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I had recently bought a Nikon CoolPix L110, which was stolen a few months later. In searching for a replacement, I'd like to get something that takes better pictures in poor lighting. The zoom on the L110 seemed to be overdone, as zooming would reduce the quality of the images. I don't know much about photography, so could you tell me:

  • what settings/properties of a camera affect how it takes pictures in poor lighting (avoiding blurriness and not too grainy)
  • what kind of price range am I looking at?

I think I let myself be sold on the L110 for its zoom (my previous camera only had 3x zoom), and then was constantly disappointed with the blurry indoor pictures.

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3  
The price range is $5 to $10,000+, depending on what compromises you're willing to accept. –  mattdm Jan 18 '11 at 16:53

7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

What settings/properties of a camera affect how it takes pictures in poor lighting?

  1. Size of the sensels, not the size of the sensor itself.

    Sensel size depends on the sensor size, the number of pixels, and some physical aspects of the sensor design. For a given format--that is, sensor size--as the number of pixels goes up, the sensel size goes down, making low-light pictures (and dark areas of other pictures) grainier. Somewhat counterintuitively, then, one thing to look for here--all other things equal--is a lower number of megapixels, not a higher number.

    The maximum ISO (sensor "speed" or sensitivity) can be a crude surrogate indicator of better low-light sensitivity.

  2. Best lens f/stop. Larger apertures let in more light. Large apertures are indicated by small f-stop values. A value of 2.8 or less is often considered good for lower light, but there's no definite threshold. F-stops are measured on a squared ratio scale, so f/1.4 is four times as good as f/2.8 and f/2.8 is four times as good as f/5.6 (even though it would seem 1.4 is pretty close to 2.8).

    Watch out, though, in the point & shoot realm with long zoom lenses: typically, their best f/stop is achieved at wide angles and rapidly gets worse as you zoom into the telephoto range. The Fuji FinePix 300 is a good example: its best f/stop of 3.5 isn't too bad but it quickly changes to f/5.6 as you zoom.

    For cameras with interchangeable lens systems you can often buy a lens that has a better maximum f/stop. This can be costly (thousands of dollars instead of hundreds once you get below f/2.8 with good optics; notable exceptions are some 50mm and 85mm lenses for SLR cameras, where great optics at f/1.8 can be had for $100-$400 [plus the cost of the camera body]). Lenses that let in lots of light have to be larger and heavier.

  3. Image stabilization. This is found on some SLR and SLD bodies, and on some SLR and SLD lenses, but increasingly it is also available on P & S models like the Canon Powershot S95.

    IS inhibits certain forms of camera shake for hand-held pictures. This lets you take longer exposures, letting in more light, improving the picture. Typically it lets in 5 - 15 times as much light. (The latter is the difference between, say, f/5.6 and f/1.4: that's huge.) However, obviously IS cannot stop your subject from moving. It's great for landscapes, still portraits, and the occasional candid shot, but not for sports and action.

  4. Auxiliary light sources, like a flash. On-camera flashes typically do not illuminate much beyond 10 - 20 feet. A camera that has a hot shoe or otherwise can connect to an external flash will be capable of providing enough light to illuminate any nearby object (and do so very well if you move the flash away from the camera with a cable or wireless device).

  5. Size, mass, and shape. A larger, heavier body that you can grip well will often be steadier and reduce blur. Such bodies usually appear in professional camera lines starting at $1000.

  6. Noise reduction algorithms. Most digital cameras can process low-light pictures to reduce noise and increase sharpness. Some do so better than others. Some give you an option to turn this off; some do not; some let you take "raw" pictures where you can apply the noise reduction in the computer later. With a few, the noise reduction is not optional and is so aggressive in low light that you can lose a lot of detail.

  7. Other vibration reduction capabilities. These include a socket for mounting on a tripod (most cameras have this), remote-control triggers, and mirror lock-up (for SLRs). To take advantage of these you need a tripod or equivalent stabilizing device.


Detailed, comprehensive reviews often cover the low-light capabilities of a body or lens. Even some of the cheaper P&S models get reviewed. They are worth studying.

Overall, IS and a good flash may do the most per dollar to help you acquire good low-light pictures. As others have mentioned, better sensors rapidly get expensive. Better lenses do, too.

