Point and shoot
March 1, 2011 6:11 AM   Subscribe

I read some time ago about new point and shoot cameras that are great for taking pictures at night. I believe they didn't have the same mirror system that typical cameras have, thereby making non-flash pictures turn out clearer. Does anyone know what I'm talking about? I'm hoping to find a great camera to take out at night to take pictures without annoying people with a flash.
posted by Unred to Technology (13 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Hi! I own a Panasonic LX5, which is probably one of the better choices for doing photography in low light - relatively low megapixels (lesser noise) and relatively fast lens (F2 on the wide). I take it out shooting at night, and it's great, but technically it suffers from lack of dynamic range compared to dslrs, and the noise is quite bad - though it's fine for my use (facebook, blogs etc).

Also, do you have an example of a non-clear photo? It could be noise, it could be camera shake, it could be motion blur, autofocus missed in low light...

That said, a P&S is far less capable than my dslr... I use my P&S because I bring it along with me everywhere, and technical quality matters less for me.
posted by TrinsicWS at 6:22 AM on March 1, 2011

When you say not the same mirror system it makes me think of the Micro Four Thirds cameras which are more compact than DSLRs because of the lack of mirror.

As TrinsicWS says, if you want a true point and shoot that does well in low light look for a small f-stop number like F/2.0. The LX5 or Canon S95 are popular.
posted by starman at 6:33 AM on March 1, 2011

The "mirror system" thing seems confused to me. SLRs have mirrors, while nearly all point-and-shoot cameras don't, yet all recent DSLRs perform way better in low light than nearly any point-and-shoot camera, chiefly because they have larger sensors. If you want to take pictures in low light, an SLR is generally the best choice.

There are some point-and-shoot cameras that are okay in low light, like the LX5 and the Canon G series, generally because they're built around a larger-than-average sensor for a point-and-shoot (and sometimes also a nice fast lens, or a slightly enhanced sensor technology like Sony's "Exmor R" or back-illumination). With some of them you can go up to ISO 1600 (film-speed equivalent) and still get a decent picture. But good DSLRs these days can go many stops higher than that, and also use a faster lens. This is one area where size really matters.
posted by RogerB at 6:33 AM on March 1, 2011

Perhaps you're thinking of a back-illuminated CMOS sensor, as found on e.g. the Canon PowerShot SD4000 IS which is supposed to be a good low light camera at f/2.0 and 10 MP.
posted by Rhomboid at 6:42 AM on March 1, 2011

I was in your shoes recently! The two current top dogs in this department are the Panasonic Lumix LX5 and Canon Powershot S95.

A comparison review

A rather comprehensive review/comparison

Leica has better lens and wider field of view (24 mm vs S95's 28 mm).

S95 is more compact and performs better in low light shooting due to better noise processing at higher ISOs (which negates LX5 F2 lens competitive advantage somewhat).

Both are great cameras with comparable picture quality. I eventually opted for S95 due to its more compact design and slightly better quality in low light. I'd recommend you to check out both cameras in person and go with one that handles the best for you.

Alternatively you could consider "mirrorless DSLR" like Panasonic GF-1. It's basically a body with DSLR sensor without the mirror. More compact with interchangeable lens, but not as portable or cheap.

If money is no object, get a Leica M9 with F0.95 Noctilux lens (about $17,000 for the whole package).
posted by pakoothefakoo at 6:44 AM on March 1, 2011

But good DSLRs these days can go many stops higher than that...

The Canon 1D MK IV goes up to ISO 102,400, for example. More camera than most people want or need, but you would almost never need a flash.

Another factor in low-light sensitivity is the infrared filter that manufacturers use in these cameras. I read an article a while back comparing which manufacturers' filters let the most light through in low light situations, but can't find it now.
posted by TedW at 6:48 AM on March 1, 2011

I rather like my Canon s90 (I think there is a new model out though). Its really quite good in Low light. I never use a flash at all. its a great little compact camera. (I don't believe in carrying around a DSLR to take "holiday snaps" - its too much hassle).

I've noticed on occasion it can even seem to take a brighter photo than appears to the naked eye.
posted by mary8nne at 7:09 AM on March 1, 2011

Mirrors don't have anything to do with the quality of low-light photography. SLRs (and dSLRs) have a mirror that diverts the optical path to the viewfinder when you're not taking a picture, but all cameras have a direct optical path from lens to sensor.

