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I have a Canon Powershot A710 and I previously had a previous Powershot A-series model. I love them due to the high amount of control they offer. Sadly, they both suck in low light conditions, their flash is very unresponsive, and the camera takes several seconds preparing itself for the next shot after a flash shot. And even then, the pictures they take in low light/flash are as bad as good are those with good light.

I'd like a camera which gives a lot of control options, but what do I need to look for to find one that's great in low light, with or without flash?

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Also, try to shoot in RAW photo mode to get better noise reduction in your post production software. I use Adobe Lightroom 3, and noticed a significant improvement over Lightroom 2's noise reduction. I was able to re-process older low-light photos (from the LX3) and enjoy the benefits of the improved noise reduction algorithms. I don't think this would have been possible if I'd shot them as JPEG straight on the camera. –  tito p Nov 1 '10 at 18:43
    
You might want to consider an off-camera accessory flash which can be triggered remotely. Most of the old-time flashes that could do this are fooled by the preflash used by most digital cameras, but some, like the Metz mecablitz 28 CS-2 digital are specifically designed to work with digital preflash. This will work better than even the best built-in flash, and will work with your current camera plus with whatever you eventually replace it with. –  mattdm Nov 20 '11 at 10:43
    
You could try Snapsort's "Recommend" feature. –  damned truths Oct 20 '12 at 8:41

11 Answers 11

For both cases I strongly recommend looking for something with

  • a fast lens (A 2.0 aperture is faster than 2.8 for example)
  • reasonable ISO handling (at least 400, but preferably 800)
  • the biggest sensor available

The sum of these factors are really critical for low light situations.

In 2012, both the Canon S110 and the Lumix LX7 offered that set of characteristics. If you don't mind a slight bulkier camera, you could also consider the Canon G15 due to its movable LCD.

And last but not least, if you can afford the extra cost, the Sony NEX (the NEX 5N for example) and the micro four thirds offers from Panasonic (such as the GF5 and GX1) and Olympus (such as the E-PM2 and E-PL5) are certainly better than the previous options and offer the flexibility of interchangeable lenses. A middle ground, offering interchangeable lenses but a smaller sensor, would include the Pentax Q and the Nikon 1 cameras.

Note that these are current examples, but the market is always offering new cameras. The important thing to keep in mind is the sum of the above mentioned factors (fast lens, ISO handling and sensor size).

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I believe you meant the Olympus E-PL1 bit.ly/c6sMVV. Probably not the E-P1 or E-P2. The E-PL1 is more targeted toward entry-level and P&S use with room to grow. (Note that there is no such product as the E-PL2) #ImAnOlympusEmployee –  sholsinger Nov 1 '10 at 18:32
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Both the LX3 and S90 have larger than average sensors, and wide apertures, but the S90 seems to have the edge in low light: snapsort.com/compare/… –  Alex Black Nov 1 '10 at 18:51
    
2.0 at least of what? –  Sam Hasler Nov 23 '10 at 10:23
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@Sam, are you referring to the "a fast lens" point? 2.0 vs 2.8 is referring to aperture. A bigger aperture means more light allowed in, which imroves low light performance. The F-Stop number represents the aperture size (lower number means bigger aperture, so F2.0 lets in more light than F2.8). –  seanmc Nov 28 '10 at 18:59
    
Guys, for your consideration: the Canon Pro70, made in 1998. The Pro70 is f/2.0-2.4, ISO100-400, 1.5MP on a 6.4x4.8mm sensor (=huge 4.5nm pixels). Can shoot raw too. Now isn't that a P&S for low-light photography or what? –  William C Sep 15 '11 at 5:34

I highly recommend the Canon S90. I have one, and for a point and shoot it has pretty stellar low-light performance. Using it, with a good noise reduction pp produces great results.

It's light weight, and feature rich. I paid near MSRP for it, because I bought it new. It has all the bells and whistles you would expect from a point and shoot, plus full manual, aperture and shutter priority modes. Also (iirc) it has video mode. All and all, it's a top notch P&S.

