With July 4th coming up, you’ll want to make sure you can eke the best out of your phone’s camera for those night-time 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 that will affect exposure (how bright the image appears) on your phone: shutter speed and ISO. Each one has its own compromise.
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 exposure variable called aperture, but as this can very rarely be modified on cellphones, we’re leaving it out for now.
Got that? Lets get started. Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken on an LG G4.
1) Get the exposure right
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 use manual controls to set the best image parameters, such as the aforementioned shutter speed and ISO.
Unless otherwise stated, all photos were shot with the LG G4, which offers a plethora of manual controls
Many if not most Android phones have a manual mode option built-in, whereas there are a plethora of apps on iOS (VSCO, Manual, andObscura are 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, 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 it be for artistic effect.
Theoretically, a long enough shutter shutter speed could make your 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.
Not taken with a phone but there’s no reason you wouldn’t be able to. Image Credit: Benson Chan /Flickr
Better yet, carry a small phone tripod for phones in your bag. If you’re shooting in manual mode, you can even set the shutter speed low enough for cool fireworks light trails.
5) Get the white balance right
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 to handle – go with what looks best
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 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.
7) Use flash sparingly
In line with the above, more light is generally good, but when it all comes from a small point source, skin can look harsh and odd colored. Flash has its place, but try to stick to environmental light when possible.
Flash on vs. stabilized with flash off
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 a better option as zooming on a smartphone makes little sense.
With very rare exceptions, all your camera is doing is cropping the image before the shot is taken. Though you might get by in the daytime, in low light, this is triply problematic – digital zooming exacerbates any movement you make, amplifies noise and lowers resolution.
Of course, you can’t always move closer to your subject, but in that case it’s almost certainly better to just crop later. After all, you can’t uncrop a shot that’s been taken.
9) Use your native aspect ratio and resolution
Another apparent no-brainer: the higher the resolution, the more detail in your images. However, many people don’t realize that switching your aspect ratio could mean you’re cropping your images and lowering the effective resolution.
Many Android phones, for instance, default to a 16:9 aspect ratio to match the phone’s display, even though their sensors are generally 4:3; that’s a 25 percent loss in resolution. The popular square crop yields the same loss.
Not all phone sensors are 4:3, but you can find the native aspect ratio by looking at which setting shows the most environment in the preview and has the highest resolution.
10) Shoot Raw on Android
Apple cameras may have great image processing by default, but many Android phones now come with a huge advantage for tinkerers: Raw photography.
Unlike jpegs, Raw files are uncompressed and unprocessed. This means they can be modified a lot more, including setting your own sharpening, recovering crushed shadows and blown highlights and finding the perfect white balance.
Straight out of camera, under exposed JPEG
Because there’s no noise reduction or sharpening applied to them automatically, Raw photos typically look worse out of the box, but you can then tune them to your exact preferences.
The same exact photo, but processing the Raw file allowed me to recover areas that would’ve otherwise been lost
11) Use filters and edit wisely
Many professional photographers will scoff at using image filters, but they can help mitigate noisy images.
In particular, using the ‘Fade’ tool in many apps lessens the contrast in noisy shadows of the image, giving the illusion of cleaner final shot.
Some photographers also like to use a technique called exposing to the right, where they take a brighter-than-necesary photo and darken it later to reduce noise.
In any case, keep the edits subtle and they can enhance your images rather than degrade them.
12) Convert to black and white
More than just being melodramatically artsy, black and white photos eliminate the harshness of digital color noise and make it look more like film grain.
Poor white balance and grainy image makes this photo tricky to fix in color
It also removes worries about white balance or skin tones, and you can mess with exposure more before an image degrades past the point-of-no-return.
Converting to greyscale removes the color and grain problem, and emphasizes textures and lines instead