Do you struggle to take good iPhone photos at night? Do your images end up grainy and blurred, but you can’t figure out why? If so, you’re not alone! Shooting in low light can be challenging, but luckily there are some great techniques that will dramatically improve your night shots. In this tutorial you’ll discover nine essential tips that will transform your low light photography, allowing you to take sharp and professional-looking iPhone photos at night.
Why Shoot At Night?
If shooting at night is so challenging, you might be asking yourself why you would bother! Why not just take photos during the day?
But night photography can be incredibly rewarding. It allows you to create more unique shots that you wouldn’t be able to capture during daylight hours.
Taking photos at night can create a mysterious, magical or romantic feeling in your images. The same scene captured during the day undergoes a remarkable transformation at night.
Once you’ve overcome the hurdles of shooting in low light, you’ll be able to use your iPhone photography skills to take incredible night photos that you never thought possible with an iPhone!
So let’s take a look at the nine essential techniques that will help you shoot better iPhone photos at night and in low light.
1. Keep The Camera Steady
When shooting at night it’s common to end up with blurry shots. So why does this happen in low light? When there’s not enough light in the scene, the only way the camera can expose the shot correctly and ensure it doesn’t look too dark is to use a slower shutter speed.
Shutter speed refers to the amount of time that the camera’s shutter remains open. The longer the shutter is open for, the more light enters the lens and reaches the camera’s sensor. So when there’s not much light in the scene, the shutter has to stay open for longer to allow enough light in to get a decent exposure.
The problem with this is that any movement during that longer exposure time will appear as a motion blur. So if you move the iPhone even slightly, you’ll end up with a blurry shot caused by camera shake.
To prevent camera shake you need to keep the camera as steady as possible. Using an iPhone tripod, together with an iPhone tripod mount, is the best option for perfectly sharp shots. You could either use a full-sized expandable tripod such as the Lollipod, or a more compact and flexible GorillaPod.
If you don’t have a tripod, try to improvise. Place your iPhone on a wall, railing, windowsill or other solid surface. Other ways of improvising include using books or stones to keep the phone in an upright position. Place these objects on either side of the phone to hold it steady.
If you need to hand-hold your iPhone, try to keep your body steady by leaning against something solid like a wall, lamppost or tree. If there’s nothing to lean against, keep your elbows held against your body to steady your arms, and hold your breath while you take the shot.
If you’re shaking the camera when you press the screen to tap the shutter button, plug your Apple earbuds into your iPhone and use the volume buttons as a remote shutter. That way you don’t have to touch the screen at all.
While we’re on the subject of blur caused by movement, keep in mind that any moving subjects are likely to appear blurred. Sometimes this adds to the shot, conveying a sense of motion, but if you want your subject to be sharp they’ll need to be perfectly still.
2. Reduce Exposure Levels
When taking night shots, it’s very important that you adjust the camera’s exposure. Exposure simply refers to the brightness of the image. Adjusting this setting is vital because a dark scene can trick your iPhone into taking photos using the “wrong” exposure.
Basically, the camera will try to expose for the shadows (dark areas of the image) which results in everything appearing brighter than it should. This means that the shadows appear a grainy gray rather than black, and the highlights (light areas of the image) will be completely over-exposed.
Over-exposed highlights means the bright areas of the photo are so bright that they lack any detail at all. They will just appear pure white and you’re unlikely to be able to bring back the detail in post-processing.
So the trick is to set the exposure for the highlights so that you can see color and detail in these areas. As a result, the shadows will also appear darker, meaning that your blacks will appear black.
Adjusting exposure is easy on the iPhone. Start by tapping to set focus on your main subject. At this point pay careful attention to the brightness of the highlights. Are they over-exposed? What about the shadows? Do they appear a grainy gray rather than black?
If the image looks too bright, swipe down on the screen to make it darker. Keep reducing exposure until the blacks appear black and the highlights have visible color and detail. When you’re happy with the exposure, take the shot.
