Photo by Scott Bourne – Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs Creative Commons 

I’m going to start a series of posts about what I call “photographic religions.” You know, the memes that get started relating to photography as if they are inspired by God himself.

When you meet someone who lives and dies by one of these photographic religions, it’s usually a clue that their photos aren’t great, but their grasp of one tiny bit of photographic science – out of context of course – surely is.

Today we’ll talk about the religion of low light.

I review lots of cameras and lenses here at In the last two or three years, the number one question I am asked about a camera is “How is it in low light?”

The first question used to be “How many megapixels?” We’ve pretty much vanquished the evangelists for THAT particular religion – but I can tell you the ardent supporters of the “Book of Low Light Shooters” are many.

It’s as if the ONLY thing that matters when you buy a camera is how it works in low light. Most of my audience is probably too young to know that in the film days, a film speed of 800 ISO (or ASA) was very, very, very fast. Most of us shot films in the ISO/ASA range of 25 to 100. If we were crazy we shot Tri-X at 400. The point is – hundreds of millions of photographs were made, sold and published using these low ISO films – and the films were grainy – and nobody cared.

Today – if a $200 camera isn’t perfect at ISO 25000 people brush it off. It’s all perspective I guess, but for me, the religion of low light makes NO sense.

First of all – I want ALL the light I can get. I want lots and lots of light. Give me buckets of it – scratch that – give me barrels of it. Dark out? Bring lights. No electricity? Bring battery packs! You can always make light. So low light performance is only relevant if you HAVE to shoot in low light – and most photographers don’t.

The quality, quantity and direction of light is what makes a photo. Not the LACK of light. All cameras operate better with more light. Period. End of story. Every system on the camera from autofocus to shutter press works better when we have lots of light. So chasing cameras that work in no light is wrong-headed thinking in my mind.

The biggest problem with the religion of low light is that people get so wrapped up in it that they buy the wrong camera. If low-light performance on a camera is superb, but it lacks other features you really need – or – contains features you really don’t, then you are needlessly penalizing yourself.

Look at the WHOLE picture – pun intended. Recognize that these cameras that perform spectacularly in low light often do so at a high price – and that price is lack of detail. Physics being physics, you can’t change the fact that in every single aspect of photography you are faced with trade-offs. Even digital forces compromise. And less detail is the compromise you make when you practice the religion of low light.

So I realize that by writing this post I have blasphemed the religion of low light but I hope I have also offered freedom of choice to those who wish to escape that cult. Perhaps I can convince some of you to look at ALL of a camera’s features before buying it – not just it’s low light performance.


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