Photography in low light conditions can be tricky, and especially so on smartphones. Because their sensors are so small, smartphone cameras take better pictures in the day time when there is a lot of light available.
However, this is not to say shooting in low light is impossible. On the contrary, shooting photographs at night with your smartphone can be quite rewarding when you see just how stunning your images can look. You just need to know what you’re doing and have a good phone camera with the right camera specs.
Here are some tips to get you on your way to mastering photography on your smartphone at night.
Take advantage of available lighting
Lighting plays a big part in what makes a mobile photo look good. This might seem obvious but you have no idea how many people ignore this or simply don’t understand how to use the available light to their advantage.
Let’s say you’re at a dimly lit bar or party event. The best place to take pictures and selfies is where there is light. The bar is usually an area that has ample lighting and can be used as a light source. Alternatively you can go to an area where there is a light fixture illuminating the spot.
The direction of the light is very important. You need make sure that your subject is facing towards the light, so that it is not behind them or directly above them unless shadows and silhouettes are the look and feel you’re going for.
Other great source of light at night are storefronts, neon signs and street lights. If you’re walking down the street ,for example, you can quickly use the opportunity as you walk past a shop with bright lights or a neon/LED sign to take a photo of whatever your subject may be. You can use street lights for some really nice silhouettes.
A very important thing to remember about using available lighting is the positioning of your subject. The direction they’re facing and how the light hits them will greatly affect the look and mood of your photograph.
Use extra lighting
Perhaps you find yourself in a place where there is no available light. Maybe you’re camping out in nature. What then? Create light of your own.
Fire is an integral part of camping and can be a great source of light. Other things like phones and lanterns can work just as well, but only for a limited area. A couple of well-positioned flashlights can really improve your outdoor photos in the night drastically.
Whatever you do, try by all means to avoid using the phone’s flash. It gives off an unflattering light that makes the picture look flat and horrible. Reflective surfaces also become an issue as they create glare and hot spots in your photo. Rather use the tips in this article and avoid using flash at all costs.
Adjusting the exposure of your smartphone camera will definitely help you take better photos at night. To adjust exposure, you need to adjust the camera’s ISO.
The ISO value is usually adjustable when operating in Manual mode, although this is not always the case. I recommend you learn more about shooting manually and its benefits because it could change your photography for the better.
ISO determines the sensor’s sensitivity to light. A low ISO means less sensitivity, therefore a darker picture. If you need to brighten the picture, you need to increase the ISO. You will have to use your eyes to judge and get you to the right ISO level.
What you need to keep in mind is that you want to keep the detail in the highlights. Also, lookout for grain in the shadows. If the ISO is too high, you’ll start noting a noisy texture on your photos. You need to avoid that. Rather, you want to make sure the shadow areas of your photo are truly black and that there’s detail in the bright areas.
This will actually come in handy when you’re editing because you will have enough to adjust in the shadows and highlights to further improve the look of your photograph. If you over expose, then you lose detail.
Shutter speed, in smartphones, refers to how long the image sensor is activated in order to capture an image. The longer the shutter remains open, the more light from the scene it records.
Shutter speed is measured in seconds. A shutter speed of 1/30s means that the image will be captured for 1 thirtieth of a second and 1/3200s is even quicker! Some smartphone cameras can have a shutter speed as slow as 30s meaning the image is captured for a whole 30 seconds.
This means it can receive more light which results in brighter pictures. There is one catch, however. You have to be absolutely still. One slight move and the image becomes blurry. And even if you can keep your smartphone steady, anything that moves within the frame will look blurry. This is not ideal but it can be used to capture some really interesting pictures.
This picture was taken with a slow shutter speed, thus exposing the camera to moving images for an extended period of time. This results in light trails.
ISO and shutter speed are part of what is known as the Exposure Triangle. By finding the right balance between, you can end up with shots that are decently exposed in low light.
Be sure to use a tripod or any other camera support option when working with slow shutter speeds, so as to avoid ending up with blurry photos. Also, make sure that you use a reliable, good-quality smartphone mount that will keep your phone safely secured to your tripod.
If you think buying a tripod might be a bit much, I understand. I used to feel the same way as well for a very long time until I discovered these 8 really good reasons to invest in one. It totally changed my smartphone photography game for the better.
Experiment with HDR (sparingly)
This does not really come highly recommended but it’s worth playing around with and seeing if it works for you.
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range which basically means that your phone will take a couple of pictures very quickly with varying exposures. The pictures will then be combined so that the highlights are not overexposed while bringing out more detail in the shadows.
This may sound ideal but it does come with its own issues especially in the dark of the night. Although HDR works well for portraits shot in bright light, photos shot at night tend to appear a bit blurry which is not really ideal. Once again, consider using a tripod to avoid blur.
With each passing day, the technology behind smartphone cameras keeps getting better and better and with that comes improvements to their ability to capture good photographs in low light. One such improvement is the introduction of a mode specifically for shooting at night in several flagship phones.
OnePlus introduced Nightscape to their smartphone cameras, and Google similarly rolled out Night Sight on the Pixel 3 and 3XL. Samsung has followed suit with a mode called Bright Night. They may all have different names but basically they more or less do the same thing.
source: XDA Developers
With this mode, the mobile phone camera takes several pictures of one shot and then combines them. This results in a correctly exposed picture that is bright and clear without the need to use flash. The jury is still out on the quality of the pictures taken using night mode but as time goes on we’re seeing manufacturers improving greatly on this feature.
A lot of people, myself included, tend to be satisfied with using the native camera app that comes with their smartphone without ever giving much thought to what else is available out there. This is not entirely a bad thing but there’s a chance that your smartphone photography may improve if you use an app that gives you more control and options than the native app.
There are many weird and wonderful camera apps available on the market for both Android and iOS. However, I’m just going to list just a few here that will greatly help with your night/low-light photography. These are paid apps but if you’re really serious about your smartphone photography, it’s a small price to pay for a lifetime of great photos.
Night Camera (developed by Almalence) is a popular camera app for Android which is dedicated to photography in low light. The same company is behind A Better Camera (only available on Android), one of the most installed smartphone camera upgrades.
Edit the photos
This is by far my favourite part of smartphone photography. This is where you get to take an already good picture and make it even better. Although subtlety is always best, you can get as creative as you want.
You can adjust the brightness of the image, change the values of the shadows and highlights however you wish in order to liven up the picture a bit more and bring out the detail.The possibilities of looks you can go for are endless and the chances to do over are unlimited.
Snapseed is by far one of the most popular photo editing apps out there and for good reason. It’s a very powerful editor with a large array of tools and filters. It’s suitable for beginners and pros. You can find it on iTunes and Google Play. Best of all, it’s free!
Nothing is a guarantee and you probably won’t get photography in low lighting right the first time. But with practice and trying out the above tips, you’re bound to see some improvements.
Who knows, maybe one day you'll be proud enough of your work to print your smartphone photos and put them on display. And if you're keen to make extra cash, you could put your photos on Foap or other apps that pay you for your mobile photos.