B&H Photo Video is not only a great place to research and shop for camera equipment, but they have also produced an excellent series of videos on night photography. Over the last couple of months, they’ve teamed up with Gabriel Biderman to create several videos on night photography. They cover subjects such as light writing, photographing star trails, and camera settings, but the one I want to discuss here is “Night Photography Series: Best Cameras for Night Photography — Extended Look.” Gabe takes an hour-long, deep-dive into the specifications of some of the most popular cameras for night photography.
A Brooklyn-based fine-art and travel photographer, Gabriel Biderman is a workshop leader, lecturer, and author. He’s co-author, along with Tim Cooper, of “Night Photography: From Snapshots to Great Shots.” He’s also co-founder of National Parks at Night along with Tim Cooper, Matt Hill, Chris Nicholson, and Lance Keimig.
Best Cameras for Night Photography
After discussing how to find a camera that fits your needs, Gabriel reviews the specifications he finds most important in a night photography camera:
- Megapixels – he finds 24 to 30 MP ideal.
- Camera Processor Power – he looks for a camera with a recent processor.
- Native ISO range – he looks for one that goes up to perhaps ISO 6400 or even 12,800.
- Dynamic Range – he finds that this needs testing in the field.
- ISO Invariance – some cameras can be shot at lower ISO settings and adjusted after shooting without a significant gain in noise.
- User Experience – this is the interaction between the photographer and the
Gabriel looks at several cameras – the Nikon Z6, Canon EOS R, Sony a7RIII, and the Fujifilm GFX 50R. He starts with the one he uses, his Nikon D750.
Released in 2014, Gabe finds the Nikon D750 still holds its own with more modern cameras. One feature that distinguished the D750 from other cameras is that it has a “T” shutter speed mode – it can hold the shutter open up to 28 minutes. It’s inexpensive compared to more modern cameras.
The Sony a7RIII is next up. Released at the end of 2017, with 42 Megapixels, it has more resolution than many other cameras. It has a backlit sensor with a wide dynamic range of 15 stops. It also has in-camera, 5-axis image stabilization, which is excellent for hand-held photography, but not truly useful for much of night photography. Not only is it great stills, but it is also excellent for video. One helpful feature for night photography is you can customize a button to brighten the display screen so you can better see and focus dark scenes. One of the reasons Gabriel uses a DSLR is focusing in the dark, but he finds this feature is a significant benefit. Finally, it’s a 3rd generation mirrorless which helps put Sony ahead of other mirrorless designs.
The Nikon Z6 follows. Released at the end of 2018, it has a 24.5 MP, backlit sensor. It can shoot 4K video at 30 frames a second. While it only has a single memory card, it does use a
Canon EOS R
The Canon EOS R is up next. Released at the end of 2018, it features Canon’s own 30 MP full frame sensor. Gabriel finds that the Electronic Viewfinder (EVF) is very large and useful. It has a custom menu bar on the back of the camera. Like with the Nikon (and Sony too), legacy lenses can be adapted to it. And Canon has several adaptors available, including one with a control ring on the adaptor and a second one with drop-in filters.
Fujifilm GFX 50R
Last, but not least, is the Fujifilm GFX 50R medium format mirrorless camera. The camera features a 51.4 MP medium format sensor that measures in at 43.8mm x 32.9mm – that’s 1.67 times the size of a full frame and four times that of an APS-C sensor. The highest ISO for this camera 12,800, which is more than enough for most all night photography. It has both a “B” and “T” mode, and shutter speeds are programmable for up to 60 minutes. Gabriel finds its interval mode to be excellent for star stacking or time lapses. With a large battery, it should last longer on a single charge than previous Fuji medium format cameras.
Best Cameras for Night Photography Field Tests
Gabriel spends the first half of the hour-long video reviewing the five cameras’ specification. He then heads out into a cold (20F) night and shoots a series of test photos with each camera.
He found that all the cameras performed well at ISO 3200.
