Nighttime photography may seem like a daunting task, but it really is accessible to most people with the right tips and tools. Here are 8 tips to help you shoot photos of that nighttime camping scene next time you are out under the stars all on the smartphone already in your pocket.
1. Use all available light
Your phone will need at least a small amount of light to focus. Whether this is light from the environment or light you create with a flashlight or some other light source, it depends entirely on your situation. The most important natural light source for nighttime photography is the moon, so make sure you know what time the moon will be the brightest and the most visible. Search the internet for “moon calendar” and you will find a multitude of websites that will assist you. Small, portable studio lighting is also an affective form of unnatural light. Dim the light dramatically to keep that “nighttime” look.
2. Double-check focus
This is always a good practice in general photography, but is most important during nighttime shooting. Focusing is typically slower and more finicky with low light. One trick is to use a flashlight on your subject to achieve sharp focus, then switch to manual focus and turn off the flashlight and start shooting.
3. Use a long-exposure app
While this step is optional, it is a great resource for nighttime photography of all kinds. There are many mobile apps available that allow you to determine the shutter speed in relation to available light. For very dark scenes, a long-exposure of 30-seconds to 5-minutes is often necessary. This of course is only achievable if you have some form of stabilization, which is the subject of the next tip.
Nighttime photography typically requires stabilization to achieve crisp focus with no camera shake. Use a compact mobile phone tripod to help stabilize the shot. You can even get creative and balance the phone against a hard, stable surface to get the clear shot.
5. Set a timer
Most long-exposure apps will have this feature. It is essential that you set a timer for your nighttime photos; this will allow your phone to settle and dramatically reduce motion blur or camera shake.
This tip is optional, but is very useful in the right situations. Some mobile phone cameras have this feature built-in, while others require you to download a special photography app that will allow you access the manual settings in the phone’s camera. Now you can override the auto settings to your liking. It is a good idea to lower your f-stop to the lowest possible value, say f1.8, to let more light in. A low f-stop combined with a slow shutter speed will increase the available light in the nighttime. Raising your ISO will also give you the option to shoot with a quicker shutter speed if you are shooting handheld, or will allow you to achieve a higher f-stop for a wider depth of field. The opportunities are endless. Also, as a bonus, some apps may have long-exposure functionality already built-in.
7. Shoot in HDR (High Dynamic Range)
Another useful tool in your nighttime photography toolkit is the HDR function. High Dynamic Range allows you to reproduce a greater range of light than the typical camera will allow. This will help you even out the light in the scene; objects in the dark will be more visible while the brightest objects will be properly exposed. While most phone cameras have this functionality built-in, you will likely have more flexibility and power with a dedicated HDR app.
8. Have patience
Lastly and most importantly, nighttime photography takes time and often requires waiting minutes, hours, or even days for the right conditions. Have patience and know that the photos in the end will be worth it.