Best smartphones for low-light photography

Best smartphones for low-light photography
Mobile photography has come a long way since 2000, when the world’s first camera phone was introduced (in Japan). Most of today’s high-end smartphones produce photos that can make users throw away their compact cameras, as photography is now one of the main focuses of handset makers. Even so, there are still things that need to be seriously improved, and low-light photography is one of them.

Generally speaking, smartphones can’t take good photos in low light conditions because their cameras feature small sensors - thus cramming a high number of pixels into a tiny area. That’s why DSLR cameras - with their massive sensors - remain the best way to go if you really want high-quality photos day and night. This, however, doesn’t mean that some handsets can’t take acceptable photos when light isn’t abundant - helped by a combination of hardware and software engineering. This being said, here's a selection of the best smartphones to have around when you need to snap photos in low-light environments (in no particular order): 

Asus ZenFone 6 and ZenFone 5

The ZenFone 5 and ZenFone 6 are both affordable smartphones, but Asus claims its PixelMaster technology allows them to capture great photos in dark environments. The trade-off is that, when shooting in low light mode, the 13 MP camera of the ZenFone 6 produces 3 MP images, while the 8 MP snapper of the ZenFone 5 delivers 2 MP images. We haven’t managed to test the ZenFones ourselves yet, but those who did seem to conclude that the smartphones do, indeed, take nice low-light photos.

Nokia Lumia 930 / Icon

First available as the Lumia Icon in the US (since February), and then as the Lumia 930 in other parts of the world, what we have here is not Nokia’s best camera phone. Even so, the 930 / Icon is better at taking photos in low-light than most smartphones out there, thanks to its 20MP PureView rear camera with a 1/2.5" sensor and Optical Image Stabilization. Mind you, “most smartphones out there” doesn’t include the ones on this list.

Nokia Lumia 1020

Although it’s older than the 930 / Icon, the Nokia Lumia 1020 is definitely better when it comes to photography (in every situation). The 1020 features an impressive 41 MP PureView camera with a 1/1.5" sensor and Optical Image Stabilization. You’ll have a hard time finding a better low-light performer than the Lumia 1020. This Windows Phone handset is even better at low-light photography than the discontinued Nokia PureView 808, which has a larger sensor (1/1.2"), but doesn’t feature OIS.

Sony Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact

Sony’s new Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact have the same rear camera: a 20.7 MP unit with a 1/2.3" sensor and a new G Lens system. There’s no Optical Image Stabilization, but Sony managed to push the ISO speed up to 12800 - a first in the smartphone space. This allows you to take usable 8 MP photos in situations where most handsets would deliver indecipherable results.

It seems that Apple has seriously thought about low-light photography when developing the iPhone 6 Plus. The 5.5-inch handset has an 8 MP rear camera with Optical Image Stabilization, and can deliver the best low-light photos ever taken with an iPhone.

Samsung Galaxy Note 4

No, the Note 4 isn’t out yet, but Samsung said that its 16 MP camera would offer improved photos in low-light conditions. The fact that the camera features Optical Image Stabilization (which is missing from previous Galaxy Note models) will certainly help a lot in this regard, so we’re setting our expectations high.

Samsung Galaxy K zoom

The Galaxy K zoom is Samsung’s latest smartphone-camera hybrid, so it’s thicker (16.6 mm) and heavier (200 grams) than a typical smartphone. The K zoom packs a 20.7 MP camera with a 1/2.3" sensor, Xenon flash, OIS, and 10x optical zoom. It takes pretty good photos in low-light environments, though noise is present - so don’t expect anything close to what DSLRs can offer.

Pansonic Lumix DMC-CM1

Announced earlier this month, the Pansonic Lumix DMC-CM1 is yet another smartphone-camera hybrid. This one has a 20 MP camera with a 1" sensor - the largest ever for a smartphone. The camera further features a 28mm wide-angle Leica lens, up to 25600 ISO, and the ability to shoot in RAW format. We’ll have to wait until November to get our hands on the Pansonic DMC-CM1, but this certainly has the potential to be one of the best smartphones for taking low-light photos - ever.



45. alexvv

Posts: 165; Member since: Oct 16, 2013

not including the one is just lame. if one thing its camera does right is take great low-light pics.

43. PhotoPixel

Posts: 32; Member since: Feb 11, 2014

Really good smartphones for night shots - it`s lumia cameras and Pansonic Lumix DMC-CM1

42. Sora77

Posts: 70; Member since: Mar 31, 2014

Asus Zenphone? Really? Have zen 5, its shooter is decent for its price. (the quality is more or less the same as Red Mi 1S) but definitely not at the same level as others mentioned in this list. Z1 is much better but not in this list. The problem with Zenphone is while it looks premium, its build quality and feel are really really cheap. Its volume rocker is very very bad.

41. Odiin

Posts: 373; Member since: Apr 23, 2013

Really PA? Samsung said so you added? lol!

40. yahia_malka

Posts: 186; Member since: Mar 27, 2014

Lumia 1020 rules !

39. TisaTsir

Posts: 70; Member since: Jan 06, 2014

sony xperia z3 is doing well.

