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The best low-light cameras of 2021

Best low-light cameras
(Image credit: Parna Gohil)

The best low-light cameras open up a whole new world of shooting possibilities. Taking pictures and videos in low light can actually be quite a challenge – as you’ve probably noticed when you’ve tried to get night shots on your smartphone. Getting good, clean night-time shots takes a bit of preparation, and more importantly, the right equipment. 

The main consideration when getting a good low-light camera is sensor size – the reason your low-light smartphone shots aren’t much good is because your smartphone has a small 1/2.3-inch sensor. But there’s more – cameras can also generally use higher ISO settings than smartphones, which is how a sensor gathers more information in low light. It’s also possible to use larger lens apertures with a camera, especially one that allows you to swap lenses at will. For more on all this and some explanations of the technical terms, hop down to our explainer of what to consider when buying a low-light camera

In our guide, we’ve included a range of different types and makes of camera that all have one thing in common – they’re great for shooting in low light! Whether you’re looking to capture dramatic night-time cityscapes, starry skies, or shy nocturnal animals like urban foxes, one of these cameras will do the job well.

We’ve included models for a range of budgets, but if you’re looking for a starting point, our guide to the best cameras for beginners might come in handy. We’ve also got guides to the best cameras, and the best cameras for wildlife photography

The best low-light cameras in 2021

Best low-light cameras: Sony A7S IIICB

(Image credit: Sony)

01. Sony a7S III

The most powerful low-light camera, especially for video.

Specifications
Sensor: 12.1MP BSI CMOS full-frame sensor
ISO range: 80-102,400 (expandable 40-409,600)
Lens: Sony E-mount
Image stabilisation: 5-axis in-body stabilisation
Reasons to buy
+Class-leading ISO performance+Professional-grade video+Full-frame sensor
Reasons to avoid
-Over-specced for stills purists

You want the best low-light camera you can buy right now? This is it. The Sony A7S III is the third in a revolutionary line of full-frame mirrorless cameras capable of quite literally seeing in the dark, with incredible ISO ceilings of 409,600. The dynamic range of the A7S III is light years ahead of the competition, and it quite simply has to be seen to be believed.

The one caveat is that this is a camera mainly built for video users – hence the comparatively low megapixel count of 12MP. It’ll shoot stills, and do it well, but if you have no interest in video then you can definitely get a better camera for a similar amount of money. In video terms however, the A7S III is utterly sublime, up to the standards demanded by professionals. 

Best low-light cameras: Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IVCB endorsed

(Image credit: Olympus)

02. Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV

A superb beginner’s camera with powerful in-body stabilisation.

Specifications
Sensor: 20.3MP Four Thirds Live MOS sensor
ISO range: Approx. 80-25,600
Lens: Micro Four Thirds lens mount
Image stabilisation: In-body 5-axis image stabilisation
Reasons to buy
+Large MFT lens range+Excellent image stabilisation+Well laid-out controls
Reasons to avoid
-Relatively small sensor 

If you’re looking for a low-light camera that fits a tighter budget, we reckon one of the best buys you could make is the Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark IV. Though it’s designed to be accessible to novices, the E-M10 IV is a highly sophisticated camera that a user can grow into once they’ve mastered the basics. Olympus is famous for its powerful stabilisation systems, and the 5-axis version on the E-M10 IV is amazing for a camera at this price point, providing up to 4.5 EV steps of real-world compensation. This means you can shoot at slower shutter speeds, letting the camera drink in more light, without the need for a tripod!

It’s a great all-around camera, and though the Micro Four Thirds sensor is smaller than others on this list, you do get access to the huge catalogue of MFT lenses. It’s pleasingly lightweight too, making it a great choice for travel photographers. 

Best low-light cameras: Nikon Z6 IICB endorsed

(Image credit: Nikon)

03. Nikon Z6 II

Nikon’s enthusiast mirrorless model is better for low light than its big brother.

Specifications
Sensor: 24.5MP CMOS BSI full-frame sensor
ISO range: 100-51,200 (expandable 50-204,800)
Lens: Nikon Z lens mount
Image stabilisation: 5-axis sensor-shift image stabilisation
Reasons to buy
+Capable, versatile autofocus+Metering works in the dark+Sophisticated Z lens mount
Reasons to avoid
-Battery life could be better

While the Nikon Z7 II is the flagship of the Z series, with the top-of-the-line specs, we’d put in our recommendation for the Nikon Z6 II as the better camera for low light. Its lower megapixel count – 24 compared to 45 – is still perfectly adequate for most needs, and stands it in better stead for producing clean, low-noise images at high ISO settings.

