Low light photography isn’t simple to master, especially if you are using a smartphone. Trying to get the right shot in a dark environment can often lead to a series of failed attempts, ending in frustration. Images turn out too dark, too bright, or too noisy. Motion blur is another issue, as smartphone cameras tend to lengthen shutter speed to better expose images under in unfavorable lighting conditions.
Don’t give up on shooting in low light just yet! There are a few things you can do to get better shots in the dark. Today we are here to give you 5 low light photography tips to put you in control of the situation and get better results.
Take advantage of Night Mode
This special low light photography mode goes by different names, depending on the manufacturer which makes your smartphone. Google calls it Night Sight, Samsung names it Bright Night, Huawei refers to it as Night Mode, and OnePlus titles it Nightscape.
If your phone has a feature like this you can use it to enhance photos taken under extreme low light. It works similar to an HDR photo, shooting a series of images under different exposure levels. It then merges these and pulls detail from all pictures to create an enhanced final image.
Use artificial light
I am not a fan of using flash, but it can be the best option.
I am not a fan of using flash unless well positioned and measured. It creates harsh highlights and destroys detail in shadows, but it comes in all smartphones so it’s the easiest way to create light where there isn’t any. If you really need to take an image and there is no easy way to get a good shot, give the flash a try.
Another option is to invest in external artificial lighting. I advise getting a portable LED panel. These are not expensive and will work wonders. Something like the Meike S150 will work perfectly, featuring 150 dimmable LED lights, an internal battery, a power display, and a phone mount in the back.
An external light gives the user more freedom. One can remove the phone from the mount and have the light bounce off a wall. These also come with diffusers, which will make light softer. There is a learning curve, but it will make a huge difference in light quality.
Manual mode is your friend
A camera’s auto mode can do a good job measuring exposure, but hiccups often arise in low light photography. The camera doesn’t know what you want to shoot, it simply tries to expose an image correctly and will do whatever it wants to accomplish that. One way to improve your low light photography is to use manual mode to put yourself in total control of the camera.
A camera doesn't know what you want to shoot, it simply tries to expose the image correctly.
Manual modes offer three main settings: aperture, ISO, and shutter speed. These are referred to as the “exposure triangle”. You can learn more about shooting in manual in our dedicated post for learning how to use manual mode on your smartphone camera.
Learn more about the exposure triangle:
What you want to do is let the little light available expose your image correctly. This can be done by increasing the ISO or elongating the shutter speed. The tricky part is finding the right balance, as changing every setting in the exposure triangle has both pros and cons. Increasing the ISO creates more digital noise. Elongating the shutter speed kills sharpness and causes motion blur.
As a general rule of thumb, I advise that you elongate the shutter speed only as much as your subject allows it. If what you are photographing is a still object, you can let the shutter open for multiple seconds, if needed. Just make sure the phone is also still for the duration of the shot; you can use a tripod or set the phone somewhere. If your subject is moving, you will be forced to increase the ISO and live with some noise.
Most phones have a fixed aperture, in which case you can’t modify it, but some exceptions exist. Some recent devices have a variable aperture, including options from Samsung and Oppo. If you enjoy the benefits of variable aperture, make it as wide as possible. Keep in mind a wider aperture is represented by a smaller number. F/1.8 is wider than f/2.8, for example.
Shoot RAW if you can
More devices have given us access to RAW image files in recent years. A RAW image is known as an uncompressed, unedited image file. It keeps all data captured by the sensor, making it a much larger file, but with no quality loss and more advanced editing power.
Take advantage of outputting images in RAW if your phone allows it. A RAW file will allow you to pull more details from shadows (and highlights). You can also control things like white balance and colors without losing quality.
Edit your photos
Shooting an image is usually half the battle. Editing is just as important, especially when you want low light smartphone photography to look as good as possible. Options are vast, but we have a list of our favorite photo editor apps here.
Shooting an image is usually half the battle. Editing is just as important.
Each app works differently, so we can’t give you step-by-step instructions, but we can lead you in the right direction. Look for the settings that control exposure, lighting, or brightness. Snapseed has these options under “Tune image”. Most apps work with sliders, so go ahead and adjust them as desired. You can increase brightness, shadows, and highlights to bring out more details from the dark.
Most cameras have a hard time measuring white balance and color in the dark, so look for those settings too. You can learn about white balance in our dedicated tutorial.
Many low light photos require a high ISO setting,and therefore, have more noise. In addition, editing the image will affect the quality (especially if you are using a jpeg file). Most apps have a way to soften an image and reduce noise. The setting is usually labeled “noise reduction”, “luminance noise”, “color noise”, or something similar.
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Don’t be scared of the dark. The fun part of photography is taking on such challenges. With these tips you will be better prepared to face lowlight smartphone photography head on.