For most forms of photography, the camera makes little difference. Instead, it’s your creativity that shines. And you can often capture great images even with a smartphone if you refine your skillset. Of course, the right lens, a fast burst rate, super slow motion video, high resolutions, and such all have their place. But, when it comes to capturing better images at night, the right camera makes a world of difference. And not every camera is correctly apt to do the job.
Night photography is an interesting niche but not one without its challenges, namely lighting. And it’s an exciting way to transform a forgettable scene during the day into something magical. Historically, only ultra high-end DSLRs were capable of capturing quality images at night. But with advancements in technology over the years, mirrorless cameras have changed that fate. And now, many modern cameras, even those with APS-C crop sensors, are quite capable at night.
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But when it comes to picking the best cameras for night photography, there are certainly winners and losers regarding quality. And there are also many individual factors to consider that aren’t typical standards for traditional daytime photography. As such, we’ve created a detailed guide outlining some of these factors to consider. And we will also cover the best cameras for night photography on the present market.
Nikon Z6 Mark II
The Z6 II is a multimedia powerhouse and their latest mirrorless camera. Released in fall 2020, it has a 24.5-megapixel sensor and native ISO range of 100 to 51,200. It also has a 3.2-inch touchscreen, weather sealing, in-body stabilization, dual card slots, time-lapse, multiple exposures, focus shift, and wireless connectivity.
With this update, Nikon refines their autofocusing system. And while it obtains the same 273-point phase-detect AF system as its predecessor, it flaunts better low light performance. Now, the camera focuses at -4.5 EV. And it also does with 32% more battery life. But crucially, the Z6 Mark II offers in-body stabilization, letting you capture handheld images at 1 second or ISO 12,800 with processing.
Overall, Nikon Z6 Mark II builds on the original model’s strengths and eliminates its shortcomings. And it does so while proving their commitment to refining the Z system camera line.
The Nikon D780 stands out as the most versatile SLR in Nikon’s lineup. It made its debut in the spring of 2020, boasting a 24.5-megapixel sensor and a native ISO range spanning from 100 to 51,200. Notable features include a 3.2-inch touchscreen, support for focus stacking and multiple exposures, robust weather sealing, time-lapse capability, dual card slots, and seamless wireless connectivity.
Incorporating technology derived from the flagship D5 model, the D780 is equipped with a 51-point AF system featuring 3D-Tracking and -3EV support. What sets it apart is its status as Nikon’s first DSLR to introduce a 273-point phase-detect AF system for live view shooting. In this mode, impressive low-light performance is achieved, with a remarkable -5EV sensitivity that can be pushed even further to an astounding -7EV via the Low-Light AF Mode.
Moreover, Nikon has elevated the native shutter speed to an impressive 900 seconds, aligning it with the capabilities of the D810A. This enhancement means that capturing long-exposure shots with an external trigger is now a thing of the past. Furthermore, the camera can capture more than 2,200 such exposures at ISO 25,600, providing photographers with ample creative possibilities and processing capabilities.
Overall, the Nikon D780 breaks new grounds in capabilities, and it provides an enormous upgrade to a proven platform.
Sony A7S Mark III
The A7S Mark III marks the highly-anticipated update to the renowned A7S series. Unveiled in the autumn of 2020, it features a 12.1-megapixel sensor and offers a native ISO range spanning from 80 to 102,400. Its features include a 3-inch touchscreen, dual card slots, in-body stabilization, and seamless wireless connectivity.
In this latest iteration, the A7S family inherits the Fast Hybrid AF system from Sony’s FX9 cinema camera, complete with Real-Time Tracking capabilities and an impressive -6EV rating for low-light performance. Sony has also enhanced the camera’s 5-axis stabilization, now providing an impressive 5.5 stops of compensation. However, thanks to the camera’s extensive ISO range, reaching usable images at ISO 51,200 with some post-processing is highly feasible. What’s more, it boasts the longest battery life within its peer group, offering an impressive 600 shots per charge.
