Night Photography 101

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.

This is an 8-second exposure using Camera+ 2

The Approach

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’m referring to 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 night photography.

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.

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The Camera

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 that’s good for night shots and has been around for years but the ISO only goes down to 25. Still pretty good for quality, but not as good as 0.01.

Camera+ 2

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’s not happening. It can be done to a degree, but not before doing intense research and acquiring some extra equipment. An urban setting like a simple street scene is a great place to start if you’ve never experimented with night photography before.

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This image was exposed for 15 seconds at ISO 5

The Settings

Before setting your exposure values, once you have your phone set up on the tripod, tap on the screen where you want the focus point to be in the frame. In Camera+ 2, 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”.

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Now for setting up your exposure. In traditional photography, exposure is the combination of three elements: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. Most mobile phones do not have an adjustable aperture, however, there are a couple of devices that do have this feature, most notably the Samsung Galaxy S9 which sports a wide-angle camera with f/1.5 and f/2.4 aperture modes. But since the iPhone has a fixed aperture, we’ll focus on shutter speed and ISO.

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If you want a good quality night shot with little to no noise you need the set the ISO as low as the scene will allow, and that will depend on how bright the scene is. The brighter the scene, the lower you can set the ISO at any given shutter speed. The image below illustrates how ISO affects the quality of an image. I zoomed to 100% on two photos taken of a sign above the door of a church. The left side of the frame was shot in Camera+ 2’s Auto Mode where the camera picks the best settings for the situation at hand. In this case, it was a shutter speed of 1/15th of a second at ISO 640. The higher the ISO, the more noise. The right side of the frame was a 30-second exposure with an ISO value of 4. As you can see the image is very clear with virtually no noise, and it’s especially evident in the light background of the sign.

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The difference in ISO from 640 to 4

It’s also a good idea to make sure the Camera+ 2 app is set up to show you what your final exposure will look like in real time. To do this, go to the settings icon in the lower right corner of the screen, then to the Advanced Controls, and toggle on Live Exposure.

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Taking the Shot

When taking the shot, it’s good to use a 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 on the phone as a shutter release as this could easily cause camera shake too. There is a self-timer function in Camera+ 2 but unfortunately, it’s a mode of its own and can’t be used in conjunction with the Slow Shutter mode. The best thing to do here is to plug in your headphones and use the volume button as a remote shutter release.

Try different exposure settings and see what will be right for you and the shot you are trying to get. It’s impossible to tell you which settings to use because every shot will be different. I recommend getting the ISO to a fairly low setting first, then adjusting your shutter speed until you see the image on the screen look the way you want for the final output. If you can’t achieve the result you desire, adjust the settings until your exposure is more to your liking.

Don’t be discouraged if the first few shots don’t turn out as 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.

The Gap is Getting Smaller

There’s always been a divisive gap between the two major forces in the art of photography. For decades we’ve seen and enjoyed the traditional camera style, now known as DSLR photography, and in recent years, the growth of mobile photography has been very difficult to ignore. Its popularity has taken off to where it has all but obliterated the point and shoot market. But still, there are some differences of opinion with regard to the integrity of mobile photography.

DSLR makers like Canon and Nikon have some amazing cameras, but the speed at which they upgrade with new models seems slow for some of their customers. I’ve heard professional photographers on some podcasts talk about features they want but don’t understand why the manufacturers can’t, or at least aren’t, adding them to their camera lineup. I’m sure it’s not easy to make the “best” camera on the market.

This is a very exciting time for photography in the mobile space. The cameras in the current line of phones are obviously the best they’ve ever been and the competition among phone makers is getting fierce. It’s not a megapixel war like we’ve seen in the DSLR space, but rather a battle to see who can get the best image quality from these very small lenses and sensors. I would guess that releasing a phone with a camera that has a larger lens opening than the others is one of the bigger checkboxes on the list of features for these companies, but that can’t be an easy endeavour technically because of the physics involved.

As an iPhone user and one who follows Apple more closely than I do any other tech company, I can’t fairly speak about the technology in devices by Samsung, HTC, LG, etc., but I can say that these phone makers do have their loyal customers who are passionate about their phones. Photography brings out some of that passion because photography is art, and art is an expression of one’s vision. For me, the iPhone produces images that best suit my vision and artistic style.

So, what is this gap that’s getting smaller? For one, it’s the ability to tell whether a photo was taken with a DSLR or a mobile device. People have been questioning me on this for a couple of years now which is a testament to the iPhone’s ability to produce a good quality image. And I think it’s worth mentioning that these little cameras in our beloved phones have their limitations. Some of these limitations can be overcome thanks to the expert app developers out there who have been blessed with the creativity and intelligence needed to supply us with the tools needed for the job.

The concept of “computational photography” has come to light recently with some phones having the technical ability to read and perceive depth in an image. This is a huge advancement for mobile photographers. Research tells me there is way too much to discuss here other than the technology used in this process is called “light field” or “plenoptic” whereby the camera reads the light field of a scene including the direction in which the light rays are travelling.¹

Apple introduced this technology in the iPhone 7 Plus with Portrait Mode, which uses both the wide angle and telephoto lenses to gather enough data from a scene to create a depth map and use that information to produce a photo with a sharp foreground and a nice bokeh in the background. The only other device on the market that uses a form of Portrait Mode, that I know of, is the Google Pixel 2. I believe Samsung has a feature where you can select the focus after the shot, but this is not promoted as a form of Portrait Mode. The Pixel 2 also performs its magic after the shot, most likely because it only has one lens, but it does an impressive job at creating a portrait with a soft background. I may be a bit biased, but I think the iPhone does the best job with Portrait Mode, and it does it all live with a preview of the scene before you take the shot.

