Low light photography is a great way to capture fantastic images, plus it’s a lot of fun to do. The best compact cameras for low light photography are easy to use and have features that make them exceptionally useful for all sorts of photography besides low light imaging.
Have you ever been to a ball game or concert and giggled at all the flashes going off? Knowing that those people are going to look at the pics and wonder why they look so bad. You know that the low power flash, tiny sensor, and slow lens on their smartphone or P&S camera are not optimum equipment for low light photography.
Uses where good low light capability is important
Low light photography takes many forms. Besides the concerts and ballgames mentioned, sunset and twilight scenes are popular. And let’s not forget parties, weddings, and other events. Some of those scenes or venues just won’t work with flash, so you need one of the best compact cameras for low light photography to get good images.
Other scenarios include light painting, astrophotography, moonlit landscapes or cityscapes. Real estate photography also has situations that require a good camera for low light use, whether poorly lit interiors, or twilight shots of the property exteriors.
How I found the best compact cameras for low light
There are a variety of factors to consider for what cameras are most useful for low light or nighttime photography. But, you also want the camera to be useful for all your other photographic endeavors. What specific things should you be looking for?
- Sensor Size
- Faster Lenses
- High ISO
- Low Noise
- Easy to Navigate Menu
- Simple Controls
- Clear Viewfinder or Viewscreen
- Video Recording
Sensor size. A larger sensor has better light gathering potential than smaller ones. A full-frame 35mm sensor would be ideal, but costly. An APS-C format sensor is a good size. Most cameras with an APS-C sensor are very affordable compared to full-frame.
Most P&S and smartphone sensors are tiny by comparison, generally not suitable for high quality low light imaging. But, there are some point and shoot bridge cameras with larger sensors that would be suitable. Micro 4/3rds (MFT) sensor cameras are also very useful for low light.
Faster lenses. An interchangeable lens camera is ideal. Then we can attach whatever lens is suitable. A faster f-stop isn’t just useful for the exposure, but it also makes for easier framing and focusing. Some of the better point and shoot or bridge cameras have very fast lenses.
Low noise. Digital noise, that is. Similar to grain in high speed films, digital noise can lower the image quality of your photos. Used for a special effect, noise can be interesting. But generally, we want as little noise as possible. Which is another reason why we prefer larger sensors for low light imaging.
Easy to navigate menu and simple controls go hand in hand and make the camera easier to use in lower light. Fumbling around with tiny buttons or having to access multiple windows in the menu become much harder in the dark.
Clear and bright viewfinder and viewscreen makes the job of focusing, composing, and setting exposure a little more accessible in lower light.
Top 5 Best Compact Cameras for Low Light Photography
1. Sony Alpha a6000 Mirrorless Digital Camera 24.3MP Review
Sony has created a camera that has features and capabilities rivaling professional caliber cameras but in a very compact package.
An APS-C format 24.3MP sensor is at the center of the package. Along with Sony’s image processor, this provides fantastically deep image files that can be manipulated by an editing program to bring out all you may need for a great low light image. Being APS-C format, this sensor is significantly larger than the basic P&S or smartphone, giving good low light results.
The supplied kit lens is sharp and versatile, though a little on the slow side. Being an interchangeable lens camera, you could add any number of faster lenses. Since it’s a mirrorless camera, there are 3rd party adapters for many different lens mounts, opening up a wide range of fast lens options.
Large, easy to figure out controls access basic functions, and the menu is fairly simple for other functions. This makes it a good choice for those low light situations that demand quick changes due to challenging lighting conditions.
A large and bright eyelevel viewfinder is complemented by a tilting viewscreen. The viewscreen is also used to access menu options and certain camera controls.
Sony is one of the leaders in the digital video industry, and this camera has excellent video capabilities. Full HD 1080p plus numerous special recording modes.
2. Canon PowerShot G9 X Mark II Compact Digital Review
A larger point and shoot camera type, with a sensor called the 1” type sensor, the Canon PowerShot G9 is a nice compromise of high quality imaging with compact size.
