Best Low-light Cameras for Holiday Pictures - 2012 Edition

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The holidays are nearly upon us, dear friends, barreling down the calendar highway in a freight truck of family, friends, and festive treats. Maybe this is first time you're taking a rambunctious toddler out tricking or treating. Maybe this is the first turkey you've cooked away from home -- or the first feast prepared after many years away. Maybe this is your first time caroling as snow falls into a steaming cup of apple cider. Maybe this is the year when the ball drops in Time Suare and fireworks fly, you'll bend down on one knee to ask that very special someone to spend the rest of their life with you. No matter where you live in the world, no matter your personal beliefs, the holidays are a special time filled with irreplaceable memories, so you better have your digital camera ready.

But think about it for a minute. Halloween. Thanksgiving. Hanukkah. Christmas. New Years. The October through January seasonal smorgasbord has one thing in common: a plethora of lowlight scenarios. Halloween is outside after dark. Hanukkah is the festival of lights. Christmas Trees illuminate living rooms as children sleep upstairs waiting for Santa. New Years only strikes at midnight, and often includes pyrotechniques. And Thanksgiving... well that one's a bit of a stretch, but let's imagine a beautiful candlelit dinner.

In each of these holiday scenarios, you want to make sure your camera is ready to capture sharp and clear pictures in the magical lighting conditions of your favorite festivities. But what makes a camera great in low-lighting conditions? Simple. A combination of high quality CMOS image sensors, better-than-average lenses, and built-in image processors and software. Many of these cameras actually take multiple-exposures and ultimately combine them, much like in HDR photography, into a single picture with optimum clarity and exposure. 

The one drawback is pricing. I suppose Mama Steve's favorite adage, you pay for what you get, rings especially true, as all of these cameras are in the $400 to $600 range (although the links below have some startlingly good discounts), which may be above some budgets. However, these cameras -- many of them "Flagship" models -- are all impressively constructed and brimming with the latest technology. Let's have a look at this year's best of the best:

Canon PowerShot S110

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Canon's PowerShot S110 is a fantastic compact digicam that has been designed with the quality and features that a professional can enjoy, while still providing the ease of use for any first time photographer. Much like the acclaimed S100 from last year, the S110 features a 12-Megapixel High Sensitivity CMOS sensor, a DIGIC 5 image processor, an ISO range of up to 12800, and an f/2.0 maximum aperture. High Sensitivity, or HS, image sensors are the most filmic and least noisy CMOS sensors available today. The DIGIC5 image processor and ISO range reduce visible noise in low-lighting conditions. And the smaller, numerically speaking, your maximum aperture, the more light hits your image sensor. The PowerShot S110 also boasts a 5x optical zoom lens, GPS and WiFi functionality for Geotagging and sharing your photos online, and full 1080p HD video capture.  With products like this, it's easy to see why Canon is an industry leader.

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Panasonic LUMIX DMC-LX7

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When companies advertise zoom lenses, you'll often see an aperture range denoting the maximum aperture (at the lens' widest angle) to minimum aperture (at the lens' full telephoto). The trouble is that while even the cheapest glass can earn an f2.8 or3.4, it then falls to a miserable 5.6 or worse, which means more difficulty in attaining shallow depth of field as well as shooting in low-lighting conditions.

What makes Panasonic's new premium compact camera, the LX7, so impressive is its dSLR-quality, 3.8x optical zoom lens. Rated at f1.4 - f2.5 maximum to minimum apertures, this glass may be the brightest of any compact digital camera on the market. Throw in a 10.1 megapixel CMOS image sensor, the noise-reducing Venus Engine image processor, RAW shooting capability, high speed burst shooting up to 11 frames per second, and full HD 1080p HD video recording, and the LX7 can handle just about any shooting condition. To further enhance low-light scenarios, Panasonic includes Intelligent Noise Reduction (NR) as well as two (of 16 total) Creative Filters dedicated to assisting dynamic range.

