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How to take night photos with your smartphone

Smartphone cameras have a problem: Image sensors are extremely small. At night, it is especially difficult to have enough light for a good photo, which often makes your photos fuzzy or blurry. In this article, I will talk about some tips and tricks for taking good pictures at night or in dark environments.

Why is low light a problem?

For starters, here is an explanation of the physical and technical aspects of why taking a picture in the dark is so difficult. As I mentioned in the introduction: size is the problem. The light sensitive area on most sensors integrated in smartphones is approximately 15 to 30 mm. By comparison: The shape of DSLR camera full image sensors, for example, has an area of ​​about 860 mm – which is 30 or 60 times larger.

While these small smartphone sensors can gather enough light during the day, the chip simply receives very small ftons in the dark. However, there are several ways that smartphones can make a clear picture, although each has its pros and cons.

night photography sizes
The blue and red areas illustrate the size ratio between the image sensor on a professional DSLR camera and the largest that can be found on today's high-end smartphones. / AndroidPIT

Higher sensitivity

If you have worked with ISO values ​​before or not, you may have encountered the term at some point. To produce a bright image in low light using a small sensor, you can simply increase the light sensitivity of the image sensor. The camera app does it alone when taking pictures in auto mode.

However, higher ISO sensitivity also produces larger errors, which we commonly call "image noise", "loss of detail" and "washed colors", among other things. That is, the images are really bright and sharp, but not really presentable most of the time.

night photography iso
Higher ISO sensitivities produce a brighter image and faster shutter speeds. However, poor picture quality above ISO 400. / AndroidPIT

If your smartphone doesn't allow you to manually adjust ISO sensitivity, there are different apps that can do it for you. Camera FV-5 Lite (Android) or Pro Camera (Apple), for example, offer numerous configuration options. Unlike the iPhone, however, most Android smartphones carry camera applications with numerous manual options.

More light

More light is needed to keep the sensor sensitivity low (and thus reduce image noise). As simple as it may sound, this can be done by adding light sources to the environment. The LED flash integrated into the smartphone is always available for this. Many models currently have several LED flashes to adjust the color of light for ambient lighting. This feature is very effective in preventing colors and images looking decent.

However, these integrated camera LEDs also have their disadvantages. Camera flash eliminates all shadows from the lens' field of view – often making the photo object two-dimensional and even "flat". Therefore, the integrated flash should only be used when absolutely necessary.

In most cases, however, there are other options to ensure more light. If you take a picture of a moving object, the location changes. When making a night portrait, look for a light source, such as a street lamp. Take care to ensure that the light does not come directly from the top as far as possible as this causes shadows on the face and a horrible appearance.

Longer Exposure Time

If you can't add more light to the object, then you should give your smartphone more time. The longer exposure time allows the image sensor to "see" the object longer and collect more photons. In addition to brighter photos, this also has an added effect: anything in motion gets blurred. In the worst case, this will cause blurry shots, but it can also turn moving cars into long light trails, giving a super cool image effect.

night photography shutter
Many smartphones offer a professional mode with manual options. The shutter speed is set here to 1/20 second. Longer exposure times help night / AndroidPIT

To increase exposure time, you need a manual mode, often called a "pro mode" or something like that. This is called shutter speed, exposure time or simply "S". Most smartphones in auto mode take photos at a maximum speed of 1/10 second – longer exposure times require you to keep your hand steady, or then the photos will blur.

Cars, buses or even fireworks in the sky turn into beautiful beams of light with two to eight seconds. To have a photo in which moonlight is the main light source, you will need to use an exposure time of 30 seconds, the maximum setting in many camera applications.

If images become too bright at longer exposure times, you should ensure that ISO sensitivity is set to "auto" or to a low value. If that does not help, the photo or object scene is simply too bright and you need to correct it by decreasing the exposure time.

night photography exposure
In this photo, Mate 9 is leaning against the snow-soaked office window. For such shots, the Huawei camera app offers the "light painting" option, which opens the shutter for as long as the user wants – in this case approximately 65 seconds / AndroidPIT

Of course, for a longer exposure time, it is extremely important that the smartphone does not move during image capture. To do so, you can touch the device to something, or use an accessory, which brings us to the next point.


Anyone who enjoys taking night shots needs to have an accessory: a tripod. Since smartphones are light and compact compared to professional cameras, the same applies to the tripod model. For example, you can get a small Gorillapod, like this one from the image below, and a corresponding universal smartphone adapter. Both objects together fit snugly into your coat pocket and ready for use at any time.

night photography gorilla
While LG G6 requires accessories for long exposure times, Xperia XZ Premium can stand alone / AndroidPIT

Most Sony smartphones, for example, have a particularly flat base so they can be used on their feet without the need for extra accessories for long exposure times.

Summing up…

You can choose from many different accessories to make beautiful pictures, even in poor lighting conditions. As is usually the case when it comes to photography, I can only give you some advice: take the time to try different things. Familiarize yourself with the camera app settings of your smartphone. And above all, take lots of photos, because photography itself is what makes you a better photographer.

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