Low-Light Cameras

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“Can I take pictures without the flash?”

That’s a question that a camera salesperson hears quite a bit. While virtually all compacts have built-in flashes, when used in automatic mode they can often produce images that appear to be washed out and lack any sort of ambience. Getting a good image with flash often requires the use of diffusers, wireless gadgets and techniques that are more than a little too intense for the average non-professional.


Thankfully, there is a wealth of compact cameras that allow you to shoot in less-than-perfect lighting without a flash. These are great for use at family events and parties, as well as events where flash photography may be prohibited, such as graduations and recitals.

There are a few distinct characteristics of certain cameras that allow them to capture images in lower light. One aspect of a camera’s lens is its aperture—a measurement of how much light it allows through to strike the imaging sensor. Aperture is measured in f-stops, and the lower the number, the wider the aperture will be, allowing more light to strike the sensor. With zoom lenses, the f-stop number usually increases as you zoom in, letting in less light and making metering systems sluggish. Standard compacts feature lenses that start around f/3.5 and go down to f/5.6 or so, but many of the cameras in this roundup offer lens apertures as wide as f/1.8, a figure generally reserved for prime lenses on DSLR cameras!

Another key aspect is ISO rating. Photographers who have used film will remember loading a roll of 400-speed into their camera and being relegated to using that speed setting for the next 36 photos they took. With digital cameras you can vary ISO from shot to shot, and many low-light compacts can go all the way up to 12800 ISO! It is important to note, however, that image noise increases along with the ISO. Most cameras top out at 1600 or 3200, but give you the option of setting the ISO higher manually for those times when you absolutely have to get a shot, regardless of noise.

Digital cameras have also brought us a few new technologies that help to make low-light shooting possible. Any compact camera worth its salt to today has built-in optical image stabilization, which allows you to get a sharp image even with longer shutter speeds. This doesn’t help much with moving subjects and action, but it’s great for taking a posed photo or a picture of an object—the minor shakes and vibrations that everyone experiences when taking a photo are minimized as the camera moves internal components ever so slightly to compensate, greatly reducing the blurriness that is associated with handheld shots with longer exposure times.

Some digital cameras can also take multiple exposures of varying length and seamlessly combine them in camera. Sharpness detail is taken from the shorter exposures, while the extra light gathered by the longer exposures contributes to the luminosity of the final image. Sony, for instance, calls this "Twilight Mode."

Finally, a newer sensor technology adds backlights to a traditional CMOS sensor. Sony calls this Exmor R: the light captured by the camera doesn’t have to travel through the sensor’s circuitry to reach its light-sensitive layer. The circuitry of the sensor has been moved to the rear, and the photo diodes that make up the the light-sensitive layer are now up front. This increases light sensitivity without increasing noise.

Now that you’ve got an idea about how pocket-sized cameras can gather an amazing amount of light, it’s time to look at some of the more popular models on the market that can take good photos without a flash.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5 and Leica D-LUX 5

 

Even a precursory examination of Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX5 and Leica’s D-LUX 5 makes it clear that the two cameras are kindred spirits. From a technical and control perspective, the two cameras are identical. They are styled a bit differently: Panasonic’s version has a built-in hand grip and is available in either white or black, while the Leica opts for sleek lines and a flat-black design. As similar as these two cameras are, the hand grip is available as an optional accessory for the D-LUX 5.

The cameras feature different firmware, although both versions are capable of recording RAW images. Opting for the Leica nets you a 2-year warranty, double that of the Panasonic, as well as the full version of Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom 3 software package. Lightroom is a great organizational tool for photographers and also gives you full nondestructive RAW developing capabilities. The Panasonic’s top-end ISO is 1600, while the Leica can go up to 3200—but both cameras can be overdriven to ISO 12800 as needed.

Now that the differences have been outlined, let’s take a look at the features that these digital fraternal twins share. Each 10.1MP camera features a 3.8x Leica DC Vario-Summicron optical zoom lens that covers a 24-90mm field of view at a f/2-3.3. You’ll be able to frame images on the large 3” LCD or add an optional external EVF for eye-level shooting. A physical switch allows you to change between 4:3, 3:2, 1:1 and 16:9 aspect ratio for stills and both cameras are capable of recording 16:9 720p HD video. For those times when you want to use it, the built-in flash pops up out of the body with the press of a button.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FX75

 

Available in silver and black, Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-FX75 is a 14.1MP shooter with a 5x optical zoom lens. Its Leica DC Vario-Summicron lens covers an equivalent field of view of 24-120mm with an aperture range of f/2.2-5.9. The camera supports a standard top ISO of 1600, but can be set as high as ISO 6400 as needed.

In addition to capturing still images, the camera is fully capable of recording 720p HD video. You can frame images via the large 3” LCD, which features touch-screen input, making it easy to adjust settings on the camera  and navigate through its menus. You’ll even be able to touch an area of the screen during shooting to instruct the camera to focus on that point and adjust exposure appropriately.

