A good point-and-shoot camera that takes good night/low light photos?
February 17, 2015 11:04 AM   Subscribe

I need an easy to use digital camera that is suitable for a tourist on the go. It needs to be slim, quick, and able to take acceptable (or even good) photos in most lighting conditions. I would like it to fit in my purse or better yet a large pocket. $300 or less is what I'm hoping to spend, but I can be a little flexible if a few bucks is what will make or break me.

I like to take photographs, particularly while on vacation, but my latest camera is just upsetting me. It actually is kind of an old camera at this point, but I usually NEVER replace my electronics until they utterly stop working (or become basically obsolete, as in the case of VHS vs. DVD). However, in this case I am thinking to make an exception. I have a big trip coming up and I am sick of these crappy photos. One of the most annoying "features" of my current camera is its inability to take a good photo at night or in lower light conditions. If the flash is on you only get a clear picture of whatever happens to be the first thing in front of the lens and then the background is all shadow. If you turn the flash off sometimes you get better colors, but no matter how still I try to stand the photo winds up being blurry.

For reference, here is the camera I am complaining about:

I feel like even my ancient Casio Exilim took much better pictures in terms of coloration and negotiating different lighting conditions. This Canon is so frustrating because before I take the shot it can look perfect on the screen but as soon as I take the shot it comes back badly as described above. I have tried fiddling with the ISO and all kinds of settings but I am ultimately dissatisfied. For comparison I was trying to take a photo of the full moon and the Canon could not take a good picture for anything whereas my Samsung Galaxy S3 got great photos without any tinkering on my end.

The fact is when I am taking these pictures I am a tourist on the go. I'm not setting up tripods and I don't have time to fiddle with different settings since we are usually "on our way," plus sometimes you need the camera to just work in those fleeting moments, either because of a rare break in the crowd or because what you are trying to capture will pass quickly. What I need is:

*A camera that is small enough to fit in a slim purse or better yet a large pant or coat pocket.
*A camera that can hold battery power long enough for a day of sightseeing.
*A camera that can take a picture quickly after I press the button so I can make those quick captures.
*A camera that will not falter just because it is not full daylight out. For instance, I want to be able to take a picture of someone standing in front of a skyline and have both person and skyline clearly visible, instead of JUST the person. With what I have now, I can't even take a picture of JUST the city skyline at night without it looking like crap.

I would prefer for the camera to be under $300 (although I could be a little flexible for the right product) and I would like it to take SD cards. A good optical zoom is important, at least more than 5x, and obviously I don't want anything with too low of a MP count. I know I will not be getting professional quality photos necessarily, but I would like my camera to at least outshine my Samsung phone's photography.

I am here on AskMeFi because although I am usually good at researching things like this I am afraid to shell out the cash only to wind up similarly disappointed. As you can see, the reviews on the camera I already own were largely favorable but I am still majorly unhappy with it. Furthermore, as I mentioned earlier, I am reluctant to spend money to replace a product that is still technically working, so I really want to make sure I am making a good decision with my next camera purchase.

Sorry for the long description. Thank you in advance for any help or insight you can provide!
posted by Angel de Lune to Computers & Internet (21 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a reason that just using your Galaxy S3 isn't the answer here?

I have worked as a professional photographer, I have an expensive DSLR and a whole bunch of equipment, yet the only way that I'm going to get a satisfactory night or low-light shot or a satisfactory picture of the full moon is if I use a tripod. Of course, my DSLR and tripod are heavy and bulky and I don't want to haul them around everywhere, so I understand your dilemma. But that's why I use my smartphone for on-the-go situations.

Can you describe how you'd like your camera to outshine your phone's capabilities, if you were happy with the photos the phone took in the situation you described?
posted by aabbbiee at 11:21 AM on February 17, 2015

After some quick browsing, I'd probably go with this guy, or a used version. Large aperture is key-- this one is f/1.8. Anything on this list would probably do well for you.

For instance, I want to be able to take a picture of someone standing in front of a skyline and have both person and skyline clearly visible, instead of JUST the person

That's tough. It might require something like multi-exposure shooting -> HDR, which most cameras have now, or faux-HDR from a single RAW.
posted by supercres at 11:21 AM on February 17, 2015

*A camera that is small enough to fit in a slim purse or better yet a large pant or coat pocket.
*A camera that can hold battery power long enough for a day of sightseeing.
*A camera that can take a picture quickly after I press the button so I can make those quick captures.
*A camera that will not falter just because it is not full daylight out. For instance, I want to be able to take a picture of someone standing in front of a skyline and have both person and skyline clearly visible, instead of JUST the person. With what I have now, I can't even take a picture of JUST the city skyline at night without it looking like crap.

