How to take good photographs under low-light using your smartphone

By Subhrojit Mallick | Published on 16 Apr 2018
How to take good photographs under low-light using your smartphone

Low-light photography has forever been the Achilles's heel of smartphone cameras. Use these tricks to make the most of your phone's camera.

Smartphone cameras have come a long way. From shoddy VGA cameras, phones can now switch between apertures and shutter speeds, zoom in optically and even identify objects you are shooting. Phones now come with two, three, even four cameras on them. There are options to use all the cameras at once. Or use one sensor to shoot in monochrome while combining the two sensors gives a depth-of-field effect.

All these features make the camera at the back of a smartphone quite reliable in most of situations, and while it still can’t match up to the standards of a DSLR or a mirrorless camera, a good smartphone camera can easily give point-and-shoot cameras a run for their money. But only during daytime. Low-light shots have forever been the Achilles’ heel of smartphone cameras.

Hardware constraints, especially the size of the sensors have restricted companies to push the boundaries of low-light photos as far as daytime shots, but companies have found workarounds. Some have used a bigger sensor, while some have used a wider aperture. Yet others have relied on artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance low light photos. But none of them are perfect.

Yet, evenings are the time when most of us head out and poorly-lit pubs and bars are the places we like to hang out. What’s the point of having a good smartphone if you’re not able to preserve the good times you have there? Well, we have some tips to max out the low-light photography capabilities of your phones. Read on!

1. Know your camera

The first you should when you get a new phone is check out all the features thoroughly. While companies will go out of their way to advertise certain features, most will be not highlighted. You will have to sift through your phone trying out every option and every setting to know what your phone is capable of. Same goes for the smartphone camera. Every camera has its own strengths and limitations. It’s always wise to test the camera out thoroughly to know the limitations. For instance, some phones offer a pro mode but doesn’t offer the option to tweak the shutter speed, but some, like the Google Pixel 2, doesn’t even have a pro mode.

You should also take a note of dual cameras. Not all dual cameras are the same. Some use a wideangle+telephoto combo to offer optical zoom while some use a monochrome and RBG sensor to offer better details. Some even offer a regular colour sensor and a separate depth sensor just for the portrait mode. You should know which dual camera application your phone uses to make the most of it.

There is also a need to go through the camera settings. Turn on the grid (it always helps you frame your shots better), use a resolution that doesn’t hamper the quality. 16:9 shots lower the resolution while a 4:3 aspect ratio will usually use the full range of megapixels available. Check to see if HDR is turned on.

From all the devices we have tested in our labs, the devices that do perform better than the rest in low light are the Google Pixel devices, the Samsung Galaxy S9 and the Galaxy Note 8, OnePlus 5T and the iPhone X.

 2. Learn to use the Pro Mode

The pro mode is your best friend when taking low-light shots, so learn to use it properly. The Pro Mode, which is available in most phones (but not all) allows you to tweak settings like shutter speed, ISO, White Balance, metering and the likes. When taking low-light shots, it’s recommended to keep the ISO at around 400-800 and the shutter speed slower at around 1/5 or 1 second. If there’s some light available, it’s best to set the shutter speed at around 1/20 or 1/15.

Some phones like the Samsung Galaxy S9 offers variable aperture. The phone essentially comes with f/1.5 and f/2.4 apertures. The f/1.5 is conducive to shooting in low light as it absorbs more light even when the shutter speed isn’t that slow.

Furthermore, the new Xperia XZ2 Premium can crank up the ISO to 512000 which essentially increases the sensor sensitivity. This allows the sensor to absorb more light from the relatively quicker shutter speed, which helps in taking well-lit low light shots.

You can also play around with White Balance. Ideally, it’s recommended to use a cooler white balance to get the desired colour temperature, but you can always experiment till you hit the sweet spot.

The pro mode can also be used to take long-exposure shots. Phones that allow the shutter speed to go all the way up to 30 seconds are the best for this. Keep the ISO low at around 100-200 and the shutter speed at 10 to 15 seconds and mount the phone on a tripod or keep it someplace steady and prepare to be amazed at what your phone can do.

3. Shoot in RAW

If your phone has an option to shoot in RAW mode, use that while taking low-light shots. Phones like OnePlus 5T, Honor View 10, Google Pixel 2 and if you have an iOS device running on iOS 10 and above, you can shoot in RAW. The advantage of shooting in RAW is that you can enhance the photos in post-production better than a JPEG. When you shoot in RAW, the ISP (image signal processor) in your phone does not process the photo which gives you greater freedom to edit  the photos. RAW files gives you greater control in adjusting the exposure, white balance and colours in post-production. As a result, even if your phone couldn’t take a great low-light shot normally, having a RAW file will allow you make the most of it in post-production.

4. Use a Tripod

As we mentioned above, low-light shots are taken by slowing down the shutter to take in more light for the sensor. Now, keeping the shutter for a longer period of time also results in shakes and blur in the photo. A slight shake of the hand will ruin the shot. Hence, it’s always better to shoot low-light photos with a tripod.

Using a tripod keeps the phone steady while you expose the sensor to light for a longer period of time and the results will be sharp and crisp photo.

5. Don’t zoom

If light is poor, don’t zoom. Period. When you zoom in from a smartphone camera, you are essentially cropping out the frame to focus on an object that’s far away. Cropping reduces the total pixels available for the light to be exposed which increases the noise and grains in the photo. The result is quite ugly and far from satisfactory. It’s a different thing if you have optical zoom in your phone. But even then, the result might not be as satisfactory as the zoom is done by a telephoto lens which usually has a lower aperture. If you have to take a photo of an object that is far away,  move closer to that object instead of zooming in.

6. Take advantage of environmental light

Finally, be a little smart and take photos where there is a source of light. That way, even if you are in a poorly-lit bar, a single light source like a neon bulb will be just about enough to take an aesthetic shot. You might also be tempted to use the flash, but most of the times, the flash results in a harshly-lit photo with red eyes and overexposed skin. Taking a photo under a light source is a better, more logical option.

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