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Understanding Low-light Photography for Smartphones

Photography is easy when you’ve ample amount of light shining on the object of your interest while taking photos. And it is a fact that the lighting conditions wouldn’t always be in your favor. There are is a simple and biggest solution if you see practically, which is pointing the flash at the object. These days most of the smartphones are coming out with LED flash while that may seem to be an obvious answer to the low-light problems. But it isn’t always the case; as it is essential to work with light as much as possible, otherwise you’ll see disappointing results. But to understand low-light photography you’ll first have to understand the basic of it. Let’s start shall we.

What is Low Light?

First you have to understand that the low-light photography isn’t necessarily about taking pictures in the night, as most of the people assumes. There are different amounts of light can be seen over the entire days, coming from various sources, while it is still a daytime. And whatever that is less than the light outside during daytime should be considered low-light. And most of the cameras modules don’t see much even in those conditions. There are three types of low-light conditions that you need to consider.

  1. Visible: During daylight, at the time when you are behind building, under big trees or even bridges.
  2. Low light: This is after the sunset when your eyes can still see clearly, but you know that it’s getting dark, or even when you are indoors.
  3. Dark: This is the obvious part, where only the brightest objects with artificial light can only be seen.

What is Exposure?

Exposure can be simply stated as how light or dark an image will appear after capturing the moment. To go into technical, the exposure is the measurement unit, where you can measure the total amount of light that is permitted by the camera settings to reach the electronics sensor when taking a photograph. There are three factors that are into play here: Aperture, ISO and Shutter Speed. All three lies under the exposure triangle, mastering this triangle is a bit of hard work, which you would like to do if you have a passion for photography. But since, you are here reading this article because you are more interested in taking pictures with your smartphone rather than taking a camera, or it’s just the situation maybe, either wise we won’t go into maths of the exposure triangle.

To understand these factors, we have an example for you. Let’s say, achieving a perfect exposure is a lot like collecting rain in a bucket while one can’t control the rain, but you can maximize the output as three factors are under your control. These are the width of the bucket, the amount of time you’ll leave it in the rain, and the sum of total rain you want to collect. Remember, you need to ensure that you don’t collect too much water (overexposed), or either too little (underexposed).

Note that the exposure settings of aperture, shutter speed, and ISO speed are equivalent to the width, time and quantity that has been discussed above. Moreover, just like the rainfall was beyond your control in the above scenario, the natural light is uncontrollable for a photographer too.

What is Focus?

Nicolesyblog - Focus & Out of Focus

Source: Nicolesyblog – Focus & Out of Focus

Focus is directly proportional to the sharpness and is practically married to it. Without perfect focus, your photos would be out of focus all the time, if not defocused, which entirely is a different concept and is also explained by us. Metaphorically, when you concentrate your mind is sharp, and you’re focused, but when you’re confused, you’ll lack focus. That is the same for an image, if it is sharp, then it is said to be in focus, if it’s completely blurry, then it is said to be unfocused.

Apps

Now that you’ve understood the factors of low-light photography let’s move on with the apps that would allow you to take good pictures in the low-light conditions. There are not many apps that would be able to help you with low-light conditions, but instead the camera modules should be capable of extensive features like increased ISO, exposure, and aperture. This all depends on your choice of a smartphone with powerful cameras. While most of the mobile vendors would provide the inbuilt camera apps taking advantage of those camera features, there are some apps in the Google Play Store, App Store and even on Windows Phones that allows you to take full benefits out of those features.

Android: Google Camera

This is a popular camera app, first launched on Nexus devices, now available on all Android smartphones. The HDR+ feature on this allows its users to capture great photos in the dim light situations. While most of the camera smartphones sport a small camera module, due to which they are not a great performer in dim light conditions, as less light is captured by those small camera lenses. But with HDR+, the app captures series of images and combines them together to produce better. It is done by averaging the shots, and therefore reducing the noise levels and usage of short exposure also reduce the blurs. Get this app on Google Play Store if you haven’t yet.

Google - HDR+ OFF & ON

Source: Google – HDR+ OFF & ON

Windows Phone & iOS: ProShot

Lumia devices are known for its camera modules, even on a 5MP camera lens, one can notice the highest ISO levels compared to on any other mobile platform sporting 5MP lens. But moreover, the default camera app is pretty neat and clean, where you select the manual mode. Although, an app named ProShot is probably the best camera app other than the default app on Windows Phone. All three factors that affect low-light images, shutter speed, ISO, and exposure, can be adjusted on this smartphone. So, with the knowledge of these three that we guided you about, you can easily manage a best low-light shot possible this time. While that same app is available on iOS platform too, with almost all the features, so now experiment with different exposure, shutter speed, and ISO shots, even on your iPhone.

