Buying a Digital Camera: How to Choose

Choosing a Digital Camera for Photos in Low Light

Expert (97 Recommendations and 21 Compliments)

INTRODUCTION

Photography thrives on light, so when we have lots of it available - bright outdoors in the middle of the day, for example - cameras have few problems producing great pictures. When light levels drop in indoor or nighttime situations, however, all sorts of issues arise, from blurry subjects to grainy noise to blown-out flash lighting. If you’ve ever taken photos indoors or at night, you may be very familiar with photos that look like these:

Blur High ISO noise

Yeesh. On the other hand, low-light photos don’t have to be all bad. In fact, with some simple techniques and some useful camera features, photos like these are attainable even in settings that seem hopelessly dark:

Outdoor Nighscape Indoor Party Event

DESCRIPTION

When you’re shooting in low-light situations, a number of common problems can arise:

  • Blur from camera shake or moving subjects
  • Noise from high ISO
  • Incorrect white balance (color casts) caused by weird indoor lighting
  • Ugly direct flash lighting

Fortunately, there are techniques and camera features designed to minimize or eliminate all of these low-light issues, among them image stabilization (IS) technology, low-noise sensors, RAW image formats, and external flashes. An ideal low-light camera would have most or all of these features.

FEATURE BREAKDOWN

Image Stabilization: Image stabilization (IS) is a tool that combats camera shake by compensating for your movements - if you shake the camera right the IS system brings the image back to the left, canceling out the blur even if you’re shaking the camera all over the place.

Image Stabilization (IS) Comparison

Image stabilization gives you a HUGE advantage in minimizing blur and allowing you to shoot handheld in low-light situations where you otherwise wouldn’t be able to get a usable shot. While it won’t do much for blur from moving subjects, if you plan to shoot anything stationary in low-light (buildings, landscapes, interiors), image stabilization is a must-have.

High ISO: ISO defines the sensitivity of a camera’s image sensor, and a higher ISO (higher sensitivity) can be used to create the same image with less light, allowing photographers to reduce camera shake or freeze subjects better. While this sounds fantastic, using high ISOs come with one significant drawback - NOISE!

Noise Low noise

Noise - random variation in brightness and color - is unsightly, and after a certain point images become unusable. There isn’t a clear way to tell which cameras perform well at high ISOs and which ones don’t - that’s where the writers here at BestInClass.com can help in guiding you towards the cameras that perform well at high ISO. In general, cameras with larger sensors, and especially DSLR cameras, perform the best at high ISO settings.

RAW file format: Indoor lighting can often be a hassle because the light it gives off isn’t pure white, and as a result, images often take on a strong color cast:

Unbalanced incandescent lighting

While you can use white balance presets, or try to adjust your images afterwards with an image editing application, it’s far easier to fix these in a RAW file, a type of file format that some cameras can record in (rather than JPG) that gives photographers much more control over processing their images.

White Balance: Unedited White Balance: JPG correction White Balance: RAW correction

The downside of RAW is that it takes extra time to process all of your files for color afterward, although this is becoming easier with batch editors like Lightroom or Aperture.

Hotshoe for external flash: Many experienced photographers tend to shy away from flash and get by with shooting under natural lighting because, quite frankly, the flash on most cameras create terrible messes:

Typical direct flash photo

There are all sorts of hideous problems associated with direct flash, but if you’ve got a flash hot shoe on your camera, you can use an external flash that can aim at different directions and produce much better results:

Natural lighting vs. Bounced flash

In this case, the flash photo exhibits none of the ill effects of the photo above, and in fact looks better than even the natural light photo. The difference here is that the flash was pointed up towards the ceiling, rather than directly at the subject.

Of course, you’ll need to buy an external flash, which costs about $200, and then carry it around everywhere you go, making it somewhat impractical for travel or spur-of-the-moment events. But if you’re shooting in a situation where you can bring along extra equipment (say a portrait session, or at a party or other indoor event), nothing beats low-light situations like bringing along a flash and creating your own light.

Conclusion

The two key features you’ll want for your low-light camera are image stabilization (IS) and good high ISO ability. IS is great for static scenes, while high ISO is needed for any kind of moving subject - an ideal camera would feature both. If you’re serious about taking indoor photos, consider investing in a hotshoe-equipped camera and external flash.

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