One of the most popular questions I get asked is “What is the best camera for low light?”. As with most photography related subjects, this question is entirely dependent on what it is that you are trying to photograph. The answer also depends heavily on the equipment you are working with in order to achieve the best low light camera techniques.
Photography requires a combination of three elements that determine exposure – aperture, shutter speed and ISO. In low light situations, the weakest link here is the ISO sensitivity. ISO is a measurement of how sensitive the capture medium is. This applies to film as well as digital camera sensors. Both of these mediums work in very different ways, but on the same principal and measurement. Film is material sensitive (for a later chemical application) and digital sensors record light electronically – but they both work with the same sensitivity measurements. Both mediums also see the best image quality at lower ISO ratings, but as we move into the 21st century, digital cameras are receiving an incredible amount of research and development making higher ISO ratings better every year. Lets look at the technical aspects of these applications.
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Modern digital cameras are constantly improving. In fact, the speed of improvement in these cameras since the late 1990’s is staggering. I remember my first digital camera (a Canon Digital Rebel) did pretty well at an ISO rating of 200 but you could start to see noise at 400. These early cameras required a great deal of light to achieve a high image quality. Contrast this with some of the cameras that have been introduced this year and the difference is amazing. ISO ratings of 1600 and 3200 are very usable and the top of the line cameras can go beyond this with very minimal defects.
In general, larger sensors permit more light per pixel permitting lower noise and higher quality conversion of light to a RGB value so this is something to consider if this is the most important factor in selecting a digital camera. Full frame sensors usually perform better than APX or Half Frame sensors in low light. Lenses with wider apertures help too for handheld shots, but if you require a large depth of field, this won’t fix anything.
So what are the problems with high ISO digital settings? Digital cameras produce digital noise when the light levels fall below what the sensor can capture. This is similar to film grain, but way less pleasing to look at. Contrast can decrease as well. Another problem that digital cameras have is noise introduced from longer exposure times. CMOS sensors handle this better than other varieties, but in general, anything exposure time beyond 20 seconds starts to degrade the image. High end cameras are built with internal noise reduction. This is a bit of a bandage type solution and the quality can vary from model to model. The good news is that the ISO ratings are improving with each new model of sensor so its quite possible that extreme low light situations don’t really require exposures of over 20 seconds, unless of course an effect is desired such as star lines in astrophotography.
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Film cameras don’t really have defects so much as they have characteristics when using higher ISO settings. The more sensitive the film is, the more film grain will be visible. Film grain is more random and pattern variable than digital noise and in many cases is actually pleasing to look at. There is a strong sense of nostalgia and abstraction that is introduced with the appearance of film grain. However, its not always the desired result. If you’re looking at a clean image, you’ll need to use lower ISO’s and processing techniques such as “stand development”. Film also has a detrimental effect with long exposures, but unlike digital sensors its not a visual effect. Long exposures with film start to see what is called “reciprocity failure“. This simply means that the sensitivity begins to fail and you’ll need to compensate with a longer exposure than what is required. This failure is often documented in the specification of the film type you are using and can most likely be found on the manufacturer’s website. Fuji introduced a 100 ISO film called Acros that is designed to hold its ISO for up to 10 minutes before failure begins where as most films start to see failure occur at 2 minutes. If you understand where this failure point is, you can compensate and achieve successful results consistently.
Low Light Situations
As I stated at the beginning, the question of “what is the best camera for low light” is really dependent on the situation. What is the subject you are trying to capture? Can you use a tripod or must the camera be handheld? How low is the light? How much depth of field do you need?
Indoor lighting is “low” by 20th century standards. If you are not going to use a flash for whatever reason, you’ll need probably an ISO of 800 to get decent results depending on how low the light actually is. Household tungsten lighting will require at least 800 for handheld work. This is a pretty easy requirement for any digital or film camera to handle. Anything lower and you’ll need a tripod. Most modern digital cameras work fine in this capacity, particularly DSLR’s. I actually prefer black and white film in these situations and I’ll push Tri-X to shoot at 800 and it gets particularly good results.
Concert lighting for bands is interesting because even though the venue might be dark, often stage lights are much brighter than household lighting. You can get really good results with ISO 400 in standard theater lighting type situations. Film and digital both work extremely well in these types of environments.
Urban landscapes can be extremely interesting at night. City lights often determine a character and beauty not seen in daylight. The biggest problem I’ve found is that the aperture must be set at at least f5.6 or f8 to get the sharpest image possible. This often means a tripod, but this is fine because buildings generally don’t move and I have lots of time to set things up. The biggest variables are the balance between shutter speed and ISO. If you are making digital images, you don’t want the ISO to be pushing 20 seconds or more. If you want anything to blur such as clouds or passing cars, you’ll need a shutter speed of 1 second or more depending on what look you are trying to capture.
This is the toughest low light situation you’ll encounter. If you’re away from the city, night can be VERY dark, even with stars in the sky. Exposure becomes increasingly difficult depending on the image you are making. If you want the stars to blur, it means really long exposure times. From a purely technical perspective this means that film will probably work better than digital images. However, as a photographer who’s spent most of my life making pictures, minimal defects usually go unnoticed in great compositions. The camera doesn’t make the picture. You do. That being said, I’ve seen people make incredible images with exposure times pushing 2 hours that look amazing. Remember, the better you are as a photographer, the less important equipment is period.
If you independently wealthy, then you’ve probably already bought the latest and greatest and don’t need to read what I’ve written here. If you’re not, you can get surprisingly excellent results with just about anything if you understand where the limitations are. This goes for any type of photography. So much of us get caught up in the purchasing aspect of “toys” that we ignore the fundamentals and personal artistic development that are much more important. You can’t buy those things and therefore nobody markets those things. Read you camera manual, understand photography principals, know what you must compromise to gain, and determine what you can do based on that.
To prove my point, I’ll leave you with something I didn’t think was possible.
Low Light iPhone Photography
I love my iPhone, but my lord the camera is so crude. The shutter works more like a scanner than a real camera. But its always with me and I’ve managed to get some nice shots with it when everything lines up. Maybe its luck, I don’t know. But one problem I’ve always had is low light. When it gets dark, the iPhone doesn’t like it. I should also point out that I have an iPhone 4. Not even a 4s.
I recently found 2 things that change everything.
First off is an app called Slow Shutter Cam. Its extremely easy to use and intuitive. It allows you to pick the shutter speed and it does the rest. You’ll need to adjust it to the environment you are in, and you’ll likely need to get creative with what you are shooting, but it works and its impressive. As with slow shutter speeds, you’ll need camera (or in this case iPhone) support.
Enter Glif. Glif is a wonderfully designed and tiny piece of design from the folks at Studio Neat. It works to either mount your iPhone to a tripod, or if you’re out about town with your friends, it works as a frame to keep your phone still on a table. It fits in your pocket and I go everywhere with it.
The combination of Glif and Slow Shutter Cam are amazing. Again – know your limitations and work around them. You will go far!