One of the biggest shortfalls of the iPhone, or any mobile phone for that matter, is the ability to shoot good quality photos at night. The small sensors in these devices have small pixels which make it difficult to capture enough light for this type of work. However, there are ways around this limitation if you have the right tools and the patience to put them to use.
The best way to be successful at night photography on a mobile phone is to take a photographic approach to it. Don’t just point and shoot, that will give you a noisy, or grainy image in most cases. The tools I mentioned are a tripod, and a camera app that will allow you to take manual control of the exposure. There are a few different apps out there that have this capability and I’m going to talk about one that I rely on most for long exposure work.
But first, the tripod. Most mobile photographers never think of using a tripod because there’s a preconceived notion that mobile photography should be as simple as aim and fire. For most situations that’s fine but if you want to be serious about night photography with your phone, you need to be serious about your approach. You don’t need to spend a fortune on a tripod; just a small one will do the trick because the phone is much lighter than a DSLR, but get one that is sturdy, not too flimsy. You also need a mount for the tripod that will hold your phone. A simple Google search for “tripod head for mobile phone” should get you pointed in the right direction.
There are a couple of camera apps that I like to use for night photography but I’m just going to talk about Camera+ 2. I like Camera+ 2 because when you activate Slow Shutter Mode it has the ability to do a 30 second exposure while allowing for an ISO setting of 0.01. Slow Shutter Cam is another app and has been around for years but the ISO only goes down to 25 with that app.
With the ability to dial the ISO down to an insane value like 0.01, I can produce a night shot that has absolutely no noise, which makes for a very good image. It should be noted though that good quality night photos taken on a mobile device won’t be as crystal clear as ones shot with a traditional camera with a much larger sensor but hey, we get it, right?
There are different types of subject matter to capture at night and they will almost always include lights of some sort. Shooting stars or the Milky Way is, well let’s just forget about that. It ain’t happening. I think it can be done to a degree, but not before doing some intense research. An urban setting like a simple street scene is a great place to start if you’ve never experimented with night photography before.
In Camera+ 2, once you have your phone set up on the tripod, you’ll need to activate Slow Shutter Mode and you do this by tapping the plus sign next to the shutter button. You’ll see a row of icons pop up and when you slide them around, look for the one that looks like an aperture ring. It will be labelled “Slow Shutter”. You’ll now see where you can select your shutter speed and adjust the ISO value. Before setting your exposure values though, tap on the screen where you want the focus point to be in the frame.
Now for setting up your exposure. The first thing you should do is get the Shutter Speed to your desired setting. This will depend on your subject. For a scene with no moving parts, like an empty street or perhaps the Christmas tree in your living room, you can probably go with something as little as a few seconds. If you are trying to get light trails from traffic, you may want to try a longer setting, possibly up to 30 seconds.
Once your shutter speed is set, try adjusting the ISO value and move it around until the image on your screen looks the way you want the final image to appear. If you want an image with as little noise as possible, go well below 25, and you can take it right down to 0.01 if you like, but if you can’t get the desired effect at that low value, (if the preview of the image is too dark or too bright) adjust the shutter speed or ISO until you get something more suitable.
When taking the shot, it’s good to use the self timer because when you tap the screen to initiate the exposure, you could be getting a bit of camera shake, and the lights in a night scene will look blurry throughout the exposure time if there is shake when it starts. I never recommend using the volume control as a shutter release as this could easily cause camera shake too. Use the timer function or the volume control on a pair of headphones, either plugged in or Bluetooth.
Finally, try different exposure settings and see what will be right for you and the shot you are trying to get. Don’t be discouraged if the first few shots don’t turn out like you hoped. This kind of work takes practice. That’s why I said earlier that you need to have patience. Hit me up on Twitter if you have any questions or to show me some examples of your success. My username is @mcmillan_photo. I’d love to see how you do with this, especially if you’ve never tried it before.