What is a 1 inch type sensor? Well, 1” does not actually refer to the specific size, but to a sensor that measures 13.2×8.8mm. The 1” type comes from a holdover from early analog video tubes. It was determined that a one inch tube actually had a usable image circle of 16mm. The diagonal of a 13.2×8.8mm rectangle is about 16mm. So, marketers quickly latched on to the term.
A 1” type sensor is smaller than even Micro 4/3rds (MFT), but is significantly larger in area than the 1/2.3” sensor in most P&S cameras or smartphones. These small sensors are 6.17×4.55mm, so you can see how much better for low light and general image quality a 1” type sensor is.
The built in lens is a high quality, very sharp lens. It is also rather fast for a P&S camera at f/2.0. The zoom range is limited to 3X, but that helps keeps the entire camera at a reasonable small size. There is also image stabilization that really comes in handy when shooting in low light.
A 3 inch viewscreen doubles as a touchscreen for camera control. The menu is accessed by swiping and tapping on the screen. Buttons on the back of the camera and a ring around the lens round out the controls. Once you get used to the controls, they are simple to operate, even in lower light levels.
Video recording is awesome, too. Full HD 1080p and several other recording modes.
3. Sony RX100 20.2 MP Premium Compact Digital Camera Review
With a 20.2MP 1” type sensor, the Sony RX100 is well suited for demanding photographers wanting high performance and quality out of their small cameras. An f/1.8 3.6X Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T* lens is built in to the small camera, offering excellent image quality.
Carl Zeiss T* lenses are well regarded in the world of photography due to being sharp, contrasty, and well corrected against optical aberrations such as excess flare or image degradation.
As for the camera, it is compact and has well placed controls for basic functions, such as a top plate dial and a ring around the lens. The 3” viewscreen is also used to see the deeper menu options for other controls.
This camera even has manual focus capability. And like any Sony camera, the video recording quality is quite high. Additional features are HDR in camera and a panorama mode.
4. Canon PowerShot Digital Camera [G7 X Mark II] Review
Another 20.1MP 1” type sensor P&S Canon, this one is very similar to the Canon G9 above.
The differences are mainly in the lens and viewscreen. The f/1.8 lens has a zoom range of 4.2X, giving it more reach than the 3X zoom range of the less expensive G9. The G9 is about 2/3rds the price of this camera.
A 3” combination viewscreen and touchscreen tilts up a full 180 degrees and down 45 degrees. This allows for a little more versatility in camera positions, which may come in handy when shooting or recording in lower light.
Video recording is as good as just about any compact Canon camera, Full HD 1080p. The camera records stills in RAW for highest image quality.
Other features on this small camera are wi-fi and NFC, image stabilization, and fantastic auto focus. Many of the other features and capabilities are very similar to the G9 reviewed above.
5. Panasonic Lumix ZS50 Camera Review
High quality characterizes this little camera. From its image sensor to the Leica Vario-Elmar lens, this tiny camera simply exudes quality.
The sensor size is smaller, a 1/2.3” sensor, but the decision to limit it to 12.1MP actually gives it better low light capability. The reason is because the individual pixels are slightly larger than having more MP in the same size sensor. You give up one thing, but gain a different thing.
Its Leica zoom lens has a 30X optical zoom range, extended to 60X digitally. RAW recording adds in another layer of high quality that cameras with similar sensor sizes sometimes lack.
A top plate dial and ring around the lens are some of the easy to use physical controls, and the 3” viewscreen also shows deeper menu options for camera operation.
Besides the viewscreen, this tiny camera also includes an eyelevel viewfinder. This is a nice addition to this camera, especially useful in lower light or for action photography. Having an eyelevel viewfinder lets you hold the camera more like a larger camera, allowing you to use the hand holding techniques you have practiced with other cameras.
Even though this is a very small and lightweight camera, the different shooting stance of eyelevel tends to give better results concerning camera steadiness. Image stabilization built in also helps.