“The stars, like dust, encircle me In living mists of light; And all of space I seem to see In one vast burst of sight” (poem by Isaac Asimov 1951)
What is it about the night time sky that enamors so many of us? Maybe it’s because standing under the beautiful heavens shows us that there is more to this universe than what is merely around us. Also, it connects us on a deep inner level with the vast spectacle of all there is.
As an artist, a photographer wants to help others connect to that feeling. Since cameras are our paint brush and canvas, what are the best cameras for night photography? But first…
What type of cameras & lenses are best for night photography?
Before we get too far along, I want to point out that there is more to night photography than deep sky astrophotography. A city scape of man made lights, a moonlit beach, candid people pics in large cities, and even light painting are other aspects of night photography.
When Van Gogh painted “The Starry Night” in 1889, he didn’t have to worry about holding a camera still, or adjusting exposure to balance foreground and background. As photographic artists, those are things we do need to be aware of. Thus, we need the proper equipment to allow us that control.
A DSLR or a mirrorless ILC is the preferred camera choice for many night photographers. Compared to the vast majority of point and shoot (P&S) cameras, a DSLR/ILC camera gives us many more options for exposure control. That is an important factor because we often need rather long shutter speeds for correct exposure. Manual exposure control is often necessary because night scenes still fool many metering systems.
This is also a great video to get you started!
Being able to change the lens is another reason to use a DSR/ILC. A wide angle lens, with a fast aperture, gives a photographer options not available in a P&S or smartphone. In full frame 35mm format, a 24mm lens with an f/stop of f/2.8 is a great choice for many.
Manual focus ability is often vital as well. An autofocus camera with a focus assist beam can find the correct focus for a nearby subject, but any scene with the primary subject beyond a few yards will usually need to be manually focused. Sometimes, you may even need to set focus on the focus scale of the lens.
And buy a tripod!
How to capture amazing night time photos
- Bracket exposures. One of the more difficult exposure calculations is a night scene. There are so many variables to consider. A well lit street scene or a photo of the Moon itself might have an exposure pretty close to what we would use for daylight scenes. A scene lit by the Moon is exposed way differently than a pic of the Moon. Digital makes it easy to bracket exposure.
- Use a tripod. Unless you’re in downtown Tokyo, the Vegas Strip, or somewhere similar, a night scene will probably require some sort of camera support. A good rule of thumb, if you can distinguish the sound of your shutter opening and then closing, as opposed to one sound, then use a tripod.
- Stop down the aperture. You think you will want the aperture wide open, but usually not. A couple of f/stops down from wide open results in better image quality with almost every lens. Which is why a faster lens is a good idea. Two stops down from f/1.4 or f/2.0 is a lot faster than 2 stops from f/4.5. Be careful with very small f/stops, too. Point light sources like street lamps or stars can be negatively impacted by diffraction.
- Bracket focus. In many night scenes, focusing can be tricky. Focus a little ahead and behind along with what you think is correct focus to make sure you get the pic you want. Film is cheap, especially in digital photography.
- Stack exposures. Any photos of or including deep sky objects can benefit from the post processing technique of exposure stacking. Very long exposures of sky objects introduce the problem of streaking due the movement of Earth and sky. With exposure stacking, the program adds together several different shorter exposures to create a usable final image.
- Don’t over expose the Moon. Many pictures of the Moon are ruined by using too long of a shutter speed. A picture of the full Moon itself is a subject lit by direct sunlight. (Think about it.) Moon phases will need different, slightly slower speeds, but rarely the long times most beginners envision. Again, bracket.
Top 5 Best Cameras For Night Photography + Reviews!
1. Canon EOS 80D Kit with EF-S 18-55mm Review (Best For Value, Price & Functionality)
Coming in first on my list is the mighty Canon EOS 80D which was realised in 2016 and has become a big crowd favourite amongst many photographers! In a nutshell this camera ticks all the essential boxes of a great camera while not breaking the bank. It is also one of Canon’s best APS-C format cameras available.
Sporting a 24.2MP sensor, this results in amazing image quality, and being a much larger sensor, it helps to keep noise or grain to a minimum while taking nighttime shots. Even when the ISO is bumped up, the noise is relatively noticeable when compared to other entry level/intermediate cameras.
There is also big bright viewfinder that helps a lot with night photography too. I personally prefer to compose my images via the LCD screen when doing milky way or astrophotography as opposed to the viewfinder. Even better is that this 80D has an articulating screen for better viewing angles.
Its autofocus system also operates nicely in fairly dim light, and manual focus is readily accessible. Canon makes many lenses worth looking at, including some reasonably priced faster wide angle primes. Plenty of 3rd party lenses around, too.
