How to make the best of low-light mode on your smartphone

First published:
January 12, 2021
February 12, 2024

How to make the best of low-light mode on your smartphone

First published:
January 12, 2021
February 12, 2024

Cover image by Old Lens Photography

The 'low-light' capability of smartphone cameras has improved significantly over the last few years. We'll show you how to make the most of that functionality on your device for taking images in dark conditions

Photography is the art of collecting light, and when the Sun begins to go down, that gets a lot harder. Smartphones have been able to grab excellent images in bright, sunny conditions for many years, but only recently have they got advanced enough to begin to be usable in dimly-lit conditions, and even in darkness.

The technological leaps are lenses with wider apertures – the size of the lens opening – to let more light in — and larger sensors, both of which together now adorn new flagship smartphones from the likes of Apple, Samsung and Huawei.

Such phones also now allow for longer exposures to let as much light in as possible, while dedicated ‘night modes’ often involve the capture of multiple shots over a few seconds, which are combined by software into one great-looking image.

These innovations add hugely to your phone camera’s potential versatility, but it helps a lot if you know what ‘low-light’ really means, when it occurs, and what its limits are.

Here are some top tips to get you started…

1 Shooting a post-sunset sky

Sunset on Ibiza photographed with a Huawei P30 smartphone
Ibiza Fire from Gheorghe Jucan photographed with a Huawei P30 Pro

We all know that smartphones can take excellent photos in bright light, but what about after the Sun disappears below the horizon?

For a few minutes afterwards the sky around the sunset point can sometimes be ablaze with colour, though in a quickly darkening sky. This is known as ‘civil twilight’ and it’s where newer smartphones with low-light capabilities excel. Point your camera in the direction of the colours and fix your focus on the light, which will ensure you get lots of detail in your finished image. As it gets darker expect your phone’s ‘night mode’ to kick-in, which may start taking multiple exposures to combine into a single, brighter image. 

Top tip:

If you want to shoot sunsets, sunrises and/or the moon, consider using an app called PhotoPills, which uses augmented reality to show you exactly where on the horizon the Sun will be.

It sounds basic, but it can help you avoid making stupid mistakes by being on the wrong side of a ridge, for example, for the crucial minutes. PhotoPills can also help you scout a good location in advance. 

2 Search for soft light in the 'blue hour'

Silhouette of the bridge over the calm waters of Daugava, Riga, Latvia. Smartphone long exposure.
Silhouette of the bridge over the calm waters of Daugava, Riga, Latvia. Smartphone long exposure from Old Lens Photography

Photographers call this the blue hour. It’s a short period of low light levels that occurs just after sunset when the sky changes from light blue to dark blue, and then into a deep twilight.

The science is intriguing; with the Sun underneath the horizon, only its indirect blue light is scattered in the atmosphere. It’s a time of soft light that’s considered the best time for photographers to shoot landscapes, but the blue hour can – according to the time of year and your location – be much shorter or last much longer than an hour. You can learn more about blue hour photography with our dedicated guide here.

To get some great shots in the blue hour on your smartphone you need to be able to take longer exposures to let more light in. You also need to keep your phone as still as possible, though handheld shots are now possible on newer phones.

Top tip:

Although it’s much more likely that you’re going to be out and about after sunset, the exact same phenomenon occurs just before sunrise. However, instead of the light fading, the dark night slowly becomes day via dark blues and light blues. As soon as the Sun rises the blue hour is over. 

Use a tripod and engage night mode

Smartphone tripod setup at sunset
Smartphone tripod setup. Image from Daniel

Smartphone cameras are generally designed to be used handheld. After all, who’s going to carry around a tripod for their phone? You should. When shooting in low-light conditions your camera needs to let more light in, so the shutter needs to be open for longer. If you move while it’s doing that your photo will blur.

So get yourself a tripod and a universal phone holder that together are small enough to fit in a pocket and you can max-out your smartphone’s low-light abilities. If you need some height you can also use a selfie stick, most of which tend to have a tripod adaptor at one end, so work as a monopod. 

Top tip:

Some phones automatically enter ‘night mode’ when it gets dark, or have built-in manual modes that allow you to experiment with ISO, aperture and shutter speed.

If your phone doesn’t then consider downloading apps like Camera FV-5 (Android) or Camera+2 (iPhone), which give you maximum mastery over all the parameters of manual photography.

4 Capturing water in motion

Long exposure of a waterfall photographed with a Huawei Honor 9 smartphone.
Long exposure of a waterfall photographed with a Huawei Honor 9 smartphone. Image by Luís Rodrigues

Have you always wanted to replicate that ‘milky water’ look often used by photographers when imaging waterfalls, rivers and streams? You can now do it with a phone.

Again, you’ll need a tripod, and a phone that gives you full manual control. The key is to use the low light levels to allow you to use a long exposure. A shutter speed of one or two seconds is enough to show the movement of water. Although any ‘pro’ mode is fine if it gives you full manual mode, some phones have built-in light-painting filters. If so, look for ‘silky water’ mode or similar, or use an app like Slow Shutter Cam (iPhone) or Slow Shutter Long Exposure Camera (Android).

Bear in mind that although you don’t absolutely need low-light levels to create ‘milky water’ shots, you definitely need to avoid any direct sunlight on the water. That immediately over-exposures your photos. Learn more about long exposure photography with our dedicated guide here.

Seascape at the White Ciffs of Dover, England, photographed with a smartphone
Seascape at the White Ciffs of Dover, England. Photographed by Adrian George using a Huawei P30 Pro - 30 second exposure
Top tip:

In this scenario you’re basically using the low light levels to replicate the effect of neutral density (ND) filters. Often used by pro-photographers, ND filters lessen the intensity of light that reaches the sensor.

Shoot a star-trail

Star trails over Yorkshire shot with a smartphone
"A quick shot on my phone as I was desperate to go home due to the cold!" Night skies over Yorkshire from John Westgarth

While any smartphone shot of the night sky that includes stars is impressive, surely the most entrancing low-light photo creation of all is the star-trail.

Stars rise in the east and set in the west, moving all the time, and even a 30-second exposure will reveal them as blurred lines. With a DSLR or mirrorless camera on a tripod you have to take lots (and lots) of images of the night sky and then manually stack them together, learn more about this technique in our Beginner's Guide to Astrophotography.

On a smartphone it’s much easier. Using your phone’s built-in ‘star trails’ mode or the NightCap Camera app, all you have to do is support your phone on a tripod and point it at the night sky. The effect is great after 30 minutes, and incredible after two hours. The only drawbacks are that you may have to plug your phone into a battery, and you can’t touch your phone for the entire duration.

Top tip:

If you want circles you must point your phone to the north if you’re in the northern hemisphere. While stars rise and set from east to west, Earth’s tilted axis points at the North Star, also known as Polaris.

Consequently the stars appear to move around that star. The effect can look mesmerising, though do try to include an interesting subject in the foreground for a unique creation.
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