High Sensitivity Mode: 50-102400)
Considering what you get, this camera is a tremendous value. It also performs very well at high ISOs and in low-light. The major limitation of the Pentax? There are relatively few lenses for Pentax cameras at this point (although that will likely be changing in the future).
Sensor: 36.4MP Full-Frame CMOS Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 100-204800
Sensor: 24.3MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS III Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 200-12800 (Extended Mode: 100-51200)
Sensor: 12.2MP Full-Frame Exmor CMOS Sensor
ISO Sensitivity: 100-102400 (Extended Mode: 50-409600)
The extreme high ISO range of this mirrorless camera is what sets it apart for night photography.
In short, Nikon cameras tend to excel at both ISO sensitivity and dynamic range. Canon cameras on the other hand, have really great live-view that performs well under these conditions, making it much easier to focus in low-light.
Sony cameras, like Nikons, perform very well at high ISOs, and they also have a fairly good live-view experience. The downside of the Sony mirrorless system for shooting at night, is the fact that the battery life is notoriously short. A lot of times, you will be shooting for hours on end, with multiple long-exposures, and the last thing you want is to have your battery die in the middle of a shot. This isn’t to say that Sony mirrorless camera’s aren’t good for night photography, but it’s just a factor you have to be aware of.
If you are taking pictures at night, you are almost certainly going to be needing a tripod to go with your camera. The shutter speeds that you will working with are simply too slow for hand-held.
Tripods can get very expensive and there are lots to chose from, which is why we have some good news: for this type of work, there aren’t too many specific requirements that your tripod has to have.
Some factors to consider:
Aluminum versus carbon fiber. Carbon fiber is of course lighter and is better if you are going backpacking or hiking in pretty far to your location and don’t really want to carry the weight. Personally, I only work with carbon fiber tripods for this exact reason.
Carbon fiber tripods also have the advantage of not getting as cold in colder environments. However, they are often considerably more expensive (often twice as much) than their aluminum counterparts. Additionally, because they are lighter, they may be more prone to shake in windier environments.
If you travel a lot, it is pretty essential to have a tripod that compacts down tightly and will fit into your DSLR camera bag without being disassembled.
Another cool feature of the best tripods for night photography: a leveling head. It’s great because it allows you to level the tripod regardless of whether or not the legs are on level ground. Especially if you are doing any kind of panoramic photography, this is a really helpful feature.
Whatever camera you have, you will only be able to capture incredible images if you understand all the planning, settings, and techniques necessary for night photography. This is where Night Photography Week comes in. It will be jammed-packed full of everything you need to know, taught by expert instructors in this field.
Seriously, sign up for this event coming up September 12-16th. It’s free to watch while live, so get onboard now and get an email reminder when it’s time!