The Best Compact Cameras for Low-Light Shooting

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Photography is all about capturing light, and to get a photograph that is sufficiently exposed you need to capture enough of it in a short enough amount of time to free the motion of your subject. Thankfully digital cameras have come a long way over the years in improving performance at the higher sensitivities that are required to do so. You’ll still get the best image quality out of a mirrorless or a D-SLR camera with a big image sensor, but those won’t slide into your pocket. We’ve highlighted a few models here that will, and will allow you to shoot in all types of light.

What to Look For in a Low-Light Shooter
There are a few key points you’ll want to consider when looking for a camera that produces killer images in less-than-ideal lighting. The first is the amount of light that the lens can capture. The technical term is aperture, but you’ll also hear it referred to as an f-stop, or sometimes as the speed of the lens. The lower the number, the more light the camera can capture. Some compacts open up all the way to f/1.4, which is a heck of a lot of light. Because the scale is based on the diameter of a circle, the numbers progress based on the square root of 2. For those without math degrees, an f/1.4 captures twice the light as an f/2 lens, which captures twice the light as an f/2.8 lens, and so on.

But you can’t pay attention to just one number. Take a look at the Sony RX100 II, with its 28-100mm f/1.8-4.9 lens. At its widest angle it captures an impressive amount of light, but as you zoom in the amount of light captured decreases. This is typical of most compact cameras, with a few exceptions like the Panasonic FZ200 and its constant f/2.8 aperture.

The next thing you’ll want to consider is how well the camera performs when you boost its ISO, which is a numeric measurement of its sensitivity to light. It’s a standardized system, and thankfully the math is a bit easier to get than it is with aperture—ISO 200 is twice as sensitive to light as ISO 100. For low light shooting you’ll often find that you’ll need to use settings as high as ISO 1600 or 3200. Lots of cameras can be set this high, but many will deliver images that are rife with digital noise and just plain fuzzy in terms of detail at their highest sensitivity settings.

The general rule of thumb is that cameras with image sensors that are physically larger-than-average deliver better image quality in general, and manage to squeeze more out of a high ISO image than cameras with smaller sensors. Your typical point-and-shoot camera has a 1/2.3-inch-class sensor. The best high-ISO shooter that we’ve looked at with this sensor size is the Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS. It controls image noise through ISO 1600, while preserving a good amount of image detail. In a pinch, we’d feel comfortable shooting this camera at ISO 3200, even though digital noise is just a tad too high for our liking at that setting.

The next step up in sensor size is the 1/1.7-inch-class, which is about 50 percent larger in terms of surface area than the standard 1/2.3-inch size. You’ll get better image detail here at all ISO settings, and cameras with this sensor size typically offer a good amount of physical controls and Raw shooting support to satisfy demanding shutterbugs.

A few high-end outliers boast even larger image sensors. The Sony RX100 and its upgraded sibling, the RX100 II, both feature 1-inch-class sensors. The surface area of this size sensor is 2.7 times that of a camera with a 1/1.7-inch sensor. So even though the RX100′s lens narrows its aperture when zoomed in, at wider angles it is an impressive low-light shooter.

And, if you’re willing to forgo zoom entirely, you can get a pocketable camera with an APS-C image sensor. That’s the same size that’s found in most D-SLRs, about 8.5 times the surface area of a 1/1.7-inch camera. The Nikon Coolpix A and Ricoh GR are two good examples of this—both offer wide-angle 28mm-equivalent lenses, and both will slide into a pocket. And, if money is no object, the full-frame Sony RX1 is the king of pocket cameras. It’s $2,800 price tag will scare folks away, but it packs a 35mm f/2 lens by Zeiss and an image sensor that’s the same size as a 35mm film frame—nearly 20 times the surface area of a 1/1.7-inch camera. The models below feature the best balance of light-gathering capability, high ISO image quality, and sensor size among the compact cameras that we’ve tested.

 

FEATURED IN THIS ROUNDUP

Olympus Tough TG-2 iHS

$379.99
This rugged camera has a lens that opens up all the way to f/2 at its widest angle. It keeps noise under control through ISO 1600 with slight smudging of detail. It’s the best tough camera you can get for shooting in low light. Read the full review ››

Ricoh GR

$799.99 direct
The Ricoh GR squeezes a D-SLR-size APS-C image sensor into a pocket-size body. Its wide-angle lens opens to f/2.8, and it controls noise through ISO 6400. Read the full review ››

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100

$649.99 direct
Sony’s RX100 has a 28-100mm f/1.8-4.9 zoom lens a big 1-inch image sensor. We were happy with its image quality through ISO 3200, but it’s not the best choice for photographers who like to zoom in when shooting in dim conditions. Read the full review ››

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX100 II

$749.99 direct
The RX100 II is a bit more expensive than the RX100, but a backside-illuminated image sensor delivers the RX100′s ISO 3200 image quality at ISO 6400. Other enhancements include an accessory shoe, tilting display, and Wi-Fi. Read the full review ››

Canon-PowerShot-Elph-330-HS

Canon PowerShot Elph 330 HS

$229.99 direct
The Elph 330 HS is one of the few 1/2.3-inch cameras that we recommend for low-light shooting. It doesn’t have the biggest sensor or widest-aperture lens around, but it’s a solid option if you’re budget can’t handle a camera with a larger sensor. Read the full review ››

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-RX1

$2,799.99 direct
The full-frame RX1 is the best camera you can buy that fits into your pocket, but it’s priced accordingly. It boasts a 35mm f/2 Zeiss lens and delivers impressive images through ISO 6400. Read the full review ››

Canon-PowerShot-G15

Canon PowerShot G15

$499.99 direct
The G15 performs delivers clean, detailed images through ISO 1600, and its 28-140mm f/1.8-2.8 lens captures an impressive amount of light, even when zoomed all the way in. It’s one of the few cameras on the market with an optical viewfinder, although its small size limits its usefulness. Read the full review ››

Fujifilm X20

$599.95 direct
The Fujifilm X20 features a throwback design with a big, bright optical viewfinder and a manual zoom lens. It covers a 28-112mm zoom range at f/2-2.8. We were happy with its image quality through ISO 1600. Read the full review ››

Nikon Coolpix P7700

$499.95 direct
If you’re disappointed by the rather modest zoom ratios of the other cameras listed here, the P7700 is your answer. It’s got a 28-200mm f/2-4 zoom lens and we were impressed with image quality through ISO 1600. It’s a bit of a sluggish performer, though, which kept it from getting a higher rating overall. Read the full review ››

Olympus XZ-2

$599.99 direct
Its high price makes it a tough sell, but the XZ-2 features a 28-112mm f/1.8-2.5 lens that is impressively sharp. High ISO images are on the grainy side, but the camera makes up for it by capturing an impressive amount of detail through ISO 3200. Read the full review ››

By Jim Fisher, PCMag


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