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Dropping thousands of dollars on a camera with ultra high ISO capabilities (we’re talking ISO 100,000 or above) is frankly overkill for many types of photography — portraits are best captured with natural light, wildlife photography is really only possible during the day and fashion photography happens mainly in the studio. But there is one scenario in which an ultra high ISO can make the difference between a decent image and an outstanding one – and that’s when it comes to long exposure nighttime photography.

Shooting at night introduces a world of difficulties that photographers don’t face during the day. Not only does nighttime shooting require an entire set of equipment not necessary in the sun – from tripods to cable releases to flashlights – but it also requires different camera settings, and above all, a different mindset. 

While long exposure and nighttime photography can be successfully done with lower end DSLR cameras, it’s also a lot more challenging. Cameras need light, specifically contrasting light, in order to focus. In other words, your camera will have just as hard of a time focusing on a plain white wall as it will on a dark, nighttime landscape.

To mitigate this issue, nighttime photographers can employ the use of a powerful flashlight to illuminate part of a landscape to focus on. After focusing the camera on a distant point, then switching to manual focus, the camera won’t constantly hunt for focus. But this isn’t always a totally effective method. If the flashlight isn’t powerful enough, your camera might still have a hard time discerning between the light and dark shades, plus the focus will likely not be as sharp as it is when focusing on a well lit scene.

With cameras that are capable of super high ISO settings, the need for a powerful flashlight is minimized. Even if you don’t end up capturing your final image at an ISO in the 10,000 or above range, you can use the high ISO setting to help find a composition that works well. By bumping up the ISO as high as it goes, you can take a grainy, sample image at a faster shutter speed until you’re ready for the final image, at which point you’ll need only to bump down the ISO to something more reasonable, and increase the exposure time. There are currently only a handful of cameras out there with ISO capabilities in this super high range. Let’s break down  some of the options.

Canon 6D: Canons most affordable Full Frame Body, Still capable of producing high-quality images in lowlight conditions. You can’t beat the price on this either!

Canon EOS 5D Mark IV: Canon’s newest release from its EOS Mark line has ISO capabilities up to 102400, making it a good, but still not the best option for late night and long exposure photography. Although it falls short of its Nikon competitor’s capabilities, it’s Canon’s highest ISO capabilities to date. Try it for three days for $111. 

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Sony Alpha a7s II: For mirrorless shooters, the new Sony Alpha a7s II outperforms many Nikon and Canon competitors in low light situations. With ISO capabilities up to 409600, and insane clarity, this is one of the best options for late night long exposures. Try it for three days for $96.

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Sony A7R II: Another more rounded option made by Sony is the Alpha A7RII. Usually higher megapixels sensors produce more noise, but the a7RII hit a home run with this camera! It’s nearly as good at the Sony a7sII in lowlight settings, but overall has a better image quality, making it one of the best all around cameras on the market. Try it for three days for $84.

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Nikon D5 Nikon’s newest release is a dream for nighttime photography with ISO capabilities as high as 1640000. You’ll rarely need to shoot with the ISO bumped up so high, and when you do you’ll achieve exceptionally grainy results, but this super high ISO setting is extremely convenient for shooting in the middle of the night. With an in-camera time lapse of up to 9999 frames, the D5 can help you produce some incredible landscape images. Try it for three days for $234.

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