What Is The Best Low Light Camera?

Our team did the research and ultimately determined the best low light camera on the consumer market currently is the Sony a7 III. Priced affordably at under $2K (body only), this mirrorless camera offers excellent performance in both photos and video quality, especially in dark conditions. 

If you are interested in shooting video and not looking to dive into the photography side much, Sony's a7S II is going to be your best low light option. Offering a low 12.2MP Exmor CMOS sensor, the low pixel count and excellent in-camera noise reduction allow you to achieve great detail in the shadows even at ISOs in the five-figure range. 

Lastly, our top choice for sports photographers who require reliable low-light performance to shoot photo bursts in a gym or arena with poor lighting is Sony's a9 mirrorless camera. A professional-grade mirrorless body from Sony, this model isn't cheap yet it can shoot up to 20fps with stellar autofocus and high-ISO performance.

Best Low Light Camera & Editor's Choice

An all-around great camera for shooting photos and video.

Sony's base a7 line-up has been pretty mediocre until their release of the a7II which has changed the game with an affordable price, competitive specs, and excellent image performance. If you need to shoot low-light stills and video, this is the camera you want.

*Pricing as of 7/16/19

Best For Shooting Low Light Video

The top camera model for capturing low-light video and maintains a small form-factor.

Designed specifically for video shooters, Sony's A7SII is the best low-light camera for filmmaking. Due to the lower pixel count, each pixel receives more light and results in cleaner noise patterns especially when mixed with Sony's in-camera video denoising functionality.

*Pricing as of 7/16/19

Best For Sports Shooters

A premium camera for serious sports or wildlife photographers.

One of the most expensive cameras to make this list, the a9 is a professional-grade mirrorless camera. It's excellent low-light performance and 20fps burst shooting makes it a serious contender for sports photographers and photojournalists who need to capture fast movement.

*Pricing as of 7/16/19

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If you have the time, we suggest reading the entirety of this buyer's guide on low light cameras. Our team worked hard to cover as much related information as we could on this topic to help you better understand the market thus choosing the right camera for your needs.

Upon completing the entire article, if you have any lingering questions or concerns that were not addressed within this article, use the comments section below this article. Someone from our team will address your concerns or answer your questions as soon as possible.

What Makes A Camera Good In Low Light?

In this day and age, there is camera technology being used everywhere whether it be traditional consumer cameras, smartphones, or even automobiles. However, one of the biggest issues that still plagues most consumer cameras is their ability to capture quality video or still images in dark or low lit conditions is still a frequent problem.

Larger Sensors With Innovative Technology

Typically speaking, the best cameras for low light on the market will offer a larger sensor which is most cases will be described as a full-frame sensor. Full frame sensors are the largest sensors that you'll currently find on high-end or professional DSLRs and mirrorless cameras.

There is such a thing as medium format cameras which offer even larger sensors and better low light performance but are typically only used by editorial or portrait photographers in a studio setup due to their high cost and proprietary lenses. For this reason, we did not include any medium format models within this guide.

A larger sensor typically (but not always) has larger pixels which give them the potential to have lower image noise and higher dynamic range. For an in-depth take on this, we recommend checking out this article from Cambridge In Colour.

Besides sensor size, the technology within the sensor itself can be a huge factor in the low light capabilities. As of recent, we are seeing a lot of innovative sensor technology such as backside illumination and stacked sensors have both shown to offer the best high ISO performance.

Fast Camera Lenses

Now a great deal of credit has been given to the camera sensors for good low light performance which is justified. However, there is another part of the puzzle that will always have an effect on high ISO performance and that is the type of lens that you are using to capture your images.

Similar to DSLRs and mirrorless camera bodies, the lenses that offer the best low light performance will most often be the most expensive due to their “fast” or wide aperture capabilities. The wider or “lower” the aperture of a lens, the more amount of light is able to enter through the lens and hit the sensor when the shutter is open.

Beyond the light or exposure potential, the aperture is also the aspect of the lens which will directly correlate with your depth of field or how blurry the background will be when focused on a particular subject. Due to this, nailing proper exposure in low light while keeping the entirety of your subject is focus can be a struggle. 

In-Camera Noise Reduction

Something that isn't talked about a lot is in-camera noise reduction which generally gets a bad rep. However, in the case of some cameras like the a7S, the in-camera noise reduction is one of the major reasons why it performs so well in low light when shooting video as their algorithm.

Most of the time, in-camera noise reduction can be disabled as you can often denoise your images or video in post where you'll have greater control. The reason you'd want to do this is to keep the in-camera noise reduction from overdoing it and trying to denoise too much thus resulting in softer image quality with less detail.

How Did We Choose The Camera Rankings For This Guide?