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Yup it has video, although it is crappy. –  RedFilter Aug 12 '10 at 20:12
    
If you had to buy one today would you go for the S90 or the S95? –  Esben Skov Pedersen Sep 19 '10 at 8:51
    
Now that the S95 has been released, I would probably pick that –  Alan Sep 19 '10 at 17:43
    
The Canon S90 is very good indeed, as long as you do use its lens to shoot at one stop less ISO than you would with another premium compact. Otherwise, take a good look at the Nikon P7000. I just reviewed it last week and although I preferred the controls of the S90, ISO-for-ISO the P7000 beats the S90. –  Itai Nov 1 '10 at 23:53

It sounds as if you're more concerned with flash than ISO and sensor noise, which are essentially unsolvable with P&S in low light, so that's good. I identify two possible problems with suggestions:

  • Insufficient power/recycle time. Some P&S have a hot shoe, so you can attach a real, internally powered flash. You could try this. You may also be able to optically trigger the external flash; the camera flash will still fire, but at a lower power, so recycle time will be less.
  • Poor flash placement. On-camera flash can lead to the deer-in-the-headlights look and exposure problems, either from nearby objects overexposing and/or causing metering problems that leave the rest of the scene dark or specular materials reflecting too much light, causing underexposure. Moving the flash away from the lens and/or using bounce flash may mitigate these problems.

The Canon A series uses AA batteries, as do external flashes, and the batteries you choose will have a significant effect on the flash recycle time. Never use alkaline as battery life will be pathetic. If you want a disposable cell, use lithium, though they are expensive. What I would suggest is high-quality NiMH - look at this answer for more on that.

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Consider some of the new NiZn batteries, they put out over 1.8v fresh, dropping to 1.6v as they run out, suposed to have number of recharges (low hundreds), about the same total power capacity as NiMH, also, high current. Wedding photographers seem to like them, flash will cycle twice as fast as on other batteries. They work great in my daughters camera that will not run on alkaline AA cells. Price is quite reasonable. –  Ronald Pottol Nov 1 '10 at 20:21
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You should be very careful before using a battery that puts out more than 1.5v - you might end up damaging your camera. I would call the manufacturer first. –  Evan Krall Nov 2 '10 at 14:44

After year and half there is now answer to this: Canon G1 X: http://www.dpreview.com/previews/canong1x

It sports the biggest sensor of any point and shoot camera, thus enabling superior low-light performance. The sensor size is what defines the upper limit on how much light a sensor can catch, and sensor of G1 X is between Micro Four Thirds and APS-C in size, ie. in system camera territory.

Of course it can be argued that in almost the same size you could get a body and pancake lens on a compact system camera like Micro Four Thirds bodies or Samsung NX200. However, none of these options offer equivalent zoom range to G1 X in similar size; if you mount a lens with wide zoom range, the overall package will be significantly larger.

However, even with these reservations, it's seriously worth considering to get a compact system camera and use it with full auto mode when you want to take it easy. A compact system camera is not any harder to use, and with pancake lenses not much larger, than G1 X. And you can swap lenses when your situation changes. The smallest compact system camera zoom lens available is Panasonic X 14-42, and with it MFT camera can be borderline pocketable: http://www.dpreview.com/previews/panasonic_x_14-42_3p5-5p6/page2.asp

When it comes to price, all of the mentioned options cost over 500€ in total. There's no such thing as good low-light performance at 200€ bracket.

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I'm with @André Carregal: A big sensor, a lens f/2.0 or better and reasonable ISO handling.

For "how to tell", I suggest the DxOMark low-light ISO tests: Expand the type filter and select compact and high-end compact, and you get a list of cameras with their low-light ISO score.

Then check out test shots from the relevant models at dpreview.com, to see if the measured differences are actually visible in practice.

Here is an example screenshot from the dpreview widget, comparing image quality at ISO 1600 for compacts with different sensor sizes:

DPReview ISO comparison (The screenshot is compressed, see dpreview for originals.)

  • Top right: Low-end compact, 1/2.3" sensor (sensor area 29 mm2) - Olympus mju 9010.
  • Top left: High-end compact, 1/1.7" sensor (41 mm2) - Canon PowerShot S100.
  • Bottom right: 1"/CX sensor (116 mm2) - Sony RX100. (This camera is not much larger than the Canon S100, and has an f/1.8-4.9 lens. At the time of writing probably the best low-light option that still fits in a pocket.)
  • Bottom left: APS-C sensor (373 mm2) - Fujifilm X100.

Double the sensor area, and the sensor receives twice as much light during the exposure, all else equal. In theory, this gives a twice-as-large sensor a one stop advantage in low-light capability. Judging from test pictures as well as from the DxOMark measurements, the theory seems to hold up pretty well in practice.