Combining this features easily makes this camera one of the best contenders for night time photography. Highly recommended for those who want to capture stunning images without breaking the bank!
2. Nikon D7200 DX-format DSLR w/18-140mm VR Lens Review
Next up is one of Nikon’s top end APS-C format cameras. This kit pairs with it a very good lens (18-140mm) with an extended range over many other kit zoom lenses. Combined with the lens is a 24.2MP sensor which ensures amazing image quality with wonderfull color rendition and sharpness.
Similar to the above 80D, this model has n ISO range of 100 – 25600 and is expandable all the way up to 102400 for monochromatic images. While I didn’t use this feature that much in night photography, it is still great to have for other photographic purposes!
As for the focusing, It can autofocus extremely well in very low light. There is also the bright and clear viewfinder which gave me the ability to manual focus with ease. While it is very sharp, I find it has less contrast when compared to the Canon. But at the end of the day, this is not that big of a deal.
Battery life is very good (about 3-4 hours depending on use), an important consideration for extended night time photography sessions. Batteries are also reasonably priced and can be changed out quickly.
Nikon removing the low pass filter from the image sensor also gives benefits for low light and night photography. With many subjects, you would never notice a difference, for deep sky subjects, it can bring out greater detail and nuances in colors. Overall this is a great pick!
3. Canon EOS 5D Mark IV Full Frame Digital SLR Camera with EF 24-105mm f/4L IS II USM Lens Kit
All other things being equal, I would prefer to have the largest sensor inside my camera. A 30.4MP full frame format sensor is going to result in outstanding image quality across the board. Each individual pixel being larger means that low light performance can be significantly improved over smaller sensors.
All other things are not equal, though. Size and price are the two biggest differences between full frame and APS-C cameras. While the size and weight are not too much of a concern, the pricing can be for many photographers. Full frame cameras and lenses are often double the price of the smaller cameras, sometimes quite a bit more.
This EOS 5D mk IV has a full frame sensor with 30.4MP and the EF 24-105mm kit lens which is a superb performer. Image quality can be truly outstanding with this combination. A wide range of lenses is available, including many older Canon lenses introduced for their original EOS film cameras. You just have to shop around to find the good used deals.
The viewfinder of a full frame camera is a joy to behold, compared to smaller cameras. Canon full frame cameras are all made with exceptional quality, so the camera is easy to use under variable conditions for a wide range of purposes.
As with all Canon DSLRs, autofocus is fantastic, working down to very low light levels. Manual focus is a breeze with the large, bright viewfinder or the rear view screen. If are familiar with the art of photography and don’t mind spending large amounts of money, this is an amazing choice!
4. Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Camera w/16-50mm Power Zoom Lens
Next up on my list of best cameras for night photography is the uber compact mirrorless APS-C format camera. The Sony Alpha a6000 gives fantastic performance in an amazingly small package. Seriously, some P&S or bridge cameras are bigger than this camera with its kit zoom lens.
For some people, the smaller size and different shape may take some getting used to. I found myself bringing the camera up to my eye with he viewfinder in the wrong place many times because of the electric viewfinder being offset to the side.
I could also do without the power zoom function of the kit lens. It eats power and feels odd. The lens itself is a fine performer, very sharp.
Sony makes extremely high performance sensors for several different brands. The sensors Sony uses in their own cameras are all top of the line. A 24.3MP sensor with an ISO range of 100 – 25600 delivers pin point quality. Sony’s fine lenses complete the picture, this is one of the best cameras for night photography and for general imaging.
5. Canon EOS Rebel T6 Digital SLR Camera Kit with EF-S 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 IS II Lens
Not to be overlooked in our search for the best cameras for night photography are the entry level DSLRs. Canon Rebels are among the better entry level, or budget, cameras.
I say budget because the major brand’s entry level cameras can often be found with two lens kits for less than the price of prosumer camera bodies only. Generally speaking, there is not much difference in image quality, it’s the build ruggedness and advanced features that are usually lacking in entry level cameras.
This Canon has an 18MP APS-C sensor and very sharp lens for great imaging capability. ISO range is 100 – 12800 and full manual control of every setting is possible. The full range of Canon EF lenses can be used on this camera, so there are not any limits optically to what you can do with this camera.
All of the major brand’s entry level cameras are more than up to the task of creating outstanding images, in low light night photography, or in any other type of photographic endeavor. Any of the ones I’ve tried out can fit into a smaller budget for the best cameras for night photography. You can also view my guide on on the best tripods for astro photography here.
Now, go out and light up the night!