How to capture great night photos with your smartphone - Part 1
With the Jerusalem Festival of Lights around the corner, I thought it will be good time to discuss how to overcome the challenges of low light conditions and capture some awesome night photos with a mobile phone.
Do you have the right phone?
Let's start with the question - do I have the right phone?
I say with every phone you can learn to maximize it's potential. Of course, some phones are better equipped, hence will produce better picture quality. Let's not forget, that with the right content, a well composed frame, good use of available light, you can lower the importance of picture quality.
With this said, let's see what does depend on the type of phone you have:
- Some photography techniques that you can utilize: long exposure, light trails, light painting. These can be achieved if you install specific apps, which have a minimum requirement for your smartphone's hardware and operating system.
- The quality of low light photos. How much light is captured, colors and the level of graininess (noise) in the picture.
There can be lots of factors that influence low light photography. While newer devices now offer an option to use manual mode with finer controls, the automatic mode is what most people use. Lot of phone companies made a huge progress in recent models when it comes to low light photography quality.
So what are the best phones? Check out this TechRadar article for a list.
While the quality of your night photos are greatly dependent on your smartphone's model, don't despair, some of the tips here are for everyone, even if you have a fairly old phone!
What are the problems to overcome?
Night photography with a smartphone's camera can be daunting. You will face photos with not enough light, extreme contrast, terrible camera noise or a completely blurred picture. Luckily you can overcome these challenges, with creativity and learning to work with the limitations.
General tips that apply to every smartphone user
KEEP YOUR CAMERA STABLE - This is a general rule and especially important for a low light photo. Without understanding the technical reasoning behind this issue, the sharpness of your night photo will greatly depend on how stable you can hold your camera while taking a shot. At night, it will take longer for the camera to shoot a picture than during the day. You can achieve a fairly good picture if you stop completely, hold the camera firmly, hold it still with two hands and press exposure with your finger without moving your camera. You can also place your hand on something firm to keep it more steady.
The best result will be if you use a small tripod. You can place it on a steady surface for capturing the picture. If night photography is something you enjoy, you can easily obtain a small tripod, these things are pretty cheap.
Remember that capturing moving people or objects at night is a challenge of its own but as long as you have something that is sharp in the picture (e.g. buildings), you may be off to a good start.
LOOK OUT FOR LIT AREAS - street lamps, storefronts, neon lights - this is how you get light in your photos. See how you can creatively use them. Wait for someone to walk under the streetlamp's light, use the storefront's light as back-lighting and compose well. You can use the black of the dark areas to add space to your frame.
Composition, composition, composition - capture the available light in smart compositions, interesting angles. See the photo above with the three Muslim women sitting in front of the Damascus Gate in Old Jerusalem? This was taken during Festival of Lights last year when the gate was screen on. The symmetrical central composition works great with the circular shape of the letters, drawing attention to the central woman's ethnic clothes.
This is probably the most overlooked skill that if you learn, you can immediately improve your photos, without investing money in technology or accessories, and one of the most important elements in capturing great photos. Learn more about composition techniques here.
Silhouette - You can capture great silhouette photos by using storefront lights as back-lighting.
Motion blur - Blur doesn't have to be bad. Movement in a low light setting is likely to be blurred, use it to your advantage. As long as the background is sharp, the blurriness of the movement will add to the feel of the photo.
My personal advise is, turn off flash as a default for all your photos, also for your night shots and work with available light. Flash on smartphone cameras is the weakest feature. It is harsh and flat and works only with objects very close to you. If you're adamant about using flash, you can try and place a tissue or paper on the flash to soften the light, or put a cloth with color to create an interesting effect.
LEARN TO ADJUST EXPOSURE
Know the little yellow square on your camera's screen? Click the area to which you want the camera to adjust the exposure to. If you click on the lit areas, it'll make everything in shade dark and keep a balanced brightness for lit areas. You can also use the up and down controls next to the yellow square to further adjust the brightness of your picture.
EDIT YOUR PHOTOS
This I recommend for all your photos and especially for the night photos. You can adjust the colors, warmth, turn it black and white, add your preferred style once you have a great photo.
It's easy to think that your night photos will improve by simply getting a better smartphone, but I want to give a piece of advise: first learn to maximize your current device. Once you understand its limits, invest smarter in a better phone. Take many pictures and practice, only practice will make you a better photographer.
In Part 2 of "How to capture great night photos with your smartphone", I will talk about advanced night photography techniques: long exposure, motion blur, motion track, light painting and capturing light trails.
You can also schedule a night photography workshop with Photo972.
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