This may sound facetious, but I assure you it isn't: have you considered an iPhone for all these applications?

* Even the iPhone 6+ is small enough to fit in a purse; the 6 fits in pockets easily enough.
* A day of use is really no problem, unless you're in a poor cellular coverage area and do not switch cellular off. (Then it keeps hunting for a signal by boosting radio power.)
* iPhones have been buffering photos before you press the shutter button, so that you really have no shutter lag.
* You're basically describing High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing here.

You mentioned getting better results than your camera with your Samsung, and while I have no personal experience with that, the reviews indicate that the iPhone camera is the best of its kind.

Con: The laws of physics dictate that a thin phone won't have much light gathering power. You can't put a large lens far enough away to focus if you're limited to the iPhone thickness. (What they could do with a classic Nokia candy bar!)

Pro: You have incredible engineering talent devoted to maximizing image quality every step of the way after the lens. Much more so than any camera maker can offer. Just look. And here. And at the DPReview gallery. You get the idea.

Either you should go with a full-on DSLR and a hefty prime lens, or consider an iPhone. P&S is a dying breed.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:39 AM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: One big limitation that comes to mind is lack of optical zoom. Zooming in with the Samsung is likely to produce a grainy picture.
posted by Angel de Lune at 11:41 AM on February 17, 2015

I have an iPhone 6+ and I'm pretty impressed with the zoom. Definitely better than any digital camera I've ever owned, and I've been told (by people who know far more about this than me) that the only thing better than newer phones are DSLRs. Go into an electronics store and test some other phones out if you're not happy with whatever model you do/don't own. You might be surprised.
posted by Krop Tor at 11:45 AM on February 17, 2015

I've owned 3 Panasonic LUMIX series cams. Currently, DMC-SZ1. I really love it.
posted by humboldt32 at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

You want optical zoom... Real zoom rather than just bigger pixels. There are digital cameras with decent optical zoom, but the real way to do this is with a DSLR and a lens.

The scenarios you describe are inherent limitations of the technology and are why DSLR, big lenses, tripods, and whatnot are still in use.

That said, I have an iPhone 5s that I'm pretty pressed with and will do HDR. I also use the VSCO cam app since you can tap the screen and set separate focus and exposure points. I also like the Panadonic D-range that has a Leica lens, I think it would suit you well. It's what I used when I was travelling and I'm still really pleased with the pictures it took. Leica makes really sweet lenses and it makes a huge difference.

Quals: BFA in photography
posted by jrobin276 at 12:00 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yes, Humbolt32 has the camera I'm also recommending.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:01 PM on February 17, 2015

They're point and shoots with excellent lenses, good flash, and full automatic and manual controls. This will let you control low light shots a bit more. It's worth learning his ow to control aperture (f-stop), shutter speed, and "film speed". Memail me if you have questions.
posted by jrobin276 at 12:06 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sony NEX-5T. It has the same image sensor as a DSLR in a much smaller package. It has image stabilization, so you can take decent photos at night and indoors, with relatively low noise. It'll fit into a large pocket. It uses SD cards and will last all day. It's a 3X zoom, but you can buy other lenses if you really need more zoom. It's about $400 with the kit lens.

If money is really an issue, the Sony NEX-3N can be had with the same lens and more or less the same image quality, minus Wifi, NFC, a touch screen and a high-res screen, for less than $300.

Both the 5T and 3N are Wirecutter recommended.

Edit - your flash pictures in the dark will be bad unless you bounce your flash off of something, like a white ceiling or wall. This is more an issue with how flashes work than an issue with your camera.
posted by cnc at 12:06 PM on February 17, 2015

I use a Sony Cybershot dsc-wx9.

tagged photos on flickr
posted by john m at 12:10 PM on February 17, 2015

There's no smartphone camera that can break the laws of physics. Even an iPhone 6 Plus will struggle under low light conditions.

I recently went through the same thought exercise, and most people seem to settle on Canon Powershot s100/s110/s120 or if you've got the funds a Sony RX100 Mk 1/2/3. I picked up a used s100 for ~$100 on ebay and it easily takes better low light photos than any smartphone or tablet in my house (including an iPad Mini Retina).

Keep in mind that low light is tough. Good photos in those conditions basically boil down to your ability to manage the optical settings to capture (or add via flash) the appropriate amount of light on your subject. Point and shoots struggle with that, so that's why I'm suggesting compacts that have full manual control so you can control things like aperture in addition to flash/no flash. There are people who don't want to know anything about camera settings, though, in which case your best bet is probably something like an iPhone 6 plus or a point and shoot equivalent specifically catering to the snapshots at the bar crowd.
posted by NoRelationToLea at 12:24 PM on February 17, 2015 [2 favorites]

I use an iPhone and a Canon 5d Mk II with fast prime lenses. Nothing inbetween makes any sense to me.
posted by w0mbat at 12:29 PM on February 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

For instance, I want to be able to take a picture of someone standing in front of a skyline and have both person and skyline clearly visible, instead of JUST the person. With what I have now, I can't even take a picture of JUST the city skyline at night without it looking like crap.