In summary, the A7S Mark III caters to a very specific niche but is an exceptionally powerful tool for night photography, provided it aligns with your budget. It upholds the legacy of the A7S series and continues to deliver on its reputation.
The D850 stands as Nikon’s groundbreaking ultra-high-resolution DSLR, representing their latest innovation. It made its debut in the autumn of 2017, featuring an impressive 45.4-megapixel sensor and a native ISO range extending from 64 to 25,600. Notable attributes include a 3.2-inch touchscreen, the inclusion of focus shift and time-lapse capabilities, robust weather sealing, dual card slots, and seamless wireless connectivity.
Nikon has revamped the focusing system in this model, now equipping it with the same 153-point AF system found in their flagship D5 camera. This AF system incorporates Nikon’s 3D-tracking technology to enhance subject tracking accuracy, boasting an impressive -4EV rating for low-light performance. Most significantly, this camera boasts a 25% increase in resolution, allowing its sensor to capture exceptional detail and dynamic range. Notably, noise performance has improved by nearly 2 stops in the process. This means that you can confidently capture ultra-high-resolution images at ISO 25,600 with the help of post-processing. Remarkably, it offers a battery life that enables you to shoot up to 1,840 shots, making it the leader in its segment for endurance.
In conclusion, the Nikon D850 demonstrates that DSLRs remain powerful and relevant, defying industry trends. Nikon has not only elevated the standard for professionalism but has also produced their most well-rounded camera to date.
Canon 5D Mark IV
The Canon 5D Mark IV represents the current flagship model in Canon’s esteemed 5D series and has garnered immense popularity. It was introduced in the autumn of 2016, featuring a 30.4-megapixel sensor with a native ISO range spanning from 100 to 32,000. It boasts a user-friendly 3.2-inch touchscreen, robust weather sealing, dual card slots, and seamless wireless connectivity.
In this fourth-generation iteration, Canon has significantly enhanced the camera’s focusing system. It now incorporates the same 61-point AF system featured in their flagship 1DX Mark II. Additionally, it benefits from Canon’s renowned Dual Pixel AF technology, which performs admirably even in low-light conditions with a -3EV rating. The cross-type point has also been refined, offering improved sensitivity, coverage, and an F/8 rating, surpassing the previous F/2.8. Most notably, the camera’s resolution has received a substantial 36% increase, equivalent to an additional 8MP, leading to improved image detail. Despite this resolution bump, the sensor continues to deliver exceptional image quality with enhanced dynamic range, reduced noise, and the ability to produce usable photos even at ISO 25,600 with post-processing. It also includes a built-in intervalometer, simplifying the process of capturing time-lapse sequences.
All in all, the 5D Mark IV remains the top choice for night photography and has retained its status as a flagship model since its initial release in 2016. It serves as a dependable workhorse for professionals and stands as one of Canon’s finest DSLRs to date.
Why Invest in a Night Photography Camera?
In most photography genres, the camera itself often plays a minimal role in elevating the quality of your images. Factors like favorable lighting, creative composition, and a keen eye for detail tend to take precedence over the camera model. Night photography, however, stands as an exception to this norm. It’s a realm where the choice of camera can make a profound difference. Not all cameras are equipped to handle the stark contrasts and low-light challenges presented by most night scenes. Therefore, investing in a specialized camera tailored for night photography is a prudent choice.
Selecting the Right Camera for Night Photography
When seeking a camera for night photography, several key factors merit consideration. Below are the main elements to ponder when searching for the ideal night photography camera:
Night photography cameras mainly come in two types: mirrorless and DSLRs. The choice between them hinges on factors such as viewfinders, battery life, and physical form. DSLRs, being bulkier, offer enhanced ergonomics and more comfortable handling, with longer-lasting batteries. Mirrorless cameras, on the other hand, provide electronic viewfinders for real-time scene previews, granting greater convenience in capturing images and a more compact, portable design. The decision between the two depends on your personal preferences.
