The routine atomic resolution structure determination of single particles is expected to have profound implications for probing structure–function relationships in systems ranging from energy-storage materials to biological molecules. Extremely bright ultrashort-pulse X-ray sources – X-ray free-electron lasers (XFELs) – provide X-rays that can be used to probe ensembles of nearly identical nanoscale particles. When combined with coherent diffractive imaging, these objects can be imaged; however, as the resolution of the images approaches the atomic scale, the measured data are increasingly difficult to obtain and, during an X-ray pulse, the number of photons incident on the 2D detector is much smaller than the number of pixels. This latter concern, the signal `sparsity', materially impedes the application of the method. An experimental analog using a conventional X-ray source is demonstrated and yields signal levels comparable with those expected from single biomolecules illuminated by focused XFEL pulses. The analog experiment provides an invaluable cross check on the fidelity of the reconstructed data that is not available during XFEL experiments. Using these experimental data, it is established that a sparsity of order 1.3 × 10−3 photons per pixel per frame can be overcome, lending vital insight to the solution of the atomic resolution XFEL single-particle imaging problem by experimentally demonstrating 3D coherent diffractive imaging from photon-sparse random projections.