low light photography phone

The Complete Guide for Low Light Photography on Smartphones

low light photography
Snapsort’s Low Light Photography Infographic has everything right except the need for a DSLR.

Read on to see how to do smartphone low light photography. You can always refer to the infographic for its camera setting information later!

What is Low Light Photography?

Low light photography
Snapshot Canon-Asia

Low-light’ is an environment that’s darker than full-light, which is a lot broader than you might think. Examples of low light situations include:

  • nighttime (duh)
  • being indoors
  • heavy cloud cover
  • being in the shadow of a building or tree

There are a lot of scenarios that qualify as low light, so there are a lot of applicable skills to learn.

For the most part, we’re going to be talking about the darker end of the low light spectrum. We’ll discuss as if it were after dusk or nighttime, and we’ll assume there is little to no natural light.

What Influences Low Light Photography Quality?

Being able to take decent low light pictures is one of the skills that distinguishes any ol’ schmoe with a cellphone and a true photographer. It will require at the very least, a working knowledge of what all the settings and functions of a camera are and possibly some gear.

As for the image quality itself, it boils down to the sensor (as with most photography quality questions). The megapixels, while important, aren’t the determining factor here. The physical size of the sensor is a bigger contributor since that determines the maximum amount of light that gets taken in.

Equally important is the software behind the hardware. Digital cameras don’t have all that much in common with film cameras – the code that processes the data from the sensor is a huge deal. It manifests in things as silly and mundane as Snapchat filters, but it’s also responsible for automatically adjusting contrast in HDR shots or reducing overexposure in harsh light. Two cameras with identical specs can produce entirely different photos depending on what software is behind the lens.

Traditional Cameras vs. Smartphones in Low Light Photography

DSLR or smartphone
Digital Photography School

We’ll be honest: traditional cameras beat out smartphones for low light photography sometimes. The quality of a photograph taken in the dark largely depends on the sensor of the camera – and the bigger, bulkier cameras will invariably have a bigger and better sensor.

Don’t despair, however. The most recent generation of smartphones has made some significant strides in sensor technology and produce some seriously good shots. Enter – Night Mode.

The Best Smartphones for Low Light Photography

Preview

Best Quality Option

Best Deal Option

Best Budget Option

Title Huawei P40 Pro Samsung Galaxy S20+ Apple iPhone SE
Display 6.58″ OLED touchscreen 6.7″ Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X
Infinity-O Display
4.7″ Retina HD display
Camera Main Camera (12MP 1/1.28″ + 50MP Quad-Bayer Sensor), Ultra-Wide Camera (18 MM 40MP 1/1.54″ Sensor featuring f/1.8), + Tele-Camera (OIS with 5x Optical Zoom) 10MP Selfie Camera, 12MP Ultra Wide Camera, 12MP Wide-angle Camera, 64MP Telephoto Camera, + DepthVision Camera 12MP Wide camera featuring ƒ/1.8 + 7MP Front camera featuring ƒ/2.2
Storage Capacity 256 GB 128 GB 128 GB
External Memory Card Slot      
Operating System HarmonyOS Android iOS
Our Rating 9.6/10 9.3/10 8.8/10
Cost $$$ $$ $
Link Check Price Check Price Check Price

 

Best Quality Option

Preview
Title Huawei P40 Pro
Display 6.58″ OLED touchscreen
Camera Main Camera (12MP 1/1.28″ + 50MP Quad-Bayer Sensor), Ultra-Wide Camera (18 MM 40MP 1/1.54″ Sensor featuring f/1.8), + Tele-Camera (OIS with 5x Optical Zoom)
Storage Capacity 256 GB
External Memory Card Slot
Operating System HarmonyOS
Our Rating 9.6/10
Cost $$$
Link Buy On Amazon

 