Samsung TL500

Samsung’s TL500 is the current speed king of compact shooters. The 10MP camera uses a 3x zoom Schneider-KREUZNACH lens with a 24-72mm equivalent field of view and an aperture range of f/1.8-2.4! When you couple this with a maximum ISO of 3200, you get a camera that is able to snap photos in a wide variety of lighting conditions—all the way from dim to not so dim.

The TL500 features an impressive industrial design that sets it apart from other cameras. Angled lines and a black color scheme provide a unique profile and readily accessible control dials give advanced users total control over the camera’s functionality. You can set it to record files in RAW or JPG format, and it can record video in VGA (640 x 480) format.

Canon PowerShot SD4500 IS Digital ELPH

While Canon’s PowerShot SD4500 IS Digital ELPH may not have the fastest lens in the world, it makes up for lack of speed with a 10x optical zoom range, special Handheld Night Scene and Low Light shooting modes. The compact 10MP camera covers a staggering 36-360mm equivalent field of view with an f/3.4-5.6 aperture range at up to ISO 3200.

The PowerShot is capable of recording HD video at full 1080p HD resolution. It also has a neat slow-motion function, capturing video at a stunning 240 frames per second, perfect for super slow-motion playback. Numerous scene modes for still shooting are built into the camera, including 8.8 frame-per-second burst mode, portrait mode, a fisheye effect, and a panorama assist mode. A large 3” LCD makes it easy to frame your shots, and the ELPH’s thin and compact design makes it easy to slip into your pocket.

Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS Digital ELPH

  

Similar in style to the SD4500, Canon’s PowerShot SD4000 IS Digital ELPH is geared for fast, wide-angle shooting. Its 28-105mm equivalent lens has an aperture range of f/2.0-5.3. The compact shooter offers 10MP resolution and the same 3” LCD found on the zoom-oriented SD4500. Available in a variety of colors (including a red that will make fire engines green with envy!), the SD4000 is able to record 720p HD video.

Numerous creative effects are built into the camera to enhance its use. You can use the Miniature Effect to simulate the selective focus that is capable with tilt-shift lenses, making large objects appear to be parts of a miniature landscape. A fisheye effect gives your images the distorted look associated with ultra wide-angle fisheye lenses. The ELPH also features more than 20 scene modes, making it easy to optimize camera settings for a particular shot.

Canon PowerShot S95

Canon’s PowerShot S95 is a compact shooter designed with enthusiasts in mind. The 10.1MP camera features a 3.8x optical zoom lens with a 28-105mm equivalent field of view and an aperture range of f/2.0-4.9. The camera’s flash retracts into the body when not in use and the back of the camera houses a large 3” LCD for image framing and review.

The S95 supports RAW and JPG shooting and can be set up to ISO 3200. You can set the camera to record a number of different types of scenes, including low light shots. In addition to these standard scene modes, the camera supports Program (P), Aperture Priority (Av), Shutter Priority (Tv) and Manual (M) shooting modes. The camera is also able to record video at 720p HD resolution.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX1

The first thing you’ll notice about Sony’s 9.1MP Cyber-shot DSC-HX1 is its large 20x optical zoom lens, which covers an amazing 28-560mm equivalent field of view. At the wide end, the lens opens up to f/2.8, perfect for low-light shooting, and gradually stops down to f/8.0 as you reach the telephoto end of the range. You’ll be able to frame images via its 3” LCD or the built-in electronic viewfinder. For added convenience when shooting, the LCD can tilt 90 degrees, giving you more options for holding and angling the camera while framing a shot.

It supports ISO ratings up to 3200, allowing you to use it in low light in the wider areas of its zoom range. This is aided by Sony’s Handheld Twilight Mode, which uses multiple exposures to brighten images without reducing sharpness. Because it is a larger point-and-shoot, it features design that makes it appear similar to a small DSLR, including a handy pop-up flash that can be activated as needed. It’s a Sony camera, so it uses Sony's proprietary Memory Stick format as opposed to the SD cards that other manufacturers employ.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V

Sony’s Cyber-shot DSC-HX5V is a 10.2MP camera with a sleek design. It uses a backlit Exmor R CMOS sensor with a maximum ISO of 3200 to aid in low-light image capture and features a 10x optical zoom lens that covers an equivalent 25-250mm field of view at f/3.5-8.0. A large 3” LCD is present on the rear of the camera for image framing and review, and the camera is capable of recording 1080i HD video. It supports both Memory Stick and SD memory cards.

