Most modern smartphones let you take great pictures as long as there is enough light. When it comes to shooting at night, things get complicated. Some phones have cameras that are better at night photography, but in general, it’s a challenge to take a quality night picture with most of them. Don’t worry though – you can always try to work with the limitations created by low light conditions and improve your night shots.
Before you start, you need some inspiration. First, study the winners and awardees of all the main mobile photography competitions to learn from those that excel in this genre. Second, search thorough curated photo collections on stock photography websites to get ideas on night photography with a commercial appeal. The rest of the article includes the essentials that will help you take decent and even outstanding night shots with your own smartphone.
Why it is hard to photograph with a smartphone at night
Shooting with a phone in low light conditions might be very tricky, especially if you don’t have tons of experience in photography to understand more about your gear. Smartphone sensors are way smaller than digital camera sensors. This means that when the light comes through your phone’s camera at night, it is usually not enough due to the photodiodes size (pixels). Getting enough light in tough lighting conditions is a tough job for them, so you need high ISO settings if you want to shoot handheld. A solution, when possible, is to rely on longer exposures, to keep lower ISO values.
Mobile night photography tips to improve your shots
Relying on your phone's auto mode and doing nothing yourself when you shoot at night is a road to nowhere. Boost your mobile low-light photography with the most important tips and tricks to know.
1. Use a pro mode or special apps to choose the settings
When lighting conditions are challenging, you need to choose settings responsible for exposure manually. Some phone models have a pro or manual mode where you can adjust some settings, but they don’t always guarantee you full control over everything.
You need to use slow shutter speed and wider aperture when you shoot at night, which also applies to mobile photography. Relying on increasing only your ISO level like we often do when we shoot with a phone at night might lead to very grainy shots. If your pro mode doesn’t support using slow shutter speeds, opt for an alternative camera app that will let your experiment with your settings.
2. Purchase a tripod
It’s crucial to keep your gear steady when you shoot at night. Using slower shutter speeds requires your phone to be at the exact same position as long as it records the image. Just a half a second is enough to get a blurred picture when you hold the phone with your hands.
To help you take crystal sharp night pictures, purchase a compact yet strong tripod to stabilize your smartphone. It’s a good investment for many of your mobile photography experiments. A tripod lets you compose your shots more easily, which will also be helpful for some of your daytime shots with landscapes, nature, and architectural photography.
3. Find a natural light source
Even when it seems that there is no light at night, you can find a light source that will help you. It can be a street light behind your subject or a well-lit building that naturally brightens the scene. For nighttime portraiture, you can even shoot in front of a bright shop or cafe window.
At night, you can shoot a busy street with a lot of street lights and cars driving. As you photograph it with long shutter speeds, you will be able to experiment with capturing light trails and receive interesting and well-exposed nighttime pictures. The car lights will be captured in motion, leading to visible light trails behind them.
4. Work with flash wisely
On many occasions, you can use your built-in flash when you take photos with your smartphone at night if your subjects are in the foreground and you’re going for an artistic effect with burnt parts of the image. As an alternative, it’s a good option to brighten the scene with an outside light source such as a pocket flashlight or even an external flash or speedlight. Think about purchasing a mobile light accessory if you are really serious about phone night photography.
As an easy trick, use a flash from your phone externally. For instance, you can make the scene lighter by holding a second phone with the flash turned on and pointing it to your subject. If a friend accompanies you, ask them to hold the phone and move to see what position works best.
5. Edit your shots
Editing is an interesting and creative process that helps photographers boost their shots. However, when it comes to mobile night photography, editing your images is simply a must. Night is a tricky time even for digital camera users, and with smartphones, it’s super easy to miss the right exposure. If you have a pro camera app that lets you adjust advanced settings, check out if it supports shooting in RAW instead of JPEG. This format will grant you more control over editing as it can and should be used for professional mobile photography as well.
Apart from fixing exposure and white balance, experiment with making your night photos black and white. It’s hard to capture colors correctly at night, so black and white can help you here. On the contrary, if the scene is well-lit, don’t miss the opportunity to try to capture its colors and enhance them in post-production. What’s more, don’t overlook cropping your pictures as it might actually save a not-so-great shot.
Experiment and shoot as much as you can for great mobile shots at night
To become a better mobile photographer, it is important to experiment with adjusting settings like a pro and learn how to frame your shots. This applies to night photography as well. Limitations force you to work around them and be flexible with your photoshoots. You need to photograph as much as you can to improve your night pictures, as practice will show you what tips and hacks work best for your artistic intentions.