38. hameed1989

Posts: 47; Member since: Aug 29, 2012

Zenphone 6 at the top? is it that good?

37. StraightEdgeNexus

Posts: 3689; Member since: Feb 14, 2014

Zenphone 6 is impressive! And its dirt cheap too. Kudos to Asus!

35. paulyd0021

Posts: 18; Member since: Dec 20, 2013

I can confirm that the Galaxy K Zoom is great for low light photography. The full manual controls for things like shutter speed and ISO can brighten up any scene as bright as you want. For a shutter speed over a second or two, it works best if you have a way to keep the phone completely still by propping it up against something or using a tripod. Then you can use the lowest ISO of 100 and get grain free night shots. For fast moving objects at night or in mid/low light, the xenon flash will freeze the subject action with little to no motion blur at all. Just because of how versatile the camera is, it gets my vote for best camera phone overall and for low light and that's coming from owning the 1020 for 6 months before it. The new Panasonic has the potential to dethrone the K Zoom but the lack of a xenon flash will hold it back a bit.

33. fireblade

Posts: 717; Member since: Dec 27, 2013

ZenFone 6 is the best bang for the buck

29. gigaraga

Posts: 1454; Member since: Mar 29, 2013

Really would like to see some real samples from the Zenfone 6.

26. 0xFFFF

Posts: 3806; Member since: Apr 16, 2014

Hopefully PA can pull out all the stops and do an end of year camera comparison of all the 2014 phones. That would be a lot of fun.

21. Crispin_Gatieza

Posts: 3201; Member since: Jan 23, 2014

LG G3 is no slouch in low-light conditions.

16. Dude2014

Posts: 448; Member since: Feb 12, 2014

Although M8's day shots are pretty bad but hey .. M8's night shots are still the best in that category. Funny there's no M8 here. Really,PA? You HTC hater or what?

19. hurrycanger

Posts: 1777; Member since: Dec 01, 2013

Agree. The m8 takes nice low light shots with both front and back cameras. And even though the main cam resolution is only 4mp (urg), it's still higher than that of the Zenphones.

27. JMartin22

Posts: 2426; Member since: Apr 30, 2013

They get detail in low-light, at the expense of color rendering.

15. FaisalWibowo11

Posts: 166; Member since: Aug 12, 2013 Checkout my Z2 photostream on flickr, keep in mind that i'm not even a photographer. I don't think any smartphone, except the lumias can match my night shots

28. solidsnake695

Posts: 132; Member since: Jan 04, 2013

your pictures only look fine in flickr when i downloaded on my pc they look just ok by just doing 70%crop so much loss of details and u have used iso 50 100 or 200 in every pictures (night or indoors) which means either u used tripod or u have frozen hands plus all of them had very high amount of lights in the area u took the pictures(which isint low light) .........what all people want is auto mode to take perfect pictures and any sony phone is horrible on that mode (post-processing and bad algorithm )... only solution is my qx10 in very low light or night it takes perfect pictures in superior auto mode its processing algorithm are just perfect

14. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

Stupid the 1520 isn't listed... I mean, it is the second best WP camera, and technically the best WP device available..

18. bigdawg23

Posts: 467; Member since: May 25, 2011

Yes it is but for once the 1020 is listed. I use my 1020 mostly for video and pictures now. I am surprised by the low light on my 6 plus,

24. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

Yep.. The iP6 is terrific... WPC did a comparison between the HTC1W, 925, 1020, 1520, and the 6... The 6 had the best low light pictures for the most part.. ....... MS is just taking too long to release the next round of state of the art camera tech..

32. StraightEdgeNexus

Posts: 3689; Member since: Feb 14, 2014

Or the 1020 successor just isn't in the pipeline.....

11. mr.techdude

Posts: 571; Member since: Nov 19, 2012

Before anyone says why so butthurt....well maybe I am but, low light conditions when taking photos with my mates like at the beaches I can see things That they can't see on their phones. Most of the times I don't need to use flash only when it's almost pitch dark. My relatives gave up their iPhone for the m8 just for the pic quality.

25. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

The camera on the M8 is great,, despite what the overly biased fans might say..

10. hemedans

Posts: 763; Member since: Jun 01, 2013

list should be like this 1.lumia 1020 2.lumia 1520 3.lumia 930 4.lumia 925 5.lumia 920 6.lumia 928 7.lumia 920 m8/m7 and bonus smartphone lumia icon

12. Neo_Huang

Posts: 1067; Member since: Dec 06, 2013

Nah, have you seen those Zenfone samples?

13. rodneyej1

Posts: 3576; Member since: Jul 06, 2013

Lol! Everything from the 930 down has been surpassed in performance for the most part.

44. elitewolverine

Posts: 5192; Member since: Oct 28, 2013

Nah my 925 still regularly takes better shots with manual settings than most new phones. Other than pixel count there is a good difference imo that is.

31. StraightEdgeNexus

Posts: 3689; Member since: Feb 14, 2014

Lmao, pathetic shills...

9. mr.techdude

Posts: 571; Member since: Nov 19, 2012

M8?? Fck this sh*t

* Some comments have been hidden, because they don't meet the discussions rules.

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