Take great photos in the dark: Night mode tips for iPhone 13, Galaxy S22 and more

Today’s phones, including the iPhone 13 ProSamsung Galaxy S22 Ultra or Google Pixel 6 Pro have night modes that allow them to take amazingly bright and clear photos even in the middle of the night. Night mode photography used to be something that required a DSLR on a tripod with long exposures, but even some of today’s more affordable phones can take great night shots.

And that’s great, because it means you don’t have to drag a heavy camera and tripod into town every time you want to take a nice picture after sunset. In fact, you don’t need any additional equipment at all.

But getting an image you like so much you want to print it and hang it on your wall isn’t just a matter of waiting for it to get dark and pulling out your phone. You’ll still need to do some work to get photos that will get those Instagram likes.

Here are my top tips for taking great photos at night 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 actually activated before you start shooting. On phones like the iPhone 13 series, night mode is activated automatically when the phone detects that you are in a low-light situation. On some Android phones, you may find a specific shooting mode that you should use to get the best low-light photos.

Different phones may have different options, so if you’re not sure how to use yours — or if your phone even has one — a quick Google search of the model and “night mode” should answer your questions.

Sample shot of building columns covered with festive lighting

This nighttime photo is made all the more vibrant and dazzling by these incredible Christmas lights adorning the columns.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

2. Find the light

While phones like the new iPhones and recent Galaxy phones can take great photos in low light, you still have to some light in the shot to create an immersive image. So going to the darkest part of a forest probably won’t produce good results. Instead, try moving to densely populated areas like city centers (take all necessary precautions against COVID-19), as you’ll find sources of light in the form of street lamps, shop windows, and maybe even some festive lighting during the holiday season.

3. Wait for your moment

Great urban and street photography can often include a person as the subject in your shot and night time can be a great time to take those shots. However, if the light is limited you need to make sure that person is exactly where you want them and that may take some patience.

Two examples of night mode photos taken in dark city streets

I’m really happy with both of these night mode images, and they both rely heavily on timing — on the left, it was all about walking that lone figure on the floor in the big pole of light. On the right it was about capturing the bicycles racing past.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

For example, imagine taking a photo on a road lit by street lamps. Each lamp casts a pool of light, and when someone walks through it, they are temporarily illuminated before effectively becoming invisible again in the darkness. In that case, my advice is to have your shot ready, with your finger above that shutter button. It may take a few minutes, but eventually someone can walk right through that pool of light and you can take your shot. Patience in this way can really pay off.

4. Keep Yourself Stable

While night modes on phones don’t require a tripod, like a long exposure on a DSLR, you’ll still get the best results if you keep the phone as still as possible while taking your photo. If you don’t have a tripod with you, look around for a low wall, trash can, or anything else you can hold your phone on while you take your shot.

If nothing is around, you can keep the phone stable by holding it firmly with both hands, holding it fairly close to your chest, and pushing your elbows toward your stomach. This helps reduce some of the natural wobbling in your hands and can make all the difference to a sharper image.

Before and after image preview editing

I like black and white editing of nighttime photos. I think the natural contrast of bright street lights in the shadowy backgrounds translates so well into a black and white image.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

5. Edit your photos

As with any good photo, taking the photo is only half the story; it’s how you edit it that can be the best 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.

By their nature, night shots can be quite dark, so you may want to start by increasing the exposure. Be careful though; low-light shots, even shots in good night mode, have image noise (a faint grain) that gets worse and worse as you brighten the image. You may need to cut down on some highlights (especially if you’ve captured bright streetlights) and boost the shadows a bit to balance things out. Pay attention to the details and make sure you don’t go too far.

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

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