Yeah, if you're holding your camera in your hand and trying to get a good night shot, it's going to look like crap. It's simply too hard for human beings to stand utterly, perfectly still long enough for any camera to get the amount of light they need to make your shot. Even the tiniest breath or waver will ruin your shot!

A pocket-sized flexible tripod will run you about $10 and solve all of your blurring problems with low light, long exposure shots. Barring that, just find a solid surface - a fence, car, top of a parking meter, anything not moving that you can brace the camera on. It will improve your night shots one hundredfold, no matter what camera you are using.

For taking shots where both the person and the skyline are visible, look for a camera feature called Night Portrait or Slow Synchro. This will give you a longer exposure time to capture the skyline, but also use the flash to capture the person without them being blurry.

For a specific point-and-shoot recommendation, I love my Canon Powershot SX230 HS. Small size, 14x optical zoom, tons of features, plus manual mode for adjusting on the fly. Good battery life if I'm not using a ton of flash, though I always carry an extra just in case.
posted by platinum at 1:06 PM on February 17, 2015

what cnc said. i mostly agree with the "i use an iphone and a real camera" type comments, but something like a sony nex is as small as you want, but still has a DSLR-sized sensor.

Here's what you buy:
NEX 3N for $149
16-50 collapsible "powerzoon" lens

with the powerzoom, it will look, act, and fit in your pocket like a point and shoot... but you're getting an APS-C sized sensor, like a real DSLR uses. Nothing else in this price range can compete with that in any way.

Worthwhile upgrades later include adapters to use old lenses from various brands in manual focus(the 3n supports, i believe, highlighting focus lock like the NEX 6 does) which you can buy at thrift stores for peanuts, the sony 20mm lens(i paid $120 for mine at a best buy deal, do NOT pay much more), and the sigma 19mm ART lens which is a monster deal and one of the best lenses out there for any system.

Depth of field capability, low light performance, resolving fine detail, RAW file capability. It matches or exceeds the performance of my old canon DSLR in every way. The 3N especially is of a new enough revision of sensor and processor that the low light performance can best be described as somewhere between "night vision" and "DUDEEEEE".

Also, one of your main complaints was getting a good exposure of both the person in front of, and the skyline. Well these cameras kick ass at dynamic range. I basically broke mine taking really contrasty shots in dusty places over the summer but oh jeeze, the things it can do. For a bit under $300 for the basic setup i described, you will be VERY happy. It takes a bit to really learn how to use all the fun of it, but even in full-auto mode it'll take great pictures. And it's very up-gradable and expandable later, too.
posted by emptythought at 7:10 PM on February 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

I was looking for the exact same thing for a trip this summer, read a ton of old reviews here and elsewhere, and finally settled on a Canon Powershot S110. I've been very happy with it, and got some great pictures - better than any other point and shoot I've tried before. It's also very small and sleek, and easy to use either in full automatic mode or if you prefer, fiddling around with manual settings.

Also I bought extra batteries online (very cheap) because the battery life was poorly rated online, but rarely needed to actually use them any day I started with a full charge - you might need them if you have it on for hours at a time though.
posted by randomnity at 10:43 PM on February 17, 2015

Response by poster: Hi everyone, I have been reading and carefully considering everyone's comments and I definitely appreciate the insight. I am a little more unsure now than when I started though since there seems to have emerged this school of thought of "go big or go home (with your cell phone camera)." This adds to my reluctance to purchase anything. At the same time, though, the camera I own now was released in 2008, and I'd like to think any mid-price camera that's available now would have to be better... but it's probably not worth going crazy money-wise unless I'm getting something too big to pocket. Of all the suggestions I think right now I am leaning towards the Canon Powershot S120. However I am feeling a bit biased against Canon at the moment since the camera I am trying to replace is also a Canon that I was never very happy with. But I know they are a big and popular brand with a variety of models on offer, so... still considering.
posted by Angel de Lune at 6:51 AM on February 18, 2015

I think the S120 is a good choice for something that is still pocketable but significantly better than a good smartphone camera. There may be some small cameras with somewhat better hardware for low-light photography, but I think that the aesthetic judgements embodied in Canon's noise reduction are much much more pleasing than the crap Panasonic does.

