OnePlus One Camera: The Night Mode Beast

June 26, 2014 - Written By Nick Sutrich

As a photography aficionado I love to tear apart a new piece of equipment and put it through the rigors of the wild.  Many times cameras, particularly smartphone cameras, have issues when the lighting isn’t super bright.  In other words if you aren’t in the perfect lighting conditions of sunlight or in a studio taking the perfect picture isn’t exactly easy.  Many times you deal with blurry, out of focus photos because the camera’s autofocus algorithm isn’t able to ascertain exactly what you’re trying to focus on, and even if you do get the object in focus one small move might mean your subject turns into a blur.  This is usually alleviated in a number of ways, from increasing the ISO to make the sensor more sensitive to light, to keeping the shutter open longer to force the light into the sensor and “absorb” the scene.  The OnePlus One is a fantastic smartphone camera, using the latest Sony Exmor IMX214 sensor with a 6-lens configuration, and promises to take better pictures than any other smartphone out there, but what about night shots?

First of all let’s take a look at one metric of low-light shooting: pixel size.  HTC uses what’s called “ultrapixels” in its cameras which are anywhere from 50-100% larger than the pixels found on the sensors of competitor’s smartphone camera sensors.  This allows the camera to absorb more light without having to resort to normal ISO and shutter adjustments.  The OnePlus One does not use this method, rather sticks with a fairly standard 1.12 micron sized pixels, which are nearly half that of the HTC One’s Ultrapixel camera.  While this makes a difference when you can’t adjust the shutter as much, OnePlus and Cyanogen, Inc. have gone to some interesting lengths to make up for this.  The OnePlus One has variable shutter speeds that range from nearly instant all the way to 8 seconds, allowing lots and lots of light to enter the sensor and create some truly stunning night photography.

The best part about giving the option to adjust the shutter from 1/2 a second all the way up to 8 seconds is that you can use these methods in completely different lighting conditions.  Need to get just a little bit more light than the auto mode will give you?  Go for the 1/2 or 1 second shutter speed to grab that extra bit.  Need a lot more light?  Using the 2, 4 or 8 second modes will give you enough light for literally any lighting condition, including what we normally perceive as pitch black.  The first time I stumbled upon this mode I was checking up on my son at night and figured I’d give the slow shutter mode a shot.  The results were downright incredible, it literally turned a completely black picture that was taken in auto mode into one that’s actually usable.

Remember though that if the shutter is open for any length of time it’s extremely susceptible to camera shake and blur, so this is a mode that you’re not likely going to want to freehand, rather make sure you rest it on a surface and try not to shake the camera.  I took a number of other shots, as you’ll see below, showing the difference between auto mode and slow shutter.  Inside of slow shutter mode you can choose auto shutter or specify the length of time that the camera holds it open, for the vast majority of the shots I used auto shutter.  If you’re trying to freehand the shot I wouldn’t recommend more than 1 second shutter time, as it was impossible for me to take any photo without massive blur.

I’ll need to play with this mode to see just how many different scenarios it’s worthwhile in, but even indoors at night this mode can help immensely, absorbing more light and lowering the ISO, thus reducing noise on the image and producing clearer image so long as the shutter isn’t open too long.  While this mode isn’t useful in every situation it is indeed an awesome leap forward for most smartphone cameras, and one that’s definitely welcome for those who like to take shots in the dark!