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Sony Cyber-Shot DSC-RX100

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The RX100 is Sony's flagship compact camera. First, let's brag about the 1.0-inch Exmor CMOS image sensor. Not only is it the world's first, but it's also four times larger than most point-and-shoot digital cameras (1/2.3-type sensors). That's good for an unbelievably huge 20.2 mega pixels. Next we've got Sony's BIONZ image processor chip, which allows the RX100 to have an effective ISO range of 100-25600 using Multi-Frame Noise Reduction -- super importnat for low-lighting conditions. Lastly, the impressive 3.6x optical zoom Carl Zeiss Vario-Sonnar T lens has an f1.8 maximum aperture. 

If those low-lighting bells and whistles aren't enough, we'll throw in full HD 1080p video recording, high speed burst shooting up to 10 frames per second (in full resolution!), and a 3.0-inch Xtra Fine LCD with WhiteMagic technology for added screen brightness while maintaining accurate levels of detail and color. The RX100 is also extremely customizable, thanks to the "smooth control ring" around the lens body and the assignable Fn (fucntion) button and Memory Recall capabilities. 

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Olympus Stylus XZ-2

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The Olympus XZ-2 is the point-and-shoot camera for DSLR enthusiasts who want high resolution images while holding a convenient compact digicam. Olympus' Flagship point-and-shoot camera, the XZ-2 boasts a 12-megapixel BCMOS image sensor, a 4x optical zoom with an f1.8 maximum aperture at its widest angle and a minimum aperture of f2.5 at full zoom, and the TruePic VI Image Processor, which you'll find on Olympus' more expensive Micro Four Thirds and dSLR interchangeable lens camera systems. This lens coupled with DUAL Image Stabilization, HDR Backlit Correction mode, and an ISO range of 100-12800 means you're ready to capture bright pictures in all but the darkest of nights!

Buyers will also enjoy the 11 Art Filters, 5 Art Effects, a tilting 3.0-inch LCD touchscreen, iAuto Mode for newer photographers, and FlashAir compatibility. FlashAir is actually a Toshiba WiFi technology built into their memory cards, for sharing and backing up your pictures wirelessly.

In addition to the optics and image processing technology, the XZ-2 features the "world's first hybrid control ring." When the Fn 2 lever next to said lens is in the "down" position, the hybrid control ring switches into analog mode, becoming a focus or zoom ring. Pop the Fn 2 lever into the "up" position, and the ring clicks into digital mode, allowing users to change exposure-related settings. Meaning, the XZ-2 is incredibly easy to use, and often times feels like a professional (aka much more costly) camera.

[Editor's Note 10/17/12: The Olympus Stylus XZ-2 will be available in November (2012), so while the Click Here link below doesn't turn up any results, it will very shortly!]

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FujiFilm FinePix XF1

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Available in black, red, or brown, the FujiFilm FinePix XF1 gives you a retro-design with all the wizardry of modern digital cameras. Building off the X10, the XF1 features a sizable 12 megapixel 2/3-inch EXR CMOS image sensor designed for low-light performance. FujiFilm also includes their proprietary EXR image processor to boost speed and reduce noise, RAW image capture, full HD 1080p video recording, a pop-up flash, improved Auto Focus performance, and an all new control interface.

The XF1's retractable 4x optical zoom lens, with an f1.8 maximum aperture, completely disappears into the camera (when off) for a compact feel. The manual zoom ring allows users to grab the perfect, precise shot on the fly while saving battery life. And another nice low-light feature, optical image stabilization, not only improves performance in poor lighting conditions, but also reduces potential blur in longer, telephoto shots.

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While the Canon PowerShot G1X may be the priciest camera on the Best Low-light list, G1X's image quality is excellent -- possibly the best you will find from a non-interchangeable lens compact camera. It also features the largest CMOS image sensor, at 1.5-inches, of any camera listed. Other nice specs include 14.3 effective megapixels, a 4x f2.8 (maximum aperture) optical zoom lens, the speedy and noise reducing DIGIC 5 image processor, full HD 1080p video recording, an ISO range of 100-12800, RAW image capture, and a 3.0-inch vari-angle rear display.

The G1X also features two specialty modes designed for low-light scenarios. Both HDR mode and Handheld Night Scene mode take three separate images and combines them into one. HDR mode boosts shadows and highlights by including under and over-exposed versions of your shots, while Handheld Night Scene aims to reduce noise and blur.

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