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7 min read 12 comments

How to take photos at night with your smartphone

Update: Night Sight mode added!

Smartphone cameras have a problem: the image sensors are extremely small. At night, it is especially difficult to have sufficient light for a nice photo, which often makes your pics blurry of full of noise. We’ll show you a few tips and tricks on how you can shoot good photos in the dark, including using night modes.

Why low light is a problem

For starters, here's some background on physical and technical aspects of why taking a photo in the dark is so difficult. As I already mentioned in the intro: size is the problem. The light-sensitive area in most sensors that are integrated into smartphones is roughly 15 to 30 mm². In comparison: Full-format image sensors from our editor’s DSLR camera have an area of roughly 860 mm² – that is 30 to 60 times more.

While small smartphone sensors can gather enough light during the day, the chip simply receives too few photons in the dark. However, there are now several ways to take a bright pictures with your phone, although each has its pros and cons.

night photography sizes
The blue and red areas illustrate the size ratio between the image sensor in a professional DSLR and the largest one that you can find in current high-end smartphones. / © AndroidPIT

Take advantage of night modes

We've had night modes in cameras phone apps for a while, but to be honest, they have never really made that much difference to the end result. Now, however, with the release of Google's new Pixel 3 and 3XL, the goalposts have well and truly been moved. Night Sight, as the mode is called, is about to roll out to Pixel users and those who have gotten early access have experienced some pretty incredible results. You can see a comparison of what our Italian Editor, Luca, was able to do with it.

pixel 3 night sight v
A regular HDR+ photo (above) compared to the same shot in Night Sight mode. / © AndroidPIT

Night Sight takes multiple exposures and then combines them to create a better result and reduce noise in the photo. Huawei has a similar Night Mode, but from our experience, it does not yield results quite as good as this. The AI tends to kick in a little too early for our liking. Using one of the methods below might be better.

Greater sensitivity

Whether you’ve tinkered around with ISO values before or not: you must have encountered the term at some point. To produce a bright picture in low light using a small sensor, you can simply amplify the image sensor’s light sensitivity. The camera app does this by itself when taking pictures in automatic mode.

However, greater ISO sensitivity also produces greater read errors that manifest themselves as image noise, loss of detail and washed-out colors, among other things. In short: the pictures are indeed bright and mostly sharp, but they're not really presentable most of the time.

night photography iso
Greater ISO sensitivities produce a brighter image and faster shutter speeds at the same time. However, image quality is increasingly affected above ISO 400. / © AndroidPIT

If your smartphone doesn't let you manually adjust ISO sensitivity, there are different apps you can use instead. Camera FV-5 Lite (Android) or Pro Camera (Apple), for instance, offer numerous settings options. Unlike the iPhone, however, most Android smartphones and their camera apps offer numerous manual options.

More light

More light is required to keep the sensor sensitivity low (and hence reduce image noise). As silly as it may sound, this can be achieved by adding sources of light to the subject. The smartphone’s integrated photo LED is always available here. Many modern phones even have several LEDs to adjust the flash’s light color to the environmental lighting. It's quite effective at preventing color casts and the images look decent.

However, these integrated camera LEDs also have their drawbacks. The flash from the camera’s line of sight eliminates all shadows – often making the subject look very two-dimensional and even “flat”. Therefore, the integrated flash should only be used when absolutely necessary.

In most cases, however, there are other options to ensure more light. If you take a picture of a moving object, then the location changes. When taking a portrait, take a few steps over to the nearest street lamp, or to a brighter corner of the bar. Take steps to ensure that light does not come directly from above to the greatest extent possible, since that casts awful-looking shadows on the face.

Longer exposure time

If you can no longer add any light to the subject, then you must give your smartphone more time. A longer exposure time lets the image sensor “see” the subject longer and gather more photons. As well as brighter photos, it also has an additional effect: Anything that moves is blurry. In the worst-case scenario, it causes blurry shots, but it also for example, turns passing cars into long trails of light.

night photography shutter
Many current smartphones offer a pro mode with manual options. The shutter speed here is set to 1/20 second. More seconds may be used at night, too. / © AndroidPIT

To increase the exposure time, you need the manual mode, often called “pro mode” or something similar. This questionable option is called shutter speed, exposure time or is simply and poignantly abbreviated with “S”. Most smartphones in automatic mode take pictures at a maximum speed of 1/10 second – longer exposure times require you to keep your hand very very still or else the shots will come out blurry.