An added bonus of reducing exposure is that the camera will use a faster shutter speed because it doesn’t need to let as much light in. A faster shutter speed means less chance of blurry photos from camera shake and less chance of motion blur when shooting moving subjects.
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3. Shoot in Well-Lit Areas
If you shoot in the dark with no light source at all, your iPhone photos won’t turn out well. There has to be some kind of light source to illuminate your subject. Street lights are great for drawing attention to your subject in dark environments.
When composing your shot, a good trick is to surround this well-lit area of the scene with darker negative space. The dark empty area will act as a frame that further draws the viewer’s eye towards the illuminated subject.
Think of a well-lit area as a stage. In a typical concert or play, a person has the spotlight shone on them when it’s their turn to speak. This draws the audience’s attention to the most important subject.
The same idea can be employed in photography. Use a light source to create a spotlight on your subject. You can experiment with varying the position of the subject to create different effects.
In the photo above I decided that the subject would look best with their face just slightly out of the spotlight. This adds a sense of mystery and drama to the shot as the subject is partially hidden in the shadows.
When you’re out shooting with your iPhone at night, keep your eyes peeled for interesting backdrops that have a light source near them.
Imagine how you might be able to place an interesting subject or person in front of that background, with the spotlight illuminating the important areas of the scene.
After tapping to set focus, reduce the exposure by swiping down on the screen until your subject appears as a dark silhouette. Take note of the long shadows that appear in the foreground of the scene and include them in your composition.
Shadows and silhouettes are perfect for creating a dramatic mood. The lack of color and detail in the dark subject adds a sense of mystery and drama to the photo.
4. Avoid Grainy Photos
Grainy photos are one of the biggest problems in photography. Grain, or digital noise as it’s referred to in digital photography, can be caused by a number of factors including low light, over-processing or a poor camera sensor in general.
If you’re getting grainy photos when shooting with the native Camera app, reducing the exposure will help. Alternatively, try using a long exposure app like Cortex Cam, NightCap Pro or Average Camera Pro.
These apps work by shooting and combining multiple exposures of the scene, resulting in a smoother and less grainy image with better exposure. Cortex Cam is my favorite app for shooting in low light. It combines multiple shots into one grain-free image in a matter of seconds.
Most long exposure apps require the use of a tripod in order to keep the iPhone still while it’s shooting the exposures. If the iPhone moves during this process, the resulting image will be blurred.
Cortex Cam can actually be used hand-held if you maintain a steady hand, but for best results I would recommend using a tripod.
If you don’t want to use a long exposure app, try switching on the HDR photo setting in the native Camera app. This setting also combines different exposures and can result in less grainy images. Again, keep the iPhone really steady while the camera takes the multiple shots.
If grain is impossible to avoid, you can reduce it to some extend in post-processing. Noise reduction tools in apps like PS Express or Filterstorm Neue work by blurring together the pixels in your image to make the individual specks of grain less prominent.
With this in mind it’s important that you don’t apply too much noise reduction in post-processing as it can leave your photos looking a bit soft and lacking sharp detail.
Another thing to keep in mind when working with grainy images in post-processing is not to sharpen them too much. Too much sharpening actually makes the grain more visible and will further degrade the quality of the photo.
5. Shoot Around Sunrise & Sunset
Rather than always shooting when it’s completely dark, try taking photos when there’s a little bit of light in the sky. When the sun is just below the horizon, you’ll get the effect of a night shot but with a hint of color and detail in the sky.
Shooting just before sunrise or just after sunset will allow you to capture a little bit more detail in the shadows of your scene, and you’ll still have the visual interest and contrast created by the city lights.
If you capture the warm glow of the rising or setting sun, try enhancing the color of the sky using the saturation and contrast tools in post-processing. This is easy to do in the Snapseed photo editing app. Try it to create a wonderful sense of drama in your low light shots.
