Take Your Best Nighttime Photos: Top Tips for iPhone 12, Galaxy S21, or Other Phone Cameras

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

The advent of night mode on recent phones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and a wide variety of others means that it is possible to take great photos even in the middle of the night. And the best part is, you don’t need to worry about multi-minute exposures and a tripod like you would with a DSLR. In fact, you don’t need any additional equipment.

You can see how the 12 Pro Max compares to the S21 Ultra and Google Pixel 5 in our recent shooting in night mode.

But getting a picture you’re really proud of isn’t just a matter of waiting for the dark and pulling out your phone. You’ll still need to work to take photos that will rack up those Instagram likes.

Here are my top tips for getting great nighttime images on your phone.

1. Know how to activate night mode

If your phone has a night mode, it’s important to make sure it’s on before you start shooting. On phones such as the iPhone 12 series, night mode activates automatically when the phone detects that you are in a low light situation. On some Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra you can find a specific shooting mode that you will need to use to capture the best images in low light.

Different phones may have different options, so if you don’t know how to use yours – or if your phone even has one – a quick Google search for the model and “night mode” should answer your questions.

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This night shot was made all the more vibrant and dazzling by those incredible Christmas lights adorning the columns.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

2. Look for the light

While phones love the new iPhones ($ 599 at Apple) and recent Galaxy phones can take amazing low light images, you must always have some light in the shot to create a compelling image. It is therefore unlikely that heading to the darker part of a forest will give good results. Instead, try heading to populated areas like city centers (taking all necessary precautions against COVID-19) as you will find sources of light in the form of street lights, shop windows, and maybe even lights. ‘festive lighting during the holidays.

3. Wait for your moment

Great city and street photography can often include a person as the subject in your shot and at night can be a great time to take those photos. However, when the light is limited you need to make sure that that person is exactly where you want them to be and that may involve a little patience.

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I’m really happy with both of these images in night mode and they both depend on timing – on the left it was about making this lonely figure walk through the main pool of light on the ground. On the right, it was about capturing the past of cycling.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

For example, imagine taking a photo on a road lit by streetlights. Each lamp casts a puddle of light, and as someone passes through it, it will be temporarily lit before effectively becoming invisible again in the dark. In this case, my advice is to have your photo ready, with your finger above that shutter button. It might take a few minutes, but eventually someone could walk right through that puddle of light and you can take your picture. Patience in this way can really pay off.

4. Stay stable

Even though night modes on phones don’t require a tripod in the same way as long exposure on a DSLR, you’ll still get your best results if you keep the phone as still as possible while taking your image. If you don’t have a tripod with you, look for a wall, trash can, or anything else you can stabilize your phone on while you take your photo.

If there is nothing nearby, you can help stabilize the phone by holding it firmly with both hands, holding it close enough to your chest, and bending your elbows towards your stomach. This will help reduce some of the natural sway in your hands and can make the difference in getting a sharper image.

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I love black and white retouching of night photos. I think the natural contrast of the bright street lights in the dark backgrounds translates so well into a monochrome image.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

5. Edit your photos

As with any good photo, shooting is only half the story; it is the way you modify it that can be the greatest way to turn it into a real work of art. I use Adobe Lightroom Mobile for most of my editing, but Google’s Snapseed is also very powerful and is completely free on iOS and Android.

Night shots can be quite dark by their nature, so you may want to increase exposure first. Be careful though; low-light images, even good shots in night mode, will have image noise (a blurry grain) that gets worse and worse as you lighten the image. You may need to reduce some of the glare (especially if you’ve captured bright street lights) and accentuate the shadows to balance things out. Pay attention to the details and make sure you don’t go overboard.

From there, it’s all down to what you’re feeling good about, so spend some time playing around with the tools available and see what you can come up with. Personally, I find night scenes can often look great as black and white images, as the natural contrast of bright lights and dark backgrounds lends itself well to monochrome conversion.


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