Which Camera is Better for Night Photography?

I am asked pretty often which camera is better, or which camera is best for night photography. Like all things camera there is no “one size fits all” answer. But I can give you the biggest hint about what to look for and it comes down to a single number. Pixel density. The less dense the better – or conversely, the larger the pixel pitch the better.  Here are old and new cameras sorted by pixel pitch.  Data collected from various sources. Note that different methods are used to calculate pixel pitch, so approach the issue with cynicism.

Why is a bigger pixel better? Imagine a rainstorm. Which will catch more rain in 5 minutes: a thimble or a bathtub? Yeah, the bathtub. So it is with the large sensor sites of those cameras listed in the top of this list.

NOTE: To make a complete comparison, I should point out that sensor technologies have changed over time and new models generally outperform older models where the pixel pitch is similar or equal. Indeed, the Canon Rebel (aka the 300D) the Canon Rebel XT (350D), and the Canon 10D are in fact poor performers in comparison to recent generation cameras.


Model Pixel Pitch (µm) Px Width Px Height Megapixels Price (USD)
Nikon D3s 8.45 4256 2832 12.1 5100
Nikon D700 FX 8.45 4256 2832 12.1 3000
Nikon D3 FX 8.45 4256 2832 12.1 5900
Canon 5D 8.20 4368 2912 12.8
Canon 1D MkII N 8.20 3520 2336 8.2 1100
Canon 1D MkII 8.20 3520 2336 8.2 6000
Canon 300D Rebel 7.40 3088 2056 6.3 (na)
Canon 10D 7.40 3088 2056 6.3 (na)
Canon 1DS MkII 7.20 4992 3328 16.6 1350
Canon 1D MkIII 7.20 3888 2592 10.1 7000
Canon 5D MkII 6.40 5616 3744 21.1 2800
Canon 1DS MkIII 6.40 5632 3750 21.1 7000
Canon 30D 6.40 3504 2336 8.2 (na)
Canon 20D 6.40 3504 2336 8.2 (na)
Canon Rebel XT / 350D 6.4 3456 2304 8 (na)
Sony A900 5.9 6048 4032 24.4 3500
Nikon D3X 5.9 6048 4032 24.5 9100
Canon 1D MkIV 5.7 4896 3264 16.1 7000
Canon Rebel XS / 1000D 5.7 3888 2592 10.1 (d) 450
Canon XTi / 400D 5.7 3888 2592 10.1 (d) 530
Canon 40D 5.7 3888 2592 10.1 (d) 600
Nikon D90 5.5 4288 2848 12.3 750
Nikon D300 5.5 4288 2848 12.3 700
Nikon D300s 5.5 4288 2848 12.3 1620
Sony A700 5.5 4288 2856 12.2 600
Canon XSi / 450D 5.2 4272 2848 12.2 500
Canon T3 / 1100D 5.2 4272 2848 12 400
Canon T1i / 500D 4.7 4752 3168 15.1 570
Canon 50D 4.7 4752 3168 15.1 1800
Canon T3i / 600D 4.3 5184 3456 18 800
Canon T2i / 550D 4.3 5184 3456 18 650
Canon 60D 4.3 5184 3456 18 900
Canon 7D 4.3 5184 3456 18 1600
Canon PowerShot G9 1.9 4000 3000 12.1 1100

15 thoughts on “Which Camera is Better for Night Photography?

  1. Steven Christenson

    A technically inclined, but readable resource can be found on the RN Clark’s Website

    One of the best measures is actually the “Low Light Sensitivity at Unity Gain

    In the diagram the higher the position on the graph, the better overall the camera should be for Night Photography. So that would put the cameras in this order: Canon 1D Mk IV; Nikon D3; Canon 5D Mk II, etc.

    But note that many recent Nikon cameras, and a few Canon cameras do not appear on the graph.

    One thing to notice is that the long discontinued Canon 10D – while it has big pixels, is a poor performer for a variety of reasons.

  2. Sarah Clough (www.originaltake.com)

    “Indeed, the Canon Rebel, and the Canon 10D are in fact poor performers in comparison to recent generation cameras” – this makes it sound like the Rebel isn’t a recent generation camera? The Rebel is the name of a series that is still current, the Eos 600D (very recent, Feb 2011) is the Rebel T3i, (as you show in your table. Rebel is just the American name).