There are two factors that control your ability to shoot in low light: sensor sensitivity and lens aperture.

All digital cameras let you amp up the sensor sensitivity (ISO), sometimes to extremely high levels, but this usually engenders noise in the final image (the sensor reacts to random electrical noise as if it's a light signal at high ISO).

With dSLRs and Micro 4/3rds cameras (and other similar cameras that have been called "electronic viewfinder, interchangeable lens" or EVIL), you can change the lens to get one with as big an aperture as you want. There are lenses for some dSLRs that admit more light than the human eye (sadly, these cost about $5000); a "fast" lens for µ4/3s or dSLRs is probably going to run about $500.

With point-and-shoot cameras, you're stuck with the lens it comes with. The point-and-shoots with the widest-opening lens that I know of are the Olympus XZ1 and the Samsung TL500. At f1.8, that's about as fast as most fast lenses you'll see for dSLRs. Point-and-shoots have smaller sensors that leave them more susceptible to noise, especially at high ISOs.
posted by adamrice at 7:51 AM on March 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mirrors don't have anything to do with the quality of low-light photography. SLRs (and dSLRs) have a mirror that diverts the optical path to the viewfinder when you're not taking a picture . . .

But the mirrors are important if you're planning on composing your pictures through the viewfinder instead of on a live-preview screen. Some metering and autofocus systems need much more light than others, which means that less light is reflected into the viewfinder. In a dark environment, this could cause the viewfinder to become near-impossible to see out of.
posted by clorox at 9:59 AM on March 1, 2011

adamrice is right; the mirror thing is largely a red herring. What drives low light performance is sensor size and lens aperture.

If you really want a great low light camera, buy a full frame dSLR and put a fast prime on it like a 50mm/f1.4. If that's too expensive or bulky, next best is a smaller dSLR (APS-C, APS-H, or Four Thirds camera) and a cheaper 50mm/f1.8 lens. If you want a tiny point and shoot camera the Canon S95 does very well in low light, between having a great quality sensor and f/2.0 optics.

One thing to be aware of; autofocus works more slowly in low light situations.
posted by Nelson at 11:23 AM on March 1, 2011

Here is a recent NYT article on a crop of new pocket cameras with larger sensors for low light situations. A few of the relevant sections:
...If there’s one single statistic that you can use to compare cameras, it’s sensor size. A bigger sensor soaks up more light. You get better color and sharper images, especially in low light. A big sensor generally means better color and clarity, and less grain and blur in low light. Digital S.L.R. cameras have enormous sensors, which is why professionals use them. (Of course, S.L.R.’s are also enormous and heavy.)...What the world has always wanted is a big sensor in a small camera, so you can get sharp photos in low light without hauling around an S.L.R. This year, the camera industry took a big step toward that glorious future. Canon’s PowerShot S95 ($370), Panasonic’s Lumix DMC-LX5 ($400) and Samsung’s TL500 ($370) are all pocket-size cameras — with sensors at least 50 percent larger than other pocket cameras.

(The Canon and the Samsung have 0.59-inch sensors, while the Panasonic is calculated to be 0.61 inch. Most pocket cameras’ sensors are about 0.37 inch. All of these, of course, are the misrepresented “tube” measurements; the real diagonals are about a third smaller.)

The result is one reliably spectacular photo after another — especially in low light without the flash. The sensors aren’t as big and the photos aren’t as good as what you get in an S.L.R. But they’re halfway between a pocket camera and an S.L.R.

Professional photographers are snapping up these pocket-size wonders as secondary, always-available cameras.,/blockquote>
posted by caddis at 11:33 AM on March 1, 2011

Any of Sony's compact camera that has the handheld Twilight mode will take 6 shots in continuous burst and combine them into a single image. It works pretty well under low-light condition without using flash. I personally have the Sony WX-1 and am pretty happy with it, but there are more advanced units now.
posted by joewandy at 4:07 AM on March 2, 2011

Response by poster: As a followup - I went with the Canon S95 and it is AMAZING! I couldn't be happier with it. I think it even takes better pictures than my SLR. Taking it to concerts, it records great video AND audio. I'm in love.

Thanks for all the help!
posted by Unred at 8:54 AM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

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