Taking photos at night is one of the most challenging things you can do with the iPhone. While the iPhone takes great photos in daylight, the small camera sensor makes night photography a lot more challenging. With that said, you can still take great iPhone photos at night if you follow these tips and techniques for night photography with the iPhone.
1. Understand Light
Photography is all about light. When you take a photo, your iPhone captures the light that falls on its camera sensor, which is then interpreted and turned into a photo. You always need at least some light to take a photo. If there is no light, you can of course use flash to illuminate your subjects, but there is no such thing as night photography in complete darkness.
So by night photography we mean photography in very poor light conditions, which could happen at night when there is little or no artificial lighting or during the day at a very dark location.
We normally think about taking photos as an instantaneous process, but in reality there’s always a short period of time during which the photo is captured. In low light conditions this period has to be longer so that the same amount of light can reach the sensor of your iPhone.
Any movement that happens while the shutter is open results in blur in your photos, and that is true for both the movement of your hands and movement inside the frame. For this reason your night photos will generally have more blur than the photos you take in good light.
So anything you can do to either increase the light in the scene (turning on the lights, using flash) or to reduce the movement of the iPhone and your subjects will result in sharper low-light photos.
2. Look for Illuminated Subjects
Since you can’t take photos in darkness, looking for illuminated subjects is a good first step in night photography. From buildings and statues to billboards, you’ll be surprised to see how many things are brightly illuminated in most urban areas. Even better, city lights are often in different colors, and you can sometimes find really unique night views as seen in the following long exposure photo.
When you look for illuminated subjects, try to avoid bright lights that shine directly into the camera such as the light in the upper right corner of this photo. Look for subjects that are illuminated by such lights instead.
3. Expose for the Highlights
The mot important rule in night photography is to always expose for the highlights, which are the brightest parts of the photo. In the native camera app you can simply tap on the brightest parts of the viewfinder, which will set the focus and exposure for that point. You can also use a more advanced camera app such as Camera+ to set (and lock) focus and exposure separately.
Exposing for the highlights has two important consequences – the photo becomes darker and sharper. The building in the photo above would normally be overexposed (completely white) but I could avoid that by exposing for the highlights, which also made this image darker. The camera sensor also needs less light when you expose for the highlights. That reduces the shutter speed and ISO sensitivity, which helps the iPhone take sharper and less grainy night photos.
Always remember to expose for the highlights in night photography.
4. Stabilize Your iPhone
Camera shake is the most common reason why your night photos end up blurry, and you should do whatever you can to keep your iPhone steady while taking photos in low light. Of course, using a tripod is the best way to stabilize your iPhone, but there are other things you can do as well.
For example, you can support your hands on a railing, support your iPhone against a tree, support your elbows against your body, and even support your body against the wall. Do whatever you can to keep your iPhone steady, and your night photos will become significantly sharper.
5. Use Image Stabilization
Besides physically stabilizing your iPhone, you can also use image stabilization, which is available in Camera+ and other advanced camera apps. Your iPhone has various sensors that react to movement. When you take a photo with image stabilization, the camera app will monitor the movement of your hands and only release the shutter when the iPhone is relatively steady.
You don’t want to use image stabilization when your subjects are moving, because it will often take a few seconds until your hands are steady enough for the shutter to be released.
6. Take Multiple Photos
While I generally don’t suggest taking multiple identical photos to avoid the pain of deleting them later, it’s definitely a good idea to take multiple photos in low-light situations. Even if there are no changes in terms of light or exposure, some photos will naturally end up sharper than others.
Your hands are almost never perfectly steady, but in some photos they are significantly steadier than in others. Similarly, your subject might move just slightly in some photos but not in others. So if you need a perfectly sharp low-light photo, you should take the same photo three to five times.
7. Take Long Exposure Photos
Long exposure photography is one of the most fun things you can do with your iPhone at night. I already wrote a tutorial for long exposure photography during the day, and generally the same principles can also be applied to night photography.
The one thing that’s different at night is that you can capture light trails, which works really well when there are cars moving through the scene. For this you need a tripod and Slow Shutter Cam app. Inside the app select Light Trail mode and select exposure length somewhere between 4 and 15 seconds. It’s always worth experimenting with the different settings inside Slow Shutter Cam.
8. Enable Torch Mode
While I generally keep the iPhone’s built-in flash off, it can significantly improve your night photos when your subjects are within a few feet from you. However, you’ll sometimes discover that it’s nearly impossible to frame and focus a photo since the viewfinder stays completely dark.
You can solve this by enabling the torch mode in Camera+ and a few other apps. This flash setting keeps the flash on at all times, so you can see exactly what the photo will look like before pressing the shutter, and it becomes so much easier to frame and focus your night photos.
9. Use an External Light Source
The main downside of using flash is that the light is coming from the same direction as the lens, so your flash photos will typically look flat and boring. What you can do instead is use an external light source that doesn’t come from the same direction as your lens.
In this night photo all the light was coming from Klyp+ LED light, which was used to illuminate the scene from the right side. While it’s also possible to attach the LED light directly to your iPhone, you can take more interesting photos by keeping it in your hand or on a separate tripod.
10. Convert Your Photos to Black & White
Light is often the most defining characteristic of night photos, and black and white photography is perfect for emphasizing contrasting light levels. For this reason I often process my night photos in black and white, and I mostly use Snapseed or VSCO Cam for black and white conversion.
Grain is another reason to process your night photos in black and white. Your iPhone night photos will inevitably have some grain, and while grain generally looks bad in color, it actually makes your black and white photos feel more authentic.
It’s not only possible to do night photography with the iPhone, but it can also be very rewarding despite all the different challenges and limitations. While your iPhone will take sharper photos in daylight, with a bit of creativity and patience you can also take great iPhone photos at night.
Emil Pakarklis is the founder of iPhonePhotographySchool.com, a website about taking better photos with the iPhone. If you want to improve your iPhone photography, check out iPhoneography 101, a resource that Emil created for those who want to get started with iPhoneography.