    Disappointing to see my Eos 500D / Rebel T1i is so low down! I’ll just have to do what I can.

    1. Steven Christenson

      Well Canon shot themselves in the foot by adding the “Rebel” tag to everything in the consumer space. By “Canon Rebel” I mean the original “Rebel” (and the XT as well). Be interesting to see what you get with the T3i which I believe has the “rimless” photosites that collect more light for the same pixel area. I just know that my 50D was actually about zero improvement over my 40D. Now the 5D Mark II, now that is a SWEET camera. Canon 1D Mark IV outperforms the 5D Mark II – and the Nikon D3 has a very slight edge (but a much lower pixel density). Notice that the 7D slightly outperforms the 50D and 40D – but that, again, is due to some minor improvements in the sensor technology.

  3. Oliver Barnicoat

    Hi there I notice you don’t include any fuji products, I struggled for years until I found them and even now the colour depth in low light that their sensor can achieve is astounding. I take photos in available light of events that I have lit – so no chance of flash, and I have to take my own publicity shots. I although the sensor is relatively low res for a modern camera at 12Mp and its slow – so no sports shots. I think it is the dual different size pixel that must be able to capture low levels accurately and yet not get over exposed if there is light. I’d stand by my S2 S3 and S5 every time. (until I see some thing better!)

    1. Steven Christenson

      The first P&S I owned that I liked was a FujiFilm. However, finding data on the Fuji is tough and I can’t even find *if* they currently have a DSLR style camera. The scores for ISO performance for the S1 and S5 (on DXO) are rather disappointing, though as you point out, it does seem to have good dynamic range. I’d love to see a photo of the Milky Way taken with a Fuji to be able to draw some conclusions.

      By the way, the only Fujifilm camera to break 1000 in the DxO sensor tests is the X100 – it came in at 30th place. By comparison the highest score was for the Nikon D3s at 3250.

    1. Steven Christenson

      Sorry, John, I don’t think I know how to answer that question. You haven’t said what equipment you already have, and what you mean by a “good photo” of the moon. Do you mean a telephoto with close up details? Or do you merely mean one that shows details in the moon near a landmark. If the latter, I teach a monthly webinar on the subject. But even then, I certainly recommend using a telephoto lens and a solid tripod.

      This shot was taken with a relatively inexpensive camera body, but the lens and 1.4x teleconverter were far from cheap (about 1300 GBP).

      Captured [C_044450-2tc]

      If you already have a Point and Shoot or cell phone *and* a spotting scope or a telescope you can pull off a shot. Indeed, since I have both, I’m going to give it a try!

      However the moon is an “easy” target relative to the night sky and you don’t really need a fancy/high-end camera for an acceptable image.

      Oh, I also forgot to mention that more recent information about cameras can be found HERE.

  4. Jean-Paul Mission

    Hi! I’m planning to buy a new DLSR. I’m mainly interested in landscape photography but I also love to shoot at night. My main wishes are light body (easy to cary during long outdoor walk), good high ISO capabilities, Live View (for focusing) & articulated screen (to preserve my back & neck when composing) & reasonable price.
    According to DXO the Nikon D5200 seems to fit well my needs and it has the best overall score in the APS-C category.
    One thing is that the pixel pitch is only 3.91. Is it still really a matter with new sensors technology?
    Do you think this body is a good choice for my needs?
    Regards and thanks a lot for your work.

    1. Steven Christenson


      I refrain from making any specific camera recommendations. But you can also look here for a more recent list of cameras with good High ISO performance. I think the model you’re asking about is more recent. Indeed, you’re right. I just looked and the Nikon D5200 is the FIRST listed crop factor camera. That says a lot about it’s performance, though I do see quite a bit of dialog about other problems with this camera on the same site.

  5. Sahil Kumar Kalia

    Hello mr. Steven,
    can you help me in finding a dslr camera for my dad. My budget is $1280- 1463 approximate. He is an enthusiast who travels a lot. He likes taking wide landscape pictures and full scale images for example: sea shores, beaches, wild life & mountains. Kindly guide me a camera which can solve all the purposes including night photography and 1080p full hd video. I have no issues in buying extra lenses though I don’t want any compromise on image quality even after the print out. It’s gonna be his first dslr and I wanna him to use it for long term.
    Sahil Kumar Kalia.


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