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How to take amazing iPhone photos at night or in low light



Someone taking a picture of a sunset at dusk with an iPhone.
Adi purnatama / Shutterstock

Modern iPhones can take great pictures in low light. Even if you do not have the latest, best model, these photography tips will help you take better pictures when the sun goes down.

Use night mode (if you have it)

Night mode is available via the built-in iPhone Camera app. You can access it by tapping the icon on the Home screen, via the shortcut to the Control Center or from the lock screen.

The feature is automatically activated on supported models when a scene is dark enough. Currently, only iPhone 1

1, 11 Pro and 11 Pro Max support night mode. You know it’s active when you see the yellow moon icon and how many seconds it takes for an exposure.

Night mode icon on iPhone 11.

Technically, night mode only works with standard 1x wide-angle lenses; the ultra-wide 0.5x lens does not support it at all. On iPhone 11 Pro, you can shoot at night with 2x telephoto lenses, but it still uses the standard 1x camera with digital zoom.

For best results on all iPhone 11 models, you want to take photos in night mode with 1x wide-angle lens.

You can not force your iPhone to shoot in night mode, but you can adjust the exposure when the icon is displayed. Tap it to see a slider at the bottom of the stage. Drag the slider to the left to increase the duration of the exposure – this gives more light to your scene.

In the pictures below you can see how much better night mode is for photography in dark conditions. The cropped image on the left was taken with an iPhone X, while the image on the right was taken with an iPhone 11.

Two images of the moon, one image on an iPhone 10 and the other in night mode on an iPhone 11.

Apple designed the night mode to work while holding your iPhone, so a little movement does not ruin your photos. But you will get much better results if you can keep your iPhone as still as possible. Remote highlights, such as stars, will look even better if your iPhone remains completely stationary during a shot.

With this in mind, iOS 14 added guides in night mode. They are just like the guides that appear if you are trying to take a photo with your iPhone facing down. When shooting in night mode, two plus signs (+) appear on the screen. Keep these overlapped to reduce blur in your photos.

The guides overlapped a night mode scene on iOS 14.

You can also mount your iPhone on a tripod to get the best possible results. You can then use your Apple Watch as a remote trigger or set the built-in timer so you do not have to touch your iPhone and risk moving it.

No night mode? No problem!

Whether you have the latest iPhone or not, if you hold the device as still as possible when shooting in low light, you will get better results. Because the iPhone must slow down the shutter speed to let more light into a scene, each movement will result in a blurred image. Because of this, we strongly recommend that you use a tripod.

It is also good to work within the unit’s limitations. Smartphone cameras have notoriously small sensors, which also massively limit their capabilities in low light settings. The larger sensors on mirrorless and digital SLR cameras can capture much more light.

Knowing all of this, however, allows you to shoot using the benefits of the device.

A night photo of the Dumpling House restaurant illuminated shot with an iPhone 4.
A night scene shot with an iPhone 4. Tim Brookes

First, choose well-lit subjects and use the light wisely in your photos. Place your subjects under headlights or use the light from a candle to subtly illuminate parts of a scene if the rest are obscured in the dark.

In the Camera app, fine-tune the final exposure by tapping and holding to lock focus and expose a specific part of a scene. You can then swipe up and down on the screen to increase or decrease the amount of light in the scene.

You do not get results that compete with night mode in terms of visual fidelity, but that does not mean that your photos still do not look good.

Add night mode to any iPhone with NeuralCam

NeuralCam NightMode ($ 4.99) uses machine learning and computational photography just like the night mode on the iPhone 11. The app takes some pictures from a still image and then blends them to increase exposure value and overall fidelity. The result is useful photos taken in very low light.

Apple’s technology is closely tied to the hardware found in the latest iPhones, so do not expect identical results. The process may also take a little longer than on an iPhone 11, depending on the age of the device. Older iPhones also have less advanced sensors and image signal processing, all of which will affect the final result.

But there’s still a lot here to justify the $ 5 price tag if you plan to keep your current iPhone for another year or two. The app even enhances photos in low light taken with the forward-facing camera.

Go completely manually with long exposures

If you are willing to put a little more work into your photos, you can take pictures in the dark by taking long exposures of 30 seconds or more. To do that, you need an app like Slow Shutter Cam ($ 1.99), which lets you take long exposures.

We tested some of the more prominent manual camera apps, including Manual ($ 3.99), 645 PRO Mk III ($ 3.99) and ProCam 7 ($ 13.99). However, they only allowed long exposures of 1/4 second or shorter. This is likely to be a limitation of the Camera API provided by Apple.

How Slow Shutter Cam shoots such long exposures is still a mystery. It is possible that the app takes several 1/4-second exposures and then mixes them at the same time as the exposure increases. Although this is not a really long exposure, the results speak for themselves.

During testing, we found that we had to make sure that the stage was not exposed so long that the highlights blew out.

To use Slow Shutter Cam, download and launch it, then tap the Settings icon. Here you can select the shooting mode (press “Low light” for night shots) and the total exposure time. Experiment for best results. A tripod is also absolutely necessary.

Press the menu button to see some of the app’s other features. The customizable timer is useful for avoiding touching the screen while shooting, and the interval meter lets you record long exposure time sequences.

Flash is a last resort

Your iPhone camera has a flash. You can activate it by pressing the flash bolt in the camera app. While flash will illuminate your scene to some extent, results may be missed or missed. It is best to use it only for portraits, and only when no other light source is available.

Flash menu in the iPhone Camera app.

Since the flash is facing the front, it will not capture a scene in a particularly flattering light. If you must use the flash on your iPhone, stick to the forward-facing flash. This uses your iPhone’s screen to quickly burst a bright light in your face.

Because the screen is slightly larger than the camera flash, the light is scattered in a more flattering way. It fills in some of the less desirable facial features, such as wrinkles and blemishes.

Performance for iPhone in low light is improved

Night mode is a big step forward for Apple. The iPhone 11 was not the first device to include it, but its implementation is now among the best for producing natural images.

But if you really want to explore night photography, like taking city photos or even astrophotography, a smartphone is still a bad choice. The iPhone can shoot the night sky, but it lacks manual controls and a sensor large enough to capture enough light.

That does not mean you can still not take great pictures with your iPhone. The camera app can definitely help you with that.




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