Sensor Size & Resolution
For night photography, the camera’s sensor size assumes critical importance, with full-frame sensors being the preferred choice. These sensors are renowned for their ability to capture ample light, making them ideal for low-light conditions. Moreover, larger sensors excel in managing dynamic range and contrast in scenes, delivering superior images with detailed shadows and avoiding overexposed highlights. Given these advantages, full-frame cameras are the go-to selection for night photographers. Additionally, opt for a camera with a lower resolution as higher megapixels can introduce noise and reduce image quality in low-light conditions.
ISO, indicating a sensor’s sensitivity to light, plays a significant role in low-light performance. Cameras with a higher maximum ISO setting tend to excel in low-light settings by capturing more ambient light. However, using high ISO values can introduce digital noise and result in grainy-looking images. Most modern cameras can comfortably handle ISO settings up to 6,400, offering flexibility and image sharpness for handheld shots. It’s wise to stay within this range or go up to ISO 12,800 with minor post-processing and noise reduction.
The choice of shutter speed in night photography varies depending on the available light and the desired motion capture. In low-light or dark conditions, a slower shutter speed is recommended to capture as much light as possible. It’s worth noting that many cameras offer a bulb mode, allowing for long exposures that are essential for night photography. Check if your camera has this feature or if an external shutter release is required for extended exposure times.
Dynamic range, measuring the latitude between shadow and highlight detail, is a crucial attribute for night photographers, especially when shooting scenes with high contrast. A camera with a broad dynamic range of at least 12 stops is essential to ensure that you can recover shadow detail during post-processing without compromising image quality.
Digital noise, akin to film grain, can distort images in night photography. Different cameras exhibit varying noise characteristics, with some rendering noise more pleasingly than others. Assess test samples to identify the camera’s highest usable ISO value while maintaining color fidelity and image detail, particularly if you anticipate using high ISO settings frequently.
Not all cameras excel in low light focusing. A camera’s low-light autofocus capability is essential, and most cameras perform well in either low-light focusing or image quality but not both. When considering autofocus, look for cameras with AF support down to at least -3EV, equivalent to ISO 6,400, to ensure reliable performance in dim lighting conditions.
Image stabilization, be it optical (O.IS) or in-body (IBIS), is crucial if you plan to shoot handheld during night photography. It allows you to use slower shutter speeds while still producing sharp images. Consider pairing a camera with in-body stabilization with an optically stabilized lens for even better results, allowing handheld shooting at slower shutter speeds.
The choice of lens matters when capturing nightscapes handheld. Opt for a fast lens with a wide maximum aperture, such as f/2.8 or f/1.8, to gather more ambient light and reduce the need for higher ISO settings or long exposures. However, if you plan to use a tripod, a lens with a slower aperture is preferable, typically around f/8, to achieve sharper images.
In conclusion, investing in the right camera for night photography can significantly impact the quality of your images. Carefully consider the camera type, sensor size, ISO capabilities, shutter speed, dynamic range, noise performance, autofocus, image stabilization, and lens selection to ensure your camera meets the unique challenges of night photography.
One of the key downsides of mirrorless cameras is their notoriously short battery life. And if you plan on shooting for hours on end, the last thing you want is a dead battery mid-shoot. So, it’s critical to ensure you have sufficient power to last throughout the night, particularly if you’re doing time-lapses and long exposures.
Most mirrorless cameras only offer 350 shots per charge on a single battery, which isn’t much. And features such as wireless connectivity, always-on displays, and high-resolution sensors can quickly reduce this performance. As such, consider purchasing a spare battery or two. And also, investigate whether the camera you’re considering offers USB charging. With USB charging, you could avoid much of the expense of purchasing genuine manufactured batteries and save money, as power banks are much more affordable.
If you want to excel at night photography, you’ll certainly need a tripod to do so as you’ll be working primarily with shutter speeds that are difficult to use handheld.