I feel though that some of your expectations are unrealistic from any camera, but particularly a pocketable point-and-shot. If you haven't already, I suggest learning about the basics of exposure, shutter speed, aperture, focus, depth of field, focal length, and sensitivity (ISO), and how they are interrelated. Even if you never use a camera with manual controls, better understanding these basics will help you get the best out of the automatic modes of a P&S, and will help you understand why some of the special modes and settings of your camera can be useful.

Oh, and if you don't use it already, a half-press of the shutter button will make the camera focus and adjust exposure so the picture will be taken much more quickly when you press the button the rest of the way.
posted by Good Brain at 12:19 PM on February 18, 2015

Another thing about low-light shots: if you turn on the delay timer (and have something solid to steady the camera against) you may be much happier with the result.

I went from an Exilim to a PowerShot too, and what disappointed me about the PowerShot was the lack of dynamic range - lots of too-dark foregrounds and overexposed skies. I went from that to one of the Lumix-lensed Panasonics and it'll take a lot to woo me away. Night-time photos definitely need the camera stabilising though.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 2:49 PM on February 19, 2015

The requirement of being able to take a picture of a person in front of a dimly lit skyline is almost impossible to meet, simply because the dynamic range you'd be trying to capture is too great. You have to really overexpose the person to try to get enough detail in the skyline, and then adjust the photo in an editing program (e.g. Photoshop) to turn down the highlights and extract detail from the shadows, and such a photo is likely to look like you adjusted it. BTW part of your problem is that your eye has a broader dynamic range than the sensor in a compact camera. What you see just can't be replicated by a compact camera.

Even tossing that aside, you're bumping up against both physics and marketing. A larger sensor has better light gathering ability than a smaller one, but requires a bigger lens. Getting all of that into a compact(ish) camera is both difficult and, well, an opportunity for a manufacturer to sell you a premium product. The three cameras I'd look at to solve the bulk of your problem are the Sony RX-100 series (which is up to version III now), the Canon G7X, and the Panasonic LX100 (and here's a handy overview of all three) … but they're all $700 and up, and none of them has a 5X zoom. The Panasonic has the largest sensor and thus the most light gathering ability and it would be the one I personally would consider most seriously, but it's the most expensive of the three; the Canon comes the closest to 5X on the zoom at 4.2X; Sony is the category leader, provides more help to casual users, and you can still get the previous models at a markdown, so they're worth looking at too.

Other than those, in general a $300 camera has to give up a lot of what those three cameras offer, worst of all the sensor size, which is going to severely handicap the camera's ability to shoot in low light without a flash. Newer sensors have better dynamic range than your camera does, but I wonder how much of an upgrade you'd really notice without moving to a camera with a larger sensor.

I guess the first thing I'd do in your situation is take a class to make sure you know what settings you should be using (or changing) in various situations, and then go from there. I would have expected better results from a camera with IS than what you're describing, and I wouldn't want to recommend a camera with lots of manual controls only to have them frustrate you just as much as your current camera does.
posted by fedward at 4:18 PM on February 19, 2015

Best answer: The Canon S1** camera's are nice cameras for what they are... small, decent image quality for a p&s, good video. I think that Canon is really good at this kind of thing. You'll certainly notice a difference from your existing p&s.

You can get a brand new S110 on Amazon.com for $179. That's kinda cheap enough that you can just shove it in a pocket or in a bag and use it till it breaks. The S120 is a better camera but nowhere near twice as good!

I'd also look at the Panasonic LX7... seems to be cheaper than the S120 at the mo ($349) and if you can handle the extra size it's a better camera imho. Bit larger tho. It does have a faster lens through the zoom range though. Faster means that the aperture is bigger which means it lets in more light. (Aperture is the F number and the smaller the number the more light is being let in - it's a bit like a fraction! F2.0 lets in twice as much light as F2.8 which lets in twice as much light as F4 which lets in twice as much light as F5.6 etc) Most of these cameras are fast at the wide end but rapidly get slower as you zoom in. At the most telephoto setting most of these cameras are F4.9 whereas the LX7 is F2.3 which means that the sensor doesn't have to work as hard.

As others have said, you have to manage your expectations! Some of the problems you've described are problems that are mainly solved by the photographer, not all by the camera. Knowing how to control the camera, when to use flash, how to control the balance. It all comes from understanding more about how your camera works! I work as a photographer and I quite like using p&s's for the giggle but I have to work a lot harder to get what I want than I do with my much larger sensored work cameras.

BTW The camera that will get you the most instant "wow" at this level is the RX100 if you can find a cheap one... (There's a bargain quality one up at KEH at the moment for $279 which I'd feel quite confident taking a punt on...)
posted by Mr Ed at 3:15 PM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]

« Older The meaning of life   |   Being Interested in Everything Feels Like Being... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.