Passing trams and cars or fireworks in the sky turn into beautiful traces of light at two to eight seconds. To depict a landscape illuminated by the moon, you may need to use a 30-second exposure time, which is the maximum in many camera apps. If the images turn out too bright at longer exposure times, you must ensure that the ISO sensitivity is set to “automatic” or to a low value. If that doesn’t help, then the subject is quite simply too bright and you need to correct it by decreasing the exposure time.

night photography exposure
In this photo, a Mate 9 is simply leaned against an office window that's wet with snow. For such shots, Huawei’s camera app offers the “light painting” option, which opens the shutter for as long as the user wants - in this case, roughly 65 seconds. / © AndroidPIT

Of course, for long exposure times, it's extremely important that the smartphone does not move during the shot. To do this, you can either fix or lean your phone on something, or use an accessory, which brings us to our next point.

Accessories

Anyone who finds nighttime photography fun and regularly takes shots in the dark should probably consider one accessory: a tripod. Since smartphones are light and compact compared to full-fledged cameras, the same applies to the tripod as well. For instance, you can obtain a small Gorillapod for less than $15, or you can get the Gorillapod and a corresponding smartphone universal adaptor for $20. Both objects fit comfortably in your jacket pocket and are ready to use in a few seconds.

night photography gorilla
While the LG G6 requires accessories for long exposure times, the Xperia XZ Premium can stand on its side by itself. / © AndroidPIT

Sony also gets another bonus point: Most smartphones from the Japanese company have a particularly flat bottom, so they can sit on their sides without requiring extra accessories for long exposure times.

Summary

You can choose between many different accessories to take beautiful pictures, even in poor lighting conditions. As is generally the case when it comes to photography, I can only give you one piece of advice: take the time to try different things out. Familiarize yourself with your camera app’s settings. And above all, take many many pictures, because photography itself - not reading articles like this one - will make you a better photographer.

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  • 2 things have helped me take better pictures at night:

    A gimbal (aka handheld tripod)
    A 2nd source of LED light ( ie such as a small flash light)


  • Sorin 1 month ago Link to comment

    A beautiful proverb in the photo world says:
    A good photographer is the one who manages to take pictures in bad weather too.
    Even though camera performance on phones has not reached the level of DSLR cameras, yet we're talking about two completely different areas, the evolution of cameras on "small" devices is great, reaching a very high level of quality.
    For most users, shooting on "Auto" mode is enough, with newer intelligence mode supported. The results are spectacular, and they enjoy everyone.
    Mobile photographers, because we can already say that this category of photographers is now, will look for the most suitable angles and reflections of light, the "sun only" rule being totally ignored, and even used exactly the other way around. In the photographic field, it's called shooting against the light. With a little spin and after some experience, surprising results can be obtained.
    In terms of low or dark light photography, where the sensor performs best, photographers will prefer manual exposure mode: the most beautiful photos are obtained with long shutter speeds, similar to those in the " heavy "in the upper category.
    I recommend anyone to test new shooting modes, capture exciting scenes and find new ways of expressing.
    Leave your imagination Free !


  • Rusty H. 11 months ago Link to comment

    "The light-sensitive area in most sensors that are integrated in smartphones is roughly 15 to 30 mm². In comparison: Full-format image sensors from our editor’s DSLR camera have an area of roughly 860 mm² – that is 30 to 60 times more."

    THANK YOU!
    I wish more people understood the physics required, to take a photo. If the sensor can't see it, it can't save it.
    I get so tired of sites that say "photos as good as a dSLR".


  • Thanks for Article


  • The picture shoot by Mate 9 above is fabulous and impressive!


  • thanks for article


  • I currently use my photo gorilla pod and use my selfie stick holder on it to hold my phone to take difficult night shots. I also use any flat surface as well. But I have to say that not all phone sensors and apps work well for night shots. My phone has a night shot mode and it doesn't really do that great of a job so I've resorted to using the manual mode. I also just started using the open camera app and need to play around some more with it and compare shots from my stock camera app but I do like it. Thanks for sharing this info.


  • Quite informative. Thanks Stefan!


  • Good basics about the three exposure variables: ISO, shutter speed and aperture. Simple camera apps limited to "Auto" exposure will ratchet up the ISO and spoil low light shots, if so it pays to install a good third party app for control. I bought Camera FV-5 years ago, it's excellent but the "Lite" version is seriously crippled and FV-5 doesn't support video. The most complete free camera app right now is Open Camera (Mark Harman) - but camera GUIs differ a lot and it's worth testing free versions of highly rated ones and buying the most personally comfortable. (A big benefit of third party camera apps is they'll follow the user to new or different phones, no time wasted learning changing OEM stock apps.)

    UPDATE: I was surprised to find the excellent free Open Camera requires Camera2 API for slow shutter, while paid Camera FV-5 will do 30 seconds on any Android 5+ phone.

    One small tip about slow shutter speeds is to set several seconds of delay between the shutter press and activation. Even on a tripod, the camera movement from a finger can blur the shot.


  •   12
    Deactivated Account Jul 23, 2017 Link to comment

    Very nice write up, I enjoy articles of this sort a great deal. Thanks.

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