We didn't blindly choose cameras to include on this buyer's guide, but instead, we trusted the brilliant minds at DXOMark. The team over there are known for rigorously testing popular medium format, DSLR and mirrorless camera models to put them through their paces over a slew of different criteria.

For the purpose of this article, we referenced their “Sports” score which is directly related to low light shooting and the resulting noise levels that occur with this. Due to the nature of these benchmarks, the recommended models on this list are all rather expensive (costing several thousand) as you won't find large, feature-packed sensors on budget camera bodies.  To see the full list of cameras tested via DXOMark's benchmarks, visit this link.

How Does DXOMark Come Up With Their Low Light Benchmark Scores?

According to the DXOMark website, the sports benchmark score is a determinate of signal-to-noise ratio aka SNR. This figure gives you an idea of how far the ISO of a camera can be increased while maintaining a decent image quality.

Here's their full explanation:

The SNR indicates how much noise is present in an image compared to the actual image information (signal). The higher the SNR value, the better the image quality, as detail is not drowned out by noise. The SNR is given in dB, which is a logarithmic scale: an increase of 6 dB corresponds to doubling the SNR, which in turn equates to half the noise for the same signal.

A SNR value of 30dB means excellent image quality. We have therefore defined low-light ISO as the highest ISO setting for a camera that allows it to achieve a SNR of 30dB while keeping a good dynamic range of 9 EVs and a color depth of 18bits. A difference in low-light ISO of 25% equals 1/3 EV and is only slightly noticeable. Low-light ISO is an open scale.

Why Are So Many Sony Cameras Included On This List?

To reiterate an earlier statement, we did not blindly choose our list of low light cameras based on a bias or any other reason. All of the models listed within this guide are based purely on statistical benchmarking data. Sony has been the leading producer of camera sensors for the last few years. In fact, their sensor technology is blowing away the competition to the point where even back in 2014, a whopping 40% of all camera sensors sold were made by Sony.

Given they have such an advantage manufacturing their own camera sensors, it makes sense that they would keep the best sensor for use in their own DSLR or mirrorless camera models. There are a lot of Sony cameras on this guide, but we made sure to include one each from Nikon and Canon to help round out the guide.

Comparing Our Top Cameras For Low Light Performance

Sony a7 IIISony a7S IISony a7R IIISony a9Nikon Z6Canon 1DX Mark II
Price$1,998.00$2,398.00$2,258.43$3,498.00$1,696.95$3,498.00
Release Year201820152017201720182016
Sensor SizeFull FrameFull FrameFull FrameFull FrameFull FrameFull Frame
Megapixels24.212.242.424.224.520.2
DXO Mark Low Light Score373029933523351732993207
DXO Mark Overall Score9685100929588
Max ISO204,800409,600102,400204,800204,800409,600
Lens MountSony FESony FESony FESony FENikon ZCanon EF
Burst FPS8510201216
Stabilized Sensor
4K Video

Best Cameras For Low Light (2019)

Pros

  • Great for both photo and video
  • Best low light performance
  • Reasonably priced for the features

Cons

  • Low viewfinder resolution
  • Menu experience isn't ideal
  • Continuous AF isn't the best

The a7III is the third generation of Sony's base a7 model and easily the most impressive of the three generations. Prior to this release, the a7 and a7II were never regarded as great for video. As Sony's mirrorless models have become a favorite among filmmakers, the company decided to spruce up the a7III to cater to that need.

Internally, you've got a 24.2MP BSI full-frame sensor with 15-stops of dynamic range and 14-bit uncompressed RAW photo capabilities. If you are looking to capture high-speed action, the a7III offers 10fps burst shooting and 693 phase-detection AF with 425 contrast AF points.

For low light shooting, the a7III offers an expansive ISO range from 50-204,800. The sensor performed the best in this category according to DXOMark benchmarking with a low light score of 3730 which surpasses all other Sony a7 models currently on the market.

Pros

  • Best extreme low light for video capture
  • Continuous AF performance is decent in low light
  • Built-in sensor stabilization for removing shakes

Cons

  • Due for a model refresh soon (a7S III)
  • Video record button isn't in an great location
  • Not ideal for photographers due to low megapixels

Originally released by Sony way back in September of 2015, the a7S II has been a workhorse for many filmmakers. However, as time goes on, it is becoming slowly outdated in the current market for DSLR and mirrorless video shooting despite its stellar low light. 

The a7S II takes the same great performance from the original a7S model and improves upon it even more with a better body, better rolling shutter, increased dynamic range, better battery life, more focus points and native image stabilization on the sensor.

According to DXOMark, the original a7S technically scores better than the a7S II in regards to low light from sensor benchmark with a score of (2993 vs 3702). However, the added upgrades to the rest of the camera's features and performance make the difference in low light becomes negligible. 