Preview
Title Samsung S20+
Display 6.7″ Quad HD+ Dynamic AMOLED 2X Infinity-O Display
Camera 10MP Selfie Camera, 12MP Ultra Wide Camera, 12MP Wide-angle Camera, 64MP Telephoto Camera, + DepthVision Camera
Storage Capacity 128 GB
External Memory Card Slot
Operating System Android
Our Rating 9.3/10
Cost $$
Link Check Price

 

Best Budget Option

Preview
Title Apple iPhone SE
Display 4.7″ Retina HD display
Camera 12MP Wide camera featuring ƒ/1.8 + 7MP Front camera featuring ƒ/2.2
Storage Capacity 128GB
External Memory Card Slot
Operating System iOS
Customer Rating 8.8/10
Cost $
Link Check Price

Huawei P40 Pro

There’s is no better smartphone for photography than whatever the latest Huawei model is – end of story. While using the P40 Pro in the U.S. isn’t ideal because the likes of Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile don’t support the device, this doesn’t magically make the camera bad. On the contrary, the camera in this baby blows anything available in U.S. markets out of the water. We don’t get a chance at it though because of Americans’ aversion to 5G, Chinese-made goods, and high-quality smartphone photography!

If you’re willing to give up some services though, you can use the Huawei P40 Pro on third-party wireless platforms like Cricket or Boost Mobile. Eventually, we won’t have a choice but to allow these in the U.S., right?

Cool Features on the Huawei P40 Pro
  • XD Fusion Engine – their AI – is a dream for low light photography
  • Ultra Vision Sensor makes minor adjustments a breeze
  • Golden Snap AI Best Moment curates a video experience for you shoots (makes creating content a breeze)
  • ISO up to 51200!
  • OIS + AIS

Samsung Galaxy S20+

Quality is what you expect in the Samsung Galaxy, and the S20 doesn’t disappoint. We choice the S20+ here because of its price-point fit, but any of the options are high-quality phones at a good cost. Samsung claims that the S20 will change the world of photography. So, do we believe them?

Not really. Will the Galaxy S20 win smartphone photography awards? Sure. Is it better than the Huawei P40 Pro? No, no, definitely not. So, is the S20 worth considering?

Of course! There’s merit in going with a popular cell phone model like the Galaxy. Most add-on lenses will have options for your phone and guides and tips will be geared more towards your phone than other obscure models. What you give up in camera performance you’ll gain in ease of use stateside.

Cool Features on the Samsung Galaxy S20+
  • 8k video capability (33MP still photos)
  • Impressive Space Zoom of 100x
  • Samsung tripled the size of their sensors plus updated their Night Mode all with low light photography in mind
  • Single Take’s AI captures variable content for you so you can focus on quality
  • 5G compatable

Apple iPhone SE

So, how does the budget iPhone fare in low light? Well, pretty good considering it came out within the last couple of months. While many complain that the iPhone SE is too similar to the iPhone 6, it did receive upgrades in the camera department. As a result, it finds itself at the top of our list for the best budget smartphone for low light photography.

No, the SE’s camera won’t be as impressive as those on the iPhone 12 set to be released later this year. But, the SE is expected to cost about a third of what Apple’s flagship phone will cost. With all those savings, you could get a number of high-quality smartphone photography gadgets.

Cool Features on the Apple iPhone SE
  • iPhone 11 Pro chip in the SE means that the phone straight performs at the price point
  • Apple’s Portrait Mode + Portrait Lighting (6x options)
  • Improved Smart HDR is an upgrade on a pretty impressive feature (thanks Apple?)
  • Decent water and dust resistance
  • 13 hours of battery is pretty good for iPhones

How to do Low Light Photography on a Smartphonelow light photography phone

Step #1 – Learn the Camera Settings for Mobile Phone Low Light Photography

It should come as no surprise that a device designed to capture light struggles in situations in which there is no light. A standard camera on default settings will consistently produce terrible pictures if the light is bad. They will come out grainy because not enough light hits the sensor, so swathes of the image were interpolated (in a digital camera, anyway). Here are some good rules of thumb for your settings in low-light photography:

