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My phone, a Pixel 7 Pro, is really easy to take great night shots with. Just point and shoot, and most of the time you get a decent shot. The only issue is that the resolution is a bit low for viewing in 4k, and the small sensor mandates some occasionally excessive sharpening.

I have an old Panasonic m4/3 and find it difficult to get good low light shots, especially hand-held. I could probably learn to take better shots, and get some better lenses that let more light in, but I'm not convinced it's even possible to match my phone without some pretty high end gear.

What should I look for to find cameras that make such shots as easy as point and shoot, even if they do require some work on the computer afterwards? New or used, don't mind. Needs to be not too large, ideally pocketable (large pockets) or fit in a small bag.

The goal is to get easy(ish) night shots, landscapes and cityscapes, with better resolution and less artificial sharpening and noise reduction than the phone is capable of.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Done............ \$\endgroup\$
    – user3254
    May 18, 2023 at 17:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ Phones do a great job nowadays. If you want to get better night photos, I think you're simply going to have to slow down. You can still have a relatively point-and-shoot experience, but probably you're going to need a tripod, take care over exposure, shoot RAW maybe, and be prepared to do some post-processing. It's my contention that modern cameras are not really meant to be one-click devices. \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    May 18, 2023 at 18:07
  • \$\begingroup\$ @osullic thanks. I see YouTube videos taken with a DSLR, like Ramblac. The 4k video looks very good at night, even at 60fps. They use a gimbal for stability. \$\endgroup\$
    – user3254
    May 18, 2023 at 20:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ you would likely be better off with a prosumer point and shoot, like a canon G or powershot series, or a nikon coolpix. These will have larger optics and sensors than a phone yet still provide an intuitive capture experience. \$\endgroup\$
    – dandavis
    May 24, 2023 at 0:57
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    \$\begingroup\$ I have (had) the Nikon P900/P950/P1000 series for birds but they all have a night landscape mode that shoots a number of photos, aligns them, and stacks them to get a proper exposure. I have been amazed how well it works. I used the P900 in caves in India that had little artificial light to good success and am sure the others have not gone backward. I would expect that other point and shoots do as well with a better lens for general work. \$\endgroup\$ Jun 3, 2023 at 3:09

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I feel your pain. The short answer is not yet as far as I know.

A high end phone camera trades off raw optical capability for impressive digital processing capability. I don't know why the camera makers have not stepped up to provide similar in-camera digital processing capability yet.

One common argument is that similar digital processing magic is available as post processing, which is mostly true but not always practical. Another argument is that properly planned photos shouldn't require extensive digital processing, which may have merit but doesn't solve the problem.

Night photos in particular are a good example of this Optics vs Processing dichotomy. Big glass and large sensors always give a greater potential, but making use of that potential without in-camera digital processing is difficult to near impossible in some cases. Night shots in a high-end phone camera are often stacked multiple shots that provide an apparently better dynamic range and lower noise effect. Yes this can be done in post but it may not be practical.

As an example, I was recently in Costa Rica and did a guided night walk in the Rain Forest. enter image description here

This was a small flashlight in one hand and an iPhone 13 in the other hand. There was no time to set up. Now or never! I would never have gotten this picture without the magic of the in-phone digital processing.

On the other hand if long reach is required, big glass is hard to beat. I took some night surveillance photos at ISO 125,000 with a 300mm stabilized lens. They are noisy and lack artistry but they got the job done where the iPhone was hopeless.

I keep thinking that surely the camera makers will catch up with regard to in-camera digital processing, but maybe they don't see it as a significant market?

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Post processing within DLSR is a lot more conservative than smart phone.

From my experience, you can have the DSLR under expose the entire image by a stop or two, or even more, and put 97-99% of the pixel within the histogram and not overshoot the histogram, because the top 3-5% are the street lights and you want to preserve the street lights at least to some extent. Because the sensor's SNR on the DSLR is so high, you can always recover the low light from the under exposed darkness.

I use Nikon and I find Nikon's D-Lighting is quite useful. It's basically an adaptive tone-mapping that boosts low light without washing out high light, essentially compresses the dynamic range of the image. Remember the camera is 14-bit while the display is only 8-bit, so you have to decrease the contrast by quite a bit in order to fit it into the display device. And this is what smart phones do best. But smartphone's front end (sensor and ISP) is terrible by DSLR standard, so phones have to use multiple images in order to capture the whole dynamic range of the scene.

