Mobile Phone Low-Light Shooting Guide

November 6, 2014

car light trails night shot

Shooting in low-light is different than shooting in good light conditions. Without light, nothing would appear on your images. There are a few things that you need to understand in order to capture image under  low light conditions. In this article I give you some tips about how to be able to get the best out of your phone camera in low-light situations.

Choosing the Right Mobile Camera

There are several things that have a direct or indirect impact on how one camera performs in low-light situations, and it’s relevant for any camera, whether a conventional digital camera or a mobile phone camera.

  • Pixel Size
  • Lens Aperture
  • Lens Optical Quality (light transmission efficiency)
  • Sensor technology (BSI, FSI, etc)
  • Optional Accessories (e.g. External Flash, phone mount / tripod)
  • Built-in Flash type and efficiency (Guide Number)
  • Optical Image Stabilization
  • Manual Control over Exposure (e.g. manual shutter speed adjustment)
  • Minimum Shutter Speed
  • The ability to stable the phone on a stable surface
  • The holding stability of the person holding the phone camera
  • External light sources
  • ISO range

These are a few things that have an impact in one way or another on how our mobile phone camera can perform under certain lighting conditions.

Of course the first thing that you need to pay a great attention to is buying the right equipment for the job. In our case, it’s a smartphone that has a camera that offers a wide range of features that are aimed to low-light shooting.  Here’s a short summary of the things that you should be looking for when buying a smartphone camera with emphasize on low-light shooting.

  • Manual Exposure Control — having the option toe control the various properties that affect the exposure will give you more control of the final image output. For example, having the ability to choose the shutter speed will allow you to open up the shutter to a larger amount of time, allowing more control over how well you want the subject to be lit.
  • High ISO — having a higher high ISO range widen your low-light shooting capabilities, giving you the option to shoot under dimmer light situations
  • Minimum Shutter Speed — having the option to shoot at slower shutter speeds, allows the camera to gather more light and have an optimal exposure for a very dark scene. It also allows achieving various image effects like a silky water  effect, light painting or photographing car light trails at night — all using long exposures.
  • Flash Type and Efficiency — check what type of flash does the phone camera has. You should prefer Xenon over LED (some phones have both) due to having more lumens of visible light.
    Furthermore, look for the Guide Number (GN), has higher guide number means greater reach or working distance that the flash can lit the subject.
  • Sensor Size / Pixel Size  / Sensor Type – Prefer BSI sensor over FSI for their higher sensitivity. Furthermore, bigger sensors and those with larger pixels are preferred over those with smaller pixels. The larger the light sensitive pixel is (measured in microns), the better the light gathering capability and low-light performance of the sensor is.
  • Image Stabilization — Prefer a camera phone with an optical image stabilization, which allows shooting sharp images with slow shutter speeds (under the recommended by the shutter speed rule of thumb). This is a must have feature if you are shooting stills handheld, and of course when shooting with a mobile phone, this mostly you’ll be doing.
  • F-number Aperture — look for a phone with a fast lens, the one with the smallest f-number aperture value. The smaller the f-number, the larger the aperture opening is, and the better the light transmission.
  • Pixel Binding — some camera phones comes with pixel binding (e,.g. Nokia  PureView), which allows taking lower-res images, but utilizes the entire sensor area, using adjacent pixels that represents a single pixels in the final image output.
  • Multi-shot — It might called differently depends on the phone, but some phones come with multi-shot camera feature or it can be downloaded as an app. What it does it tells the camera to capture multiple-exposure shots and merge them together into a single high-quality low-light photo with minimum amount of image noise.

Other options like HDR for example also help getting more information from the scene from the dark areas of the image, especially in the shadows. Of it’s highly recommended to read comparison (versus) reviews that compare the high ISO performance of various phones to see which one performs best.

Which Phones Are the Best For Low-Light Shooting?

New phones come out almost every week or so, but the ones that performs the best are the flagship smartphones. Among the leading smartphones for shooting at dark environments as of the time of writing are:

  • Asus ZenFone 6 and ZenFone 5 utilizing the PixelMaster technology and its Low-light mode
  • Nokia Lumia 930 (1/2.3″ sensor and optical image stabilization, f/2.4 aperture)
  • Nokia Lumia 1020 (1/1.5″ sensor and optical image stabilization, f/2.2 aperture, Xenon Flash + LED flash)
  • Sony Xperia Z3 (1/2.3″ sensor, G Lens, no optical image stabilization, f/2.0 aperture, LED flash)
  • Apple iPhone 6 Plus (1/3″ sensor, f/2.2 aperture, Dual LED flash, Optical image stabilization)
  • Samsung Galaxy K Zoom (1/2.3″ sensor, f/3.1-6.3 aperture, Xenon flash, Optical image stabilization)
  • Panasonic Lumix DMC-CM1 (1″ sensor, RAW format, f/2.8-f/11 aperture, LED flash

This is a partial list, and there are other models (old and new) that also has shown very good performance when shooting under dark situations.
It’s important to keep in mind that there are other parameters that you should also consider when buying a specific phone for its camera capabilities. For example, the optical performance (e.g. sharpness, contrast, distortions) are sometimes not less important, and in some cases you might want to give up on a slightly better low-light performance in order to have a better looking image.