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I would clarify the maximum ISO speed a bit. You have actual ISO, and expanded ISO. Actual ISO is an amplified analog signal, while expanded ISO is usually achieved via digital trickery, rather than via a real signal. A camera capable of an actual ISO 1600 is going to perform less than a camera capable of ISO 6400. However, a camera that can do a maximum ISO 102400 vs. a camera that can do a maximum ISO of 25600 will still likely perform the same at an actual ISO of 6400. –  jrista Jan 19 '11 at 1:21
    
@jrista Thank you for amplifying so knowledgeably on a subject that I merely hinted at. –  whuber Jan 19 '11 at 3:40

Any time you need to take pictures in low-light, what you need as a camera with good high-ISO performance. BTW, ISO is sensitivity to light. It is not enough the the camera to reach a high ISO, it has to show good image quality while doing so.

The best camera with high-ISO performance are DSLRs and SLDs (Also called Mirrorless Interchangeable Lens Cameras). At the cheaper end, they cost around $400 for the camera plus more for the lens, which starts at about $100 and go way up. Expect to pay at least $1000 for a DSLR and a medium-quality lens. Those cameras are heavier and bigger than your L110, so it's not for everyone.

The next step down is to get a compact camera designed for high-sensitivity. Those range from about $250 to $500. If you like a long zoom, you should seriously take a look at the Fuji Finepix F300 EXR which has amazing quality for its class with a few models doing very slightly better in terms of noise. It has a 15X ultra-wide angle optical zoom and is extremely fast for its class.

You can also consider the Nikon Coolpix P7000 which has a 7X wide-angle zoom and is slightly less grainy than the F300 EXR but noticeable slower. Other contenders all have much shorter zooms, the Canon S95 and Panasonic LX5 fall into this category.

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The thing that matters most for reducing noise in low-light photography is sensor size. Unfortunately, most point-and-shoot cameras have uniformly tiny sensors, so it will pretty much always be an issue. Sensor size is the most expensive feature on a camera; ones with a "good" size will run several hundred to several thousand dollars. Also, most cameras with larger sensors tend to be larger cameras (DSLRs, etc); that's probably not what you're after.

If you're less worried about noise and just want some sort of picture, look for a camera that has the highest ISO setting. But since you're trying to avoid "grainy" pictures this probably won't help you much.

Some cameras are better than others at reducing noise in their on-board processing. There's no magic number to look for there; you have to look for technical reviews that show test pictures. DPReview is one good site for that; there are many others.

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FWIW, @whuber's answer about "sensel" size is more accurate. –  Craig Walker Jan 18 '11 at 18:10

This doesn't relate to low-light performance, but it's still worth discussing:

The zoom on the L110 seemed to be overdone, as zooming would reduce the quality of the images

You're probably getting what's known as "digital" zoom. Digital zoom isn't a "real" zoom; it's using software to take your picture and enlarge it. However, there's no additional information in the picture available, so making it bigger brings a corresponding reduction in picture quality.

What you want to look for is "optical" zoom; this uses your lens to enlarge the image rather than software. As you zoom, your picture gets "bigger" (rather, the angle of view you see is smaller), but the sensor is still capturing a full share of data, so the image quality is (mostly) the same.

When comparing cameras, forget about digital zoom entirely, and consider optical zoom instead.

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No, the L110 had 12x or 15x optical zoom. It's basically an SLR with a big lens. What I noticed was that, even with image stabilisation, there was a greater chance of having grainy or blurry pictures when zoomed. –  Kelsey Rider Jan 18 '11 at 16:12
    
You'll definitely get blurrier pictures when at high zoom, even with image stabilization. This is because the angle of view is so small; any movement in the camera translates to a large movement in the field of view. IS helps reduce that, but even expensive/professional cameras & lenses have this problem. –  Craig Walker Jan 18 '11 at 17:11
    
I'm not sure why the zoom would effect the graininess/noise though. Perhaps the camera was compensating for the zoom by increasing the shutter speed, and had to boost the ISO to compensate? –  Craig Walker Jan 18 '11 at 17:13

For doing low light work the two major things you will want are a fast lens (F2.8 or better, f1.4 would be best) and a heavy tripod. While many digital cameras have some fancy software to reduce image shake its better to simply put the camera on a solid platform!

I have taken shots of the night sky where I exposed for 15seconds or more with a bogen 3036 tripod.

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If low light photography is priority, then i think you should consider getting a DSLR - because of their much larger sensor they have significantly less noise. You can also choose lens that suite you best, instead of using one build into compact camera. The downside is that they are much heavier, bulkier and more expensive.

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I think you can buy a good DSLR (Canon or Nikon, for example) for about 500$, and a fast lens for about 100$ (like Canon's 50mm 1.8).

In my experience, DSLRs give much better results in low lighting conditions compared to both micro four thirds and compact cameras.

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