low light photography
Snapsort’s Low Light Photography Infographic

What is Low Light Photography?

Low-light is any 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, or even 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 which can be 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 loaded up behind the lens.

Traditional Cameras vs Smartphones

We’ll be honest: traditional cameras beat out smartphones for low light photography almost every time. 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.

The Best Smartphones for Low Light Photography

Google Pixel 3/Pixel 3XL

  • The Pixel 3 is arguably the best smartphone on the market and the stellar camera is a big contributor. While the sensor itself isn’t hugely different from its competitors’, the software behind it is. Google’s Pixel Visual Core chipset is an extremely versatile tool set that makes phone photography that much more viable.

Apple iPhone XS MAX

  • Apple has historically had the best camera phones hands down. While that’s not necessarily the case these days, they’re still a formidable entry. The iPhone X has dual 12MP cameras on the back, one of which has a telephoto lens. The wide aperture of f/2,4 lets you soak up that light and the iPhone XS has Smart HDR tech to improve shots with high contrast.

OnePlus 6T

  • It’s not a mainstream phone, but the OnePlus is worthy of mention. It muscles its way into the top by sheer virtue of having great specs. They come equipped with 16MP and 20MP cameras, the latter of which has a huge aperture at f/1.7. It also comes equipped with optical image stabilization which will help offset shake when using a low shutter speed.

How to do Low Light Photography on a Smartphone

low light photography phone

Camera Settings for 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 normal 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 speed 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.

Necessary Gear for Smartphone Low Light Photography

No piece of gear is actually a prerequisite for low light – only camera settings are.

That being said, there are a couple 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 undue 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.

Techniques for Great Low Light Shots

low 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 extremely difficult to perform in bright light, so it’s almost always reserved to 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 of time – 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 obvious through a long exposure.

Here’s our guide to taking long exposure shots on cellphones.

Light Painting

 This 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 truly 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!

Editing Low Light Photos

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…