Low-light Camera Apps

You can find lots of special apps that are dedicated for capturing beautiful night shots. Apps like NightCam – Low light photo camera (linked to the iOS on App Store) or Night camera (linked to Google Play) are just two of many other popular apps that are dedicated for low-light shooting. You get less blurry images, less noise, multiple exposure shooting mode and other software adjustments and camera control utilization that further enhance what you can achieve with the phone’s camera.

You can run some search terms like “low-light camera”, “night camera”, “night vision”, “HDR”, “sunset”, “Multiple exposure” or other terms to find those unique camera apps dedicated for low-light shooting. They might not be in this terms so I leave it up to you to find the best one that better suits your needs.

Handing the Mobile Phone Camera

Not all smartphones give you full manual control over the exposure settings (e.g. aperture, shutter speed, ISO). Sometimes the camera does that automatically. With a fully automatic camera / mode, you trust the camera to use the optimal settings for the best image quality. It doesn’t necessarily means that the camera will give you the optimal results under low-light situations. Sometimes the camera might decide to stay at relatively lower ISO sensitivity and use the flash to compensate for the lack of optimal exposure for a particular low-light scene.

Having an option like in the Apple iPhone 6 to get fully manual control, gives photographers much better control over how the final image will look like. You can choose to shoot at the highest ISO regardless of the amount of image noise, just to be able to capture a well exposed shot under very low-light conditions. The decision is up to you, not by the camera. So therefore it’s better to find a mobile phone that has manual controls or an app that has access for changing those camera settings.

In some situations people prefer to put the phone on a steady surface in order to minimize the chance for getting a blurry image due to hand movements and camera shake. With an optical image stabilization it’s less of a problem, but if you cannot afford buying a phone with an optical image stabilization, you probably should be looking buying a phone stand like the Joby GripTight GorillaPod stand that can steady your camera and gives adaptable camera positioning using flexible wrappable legs. This is great for stills and video capturing as well.

There are many type of tripods like, including among others: Case Star Octopus Style adjustable tripod stand holder for iPhone, Square Jellyfish smartphone Spring tripod mount for smartphones, BuyInSoon Professional camera tripod stand holder, CamKix Univeral adjustable tripod, RetiCAM smartphone tripod mount and lots of monopods and other type of complementary accessories of that type.

If you don’t want or need to use a tripod, you probably be shooting handheld most of the time. For that, I recommend holding the phone with your elbow close to your body that will act like a monopod to stabilize the phone. You can to this whether shooting vertically or horizontally. If you shoot horizontally, I recommend holding the phone with both hands on both sides to reduce camera shake, and therefore reduce the change of getting a blurry image.

Autofocus in Low Light

Some people ignore this important feature. If the phone’s camera can focus on the subject in low light, it doesn’t matter how good the other camera features are, the subject won’t be in focus. Some phone cameras perform in this category better than others. This is a problem with contrast-detect based cameras, because they rely on contrast difference toe focus, and when they contrast is low when shooting in low light, the greater change that the camera will struggle to focus on the subject.

Cameras like the LG G3 rear facing camera utilizes an autofocus system that uses a laser beam to help the camera perform better when capturing night shots. Some phone cameras utilizes the rear flash for aiding with AF under low-light situations. So it’s important to give a good attention to the AF system as well, and pay attention to that particular part of phone reviews when reading them on the web.

Smartphone’s Night Vision (Shooting in Total Darkness)

Sometimes you want to take it to the extreme and shoot in total darkenss. With most mobile phone cameras you would only be able to achieve that using the built in flash or using an external light source. That said, sometimes you want to be able to capture the effect of total darkness and not use an external light source to not scare away your subject.

There are several options for that. First of all, you can shoot in very slow shutter speeds (a few seconds), and that depends whether the phone camera exposed this settings or not, and what is the minimum shutter speed available for you for a specific phone.

Other option sit to buy a gadget like the Snooperscope portable camer, a wireless portable night vision camera for your smartphone. This started as a KickStarter funded project. It allows you to shoot in completely dark situaations and transmit the image to the phone via Wi-Fi P2P connection and using the dedicated IOS or Android app. So what you eyes can’t see, your phone can!


As you can see, there are many things to know before picking up a new phone for low-light shooting. So the next time your plan to upgrade your phone to a more low-light capable one, go over the features that we explained here and get the one that best match your particular shooting style. I personally love shooting in the dark and love the colors, contrast and light and shadow effect that you only get to observe at night. Having the right tool for the job can help you come home with very unique and beautiful night shots.

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