Because light is the backbone of photography, flash lamps have been part of traditional photography for a very long time.
Even though earlier mobile cameras did not have flash, it’s difficult to find a modern smartphone camera that doesn’t have a flash.
What most people might not be aware of is that the flash used in ordinary flash lamps is different from the ones on their phones. Not only that, different cell phone cameras use different types of flash.
In this article, we’ll look at the various types of flash found on mobile cameras, their key differences and how they affect the picture, as well as alternatives to a phone camera flash.
Types of flash
The two main types of flash found on smartphones are LED and Xenon. Each has its advantages and disadvantages that affect the quality of your low-light and night time pictures.
Understanding these and knowing which type your camera has will help you know what to expect from your smartphone’s photographs and perhaps also what you can do to mitigate the shortcomings of its flash.
This is by far the most common type of flash available on smartphones. You might already be familiar with this type of light as it is practically everywhere and fast becoming quite common in a lot of homes these days. This is because it’s relatively inexpensive and saves energy.
The upside of LEDs is that they can be quite small, thus making them perfect for modern smartphones where thin is king. And because they’re energy-efficient, you can rest assured that they’ll go easy on your battery.
Also, the torch/flashlight feature on your mobile phone is made possible by LEDs. This is because LEDs can produce light continuously.
However, it’s not all sunshine and roses in this camp. A simple LED flash is known to be quite dim compared to other types of flash technology.
Consequently, the area illuminated by the LED flash tends to be smaller resulting in pictures that appear illuminated in the foreground but still very dark further away from the camera.
An LED flash is also not ideal for photographing moving objects. This is because they’re slow when fired off, so the captured image looks blurry.
If you’re doing action photography with your smartphone camera using LED flash you will be disappointed by the lack of crispness in your photographs.
Another common problem with LED flash technology is the all-too-familiar issue of odd colours and bluish tones that result from them.
Dual LED flash
The dual-LED flash system works very similarly to the way a single LED flash works but in this instance, the dual-LED flash tries to combat the tone issue of a single LED by using two LEDs of different colour temperatures— one “warm” and the other “cool”.
The idea behind this type of flash technology is to have a balance between the two LEDs to create a better fit for the lighting of the environment.
Based on the colour temperature of the ambient lighting, the phone cleverly tries to figure out the ideal ratio of power between the two flashes that will be a better natural match for the environment.
Dual-LED flash unit. Source: chipworks.com
Although dual-LED flash provides a bit more illumination than single-LED flash, the main purpose of a dual-LED flash is to colour correct the picture.
The two LEDs can be individually lit at varying intensities although having two of them comes at a sacrifice of battery power compared to a single LED flash.
Triple- and Quad-LED Flash
Some modern phones are said to have triple- and even quad-LED flash as is the case with the Apple Xs.
Not much is different in these systems technically except that they have three or four LED flashes respectively.
The resulting pictures are arguably better than those of the single and dual LED flash.
However, triple- and quad-LED flash don’t seem to be very popular amongst smartphone manufacturers seeing that not many phones incorporate that technology in their cameras. A possible reason could be the amount of power they consume.
Nokia 808 PureView with xenon flash
Perhaps you’ve seen or heard of xenon before. It is popular in flash photography and thus used mostly in traditional photography than on mobile phones.
This is because xenon flash comes at a heavy price, and I’m not just talking about the cost.
Not only is xenon expensive, but it also consumes a lot of power. This is because the technology behind it is quite “involved”.
Put in the simplest of terms, this flash system consists of a discharge tube (which looks similar to a neon or fluorescent light), a power source such as a battery, and a circuit that connects the power supply to the discharge tube.
This tube has electrodes on either end and is filled with xenon gas and has a metal trigger plate running through the middle of the tube.
When an electrical current is conducted through the tube, the xenon atoms emit light and then-- BOOM! There’s your flash!
This intricate flash circuit with its various elements makes this flash system far superior to its LED counterparts. Light from a xenon flash travels further and illuminates far more than an LED.
Xenon flash is also much quicker than its LED counterpart which means that when it comes to moving objects, the xenon flash can capture “frozen in time” pictures without the motion blur associated with an LED flash.
This makes xenon ideal for action photography where the subject is constantly moving.
LED flash (left) vs. xenon flash (right) motion blur. Source: gadgethouse.com
The xenon, however, cannot provide continuous lighting like the LED which means it can’t function as a torch nor can it provide lighting for video.
As I mentioned earlier, xenon flash is expensive, drains power like no other. Also, it can be quite chunky. Therefore, it is not an ideal option for modern smartphones where size and battery life matter.
However, that is not to say that there haven’t been mobile phones that have spotted this flash technology.
The most recent phone to have xenon flash is the Samsung Galaxy K Zoom released in 2014 which boasted both xenon and LED flash.
At some point, the Nokia 9 PureView which was released in 2019 was rumoured to feature xenon flash but that rumour has since been debunked. The 5-camera phone has dual-LED flash.
Should you use the flash on your phone?
As tempting as it might be to activate the camera’s flash when taking photos with your phone in a low light environment, my advice is to avoid it as much as possible.
Despite advancements in mobile camera technology and improvements in the flash units incorporated into mobile cameras, the resulting images from using the flash on the phone still leave a lot to be desired.
If you need to add lighting because the photo is too dark, the best thing to do is to move to an area where there is enough light. Alternatively, you can invest in a wireless flash unit for smartphones.
Wireless smartphone flash
As the name suggests, a wireless smartphone flash unit is a device that connects wirelessly to your phone via Bluetooth. When you take a picture, the phone remotely triggers the flash and lights up the scene.
What’s great about this and sets it apart from using the flash on a phone is that it can be moved and adjusted. This allows you to control exactly how the scene is lit.
Depending on the unit, the type of lamp used for wireless smartphone flash is either xenon or LED. Some, like the Godox A1, have both.
But unlike the LED flash found on smartphone cameras, smartphone wireless LED flash is much more powerful, as is the case with the Profoto C1 Plus.
Because lighting is such a very important part of mobile photography, it’s important to learn how to take amazing pictures even in low light without having to use the flash.
If you’re having issues with taking photos in low light conditions, the first step is to determine what causes your photos to look bad when the lighting is poor.
For more tips on how to capture great photos with your phone, check out the 15 Tips on How To Take Amazing Photos With Your Phone.
If you want to learn more about how to improve your smartphone photography, download the 5 Ways To Improve Your Smartphone Photography ebook here. There’s a lot to learn in its 22 pages of content and it’s ABSOLUTELY FREE!!!