Indeed, the original Z6 was something of a low light specialist, and the Z6 II builds on this, with an excellent exposure metering system that can accurately assess images in conditions as dark as -6EV. This is complemented by the sophisticated image stabilisation, which uses a sensor-shift system to compensate for camera-shake, enabling use of slower shutter speeds without needing a tripod. Having the sophisticated Z-mount connection between camera and lens is an additional bonus, helping the camera achieve lightning-fast autofocus.

Best low-light-cameras: Nikon D850

(Image credit: Nikon)

04. Nikon D850

The best DSLR for low-light shooting

Specifications
Sensor: 45MP CMOS BSI full-frame sensor
ISO range: 64-25,600 (expands to 32-102,400)
Lens: Nikon F lens mount
Image stabilisation: No
Reasons to buy
+Thoroughly reliable workhorse+Has come down in price+Fantastic lens range
Reasons to avoid
-No stabilisation

While it’s a few years old now, there’s a reason the Nikon D850 is still one of the most popular DSLRs among professionals and enthusiasts alike. With its generous full-frame sensor, it can shoot and keep shooting in a huge range of lighting conditions, and having an ISO range expandable to 102,400 doesn’t hurt either. Also, you’ve got native access to the incredible Nikon F-mount stable of lenses, which includes plenty of large-aperture primes. Crafting a beast of a low-light setup is really easy with the Nikon D850. 

Built to be tough and rugged, this is a DSLR perfect for outdoor adventurers, and thus makes for a good choice for night-time cityscape or landscape shooting. It’s also less expensive than it was on release, albeit still not what you’d call cheap. If you want a DSLR but the D850 is out of your price range, try the Canon EOS 6D Mark II, another full-frame camera with loads of lenses to choose from. 

Best low-light cameras: Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III

(Image credit: Canon)

05. Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III

Best low-light compact camera with an excellent APS-C sensor.

Specifications
Sensor: 24.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor
ISO range: 100-25,600
Lens: 24-72mm (35mm equivalent) f/2.8-5.6 lens
Image stabilisation: Four-stop Image Stabiliser
Reasons to buy
+Large, sophisticated sensor+Can charge via USB+Weather-sealed body
Reasons to avoid
-Max aperture of f/2.8

Compact cameras tend to be less capable in low light because many of them use small 1/2.3-inch sensors that hamper their dynamic range. Not so with the Canon PowerShot G1 X Mark III, which crams in an APS-C sensor of the type you’d expect to see in an enthusiast DSLR!

Indeed, the G1 X Mark III takes a few more cues from DSLRs, with a pleasingly tactile control layout and satisfying weight in the hand thanks to its weather-sealed body, making it enjoyable to use. Its ISO gets up to a respectable 25,600, though you may find yourself wishing that you had a slightly wider aperture than f/2.8 to work with. Still, Canon has done a hugely respectable job here, and the G1 X Mark III is one of the best low-light compact cameras around.

Best low-light cameras: Sony A6100

(Image credit: Sony)

06. Sony A6100

A good low-light camera for those on a budget

Specifications
Sensor: 24.2MP APS-C CMOS sensor
ISO range: 100-32,000 (expands to 51,000)
Lens: Sony E lens mount
Image stabilisation: No
Reasons to buy
+Excellent autofocus+Well priced
Reasons to avoid
-No stabilisation-Low-res viewfinder

An APS-C sensor isn’t quite the size of full frame, but is still definitely capable of capturing high-quality images in challenging light situations. Cameras with APS-C sensors also tend to be significantly cheaper than full-frame models; such is the case with the Sony A6100. A speedy shooter with a best-in-class autofocus system, the A6100 has loads of handy low-light features, such as the ability to shoot at an expandable ISO setting of 51,000. 

Focusing in low light can be a challenge, which is why the Sony A6100’s hyper-accurate hybrid autofocus system is so handy. It’s also no slouch with video, capturing high-quality 4K footage at 30p, so is useful if you want to add low-light vlogging to your repertoire.

