I've had a Canon Rebel T5 for many years which has worked great until I started doing low light (often red light) photography for fire and aerial performers for live events.
The lighting is very unpredictable here and difficult to work with. I use Topaz Labs to save the images but it's still a struggle and takes hours to get usable photos. I use the Canon EF Lens 50mm 1:1.8 STM for these shows which is difficult because the DOF is so small combined with the camera having trouble autofocusing on the subject. I often have to use the highest ISO and fastest shutter speed I can manage to try to not have a blurry dark mess (I can't use a tripod nor flash). I typically end up with something like f/1.8, 1/125, ISO 6400 (I drop to 3200 any moment the show switches to a non red light) and a whooole lot of noise.
I'm dreaming of a new Canon camera that performs great in low light. I've heard the Canon EOS R6 Mark II is great, but the price is crazy high for me. I'm trying to save up but in the meantime I'm looking for if anyone has experience with dark live shows and what they recommend for equipment.
Unfortunately as you’ve found, you’re at the limits of your equipment under those shooting conditions.
A full frame camera has large sensor sites which really allow them to have stellar ISO performance. I roughly estimated my 5D IV having at least 2 stops better performance over my initial Rebel T4i. So images taken with the 5D at ISO 6400 would have similar noise levels as T4i images at ISO 1600.
Even newer full frame cameras should give a bit better ISO performance. How much, I don’t know. But if you can get close to 2.5 stops better than your T5, that would be really good.
i would highly recommend a 50mm f/1.2 lens (an additional stop over your f/1.8) but that will have even more challenging DOF. However, if your subjects are far enough away, it should work quite well.
One other nice thing with newer cameras, esp the higher end ones, is better focusing even in very dark conditions.
Finally, while it wouldn’t be photos, there are Cinema Cameras that along with fast lenses, could allow you to capture footage at ISO 800. Grab still frames (8 MP for 4K footage). The premise here is that you can have shutter be 1/48 or 1/60 (24 fps or 30 fps respectively) to give an additional stop or more vs your 1/125 shutter.
If you are running into depth of field issues at f1.8 then a wider aperture lens isn't going to help.
Is 50mm framing the scene properly or are you having to crop significantly? High ISO noise reduction with significant cropping doesn't work well.
To get into the performance you need at a price point that fits your budget, maybe consider used. I have been shooting low light sports for years with 1DX Mark II and Mark III bodies. Although the sensor performance is better with the III, the II is still an incredibly good low light body with fast sure autofocus under low light conditions. I imagine the Mark II body on the used market has dropped significantly in price.
The following are a couple of captures, the first is with a 1DX Mark II @ ISO 51,200 and the second is with a 1DX Mark III @ ISO 40,000. These were from some fast sports edits from a large set of images and the only noise processing was the standard NR in Canon's DPP software. They can easily be cleaned up further with additional specialized NR software.
If low light and fast shooting is your first consideration and R6 II is out of your budget, go with original R6. It has excellent low light performance. I was shooting some open air fashion show with R6 and EF 70-200 2.8 III. Lights were off because of rain, there were only ambient lightning around and very bright scene in background. My 1DX II refused to focus in such conditions. Bur R6 locked a focus almost with no problems on models in dark, in front of a bright background display. I was impressed.
As my colleagues have suggested, you have likely reached the potential of your camera, which is the not only the cheapest unit in the lineup, but is also is quite old tech - the T5 was a repackaged version of the T3i from 2011, making the design 12 years old.
To echo my colleagues even further, I would recommend considering a move (when you can afford it) to the R-series bodies. I have the R6 MkI and II and they are both outstanding cameras in low light, but if either of them is out of your price range, you might want to consider the new, cheaper R8 - which is also a full-frame camera but somewhat downgraded compared in some respects to the more expensive R6 models. It has a smaller battery and no In-Body-Image-Stabilization (IBIS) - but for the price, those are to be expected. What it does offer is the same brilliant eye focus and tracking as the R6MkII. The R8 can use MUCH higher ISO values than the camera you have been using. This is for couple of reasons: a FF sensor may give better low-light performance than an equivalent crop sensor, and the sensor in the R8 is the latest tech - streets ahead of what you are using. So it could well be a game-changer for your application.
It is already a very popular unit and actually has the same sensor as the R6 MkII body at 24MP. Here is a review from DPReview.Com: Canon EOS R8 initial review: Digital Photography Review (dpreview.com)
I found a video review by Jarod Polin, using the R8 at a basketball event, which has fast movement and quite dim light - so this may be quite helpful for you.
CANON R8 Real World AF REVIEW: MIND-BLOWING for CHEAP!!! (As Good as R3 & R6 Mark II?!) - YouTube
Finally, Polin also offers a comparison between the R6, R6MkII and the F8 - which is very enlightening:
Canon EOS R8 vs R6 Mark II vs R6: Which Camera SHOULD You Buy? - YouTube
I don't live in the US (assuming you do) but the body only will come in at about $1500. The EF 50 f1.8 will work on that body via the EF-RF adapter, giving you the actual Field of View for a 50mm and using the actual f/1.8 aperture, whereas your Rebel would have provided a FoV equivalent to 80mm, with an f/stop around f2.8 - because of the crop sensor.
09/26/2023: New firmware updates are available.
08/18/2023: Canon EOS R5 C training series is released.
07/31/2023: New firmware updates are available.
05/31/2023: New firmware updates are available.
05/18/2023: New firmware updates are available.
03/30/2023: New firmware updates are available.