When I was a camera engineer for smartphones (about 3 years ago), I found it equally difficult to get metering right for smartphones. Essentially all non-DSLR cameras uses the same sensor for preview and metering, simultaneously. As a result, when the sensor is adjusted to give a "correct" brightness for preview, the brightest 5%-10% of pixel are always washed out and you couldn't quantitatively know how bright they actually are, hence couldn't determine what exposure parameters to use to capture them. My solution was to use a secondary camera (and there are many on smartphones now) and under-expose this camera by 5 stops(!), to let it see through the blinding street lights, then I know how much I should under expose the main camera in order to capture those high light details.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Is there some (preferably free, or at least with a demo version) software that I can try for working with RAWs? I have some from my Panasonic m4/3 and from my phone. I tried DigiKam but couldn't get good results exposing night shots. \$\endgroup\$
    – user3254
    May 29, 2023 at 14:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Maybe I need a better camera, I don't think the Panasonic is good for this. It sounds like one with high bit depth output is the way to go. It's a shame none of them seem to support capturing multiple exposures simultaneously, i.e. reading the sensor out repeatedly over time like a phone does. It should be possible to stack effectively then. \$\endgroup\$
    – user3254
    May 29, 2023 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ @user3254 - An excellent and free application for processing raw is Darktable darktable.org . It's very capable and a match, or better, to Adobe Lightroom. However, it has a pretty steep learning curve. \$\endgroup\$ May 29, 2023 at 16:19
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'll try it again. Last time it was extremely slow for me and I gave up. \$\endgroup\$
    – user3254
    May 29, 2023 at 17:19
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Many DSLR and mirrorless cameras have fully automatic modes and scene processing features. Most of the time they will be unused. The people who bought a DSLR/mirrorless camera because it was the right tool for them are more likely to be in PASM modes (or PAvTvM - you know who you are). Ability to change settings is probably the major feature of DSLR/mirrorless cameras, and knowing how and when to do that is not what someone who's priority is easily creating pictures will want.

[I like to think that a point-and-shoot or phone camera is a device that takes pictures, while SLR/mirrorless cameras (and some compact cameras) are tools that enable a photographer to take pictures. The user's knowledge is a critical component.]

If you're looking to learn about the exposure triangle, planes of focus and the contribution of external light sources and reflections, a DSLR/mirrorless camera is the way to go. But it's a long process and most of your earlier pictures will be rubbish. Mine were. A short answer to the headline question would be that any DSLR/mirrorless camera could be as easy to use for night photography as a phone camera - if you have ten years experience with it. Better gear will enable you to develop your technique (and new techniques), but it won't make any contribution on its own.

If you're looking for a fast route to reasonably good pictures a point-and-shoot or phone camera is likely to be the best option. Especially if portability is also a concern - there's a lot to be said for the argument that the best camera is the one you have with you.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm really just looking to point and shoot like I can with my phone. I tend to take a lot of photos with different compositions, and select the best ones. Most are just opportunistic as I am travelling. Don't really have a lot of time to set up a shot, and don't want to carry around equipment like a tripod. \$\endgroup\$
    – user3254
    May 29, 2023 at 14:36
  • \$\begingroup\$ @user3254 - That was my guess from the question. Nothing wrong with that. It sounds like you might have the opposite problem if you spent money on a DSLR/mirrorless camera, with the PASM modes hardly getting any use. You can certainly experiment with composition on a point-and-shoot or a phone camera, and if you're happy with what you're getting the most cost-effective camera is always one you already own. \$\endgroup\$ May 29, 2023 at 16:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ I can't resist throwing in that old quote attributed to Henri Cartier-Bresson... "Your first 10,000 photos are your worst." \$\endgroup\$
    – osullic
    May 29, 2023 at 16:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @osullic I get what you are saying, but to me it seems like the technology to set the camera up and stack images etc is all there so I shouldn't need to do it manually. \$\endgroup\$
    – user3254
    May 29, 2023 at 17:22

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