He starts with the Nikon Z6. At ISO 6400, he found the Z6 performed well. By 12,800, he found the grain was beginning to show, as well as a little color noise. He didn’t find any significant issues at that ISO. By ISO 25,600, he found the Z6 was starting to lose some detail. But not enough to never use that ISO if needed. At 51,200 ISO, color noise was evident.
At base ISO of 100, he shot a long-exposure shot of 15 minutes (900 seconds). This exposure looked good.
Next, he did an ISO Invariance test. Shooting the Z6 at ISO 100 and 15 seconds at f/5.6, he ended up with an image that looked nearly all black. Next, he added 5-stops of exposure to it in Lightroom. He did find it was not wholly ISO Invariant. While he found it was not bad, it did have a little color shift. But it did an excellent job of pulling info out of what looked to be a blank exposure.
He tested dynamic range last, shooting an image with holiday lights on a dog house. He was surprised to see how much detail was in the darker foreground.
Canon EOS R
At 3200 ISO, the EOS R had a little more grain than the Z6, but it still looked good at ISO 6400. By ISO 12,800, the EOS R was showing grain. Gabriel thinks he would not shoot this camera at an ISO higher than ISO 6400 unless the subject demanded it.
The EOS R long-exposure test used an exposure of ISO 100 and 1,797 seconds and f/4.0, and it looked great! The sky looked very clean!
The ISO Invariance test used an exposure of ISO 100 and 15 seconds at f/5.6. Again, the image appeared utterly black. Adding 5-stops, Gabriel found the image acceptable, but he would use ISO 6400 first.
In the dynamic range test, the EOS R showed more detail in the dimly lit areas than the Z6.
Fujifilm GFX 50R
Gabriel said the Fuji looked “pretty sweet” at ISO 3200, but at IOS 6400 grain was indeed showing. He found that he would probably not shot this camera higher than 6400.
The long-exposure test at 15 minutes looked great.
The ISO Invariance test used ISO 100 and 15 seconds but at f/8.0 – a whole stop less exposure than the Nikon Z6 or the Canon EOS R. He found it did not do well, but then it can be argued this test was not a fair one.
For the dynamic range test, he found it took the lead in this test.
Gabriel has generally shot his D750 at ISO 6400, and he found even 12,800 was good if needing a little work for noise reduction.
The long-exposure test 15 minutes, it was great.
The D750 failed the ISO Invariance test with only a little image showing after adding 5-stops of exposure in Lightroom.
For dynamic range, he found it was similar to the Z6. The Fuji still had more information, but the D750 could do higher ISO than the GFX 50R.
He found the Sony smooth at ISO 3200. 6400 was good too. At ISO 12,800, he found it still useable, even if needing some post work. At 25600, it was losing detail and getting grainy. Gabriel would only use that ISO only if required.
The long-exposure test was done at 907 second and it looked great.
The f/stop of the ISO Invariance test was not shown, but it was done at ISO 100 and 15 seconds. He found it was not entirely ISO Invariant at ISO 100. The a7RIII has two base ISO, one at 100 and one he thought at 500. He decided he would shoot at higher ISO settings.
The dynamic range of the Sony camera was performed at ISO 100 and 30 seconds. He side-by-side compared it with the Fuji GFX 50R and found the Fuji just edged out the a7RIII.
Best Cameras for Night Photography Conclusions
Gabriel closed out the comparison by pointing out that everyone should do similar tests under the conditions they shoot with cameras they own. Do a high ISO test, shoot under different temperatures. See for yourself how your camera performs.
Gabriel made a lot of useful observations, and of course, an article like this can’t describe what the test images look like – you’ll need to watch the video yourself!
Watch Gabriel Biderman’s night photography camera comparison at this link:
You can follow Gabriel at his blog, ruinism.com
More Night Photography Camera Comparisons
Check out this comparison by Matt Quinn, where he compares two popular night photography cameras – the Canon 5D MK IV vs. the Sony a7III.