I want a fast lens on a compact digital camera!
November 29, 2011 7:58 PM   Subscribe

What are good compact digital cameras for low-light photography?

A few years ago before DSLRs were affordable I was into photography in a big way and mostly did low-light and available-light shooting. Mostly, I did this through fast lenses (f1.7, etc.) rather than through higher ISO film – and definitely never with flash!

Is there a compact digital camera that could get me somewhere similar these days? I'm genuinely out of touch with digital cameras, but I want something I can carry around easily in a pocket, not a DSLR.

I would love to be:
  • Pointed to a website on which I can sort cameras by lens speed
  • Pointed to specific cameras that people have had good success with
  • Pointed to any other pointers!
I know about photo.net but it's a bit of a chore to wade through that, which is why I'm turning here first! Thanks.
posted by barnacles to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
ms scruss has the Powershot S95, and it has an f/2 lens. I keep nicking it for available light use over my D90.
posted by scruss at 8:03 PM on November 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

Note that the S95 has been superseded by the recently released S100. The S100 is a bit hard to find at the moment (and quite a bit more expensive than the S95), but it retains the fast f/2 aperture.

Digital Photography Review did a comparison review of the S95, Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5, and Nikon Coolpix P7000. Overall they liked the S95 and LX5 about the same and preferred both to the P7000.
posted by jedicus at 8:26 PM on November 29, 2011

I love my Canon S95, great, great camera. Others you may like:

Lumix LX5 (f/2)
Olympus XZ-1 (f/1.8)
posted by talkingmuffin at 8:27 PM on November 29, 2011

Note that a superseded S95 simply means they'll be cheaper and easier to find. Unless you really need 1080 video, just go with the one that's easiest to find and and closest to your budget. Here's a comparison of Canon's S-series cameras. You can't go wrong with any of them.

If you're looking for the next step up in professional/enthusiast compact cameras, though, you want a fixed-length lens, and you want a Ricoh. No zoom will ever give you top notch speed & quality, but the GRDIII with its fixed 28mm (effective) f/1.9 lens has a shit-tonne of both. The wide angle turns some people off. It makes other people more creative. How did you feel with prime lenses back in your low-light days?

Here's a review of Ricoh's GRDIII. They have a GRDIV now, too. Like the S95/100, it'd be hard to go wrong with either.
posted by tapesonthefloor at 8:48 PM on November 29, 2011

Everyone posted my answer already - but I'll post it again anyway.

S95, S95, S95

(or maybe S100, S100, S100)

I've owned 7 digital P&S cameras - I would never give up my S95, except for an S100.

Indoor photos - amazing.
posted by bluelava at 9:56 PM on November 29, 2011

I recently (two weeks ago) had this exact requirement and spent over two weeks reading all the reviews I could get my hands on and poring over sample images. So maybe I can help. :)

The sensible choices are:
  • Canon S95 / S100
  • Fujifilm X10
  • Olympus XZ-1
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-LX5
The DPReview Camera Feature Search is a fantastic tool for finding and filtering cameras according to almost any criteria.

Here's a great side-by-side comparison of the above cameras. Read the reviews or previews of all the cameras and you'll know which to get.

So what did I choose? I ended up going for the XZ-1 as the lens is much faster than the others, even at the long end (F1.8 - 2.5 along 28 - 112mm). However…

If you would like to also record videos, the Panasonic is probably the best choice. If you want a smaller camera, the Canon is the uncontested winner. If you want controls for every possible function, the Fujifilm is the one (although it's pretty big).

But… if you're primarily interested in low light photography shot in RAW, then the Olympus is the winner. The ISO doesn't go as high as some of the others, but the speed of the lens makes up for it by a long, long way. The resulting photos are fantastic. But you have to shoot in RAW. Shot in JPEG the auto noise correction is a bit iffy and so you're better off going for the Panasonic or Canon.
posted by fakelvis at 11:57 PM on November 29, 2011 [1 favorite]

I forgot to mention…

It's not the only piece of criteria for determining the best camera for low light photography, but I found this direct comparison of the aperture values at different focal lengths to be very useful. The information further down that same thread is very useful.

Not indicated are the values for the Canon S100 (a poor F2.0 - F5.9) and Fujifilm X10 (a fairly impressive F2.0-2.8).
posted by fakelvis at 12:15 AM on November 30, 2011

Love my S95, I use it in museums and archives all the time.
posted by LarryC at 2:18 AM on November 30, 2011

Thanks, everyone. I ended up thinking hard about an Olympus XZ-1 and the Canon S100 and finally opted for the Canon S100.

My reasoning mostly had to do with the heavy amount of noise that the XZ-1 seems to produce at high ISO, but I can see how for other people it wouldn't be the same problem, and that's why I opted to mark folks who said one or the other as the correct answer. All answers were appreciated, though!
posted by barnacles at 6:28 AM on January 31, 2012

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