In theory, any lens can be seen as a good performer in low light conditions. However, in practice, a lens needs certain attributes to be considered a good low-light performer. Some would argue that half the story is with the camera’s ability to either produce super clean, low ISO images or shoot at high ISO levels without noise.
For argument’s sake, let’s presume your chosen camera is well equipped for low-light shooting. This means for regular low-light work, you still need to venture down the path of choosing one of the best low-light lenses on the market to finish the deal. This usually results in owning a telephoto wide-angle lens with an aperture of f/2.8 or wider and possibly with image stabilization.
This is not to discount zooms in this category, but generally speaking, prime lenses have much wider apertures which are better for low light conditions. There are also the factors of lens anomalies, such as chromatic aberrations to consider. Nobody wants a beautiful shot of the night sky where the points of light are distorted or have fringes of color.
While some of the lenses below are camera brand specific, we have also included third-party offerings which can be used on a range of camera mounts. Either way, all the shortlisted lenses below will provide good low-light capabilities, along with a solid build quality to stand the test of time.
1. Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art (Overall Winner)
The Sigma 18-35mm f/1.8 DC HSM Art lens ticks all the boxes for excellent low-light capabilities. The main reasons for why this wide-angle zoom is one of the best low-light lenses is due to the zoom versatility, wide-angle focal lengths, the fact that it fits a wide range of camera mounts, and its unusually wide for a zoom lens aperture of f/1.8.
Low-light or night-time photography generally falls into the camp of wide-angle lenses. The 18-35mm focal range, or 28.8-56mm equivalent on a crop sensor body, is wide enough for most applications. Plus, these focal lengths provide low enough shutter speeds for extended handheld use.
The optical arrangement of the lens features five Special Low Dispersion (SLD) and four aspherical elements, along with a Super Multi-Layer Coating to reduce flaring and ghosting as well as increase contrast. A nine-blade rounded diaphragm is included. The lens features a 72mm filter thread, and the total weight is 810g.
The sharpness levels and low amounts of chromatic aberration provide extremely well-defined images. The price point is reasonable, which means that the only real downside to this lens is its lack of image stabilization. In all other respects, this lens is a fantastic all-rounder if you shoot mostly in low light.
2. Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D
Although the Nikon AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.8D may only work with Nikon DSLRs that have a built-in autofocus motor, in every other area this lens is a great low-light operator. This lens features the standard 50mm focal length, a wide and bright f/1.8 aperture, plus manual focus and aperture rings.
Optically, the lens features a Super Integrated Coating and can also be used on DX camera bodies providing a 75mm equivalent focal length. The f/1.8 aperture works very well in low light, along with doubling up as a wonderful walkaround lens. It’s also an extremely affordable lens, which makes it an excellent starting point for most Nikon users.
3. Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art
Sigma is here again, this time with the Sigma 35mm f/1.4 DG HSM Art as a prime lens offering. This lens is available for a range of camera mounts and provides excellent optics for the money. Many lens makers produce a 35mm lens in their lineup, but the Sigma represents a solution that can be used on many types of camera bodies with the correct lens mount.
The optical arrangement consists of one FLD, four SLD, and two aspherical elements, along with a Super Multi-Layer Coating. A nine-blade rounded diaphragm is included, along with an integrated Hyper Sonic Motor (HSM), all wrapped around a Thermally Stable Composite (TSC) lens barrel weighing in at 755g.
Image quality is wonderfully sharp from this lens, with low amounts of chromatic aberration at f/1.4. Although the lens is reasonably bulky and heavy, you cannot fault the overall image quality and especially for the price point. The 35mm focal length is also a great option as a general walkabout lens.
4. Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G
For the ever-growing Sony users out there, the Sony FE 20mm f/1.8 G is a good choice for low-light photography. The lens features a wide and bright f/1.8 aperture, with two Advanced Aspherical elements, three extra-low dispersion elements, and a Nano AR Coating.
The Dual XD Linear motor is whisper quiet any the addition of the manual aperture ring provides plenty of control, along with a fully automatic setting. Also, the focus hold buttons around the lens barrel can be customized to change various exposure settings, adding to the overall usability.
Images are sharp and detailed at f/1.8 and being a prime lens, it has that extra sliver of detail and definition which you can only get from this type of lens. This low-light lens may initially seem quite costly, but the wide and accurate focal length, plus the f/1.8 aperture represents great optics for the money.
5. Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR
While a lens with an aperture wider than f/2.8 is usually recommended for low-light conditions, the Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 24-70mm f/2.8E ED VR is a worthy inclusion as it also features image stabilization. This lens has one of the most useful focal lengths of 24-70mm.
The optical arrangement here includes an aspherical extra-low dispersion element, three aspherical, one high refractive index, and two extra-low dispersion glass elements. Also included are Nano Crystal and Super Integrated Coatings, showing that Nikon hasn’t skimped in providing the best glass they can offer.
The Vibration Reduction image stabilization system provides up to four stops of compensation, which can provide very low shutter speeds when handheld. This point means although this is the most expensive lens on the list, it’s also one of the most versatile, which is one of the main selling points of a high-quality 24-70mm lens.
6. Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM (Budget Winner)
The cheap and cheerful Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 STM keeps cropping up on recommended lists, mainly because it provides great optical attributes for the money. In this case, it’s not just about the optics for the money but also the wide f/1.8 aperture. Of course, there are prime lenses out there that can go much wider, but seldom for the same price point.
The EF 50mm f/1.8 STM may not have any of the fancy elements of other lenses, but it does have a Super Spectra coating for reducing ghosting and flaring. The lens also features a stepping motor (STM) for autofocusing duties. The other plus points here are the super light weight of 160g and close focusing distance of 35cm.
The f/1.8 aperture on this lens works wonderfully when the light conditions start to drop and the shallow depth of field is equally useful for separating the subject from the background.
In total, the EF 50mm f/1.8 STM provides excellent value for money and is even affordable enough to be a backup lens when all else fails.
Shining Light on the Best Low-Light Lenses
The best low-light lenses generally need a wide and fast aperture, which in some cases can also mean a high price tag. But, in some cases, such as the Canon 50mm f/1.8 and the Nikon 50mm f/1.8D, you don’t have to spend a huge amount of money to gain good quality night-time shots.
Low-light lenses in this bracket can feature apertures that go much wider, such as f/1.2, but for most applications an aperture of f/1.4 strikes a good balance between usability and price.