The camera features Sony Twilight Mode technology for handheld shooting in low light. It corrects with an Anti-Motion Blur mode that helps reduce image blur when taking photos of moving subjects in dim conditions. It also has a built-in GPS module and compass, which adds location data to all of your photos. The camera’s impressive feature set is rounded out by Sony’s Sweep Panorama Mode, which makes it easy to take ultra-wide panoramic photos, simply by panning the camera in a straight line.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-WX1

The Cyber-shot DSC-WX1 from Sony combines a fast lens with a backlit Exmor R CMOS sensor for great performance in dim light. The 5x optical zoom lens covers an equivalent field of view from 24-120mm at f/2.4-5.9. The camera supports 720p HD video capture and uses Sony Memory Stick cards for storage. A 2.7” LCD is present, making it easy to frame images and adjust camera settings.

The Cyber-shot features a number of Sony-exclusive features, including Handheld Twilight and Anti-Motion Blur for low-light shooting, creating bright images that are sharp and free of blurring. Sweep Panorama makes it easy to capture extremely wide images, and Face Detection helps the camera focus in on people.

Sony Cyber-shot DSC-TX Series

The cameras in Sony’s TX series may appear identical on the surface, but they vary in levels of functionality. Each camera features a CMOS sensor with a backlit Exmor R design and an ultra-slim form factor with a lens that does not protrude from the camera body. Each TX can shoot photos at up to 3200 ISO and they all support Sony’s Anti-Motion Blur, Handheld Twilight and Sweep Panorama shooting modes. 

The DSC-TX1 is a 10.1MP shooter that features a 35-104mm equivalent Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with a maximum f/3.5-4.6 aperture. Its 3” LCD features 230,000-dot resolution and touch input capability. The camera can also record 720p HD video. Images are stored on Sony Memory Stick cards.

If you’d like a camera that shoots a bit wider, consider the 10.2MP DSC-TX5. It features a 4x optical zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Tessar lens with an equivalent field of view of 25-100mm and a maximum f/3.6-6.3 aperture. Its 3” touch display has 230,000-dot resolution and the camera features a rugged design that is ideal for outdoor activities. It is waterproof to 10 feet, is drop-tested against falls of up to 5 feet and is also dustproof. The camera is capable of recording 720p HD video. In addition to Memory Stick, the TX5 also supports SD memory cards.

The 10.2MP DSX-TX7 features the same 25-100mm Carl Zeiss lens found on the TX5. While it does not feature the same rugged design, it does give you a larger 3.5” touch-screen LCD, with stunning 921,000-dot resolution. The extra size and increased pixel count makes it easy to frame your images in virtually any condition, and makes it easy to control camera functions via its touch-screen interface. For added convenience, the camera supports both SD and Memory Stick cards.

The Cyber-shot DSC-TX9 features a bit more resolution than the other TX cameras—12.2MP, to be exact. It uses the same 25-100mm Zeiss lens found on the TX5 and TX7 and can record video at up to 1080i resolution. If you’re looking to add extra dimension to your photos and videos, you’ll be happy to know that the TX9 allows you to capture 3D images and HD video, which can be viewed on your 3D HDTV! All of the camera’s features and functions support 3D, including its panorama mode, making it possible to capture amazing 3D vistas. The camera features a 3.5” touch screen with 921,000-dot resolution and it can record images on Memory Stick or SD.

Nikon CoolPix P100

Nikon’s 10.3MP CoolPix P100 features an extremely powerful 26x optical zoom lens, covering an equivalent field of view of 26-678mm. The lens features a maximum aperture of f/2.8-5.0 and you’ll be able to set the ISO up to 3200. The camera’s CMOS sensor features backlit illumination technology for better performance in lower light.

The camera features a built-in EVF, as well as a tiltable 3” LCD for image framing and review. The CoolPix supports video recording in 1080p HD resolution and the camera can also capture 1.1MP stills at an amazing—but low-resolution—120 frames per second! It features numerous scene modes from which to select, including one that is geared specifically for shooting in low light.

Fujifilm HS10

The HS10 from Fujifilm is a 10MP camera with an amazing 30x zoom lens, covering an equivalent field of view of 24-720mm at f/2.8-5.6. You can crank the ISO all the way up to 6400 and you can opt to record images in RAW or JPG format. You’ll be able to frame images via an eye-level EVF or the camera’s 3” rear LCD.

The camera can record 1080p video, complete with stereo sound. It also features a burst still mode that is capable of capturing low-resolution still images at rates of up to 1,000 fps, perfect for capturing every step of extremely fast motion. You’ll be able to import these stills into most video-editing software packages in order to create extremely slow-motion video, albeit without audio. Another highlight of the HS10 is its ability to capture panoramic images and stitch them together in camera.

Getting Better and Better...

It seems as if the low-light capabilities of compact cameras get better and better each year. Backlit CMOS technology is relatively new, and you can expect more manufacturers to adopt it in the future. Fast lenses, better sensor technology, and enhanced image processing make it possible to capture sharp images in lower light. If you don’t see a camera here that meets your needs, feel free to browse through all of the point-and-shoots that we offer at B&H.