How Can I Take Sharp Pictures in the Dark with my Smartphone?

Smartphone cameras have greatly improved their nighttime photography over the last few years. But it can still be quite challenging to get a sharp, well-lit image without noise. We have done some research and made a top 10 list of things you can easily apply to shoot the best possible pictures and to improve your overall night photography skills.   

  1. Use manual or night mode
  2. Use a tripod
  3. Bring an artificial light
  4. Take advantage of night lights
  5. Bring a remote shutter
  6. Try longer exposure
  7. Do not use digital zoom
  8. Shoot RAW images
  9. Use the highest possible resolution
  10. Adjust your photos with a photo-editing app

That sounds about right, doesn’t it? It is a lot to think about before you head out into the night with your smartphone. To get you to give you an ahead start, we have made a step-by-step guide of these ten tips for nighttime photography. 

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How do you take pictures in the dark with your phone?

So there are a lot of things to consider before going out at night with your mobile camera. You need to investigate the possibilities of your phone, check your existing gear, and buy some new accessories if necessary. But the most important thing is, go out! Have fun, try new things, use long exposures, adjust the ISO, and see what happens with different settings. 

Let us dive into the top 10 list and see what you can do to improve your photography during nighttime.

Night time Photography for Smartphones

1. Use manual or night mode.

Night mode
Most new smartphones come with a built-in night mode in the camera app. But it isn’t on by default. You will have to actively turn on this mode from the settings of your camera app. It is called night mode, bright night, or night sight, or something similar to these three. 

The night mode typically works like HDR images. It will take multi-exposure photos and combine them into one well-lit shot without much noise. It is also the best option to shoot hand-held images, so you do not have to carry a tripod on your nightly adventures. 

There is a downside to using night mode. It is challenging to shoot moving objects. The technique uses multiple shots to combine them as one. Subjects can get very blurry. 

Manual mode
If your camera does not have a night mode, you can try the manual mode. You can set ISO, shutter speed, and exposure to get the best low-light photo. You can read more about using the manual mode in our blog post: “How Do I Manually Focus My Android Camera?

2. Use a tripod

When you use the manual mode while taking pictures in the dark, you need a tripod and a wireless shutter. It is simply not possible to keep the camera perfectly still when you use your hands. The best way to prevent motion blur during longer exposures is to keep your camera stable. There are excellent lightweight tripods on the market.   

You can read more about using a tripod in our blog post: “Can I put my smartphone on a tripod?

And here are my two favorite tripods for smartphone photographers. 

3. Bring an artificial light

One way to create more light on your subject during nighttime photography is using your flash. Although this may result in harsh and flat images. You can use thin paper or tissue over the lens to soften the light a little. 

Another way to improve lighting is by bringing artificial light. There are great accessories available nowadays. A portable LED panel does wonders. The LED Portable Camera Light will work perfectly, featuring 150 dimmable LED lights, an internal battery (70 minutes at maximal power), only 170 grams,  and a phone mount in the back.

4. Take advantage of night lights

Find some lovely soft night lights. You can use light from the moon, the street lights, or billboards. Try to use the darkness as a backdrop on which you can isolate your subject.

You can create inspiring moody scenes with the right kind of light. With a long exposure of between 2 to 8 seconds, you can photograph motion from cars, trains, and bikes. The head and tail lights will make for a fantastic trail through the chosen scene. 

5. Bring a remote shutter

When you use long exposure times, it is of the utmost importance not to move or disturb the camera of your phone in any way. To make sure you get a perfectly sharp picture, you can use a tripod and remote shutter. So avoid using the touchscreen shutter button, it will shift the smartphone slightly. iPhones come with a headphone that can double as a remote shutter control. You can use the volume up button then release the shutter. For other phones, you can buy remote shutters for only a few dollars. You can find our recommendations here. They all work well with both Android and Apple phones.

Long Exposure Photography

6. Try longer exposure

You can use more prolonged exposure for different reasons:

1) There is no more light to get a sharp picture 

You will need a longer exposure to get more light into the camera if surrounding or artificial lights are insufficient. 

2) You want to make light trails or other dynamic images

Trails of light are a cool way to make your city photography much more interesting. You will need exposure roughly between 2 and 8 seconds. 

3) You want to photograph the night sky

Night sky photography is a different technique. It will take a lot of time to get it right. You will need exposures from 30 seconds and longer to shoot moving stars and around 25 seconds for a ‘frozen’ sky and milky way. In this last case, you will need a higher ISO for better light sensitivity. Most camera apps will have a 30 second limit to exposure. 

7. Do not use digital zoom

When you want to be an outstanding nighttime photographer, you got to zoom with your feet. Find the right spot for your images while walking around. Get up close and personal if necessary. With some exceptions, your camera will crop the photo while using the digital zoom function of your camera app. Digital zoom will amplify shakiness, noise, and lower resolution. 

Nowadays, some high-end smartphones have a solution for optical zoom. They use multiple cameras. A telephoto lens with a different focal lens will be active if you zoom in further. It is not an optical zoom; there are no moving glasses inside the phone camera. The results, however, are better than digital zoom. 

8. Shoot RAW images

Shoot your images in RAW. You will get uncompressed and unprocessed pictures with all the information necessary to have a fantastic result. It means you can modify the white balance, contrast, color profile, exposure, and more in your photographs. You can find more information about shooting RAW images in our blog post: “Can I Shoot RAW Images With My Phone?

9. Use the highest possible resolution

It might be a no-brainer, but people tend to forget to put the settings to the highest possible resolution. Switching the aspect ratio can mean that you are cropping your image with a less effective result. Many phones shoot 16:9 or 4:3 aspect ratio by default. Choosing the native settings will give you the best possible outcome regarding resolution.

10. Adjust your photos with a photo-editing app

You need to adjust your (RAW) night photographs. Different apps and software solutions can help you with this process. Here are a few useful apps to get you started:

Adobe Lightroom App for Android

What is the best ISO for night photography?

You will need a higher ISO setting for night photography than you typically need for daytime photography. A higher ISO will have brighter images. The downside is you will have more noise and grain in the pictures. So, what ISO should you use after dark? The short answer is; as low ISO as possible

It all depends on what kind of photograph you want to shoot. Is it a landscape, or a moving object? Can you use a tripod? What sort of shutter speed will you use? It is complicated to tell you what is an optimal ISO setting. Try using different settings and see what the result is. 

➽ If you like to know more about how to set the proper ISO value, try this article.

Final thoughts on night photography

Taking sharp pictures in the dark might look complicated. But practice makes perfect. Try to apply these ten steps, and you will see improvement instantly. Don’t give up, and enjoy the nighttime. It is a magical time of day. 

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