Pros

  • High megapixel count for photography use
  • Native stabilized sensor helps remove shake
  • Bigger & better battery than previous generations

Cons

  • Complicated menu system
  • RAW images are data heavy due to high pixel count
  • Expensive

The a7R III is the third generation in their a7R line-up which focuses on providing a full-frame sensor with a high pixel count. You've got a 42.4 MP which gives you a high resolution for photo capture while still reaping the low light benefits of a back-illuminated Exmor R CMOS sensor scoring a DXOmark low light score of 3523.

With such a high pixel density, it isn't as suitable for video shooters as the A7S II or a7 III, but it's still a viable option if you need to shoot occasional video while focusing primarily on something like real estate or product photography.

To be 100% transparent, the A7R IV was just released as of a few days ago. Due to it being so recent, there are no benchmarks currently out for its low light performance. Sony increased the sensor to 61 MP which will likely hinder the overall low light performance (keeping the a7R III as the best a7R camera for low light), but we will provide an update once more info is known. 

Pros

  • Blackout-free continuous burst up to 20 fps
  • 693 Phase Detection AF with 93% sensor coverage
  • First full-frame stacked CMOS sensor with integrated memory

Cons

  • A costly investment
  • Overkill for most photographers who aren't shooting fast paced action (wildlife, sports, etc).
  • Uncompressed RAW drops to 12 fps

Before Sony launched the a9, most photographers would tell you a traditional DSLR was more ideal for shooting sports or wildlife due to better burst photography and more reliable autofocus. However, the a9 release truly changed the game and  completely turned around the opinion of most mirrorless camera naysayers.

The a9 is the first generation of this line and it brings a lot of innovation to the table. Internally, it has the first of its kind, 24.2 MP full-frame Exmor RS stacked CMOS sensor which offers excellent low light capabilities with a DXO mark score of 3517 which puts it just under the a7R III. 

Again, the Sony a9 is an expensive investment from a photographer's standpoint and not ideal for video. However, it is a mirrorless camera designed for professional shooters that rely on stellar continuous AF for tracking moving subjects and capturing them at 20 fps. If you are capturing more still life or shooting video often, the a7 III is a better choice.

Pros

  • Fast 12 fps burst shooting
  • Priced reasonably for feature set
  • Great low light performance

Cons

  • Only one SD card slot
  • Autofocus performance is not up to Nikon DSLR spec
  • Mediocre battery life

While Nikon has been a leader in the traditional SLR and DSLR markets for decades now, the Z6 is one of their first attempts at releasing a powerful mirrorless camera to compete with the likes of Panasonic and Sony who have quickly overtaken the market. 

The Z6 is very similar to Nikon's Z7 camera which debuted just a few months prior with an almost identical design just less megapixels. With a 24.5 MP full frame BSI CMOS sensor, the Z6 offers excellent low light performance coming in at 3299 on DXOMark's benchmark. 

Since this is a mirrorless model, it harnesses their proprietary Z mount over the tradition F mount you'd see on most Nikon DSLRs. Fortunately, the N6 can often be purchased with an FTZ adapter which adapts an F mount to Z mount with ease and allows you to keep all your existing Nikon lens kit.

Pros

  • Can shoot C4K video up to 60 fps
  • Can shoot up to 16 fps photos with 170 RAW buffer
  • Excellent battery life

Cons

  • The most expensive camera on this guide
  • Large and heavy body design
  • Best performance requires costly CFast 2.0 media

Canon has suffered the same fate as Nikon as mirrorless cameras have taken over the photography and video markets. However, Canon's 1DX Mark II was released back in 2016 as a replacement for their original 1DX model which has been a top choice for professional sports and wildlife photographers for years.

The 1DX Mark II is a large and bulky camera, but it harnesses some competitive features such as cinema 4K video capabilities up to 60fps (it is currently regarded as our best traditional DSLR for video) as well as 14 fps RAW image bursts (16 fps when using ‘live view' mode). The autofocus is great for both photos and video with Canon's stellar dual-pixel AF and a 61-point AF system with 41 cross-type points.

When it comes down to low light, the 1DX Mark II outperforms any other Canon DSLR to date with a DXOMark score of 3207. While a strong score this puts it significantly farther down than any of the mirrorless competition coming from Nikon and Sony.

Guide Summary

At the end of the day, the benchmark data has spoken and Sony's A7 III is touted as the best low light camera for consumers in 2019. Besides its great high ISO performance, this camera is suitable for both photography and videography without breaking the bank in terms of budget.

If you are looking strictly to shoot video, the a7S II might be a more suitable choice with more video-centric features. However, it is due for an upgrade soon so keep that in mind.

Lastly, those serious about shooting fast-paced sports action in a gym or other dark arena then Sony's a9 camera is an expensive but ideal choice for accomplishing this with the fastest burst and a reliable autofocusing system.

We hope this article helped you find the right low-light camera for your needs.

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