How to reduce noise in a smartphone camera?

Noise, especially in low-light images, has been a difficult challenge for smartphone manufacturers. But hope is glooming at the horizon. Smartphone cameras keep improving, and even in nighttime photographs, noise can be reduced dramatically.

To reduce noise in a smartphone camera, choose the lowest ISO possible for the amount of light available on the scene, use a tripod and a remote shutter, expose the subject well during the photoshoot with the ‘exposing to the right’ principle, and use a smartphone with a good quality camera. 

Your smartphone camera is more sensitive to light at a higher ISO value. It allows the device to see better in dark situations. The disadvantage of increasing the ISO value is that it produces noise. As a result, the photo becomes grainier and less sharp. Of course, you’d rather not. Therefore, in this blog, you can read how to prevent unnecessary noise and create beautiful low-light pictures. 

Lucky Clover by Inge

➽ If you are not familiar with ISO? You can read this blog post first to get up to speed. 

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The gear I used for writing this blog can be found on my favorite gear page.

More noise photographing with a phone with a higher ISO value

The higher the ISO value, the more noise you can expect. Noise is also referred to as grain and appears mainly during low-light photography. Try taking the same image with three different ISO values, 200, 800, and 1600.

At first glance, you don’t see much difference between the three photos until you zoom in on the images. Then you see that the second and third photos have more noise and appear blurry. But do not worry, I have a couple of practical tips to reduce noise! 

4 crucial tips to avoid noise with a smartphone camera

  1. Only increase the ISO values ​​when this is necessary for a well-exposed and sharp image;
  2. Properly expose the photographs according to the exposure to the right principle;
  3. Use a smartphone with good-quality camera lenses and a top-range processor;
  4. Bring a tripod and remote shutter to use the lowest ISO possible.

1 Only increase ISO values when necessary

Use a higher ISO value when the subject, surrounding light, and shutter speed need it. Please don’t use a high ISO value when it is broad daylight. Depending on the time of day, the weather, and whether you are outdoor or indoors, ISO 100 to 400 is usually enough. 

But when you like to take an image of a lit castle after dark, you will need a higher ISO value, like 6400. The light sensitivity ensures you can see the beautiful structure of the building. You can take stunning images of stained glass windows of century-old churches in Europe. Again, you will only need an ISO value of around 800 to take breathtaking photographs with little noise.

Castle at night - noise in smartphone photography
Castle at night by Stainless Images

➽ ISO is part of the exposure triangle and partly depends on shutter speed and aperture. You can read more about the exposure triangle and how to use it to your advantage in the first part of ‘shooting like a pro with your smartphone camera.’

2 Properly expose your images

Another way to reduce noise in smartphone photos is to expose the image properly while taking the photos. One way to ensure you do this is to use the exposure to the right method. Although it is possible to correct exposure with Lightroom for mobile or Snapseed, the quality of the image, including the amount of noise, will be poor compared to well-exposed ones.

Maybe you have heard of exposure to the right before; if not, I will briefly explain. 

Sunrise New Zealand East Coast

What is the exposure to the right principle for smartphone photographers?

Exposure to the right is a conscious choice for camera settings where the photo is slightly too light. It makes the darkest parts of the image lighter and, therefore, makes less noise. In post-processing, you can easily make these parts darker again. To achieve exposure to the right method, you need to move the peak of the histogram to the right.

Set your smartphone camera settings to RAW for best-quality images and complete control over your editing process in Lightroom, Photoshop, or Snapseed. Check out this blog post to learn more about RAW photography with your mobile phone.

With the ‘exposure to the right’ method, you need to ensure that you do not overexpose the lightest parts of the photograph. When pixels are entirely white, they will not contain any color information. Therefore, it is impossible to make these parts darker in Lightroom or other editing apps. Some editing software applications even allow you to reduce noise. But nothing beats choosing the correct settings! 

How to reduce noise with smartphone camera
How to reduce noise with smartphone camera in Lightroom
Reduce noise in Lightroom Mobile

3 Use a good-quality smartphone camera

When you photograph a lot in dark environments like buildings or during sunrise, sunset, golden hour, blue hour, or night you should invest in a good-quality smartphone from Apple, Samsung, or other high-end phone manufacturers. Before buying a new cellphone, pay extra attention to the processor, pixel density, image resolution, sensor, aperture, camera lenses, and modes. 

➽ I have put together a unique buying guide for smartphone photographers. You can download it for free from this page (no email required). 

Unique Smartphone Photographer Buyers Guide
Download Smartphone Buying Guide

My top 5 smartphones for low-light photography

High-end smartphones

  1. Galaxy S21 Ultra
  2. iPhone 13 pro
  3. Google Pixel 6

Mid-range smartphones

  1. Samsung Galaxy S20FE
  2. Apple iPhone SE 2020 (iPhone SE 2022 is coming in March or April of 2022)
Smartphone on Tripod

4 Bring a tripod and remote shutter

When you shoot a lot of images without a tripod, you usually need to pick a higher ISO value which results in more noise. Therefore I advise you to use a tripod with a remote shutter. Then, your mobile camera won’t be subject to camera shake due to a wireless shutter and a stable underground.

Therefore, using any tripod with a smartphone mount is straightforward and possible. However, you will have to pay attention to the size of the screw and the size of the female receptacle. Read more on how to do this in this popular post

I have been using these two tripods for many years, and they have never let me down:

  • Joby Gorillapod 3K ➽ available from Amazon or the Joby Store
  • Mactrem Professional Tripod ➽ available from Amazon

And this is very easy to use, and the cheap remote shutter is all you need to take tack-sharp images:

  • My favorite wireless camera remote shutter is available the Moment store for just a few bucks.
ISO values for Milky Way photography
A very high ISO value of 3200 will result in more noise

What causes noise in smartphone photography?

Many factors can contribute to noise in smartphone photography. Here are four of the most common ones:

  1. Small sensor: It captures light and converts it into an image. The larger the sensor, the greater its light-capturing capabilities. 
  2. Pixel size and density: the bigger the pixels are, the more light they can obtain, and the less chance of noise.
  3. High ISO value: generally speaking, the lower the ISO value, the less likely you will find disturbing noise in your photographs. 
  4. Shooting from the hand: Without using a tripod, your camera is prone to camera shake and needs a slower shutter speed to be able to use a lower ISO value, which is difficult, if not impossible in low-light photography.

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