What We Suggest

Apart from all the technical, different apps on the different platform, and everything that we have tried to explain you about low-light photography. There are few other things that you need to keep in mind while working your way around the dim light. We have listed them below.

Get a Steady Tripod

For steady shots, this is very important part of photography in a general sense. But moreover, when we talk about low light photography the importance of this increases double fold. The reason being, the capture would be good if the shot is steady, since the lighting conditions are bad, the steady shot would only enable the camera to take shots with less blur and, therefore, increasing the possibility of good low-light capture. As you deal with very slow shutter speeds, and every vibration would matter here. Thus, the requirement of tripod or monopod is must unless you want to ruin the capture with handheld photography. Here are the top three tripods for your smartphone. We have a list of top tripod that you can get right now.

  1. ChargerCity
  2. Neewer
  3. XCSOURCE

Add additional Light

There is always something can be done when the light is not available indoors or even in outdoors. Additional light in the form of either a flashlight of other smartphone or torch or a candle would do just the work needed to take great shots. Of course, these are not the convenient things to carry around, but if you kind provide just a hint of an additional light over the object then that would be a good for better result. Remember that additional lighting should be placed appropriately showing the details of the object. Throwing light at the right place would be a great choice overthrowing light all over the object.

Check Camera Settings

If you are using a smartphone with good camera modules like Samsung Galaxy S6/S6 Edge, Gionee Elife E7, Lumia 1020, or any other device with extensive features on its camera. Then, you might want to look into its manual modes, where you can easily adjust the exposure, ISO and shutter speed. As that is all, you need to make your captures more detailed and less noisy while taking them in the dim light.

Re-edit with Apps

Now that you have captured a photo, and unfortunately it didn’t come too good again, so either you can try taking those pictures repeatedly until you get a better result. Or maybe a best option for you would be editing them on your smartphone or desktop software if you prefer that. Talking about the editing on smartphones, there are many apps in the market while an only handful of them are good ones that can increase the quality of the image. The Pixlr app is one of them. It is a very popular photo editing app that has it all. There is an option in the app that allows you to increase the exposure, as well as play with all other settings to increase the clarity on the capture. This app is available for Android as well as for the iOS devices.

No Digital Zoom

Google - No Digital Zoom

Source: Google – Digital Zoom is Bad

So, here’s the thing, if you think that you will just use the digital zoom in order to take a picture far away from you in a dim light. Well, then that would be the worst decision you will ever make while photographing. The low-light environment is already a challenge to take photos in normal mode, and you want to use the digital zoom. The better option would be to take regular shots and crop them post captures. You’d have better results when cropping from full resolution rather dealing with photos with high noise and blur levels. Or you could always opt for a smartphone camera with optical zoom, such as Samsung K Zoom, Nokia Lumia 1020, etc.

Avoid Backlighting

This applies to every camera, but the smartphone camera is much vulnerable to bad lighting. Whenever you are planning to take captures, ensure that you don’t end up being take photos with bright lights like the sun, indoor lamps, or any lightning, should not be from behind the subject. Instead, the light source should be behind you or off to the sides. If there are windows behind you subject, then it is a good idea to close the blinds. Otherwise, you’ll end up capturing the shadows too.

HDR Option

Lifehacker - HDR OFF & ON

Source: Lifehacker – HDR OFF & ON

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range imaging, and it’s supposed to make the captures looks better, although, it depends on when you use it. While it is most useful when you are taking photos of landscapes as there are many details to capture there. But in case of low/dim light, it is just as easily effective. So, if whenever your photos are looking to dark, you can just turn ON the HDR mode and brighten up the foreground of the picture without washing out the detail portions of the photos.

Conclusion

SO, it comes to all about how you pursue the lessons you have learnt here. Apart from understanding the needs and hows of low-light photography, you also have to be a knack of taking a good pictures until better one comes. That’s why you will be better every time you experiment with the techniques show. To learn more about different photographies, you can head over to the articles about understanding the focus & defocus, as well as Optical Image Stabilization. Explore more that’s what we would say.

By Vishal Toshiwal on Wednesday 13th of May 2015


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