When it comes to tripods for night photography, you’ll have many options with various designs and price points. But in general, carbon fiber tripods are lighter and more robust, making them a good choice for hiking long distances to your location. Aluminum tripods, however, are slightly heavier but are substantially more affordable than carbon fiber tripods. And their larger size typically makes them more stable under windy conditions. But in either case, choose a tripod that works for your budget and meets your needs for traveling.
Night Photography Tips
Now that you understand the factors to consider and some of the best cameras for night photography, here are some tips to help capture even better images.
While shooting JPEG is convenient and saves both time and storage space, shooting in RAW provides more flexibility. And it’s the superior format when it comes to night photography. The reason is RAW captures the full dynamic range of your camera. And it also doesn’t apply in-camera noise reduction or sharpening. Combined, this results in better images with more detail and less noise. So, if you plan on printing and publishing your night photos, shooting in RAW is best.
Give Yourself Time
Regardless of your particular subject, capturing rewarding night photos requires patience. So give yourself time to experiment with the settings and composition so that you can capture the best image of your scene. Also, expect to take test shots before finalizing each image. And keep in mind many of these test shots will be long exposures, so plan accordingly.
Use Exposure Bracketing
If your camera has a built-in Exposure Bracketing, use it. Exposure Bracketing lets you capture three images sequentially that vary in exposure by one stop. And you can combine these images in post-processing to create high dynamic range (HDR) images. Compared to a single exposure, HDR images capture more dynamic range and detail in both the shadows and highlights. And it’s a valuable option, as it’s usually hard to get the perfect exposure at night in one shot. But say your camera doesn’t have this option, then play around with the exposure compensation or vary the exposure manually. With either technique, you can achieve the same result. So no worries there.
If you’re shooting Astrophotography or time-lapses in remote locations, battery life will become a huge concern. And the best thing is to use airplane mode, especially if you have a mirrorless camera, as they already have poor battery life. Airplane mode disables the camera’s wireless connectivity, which you’re unlikely to use out on location. Doing so increases the camera’s battery life, somewhere, on average, by 10%. It’s a noticeable difference.
However, if you want to trigger the camera’s shutter from your smartphone wirelessly, you’ll want to leave this feature enabled. But, understand, it will dramatically reduce your camera’s battery life. As such, consider getting a wired cable release or using the self-timer function instead.
While in-body image stabilization helps shoot handheld with slow shutter speeds, night photography is best reserved on a tripod instead. Tripods offer superior stability so that you can shoot long exposures of up to one hour in length. And capturing such an image, it’s virtually impossible by holding the camera alone. As such, disable stabilization when using a tripod. And only enable it when doing street photography and capturing fast moving subjects.
Try Aperture Priority
While it’s often best to shoot in manual to have the most control, aperture priority removes much of the guesswork in caption while exposed images. And it’s a great tool for beginners looking to get started immediately. Just choose the appropriate aperture that gives you the depth of field you would like, mount the camera on a tripod, and let it do the rest.
Electronic Viewfinder & LCD Brightness
If you have a mirrorless camera, consider dimming the brightness on both the rear display and the viewfinder. Doing so will preserve the camera’s battery life. And it will also maintain your night vision while reducing eye strain.
Also, consider disabling the electronic viewfinder altogether and using only the rear LCD, if possible. Most cameras do this automatically if you enable a power-saving mode. But simply changing the display settings to this configuration will dramatically improve the battery life. And it’ll help give you more time out in the field.
Shutter Release Cables
If you plan on capturing long exposures, consider getting an external shutter release cable. A dedicated cable will prevent camera shake and motion blur in your images from depressing the shutter. And doing so captures perfectly still images with utmost detail.
Consider experimenting with your camera’s Bulb Mode, if it has one. With the Bulb Mode, the shutter remains open for anywhere from 30 seconds to 15 minutes, as long as you depress the shutter button. And mode helps capture light-painted images, star trails and dramatic Astrophotography.
Last Updated on October 12, 2023 by Photography PX Published March 15, 2021