Are Full-Frame or Mirrorless Cameras Better in Low Light?

Full Frame versus Mirrorless Camera

Sometimes the most beautiful things happen in poor lighting. So, photographers, both pro and amateur, might wonder which camera to capture those moments. In photography, having the right equipment for the job can be half the battle, but it can be a real chore trying to figure out what you need to get the job done.

Which camera is better in low light: full-frame or mirrorless? It’s actually the full-frame cameras that do better. Full-frame cameras have the largest sensors you can get off the shelf without going custom. It’s the sensors that allow the camera to perform better with minimal light.

But that’s not to say that mirrorless cameras are terrible in low light. They are better than a typical ‘point and shoot’ camera, and there are even mirrorless/full-frame hybrids that give you some of the benefits of both cameras. When shopping for a camera, it’s easy to be confused by the options. The more you know about the types of cameras out there, the easier it will be to make the right decision.

Features of a Full-frame Camera

As stated above, full-frame cameras are great when it comes to low light photography because they have the biggest sensors, which capture the most light. The drawback of that is they tend to be bulky because of it, and this might make them less desirable for traveling with.

Even the hybrid full-frame/ mirrorless cameras are a little chunky because it’s the size that gives it its power. Full frames also have the capability of taking higher resolution pictures. cameras with big sensors can handle more pixels properly, giving you more detailed photos.

A full-frame camera has a sensor that is…

“equivalent in size to 35mm film (36 x 24mm) and is the largest ‘consumer' format you can buy without moving up into the specialized realm.”

Source: Digital TrendsOpens in a new tab.

One feature they are widely prized for is their depth of field and broader dynamic range, or the difference between the lightest and darkest tones of the images it captures.

Another plus with these cameras is that they have better depth control, meaning you can blur out the background and focus on the foreground without the need for extra lenses or distance. This is basically what we call ‘portrait mode’ on a phone camera, and a very popular, professional-looking style of picture taking.

Features of a Mirrorless Camera

The term mirrorless camera can be a bit confusing. There are actually many different types of cameras that don’t actually have a mirror in them. So, what do we mean when we talk about mirrorless cameras?  When we say mirrorless cameras, we are referring to cameras that are digital, with interchangeable lens cameras.

When compared to the full-frame cameras, these mirrorless cameras:

  • Are more compact, because they have both a smaller sensor size, and are without the mirror box that most full-frame cameras have.
  • Usually have a greater zooming distance.
  • Do not have the depth control for portrait mode that the full-frame cameras do without the help of other lenses and maybe a repositioning of the camera or subject.
  • Don’t have the same autofocus speeds as full-frame cameras, but improvements over the years are getting them closer.
  • Are excellent at shooting video. To shoot video, there must be constant light exposure to the camera’s sensors. In a mirrorless camera’s the sensor is already exposed at all times.
  • Eats up battery life quickly. The sensor exposure above means a mirrorless camera consumes more battery life than a full-frame camera.

    This is an issue that mirrorless cameras are likely to have for a long time to come, but if you don’t mind carrying a charger with you, and are looking for something that can handle video too, you might want to look into a mirrorless camera.
  • Are easier to clean. Most mirrorless cameras don’t have opening under the mirror to house components, so it’s less likely for dust to circulate around and get in there.
  • Are relatively quiet. You only hear the shutter sound. No more clacking, because there is no mirror clanking or slapping inside.

Other Types of Cameras

Most other types of cameras aren’t good for low light shoots, because they typically have a smaller sensor in them, but they have other benefits to them. Here are some of them at a glance.

  • Compact digital cameras, also known as point-and-shoot cameras, are small and convenient. While you can’t adjust their setting much or change the lenses on them, they have many auto-features and can take great quality photos.

    They have a small sensor size, but are capable of high-resolution photography, and are simpler to operate for novice or beginners. They are handy tools to have in your back pocket. (And they fit there too).
  • Action cameras, like the Go Pro, are hearty and versatile. They're great for taking video and can produce some high-resolution stuff. These are typically small, and mountable, and made to use on the go. Perhaps the biggest downside is the fixed focus, or maybe the limited zoom. But the are great cameras for ‘in the moment’ photograph and video.
  • 360-degree cameras are cameras that can take – you guessed it – photograph and video in 360 degrees! These are generally hearty little cameras that can take some pretty unique pictures. They are quirky little spheres with a lens on either side and are usually mountable.

    The drawback to the 360-degree picture style is that they are so unique that you generally have to do some cropping and editing before you can print anything out. But if you’re a digital-only kind of person, you might find these cameras a lot of fun to use.
  • Film cameras are a dying art, but that may be one of the cool things about them. Unique in style and form, the cameras themselves are defiantly a conversation piece.

    The pictures they produce are both beautiful and stylized. Our modern-day app filters try and emulate this retro format. If you’re a photographer in it for the art, a film camera might be worth a look.

    Speaking of film cameras, one that I think of is Jeff Bridges with his Widelux cameraOpens in a new tab.. Jeff has been a photographer for quite some timeOpens in a new tab.. He surprised a lot of people with his work when he made the rounds through late night talk shows to promote his book of PicturesOpens in a new tab.. Awesome stuff to read up on.

A Few Other Tips for Shooting in Low Light

With the exception of full-frame and mirrorless cameras, most cameras aren’t really great for low light shooting. However, here are some tips to help you out in a lighting pinch!

  • Bring your own light source. If you are planning on shooting in a low light situation, then using off-camera lighting can improve visibility without making the image looking flat and staged.
  • Try using a wider setting on your camera. This will give it the chance to take in more of the available light. Most fast lenses have wider settings too, which will also give u a chance to catch the light in your camera.
  • Use a camera with both big sensors and high megapixel count is ideal for low light shooting. But beware, if you are working with a small sensor, you don’t a pixel count your sensor can’t handle. This mismatch of tech will bring down the quality of your shot.

A Few Parting Words

Low light photography is a beautiful art, and like all art, it takes a muse, plenty of skill, and the right equipment. If you can find all of that, you’re on your way to romantic lighting, and breathtaking views. Just remember, ideally, you want a full-frame camera because of its large sensor.

A mirrorless camera is your next best bet, with the next biggest sensor size and more compact body. Whatever kind of camera you are considering, make sure to look for the largest sensor you can, and don’t let the megapixel count confuse you when making your choice.

Roy Davis

Roy Davis is the founder of YourPhotoAdvisor. He is a hobbyist photographer that loves the business side of things. He blogs about IT, cybersecurity, business, and more at BestofRoy.com. Follow him on social media at Twitter | Instagram.

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