Taking great photos when lighting is poor can get a little tricky. But if you know a few tricks, it can also result in some stunning photos—even with a smartphone.
Take advantage of “golden hour”
“Golden hour” is the time of day when the sun is low in the sky. That’s usually an hour after sunrise or an hour before sunset.
“The most special part of golden hour is that when the sun rakes across the sky, it tends to have this really soft, warm quality to it because the intensity of the sun is greatly reduced,” says professional photographer Michael Persico.
He adds that the sun’s location in the sky during golden hour makes it a perfect opportunity to catch light in areas that are normally shaded, like under an umbrella or on the far side of a building.
So what’s the best time? The Golden Hour app will tell you when the sun rises and sets, so you can plan accordingly using its calendar feature.
Pack a head lamp when camping
If you’re out camping with friends at night, you could use a head lamp to add beautiful light and texture to your compositions.
“If you put a camp light inside a tent, it becomes a huge, glowy orb that’s really spectacular to take a few steps back and get people around it,” Persico says.
Another helpful option is to use a flashlight.
“Flashlights can work wonders,” says photographer Scott Lewis, a three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee. If you carry more than one phone (or have a friend willing to let you borrow theirs), Lewis suggests using the flashlight application on one of the phones as a light source, and then taking the photo with the other phone.
For a nice portrait light, be sure to hold the phone being used as a flashlight as close as possible to the subject’s face. The reason for this, says Philadelphia-based photographer Matt Stanley, is that the closer a subject moves toward a light source, the softer and more natural the light will look as it wraps around the subject.
“The smaller the light source, the closer you need to be,” says Stanley. “But you may be able to get the same look with a larger light further away.”
Shoot in burst mode
To shoot in rapid-fire burst mode, just keep your finger pressed down on your smartphone camera’s shutter button.
If you’re looking to capture fleeting moments in low light, like fireworks or lightning storms, timing is key. Your smartphone’s burst mode is perfect for photos like this because it reduces the chance you’re stuck with only blurry results, according to Persico. That’s because with burst mode, your phone captures multiple photos in quick succession, so chances are at least one will be in focus.
Don’t forget to watch how the fireworks or lightning illuminates your surroundings. There’s always opportunity there, Persico says.
Pay attention to focus and exposure
For more control over the shot, tap the screen in the area where you want the camera to focus, such as the upper-right section of the screen.
If you’re taking a picture of a bright spot in an otherwise dark picture, like a beach sunset over a horizon for example, pro photographer Peggy Farren suggests focusing on a darker part of the picture. “The camera will make adjustments to add a little more light to the photo,” says Farren, who is also an instructor at Understand Photography in Naples, Florida.
New York-based photographer Peter Ardito adds that if a subject is lit from behind, you can help even out the overall exposure by adding more light in front of the subject. “This allows you to take a picture of someone, in front of a sunset for instance, without them becoming a silhouette,” Ardito says.
Another way to get an even exposure on your subjects is to shoot in the shade, where you’re likely to get a softer, flattering light because you don’t have to deal with any harsh shadows from the sun.
When shooting in the shade, Persico recommends choosing a spot that’s uniformly in the shade with just a hint of sunlight on a shirt or an arm, so you won’t disrupt even lighting on the face.
Taking a picture in a spot that’s half in the shade, and half in the sunlight makes it harder to get the right exposure, says Persico, because “you have to either focus on the shade and reduce that direct light or focus on the sunlight section and reduce that light.”
If you don’t have a tripod to help you keep the phone steady, a strong stance can help you steady yourself and the phone camera better.
A lot of phones offer optical-image stabilization to keep your photos from being blurry and out of focus. But when you’re working in low-light conditions, you should also keep the phone as steady as you can to avoid “motion blur,” a combination of a slow shutter speed and too much movement that can make your pictures look out-of-focus.
“Hold the phone with two hands,” says Farren. “Put your elbows in really tight to your body, separate your feet, and if you can, lean against a wall—that will keep you even steadier.”
You can also use what’s around you as a makeshift tripod, like a ledge or a wall, or the side of the building.
Apply a film-like filter
If all else fails, you can always bump up the exposure of a photo with a photo-editing app like VSCO Cam, says Ardito.
Many of the filters in VSCO Cam can help lighten the darker parts of an image, but you may find that using a black-and-white filter on the photo works just as well.
“If it comes out a little grainy or imperfect, putting it in black and white creates a timeless feeling,” says Branden Harvey, a storytelling photographer from Oregon.
Harvey especially likes VSCO Cam for its non-distracting filters that feel real and authentic, because he never wants the filters to distract from the story of the photo.
“Even if it’s not the most perfect picture, even if it’s a little blurry or grainy or dark, I think the best pictures tell you a story you can relate to,” Harvey says.