Expert Recommendation

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Best Digital Camera for Low Light Photos Under $2500
By David
Expert (1 Recommendation and 1 Compliment)
Send a ComplimentComplimented (Change)
November 26, 2008
Overview

Shooting in low light is tough, and it requires the right equipment. The Nikon D700 is no doubt, the best tool for the job. Capable of a mind blowing 25,600 ISO, it outperforms all of its competitors in low light, while packing in all the Full Frame features of the D3 without the bulk and price.

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My Best In Class Pick
Nikon D700 (Body Only)

I know the feeling. You carried your camera around all day and right when you need it the most, it just doesn’t deliver. Life doesn’t wait for perfect lighting, and some of the most dynamic and beautiful moments happen under dim lighting conditions. I have had to grope with these conditions mostly while doing concert photography, and I know the incredible frustration of rushing home from an amazing show, bursting to see the shots you got only to find murky and muddled images appear on your computer screen. I also know that as far as most security is concerned, a big flash tags you as a professional, which requires all sorts of special permissions and passes. And forget about plays and recitals where a flash elicits all kinds of raised eyebrows and judgmental throat clearing. So that leaves us with available light, and what can feel like literally taking shots in the dark.

Why are concerts and shows so hard to capture sharply? The culprit is NOISE. Not the noise from the twenty-minute drum solo that’s been blowing your mind, but digital, visual noise. Bad noise. Noise is the result of your digital camera’s sensor being turned up too high for its own good. As available light drops, the camera’s sensor needs to increase its sensitivity, or ISO in order to capture the scene, and as sensitivity increases, so does distortion. This is called “gain”, and although musicians may use this same principle to create that familiar guitar distortion, grittiness is generally avoided in image making. The trick is having a camera that can shoot at an ISO high enough to capture a dimly lit scene with minimal noise. Nikon’s newly released D700 is a shrunken version of their flagship Full Frame D3 released this August, and for a full $2000 cheaper and a smaller but just as sturdy build, it is head and shoulders above its competitors, especially in low-light performance.

What’s in a Full Frame? The D700 sports the same 12.1 MP Full Frame sensor as Nikon’s Professional level D3, meaning that the image sensor is the same size as a frame in a 35 mm film camera. Other digital SLR’s use a smaller sensor that actually crops the image gathered by the lens by 1.5 times. That means that when shooting with a 50 mm lens for example, much of the image is missing the sensor, and the lens is acting more like an 85 mm. This also means that mega pixel for mega pixel, Full Frame sensors allow more room and don’t cram the pixels together into a smaller space. The same amount of pixels crammed into a smaller space results in you guessed it, more noise.

When we compare the small format Nikon D300 vs, the Full Frame Nikon D700, we see that although the D300 actually has 12.3 megapixels versus 12.1 in the D700, the extra breathing room of the bigger sensor lets the pixels in the D700 gather higher quality information, resulting in less distortion. Amongst Full Frame models like the 5D, the lower megapixels in the D700, (12.8 vs. 12.1), plus a more sensible use of noise reduction software in the camera results in a noticeable difference, especially at high ISOs.

Comparison with Canon EOS 5D (Body Only)

When you compare the 5D’S top ISO of 32,00 to Nikon D700’s ridiculous 25,600 ISO, it is just blown out of the water. Though the twenty five hundred ISO rating should be preserved for emergency use only, it is basically night vision. On top of this, the D700 is packed with all sorts of new features like a truly useable “live view” LCD, a self cleaning image sensor, and a “virtual horizon” that lets you know when your composition is perfectly aligned. As we await real tests of the 2nd generation 5D Mark II, we do know that it will sport the same 25,600 ISO along with HD video capability, along with a heftier price tag. I think however that it is safe to say that the bulked-up features and mega pixels of the Mark II combined with what I feel is Canon’s over use of noise reduction software will follow original 5D’s trends of higher noise at high ISO’s when compared to the Nikon D700.