While this is a comparatively inexpensive camera, it still does come with a price tag. If your budget is really stretched, consider the original Sony A6000. We reckon the autofocus and video improvements on the A6100 makes it worth the price difference, but the A6000 still nets you an APS-C sensor and the Sony E lens mount, which is enough to craft a potent low-light setup.

Best low-light cameras: Panasonic Lumix S5

(Image credit: Panasonic)

07. Panasonic Lumix S5

A lightweight mirrorless camera with sophisticated stabilisation.

Specifications
Sensor: 24.2MP CMOS full-frame sensor
ISO range: 100-51,200
Lens: L-mount
Image stabilisation: 5-axis in-body image stabilisation (can sync with lens I.S.; also offers digital Boost I.S. and E-Stabilization)
Reasons to buy
+Lightweight, ergonomic body+Excellent articulated touchscreen+Does everything pretty well
Reasons to avoid
-AF not the best

Panasonic’s S series of full-frame mirrorless cameras has taken a while to get right, but the Panasonic Lumix S5 represents perhaps the best iteration of the formula. Packing a full-frame sensor into a lightweight, portable body, it’s a camera that does pretty much everything quite well, making it one of the most tempting all-rounders on the market right now.

The ISO range gets up to an impressive 51,200, and this combines well with some of the most comprehensive image stabilisation technology on any camera. You have multiple paths towards achieving a solid low-light shot with the Lumix S5, and that alone is enough for it to warrant consideration. As you’d expect from Panasonic, it’s great for video too, able to shoot 4K 60p video that looks fantastic in a range of conditions. A jack of all trades and a master of none – but in the camera world, that’s no bad thing!

Best low-light cameras: Fujifilm X-T30

(Image credit: Fujifilm )

08. Fujifilm X-T30

A bargain intermediate model with exceptional low-light lenses

Specifications
Sensor: 26.1MP APS-C X-Trans CMOS 4 sensor
ISO range: 200-12,800 (expandable 100-51,200)
Lens: Fujifilm X-mount
Image stabilisation: None
Reasons to buy
+Superb JPEGs and flexible RAWs+Small but powerful+Access to brilliant X lenses
Reasons to avoid
-No in-body stabilisation

For a more budget-oriented model, we’d definitely recommend taking a look at the stylish Fujifilm X-T30. One of the best things about the Fujifilm X series is that it gets you access to the fantastically sharp X lenses, many of which are pushing boundaries when it comes to low light – including the incredible XF 50mm f/1.0, which manages to make this wider-than-ever aperture useable.

The X-T30 uses the famous Fujifilm X-Trans sensor, which produces JPEG images that look vivid and punchy straight out of camera – perfect if you’re not interested in spending much time post-processing. Although, if you are one for Photoshop, its RAW files are also pleasingly malleable, so the choice really is yours. The lack of in-body stabilisation does hold it back a bit, but the X-T30 ticks pretty much every other box at an outstanding price. 

Low-light cameras: What to consider

First off, when buying low-light cameras, consider the relationship between a camera’s sensor size and its megapixel count. Lots of pixels can be useful for printing, but they can also result in more image ‘noise’, meaning unwanted artefacts reducing the quality of your picture. Larger sensors offer better dynamic range so they can handle contrast more effectively. This is immensely useful for low-light situations, where you’re likely to encounter a combination of deep shadows and bright light sources. 

The next thing to think about is a camera’s maximum ISO setting. This refers to the sensitivity level of the sensor, and is expressed as a number. A setting of ISO 100 is used in very bright conditions, and when you have less ambient light to work with, you can up the ISO to compensate. The higher a camera’s maximum ISO setting, the more capable it will be in low light – though performance at these levels can vary from camera to camera. There’s no good buying a model that can shoot at ISO 51,200 if image noise renders the shots you get at that setting completely unusable. Image stabilisation can also be critical, allowing you to use slower shutter speeds hand-held, again expanding light-gathering capabilities.

Finally, it's important to consider what lenses you can use with a camera – you want to have access to lenses with wide maximum apertures, ideally f/2 or less. If you pick an interchangeable-lens camera you’ll be able to buy these; if you think you’d prefer a compact camera with a fixed lens, be sure to check its maximum aperture so you’ll know what you’ve got to work with.

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Jon Stapley

Jon is a freelance writer and journalist who covers photography, art, technology, and the intersection of all three. Interests include old film cameras, new digital gadgets, and pounding the pavements of London looking for fresh photo opportunities. If he finds any, he will let you know.