Taking photos during blue hour (the time shortly before sunrise or after sunset) allows you to capture an eery blue light in your scene. The blue sky combined with the yellow and orange city lights creates a fantastic color scheme for your low light shots.
6. Use Lights As Leading Lines
One of the difficulties of shooting at night is that it can be harder to compose your photo. During daylight you can often find elements such as roads and rivers to lead the eye into the image, or objects in the foreground to frame your subject.
At night these elements blend into the dark background making them less powerful composition elements. But what really stands out at night are lights. And you can use these lights to create stronger compositions in your night photos.
Look out for rows of street lights that create linear patterns. You can use them as leading lines and a guide for symmetry. A road with street lights on each side is perfect for creating a symmetrical shot where the lights act as strong leading lines that draw the eye deeper into the photo.
Compose your shot so that the dotted points of light lead from the foreground towards your main subject or focal point. Converting the image to black and white can often enhance this kind of shot, focusing attention on the bright lights leading into the distance.
When you’re shooting at night, look out for any lights that you could incorporate into your image to create a stronger composition.
It doesn’t always have to be street lights. You could use window lights, car headlights, illuminated street signs, or any other lights on a building that help to define the structure and lead your eye towards the focal point.
7. Shoot In The Rain
Taking photos in rain might not sound that appealing, but as long as you’re well dressed and have your iPhone properly protected, it’s be a fun experience to go out and capture some really creative photos on a rainy night.
This type of weather is an excellent opportunity to photograph water droplets as well as reflections from street lights and illuminated signs.
One of my favorite techniques is to shoot raindrops through a coffee shop window or glass panes at a bus stop. Find a scene where there are streetlights and people walking by, then hold your iPhone fairly close to the glass.
Set focus on the water droplets so that the background becomes blurred. Adjust the exposure if necessary so that the highlights aren’t over-exposed, then wait for the perfect moment when someone walks past with an umbrella.
Rain always seems to create a romantic atmosphere, and it’s a bonus if you’re able to capture people at night with umbrellas. Photographing a lone person with an umbrella or a couple huddled under an umbrella together are both classic examples of portraying the power of rain photography at night.
When shooting in the rain, use lights from building signs and street lights to create amazing colored reflections on the wet road. The textures of roads are always enhanced by the reflections on rainy nights.
8. Experiment With Long Exposure
Night time is one of the best opportunities for creating amazing long exposure photos. Long exposure apps like Cortex Cam, Slow Shutter Cam and Average Camera Pro shoot a series of images in quick succession and then blend them together to create the effect of using a slow shutter speed.
Capturing moving subjects with a long exposure app creates beautiful light trails and motion blur. Moving trains and cars are perfect for creating long exposure shots.
Having a stationary object in the frame helps to emphasize the motion of the moving subject. You could use buildings as shown in the photo below, or be more creative like I was in the photo above. My hand and wristwatch create a great focal point at the bottom of the frame.
When shooting long exposures, you need to keep the camera steady for the entire time that your iPhone is capturing images. It’s therefore advisable to use a tripod to avoid any camera shake.
The only long exposure app that you can use hand-held is Cortex Cam, so if you don’t have a tripod make sure you use this app. You’ll still need to maintain a steady hand though.
9. Edit In Black & White
Converting images to black and white is a great way of adding a sense of drama to a scene, and night shots are extremely well suited to this kind of editing.
Not all photos work well in black and white. A good black and white image usually requires high contrast. In other words, you need to have bright highlights and dark shadows in the scene.
Night shots tend to have high contrast, with dark shadows and bright highlights, and therefore they often look great in black and white.
Converting a night shot to black and white is perfect for highlighting prominent features in the photo. Removing color places maximum emphasis on the parts of the scene that are illuminated.
If you have a lot of dark negative space around your subject, black and white further enhances the sense of mystery and intrigue.
Another advantage of converting night photos to black and white at night is that it solves problems with warm color casts that you often get from street lights.
The orange glow can sometimes be overpowering, ruining the look and feel of the photo. Removing the color completely is a simple solution.