Pros
  • +
    Tank like magnesium alloy build with weather proofing
  • +
    Full Frame CMOS sensor
  • +
    25,600 ISO
Cons
  • -
    No video capability
  • -
    More expensive than the 5D
Nikon D700 (Body Only) is the Best Digital Camera for Low Light Photos Under $2500
Where to buy
Nikon D700 (Body Only)
  • Best Price: $2199
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Image Stabilization: Yes
  • Resolution: 12.1MP
  • Max ISO: 25600
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (3 reviews)
  • Highly Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Dave's Pick at Imaging-Resource.com
  • Rated Excellent by CNET.com

Comparing My Best In Class Pick with Other Good Choices

Product
Best badge
Nikon D700 (Body Only)
2
Canon EOS 5D (Body Only)
Customer Rating
Price $2199.00 $2149.99
Rating from Digital Photography Review Highly Recommended Highly Recommended
Rating from The Imaging Resource Dave's Pick
Camera Format SLR SLR
Size (W x H x D) 5.8 x 4.8 x 3.0 in. 6.0 x 4.4 x 3.0 in.
Body Material Magnesium Alloy Magnesium alloy
Weatherproof Yes No
?
Sensor Type
CMOS CMOS
?
Sensor Size
36.0 x 23.9 mm 35.8 x 23.9 mm
?
Effective Sensor Resolution
12.1 megapixels 12.8 megapixels
Max Image Resolution 4256 x 2832 pixels 4368 x 2912 pixels
Anti-Dust Available Yes No
?
Shutter Lag Time (including auto-focus time)
0.2 sec 0.1 sec
Power to First Shot Time 0.4 sec 0.1 sec
Max Shooting Speed (continuous) 5.1 frames/sec 3.0 frames/sec
Video Available No No
?
Image Stabilization Available
Yes Yes
Interchangeable Lenses Available Yes Yes
Min ISO Setting 100 50
Max ISO Setting 25600 3200
Aperture Priority Mode Available Yes Yes
Shutter Priority Mode Available Yes Yes
Full Manual Exposure Mode Available Yes Yes
?
Face Detection Available
No No
?
LCD Screen Size
3.0 in. 2.5 in.
Storage Media CompactFlash Card CompactFlash Card, MicroDrive
Sensor Raw Format Available Yes Yes
2
Canon EOS 5D (Body Only)

Don’t get me wrong, the 5D is an incredible camera, and Canon’s lens systems are world renown for their clarity and quality. In fact, many professionals I know use the 5D as their backup body to their 1Ds, which no doubt sits atop the Digital SLR throne. And, for most practical purposes, the 5D’s 1600 un-extended ISO is high enough, and it can shoot in uncompressed RAW files so noise can be cleaned up in post. Many of the 5Ds short comings when compared to the D700, like the lower ISO, less substantial build and weather proofing, are remedied in the 5D Mark II which will be a truly great camera, even if it will ring in at about $2700 for the body. Where Canon faltered I think is that new 5D is almost packing in too many features and is trying to go up-market from the original 5D. Rumors have abounded about the release of a “3D”, which would be a smaller, full frame “prosumer” platform. This is essentially what the D700 is, and it is a niche I think that is ripe with hungry photographers looking for something sturdy and a bit smaller that still packs Full Frame image quality. So if your are looking for something a bit cheaper than the D700 and are willing to sacrifice some sensitivity, the 5D is a great pick. If budget is not an issue, the 5D Mark II is going to be a powerhouse and a standard setter for this class of SLR. Either way you have Canon’s incredible quiver of lenses to choose from which is nothing but good.

Pros
  • +
    Uses Canon EF and L series lenses
  • +
    Full Frame
  • +
    Smaller than 1Ds
  • +
    Cheaper that Nikon D700
Cons
  • -
    No video
  • -
    No weather proofing
  • -
    Distortion at high ISO´s
Canon EOS 5D (Body Only) is one of the Best Digital Cameras for Low Light Photos Under $2500
Where to buy
Canon EOS 5D (Body Only)
  • Best Price: $2149
    Amazon See It »
Specifications
  • Image Stabilization: Yes
  • Resolution: 12.8MP
  • Max ISO: 3200
More
Want More Opinions? See:
Website Reviews (3 reviews)
  • Highly Recommended at DPReview.com
  • Rated Very Good by CNET.com

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