  • ISO – It’s basically how sensitive your sensor is to the light. You want to dial up the ISO when it’s dark. It’ll come at the cost of some visual noise being introduced to the photo, but if you shoot in RAW (and you should), you can remove some of it in post-processing.
  • Shutter Speed – How fast the shutter opens and then closes for a picture and how much light gets in. If you’re doing a long-exposure, the shutter will be open for a long time. In most low light shots, you want the speed to be as low as possible without motion or vibration affecting it. For handheld shots, the rate should be at 1/60 or above – otherwise, the shaking of your hand will affect the picture.
  • Aperture – This is the diameter of the lens opening. It also affects how much light gets in. Lower number equal more light, so f/2 will have a lighter picture than f/8. Choose the lowest setting possible that still keeps your subject in focus.

Step #2 – Aquire the Necessary Gear for Smartphone Low Light Photography

Gear for Smartphone Low Light Photography
The Phoblographer

No piece of gear is actually a prerequisite for low light – only camera settings are. That being said, there are a couple of pieces of equipment that will allow you to take your low light photos to the next level.

The first is a phone tripod. It’s absolutely necessary any time you are attempting a long exposure-type shot. Any movement while the shutter is open will ruin the shot by introducing blur. Plus, since most photographers are shooting solo, you might need your hands free to do light painting or something similar. Here are our recommendations on phone tripods.

As long as we are trying to avoid excessive vibrations, you’ll probably want a wireless shutter remote too. These connect to your phone via Bluetooth to snap pictures without actually tapping the screen. It’s necessary since the very act of taking a picture requires touch, which inherently creates vibrations (and it’s worse on phones). These remotes are often bundled together with tripods, so you can potentially save a few bucks. Here’s a guide on wireless shutter remotes.

Step #3 – Practice the Techniques for Great Low Light Shotslow light photography phone

Some of the most fascinating and beautiful pictures are taken in low light settings. Here are a few popular ones:

Long Exposure

Long exposure is a classic photography technique with many diverse applications. It’s also challenging to perform in bright light, so it’s almost always reserved for low-light situations. At its core, long exposure is pretty simple. It offsets the main disadvantage of low light, namely not having enough light, by keeping the shutter open for prolonged periods – thus taking in more light. You can make some cool effects by manipulating the light or the length of the exposure. Some things that are very faint or nearly invisible can become bright and evident through a long exposure. Here’s our guide to taking long exposure shots on cellphones.

Light Painting

Light painting is a subcategory of long exposure, but it’s responsible for some of the most creative pictures you’ll ever see. In a dark or nearly dark place, you set the camera on a tripod and take a really long exposure. Then, using a light source such as another phone or a flashlight, you can draw or paint either objects in the scene or by pointing the light directly at the camera. There are practically unlimited ways to utilize light painting, and no two pictures are ever alike. Here’s our guide on how to get started light painting.

Astrophotography

People that have never been to a genuinely wild place have never seen the Milky Way with their naked eyes. It’s an incredible sight, and one well-worth traveling for. Even if you live near civilization, you can take a picture of the stars using just your phone and a tripod. Like the other low-light tricks, you simply need to take a (very) long exposure. The light from those stars billions of miles away compounds in your sensor until it appears much brighter than you’ve ever seen it. Take a long enough exposure, and you can even see the stars move (called star trails) as the Earth rotates!

Step #4 – Master Editing Low Light Photos

Editing Low Light Photos
Instasize

Editing low light photos is no different than editing any other photo. The only thing out of the ordinary is that you’ll probably spend most of your time adjusting exposure and contrast. Bonus Tip: You can get some pretty cool effects by manipulating the shadows in an already-dark shot! We recommend Snapseed for editing, but here’s a whole list of other editing apps to try. There is also the argument over whether you should do your editing on your smartphone or your PC, but we’ll let you make the final call on that one…

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