(The main modifier for "bigger is better" is that sensor technology matters too: Sensor low-light performance improves at a rate of about one stop every five years, and a product may use a technology that's older/cheaper than the current state of the art. So "bigger is better" only holds when you compare "best of breed" for each sensor size at the same point in time. In the screenshot above, the low-end compact is probably not the best for its sensor size, but the others should be close to the top of their sensor class.)

Of course, if you couple a more sensitive sensor with a slower lens (say f/2.8 instead of f/2.0), you sacrifice much of the low-light performance you just gained. So you want both: The most sensitive sensor with the fastest lens.

There's nothing to be gained in low-light performance from a camera with interchangeable lenses (versus a fixed lens camera with a similar sensor), other than the option of buying an f/1.4 lens (or even a manual focus f/0.95 lens for certain mounts). But then we're probably leaving the spirit of "point and shoot" behind.

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I'm a bit biased, but you might find my site, Snapsort useful.

Here is a link to the best point and shoots for low light (based on actual benchmarks from DxOMark).

The S90 is at the top of the list, and the S95 (its replacement) seems to have the same low light performance.

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Interesting that after a year Snapsort lists the same cameras: #1: S95, #2: G12. #3: S90. –  asalamon74 Nov 20 '11 at 14:01

If you want a lot of control options, the specs to look for are:

  • Full Manual mode (or all the PSAM modes, usually the same thing); gives you full control over exposure settings.

  • RAW capability; gives you more latitude for post-processing.

If you want good performance with a flash, the specs to look for are:

  • A flash hotshoe; gives you the easiest option to improve flash capabilities with an external flash unit or off-camera triggering methods. Typically only on bridge-style cameras or large-sensored compacts.

  • A built-in flash that can be tilted for bounce (rare); is a slightly better option than direct flash for softer light, but not as good as full swivel/tilt with an external flash.

  • HSS/FP (high-speed sync) flash capability (very rare); allows you to use the flash with faster shutter speeds for those times you aren't in low light and using the flash for fill.

If you want good performance without a flash, the specs to look for are:

  • Sensor size. Generally speaking, the larger the sensor, the better the high-ISO noise performance will be. Higher iso settings increase the sensitivity of the sensor so you can gather more light more quickly, but typically noise increases as well. Most of us are looking for clean iso 3200 or iso 6400 these days, and that generally means a 1" (2.7x crop) format or larger sensor. Most typical P&S cameras, like the Powershot A series use a 1/2.3" (4.5x crop) format sensor.

  • Fast lens. You need a large aperture to let in more light if you want to shoot in low light situations at handheld shutter speeds, so a max aperture of f/2.8 or larger (smaller f-number) is a must for low-light shooting. This will be given in the lens specs typically after the focal length. And the range will indicate what the maximum aperture is over the focal length range (wide to telephoto). Very few compact cameras have a constant max. aperture throughout the range.

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I prefer the Panasonic Lumix series because I like the tonal range and sharpness of the Leica lenses. (Be warned that not all Lumix lenses are Leica lenses.) Look at the f/ stop and pick a fast lens (smaller number is better). I recently bought my wife the FZ100 -- and she loves it.

My wife also has an interesting requirement in that she wants to take movies and be able to use the zoom function. (Meaning, continual AF + zoom. She also wants good sound and video quality.) The FZ100 meets her need. Panasonic seems to have the edge when it comes to video.

I have the GF1 because the micro-four/thirds cameras also can take my old (Leica) lenses. This has allowed me to reuse some of my film cameras. The GF1 is also pretty compact so I can easily take it with me.

Lastly, I recommend a "second" P&S camera -- one that is water/shock/whatever proof. Panasonic, Olympus and others make versions of these cameras. I have an older Olympus that I hate (shutter delay is too long) and am looking to upgrade -- but I love being able to take it with me on the ski slopes.

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The Panasonic Lumix FZ100 takes horrible low light photos. They messed up big time when it came to the new sensor and not being able to take non-noisy photos even when using an ISO of 400. It takes great photos in moderate to well lit environments though and the video capabilities are unparalleled to that of any other camera in the same category as the FZ100. –  DigitalSea Feb 2 '11 at 2:52

I have Canon S90, but it has been replaced by S95 (HD recording). These are awesome in low light with 2.0 AP.

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Pogue on the Canon s95: http://pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/28/a-love-letter-to-a-camera/

I think he likes it.

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The Panasonic LX5 has really low f-stop, like most advanced compacts

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