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13 tips for shooting low light photos on your phone like a pro

09 Jul 2015 by Napier Lopez

With July 4th coming up, you’ll want to make sure you can eke the best out of your phone’s camera for those nighttime fireworks.

Though phones vary in quality and features significantly, there are still some general tricks – both technical and common sense – you can pick up on to maximize image quality in low light.

 

Technical primer: Understanding exposure

Before we begin, you should understand the two main variables affectexposure (how bright the image appears) on your phone: shutter speed and ISO.

The shutter controls how long light hits the sensor. The longer the shutter is open, the brighter an image will be. However, you run the risk of blurring the image due to movement.

The ISO value, on the other hand, determines the sensor’s electronic sensitivity to light. Higher ISOs allow you to brighten an image without changing the shutter speed, but always at the expense of a noisier image.

Note: There’s a third important exposure variable called aperture, but as this can very rarely be modified on phones, we’re leaving it out for now. For a thorough look at three faces of exposure, check out Cambridge in Color’s great guide  here.

Got that? Lets get started.

1) Expose correctly from the start

Make sure you actually tap on the subject on your phone’s screen so the camera sets the proper exposure (and focus).

If you need to, use the exposure compensation tools on your phone to get things just right; low light photos are less malleable for edits later, so make sure your subject is properly illuminated from the get-go.

2) Go manual

If you really want to get the most of your images, learn to manually adjust settings such as the aforementioned shutter speed and ISO.

 

 

Many Android and Windows phones have a manual mode option built-in, whereas there are a plethora of apps on iOS (VSCOManual, and Obscuraare some good ones) that let you do the same.

3) Keep your shutter open as long as reasonable

Since the ISO value directly determines how noisy an image is and apertures are fixed on smartphones, leaving the shutter open longer is your only option for getting cleaner images at a given exposure.

The longer the shutter speed, however, the more movement will be blurred, so this technique is best for static subjects – unless you want motion blur forartistic effect.

Theoretically, a long enough shutter shutter speed could result in nighttime photos as noise-free as those taken during the day. In fact, extending the shutter period is exactly how optical image stabilization works, which brings us to the next point…

4) Stabilize your shot

Lean on a stable surface to stabilize your shot whenever possible. Even if your phone already has optical image stabilization, this allows it to use an even longer shutter speed and/or lower ISO settings without your hand’s shakiness interfering.

 

Not taken with a phone but there’s no reason you wouldn’t be able to. Image Credit: Benson Chan /Flickr

Not taken with a phone but there’s no reason you wouldn’t be able to. Image Credit: Benson Chan /Flickr

 

If you really want to be serious, carry a small phone tripod for phones in your bag. If you’re shooting in manual mode, you can even set the shutter speed long enough for cool light trails.

5) Nail the white balance

Good white balance can be the difference between natural colors and looking like you have alien skin and yellow teeth

 

Mixed lighting can be difficult for phones to handle, so sometimes you’ll have to use what looks best to you

Mixed lighting can be difficult for phones to handle, so sometimes you’ll have to use what looks best to you

 

The lower the light, the harder it is for your camera to guess the correct white balance, so mess with your phone’s settings to see what works best.

6) Use environmental light to your advantage

Small lighting changes can make a big difference in your final image. When taking photos in low light, use whatever light that actually is available to illuminate your subjects.

Brighter objects show less noise, so if photographing people, make sure the light is hitting their face, not their backs – it can be as simple as asking someone to turn their body slightly to the side.

7) Use flash sparingly

While more light is generally good, when it all comes from a small point source, skin can look harsh and odd colored, particularly as the flash is often a different color from the surrounding light. Flash has its place, but try to stick to environmental light when possible.

 

Flash on vs. stabilized with flash off – Abe’s handsome visage is flattered by the environmental light

Flash on vs. stabilized with flash off – Abe’s handsome visage is flattered by the environmental light

 

8) Don’t zoom

Street photographers have a saying: “zoom with your feet.” If you need to get a better look at your subject, move closer. Besides being a quintessential artistic tip, it’s&

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