I mentioned app developers earlier and how they help us overcome some of the limitations of mobile photography. This brings me to what I see, at least in my experience, as the one app that closes the gap closer than any other to this point: Focos. Yes, that’s how they spell it and it does a fantastic job with how it allows us to select a point of focus after the shot, as well as, get this, change the depth of field in a way that is similar to changing the aperture of a conventional camera lens. For this to work, the photo needs to be taken on an iPhone with the dual lens system in Portrait Mode. There are third party camera apps that shoot with the depth information available from the two lens configuration, but I’ve found those files don’t work in Focos.

Focos has a lot more to offer as well to make the app more fun to explore and use, but you have to pay for those features either by a subscription, which is reasonable until you decide to renew this subscription year after year, or there is a one time fee that enables all the features of the app forever. I’m not a fan of the subscription model so I went for the gusto and paid for the whole thing.

So let’s take a look at Focos and how it helps bridge the gap. I took a photo of a pair of Dwarf Alberta Spruce trees in front of my house after a fresh snowfall using Portrait Mode on my iPhone 8 Plus. The image on the left is how it looked as it was taken with the tree in the foreground in sharp focus and the background showing the nice bokeh that Portrait Mode offers. Before Portrait Mode, the iPhone could only give us an image with a very large depth of field, even with the small aperture housed in these little lenses, and that’s all thanks to physics, which is also something I couldn’t begin to talk about.

Foreground FocusDistant Focus

 

Changing the focal point of the photo is as simple as tapping the area you want in focus, and for the photo on the right, I tapped on the tree in the background.

 

 

 

 

This next feature is where the real magic of FocAperture Slideros happens.  The slider under the image is how the “aperture” can be adjusted. When I rest my finger on the slider, a graphic of an aperture ring appears with a value below it. I don’t know how the aperture value is calculated or how closely it resembles the aperture of any conventional lens, but as I slide my finger across the screen to adjust it, the value changes in increments of 0.1, so if anything, Focos gives us some very fine control over the depth of field. The fine adjustments here can only be made possible with computational photography because the way an aperture ring works in a conventional lens is that with every single adjustment of the aperture, the lens lets in half or double the amount of light. This changes the dynamics of the image exposure to where you have to adjust the shutter speed or the ISO to compensate for the aperture change in order to get the same brightness in the photo. Focos is merely altering the depth of field when you make a change with this slider.

Below are two versions of the photo; one with the slider all the way to the left to where the aperture bottoms out at f/16 and the other to the right where the maximum aperture is f/1.4. The left image shows as it should with a small aperture opening, a large depth of field with most of the scene in focus. The image on the right has such a small depth of field that only a portion of the tree in the foreground is in focus, which is quite similar to the effect I used to get from my 50 mm Canon lens that had a maximum aperture of f/1.8.

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Continue reading “The Gap is Getting Smaller”

The iPhone X? Meh.

If you own an iPhone X or plan to get one, please don’t take my words to heart. This is just my opinion and it really doesn’t matter what I think, it matters what you think.

I finally got to see an iPhone X on display at the local Source store but they keep their Apple products locked to the panel so I can only use the screen, I couldn’t hold it in my hand. Here are my thoughts on the mere two minutes I spent with it.

I have to say I was not overwhelmed by it. Using it was a non-issue because I know enough about the X that I was able to navigate it like I’d had one for weeks. The notch? Admittedly far less intrusive than I expected, and yes, it is very easy to get used to that. I couldn’t try FaceID but I suspect it would work well as advertised.

I changed the wallpaper to match the one I’m using which is currently the purple, cloudy looking live wallpaper, and I also made sure True Tone was on and the brightness was set the same so I could get a good comparison between the two. The X’s whites were slightly whiter on the OLED screen but the colours themselves didn’t seem to jump out at me as much as I thought they would. Both screens displayed very well. I looked through the videos album in Photos to see what might be stored in this display unit, but I couldn’t rotate the device to watch it in landscape mode so I didn’t put too much time into that.

The photos looked great as expected and it’s always entertaining to see what other customers come up with in these display units when they try the front-facing camera. I didn’t bother trying a selfie with the TrueDepth Camera, I’ve done the selfie thing with my 8 Plus’s rear camera and pretty much know how it would turn out.

The bottom line for me is, and as nice as the iPhone X is, I’m glad I went with the 8 Plus because, for the difference in price, the extra features available in the X don’t do enough for me to draw me in. It would be nice to have the latest, new design but I’ve heard rumblings about FaceID getting hacked or fooled, however I don’t put a lot into things like that because they’re too inconclusive.

I’ve been on the “s” cycle of iPhone since my first one, the 4s, and this is an upgrade year for me. The 8 could have been labelled as the “7s” but I think the all glass design change was great enough to warrant the new monicker. Plus I think it will be the final iteration of the design we’ve seen since the introduction of the 6. The iPhone X style is what we’ll see next year and beyond until the next design change happens. The new designs are tempting when they come out but I like to wait for a year for the improvements. That being said, I might be in a pickle in two years if Apple decides to introduce a new design because the X in new now.