How to Shoot Great iPhone Photos at Night or in Low Light

Someone taking a photo of a sunset at dusk with an iPhone.Adi purnatama / Shutterstock

Modern iPhones can take great photos in low light. Even if you don’t have the latest best performing model, these photography tips will help you take better photos after the sun goes down.

Use night mode (if you have it)

Night mode is available through the built-in iPhone Camera app. You can access it by tapping the icon on the home screen, via the Control center shortcut, or from the lock screen.

The function turns on automatically on supported models whenever a scene is dark enough. Currently, only iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max support Night Mode. You’ll know it’s active when you see the yellow moon icon and the number of seconds it will take for an exposure.

The night mode icon on iPhone 11.

Technically, night mode only works with the standard 1x wide angle lens; the 0.5x ultra-wide lens doesn’t support it at all. On the iPhone 11 Pro, you can take night mode photos using the 2x telephoto lens, but it uses standard 1x camera with digital zoom.

For the best results on any iPhone 11 model, you’ll want to take photos in night mode with the 1x wide-angle lens.

You can’t force your iPhone to take photos in Night mode, but you can adjust the exposure once the icon appears. Tap it to see a slider at the bottom of the stage. Drag the slider to the left to increase the exposure time – this will allow more light to enter your scene.

In the images below, you can see how better Night mode is for shooting in dark conditions. The cropped image on the left was taken with an iPhone X, while the image on the right was taken with an iPhone 11.

Two images of the moon, one taken on an iPhone 10 and the other taken in Night mode on an iPhone 11.

Apple designed Night Mode to work while you’re holding your iPhone, so a little amount of movement won’t spoil your shots. However, you will get much better results if you can keep your iPhone as still as possible. Distant reflections, such as stars, will look even better if your iPhone is completely stationary during a shot.

With that in mind, iOS 14 has added night mode guides. They look like the guides that appear if you try to take a photo with your iPhone facing down. When shooting in Night mode, two plus signs (+) appear on the screen. Keep them layered to reduce blur in your images.

Guides overlapped on a scene in Night Mode on iOS 14.

You can also mount your iPhone on a tripod for the best possible results. You can then use your Apple Watch as a remote shutter or set the built-in timer to go off so you don’t have to touch your iPhone and risk moving it around.

No night mode? No problem!

Whether you have the latest iPhone or not, keeping your device as still as possible when shooting in low light will give you better results. Because iPhone needs to slow down the shutter speed to let more light into a scene, any movement will result in a blurry image. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you use a tripod.

It is also useful to work within the limits of your device. Smartphone cameras have notoriously small sensors, which also massively limit their capabilities in low-light environments. The larger sensors in DSLR and mirrorless cameras can capture much more light.

However, by knowing all this, you will be able to reap the benefits of your device using it.

A night photo of the illuminated sign at Dumpling House restaurant taken with an iPhone 4.A night scene shot with an iPhone 4. Tim brookes

First, choose well-lit subjects and use light wisely in your images. Place your subjects in spotlights or use candlelight to subtly illuminate parts of a scene if the rest is obscured in the dark.

in the Camera app, fine-tune the final exposure by long pressing to lock focus and expose a particular part of a scene. You can then slide your finger up and down on the screen to increase or decrease the amount of light in the scene.

You won’t get results that rival Night Mode in visual fidelity, but that doesn’t mean your photos still won’t look good.

Add night mode to any iPhone with NeuralCam

NeuralCam NightMode ($ 4.99) uses machine learning and computational photography, just like Night Mode on iPhone 11. The app takes a few images of a still scene, then blends them together to increase exposure value and fidelity overall. The result is usable photos taken in extremely low light conditions.

@neuralcamapp #NeuralCam Stock iPhoneXR vs Neuralcam on iPhoneXR vs Nightmode on iPhone11 pro 🙂 pic.twitter.com/brosFe0SgE

– brand bether (@ bether69) November 7, 2019

Apple’s technology is closely tied to the hardware of the latest iPhones, so don’t expect the same results. The process may also take a bit longer than on an iPhone 11, depending on the age of your device. Older iPhones also have less advanced sensors and image signal processing, which will affect the end result.

However, there’s still plenty here to justify the $ 5 price tag if you’re going to keep your current iPhone for a year or two. The app even improves low-light photos taken with the front camera.

Go fully manual with long exposures

If you’re willing to work a little harder on your shots, you can take pictures in the dark by taking long exposures of 30 seconds or more. To do this you will need an app like Slow shutter camera ($ 1.99), which allows you to take long exposures.

We tested some of the most important manual camera apps, including Manual ($ 3.99), 645 PRO Mk III ($ 3.99), and ProCam 7 ($ 13.99). However, they only allowed long exposures of 1/4 of a second or less. This is probably a limitation of the Camera API provided by Apple.

How Slow Shutter Cam takes such long poses remains a bit of a mystery. The app may record multiple 1/4 second exposures, then mix them while increasing the exposure. While not a real long exposure, the results speak for themselves.

During testing, we found that we had to make sure the stage wasn’t on display for so long that the highlights were muffled.

To use Slow Shutter Cam, download and launch it, then tap the Settings icon. Here you can choose the capture mode (press “Low Light” for night shots) and the overall exposure time. Experiment for the best results. A tripod is also absolutely necessary.

Press the Menu button to see some of the other features of the app. The customizable timer is handy to avoid touching the screen while shooting, and the interval timer lets you shoot time-lapse footage at long exposure.

Flash is a last resort

Your iPhone camera has a flash. You can activate it by tapping the lightning bolt icon in the Camera app. While the flash will illuminate your scene to some extent, the results can be hit or miss. It is best to use it only for portraits, and only if no other light source is available.

The Flash menu in the iPhone Camera app.

Since the flash faces the front, it does not capture a scene in particularly flattering light. If you must use flash on your iPhone, stick with the front selfie flash. This uses your iPhone screen to quickly cast bright light on your face.

Since the screen is a little larger than the camera flash, the light is diffused more flatteringly. It fills in some of the less desirable facial features like wrinkles and blemishes.

Low-light iPhone performance improves

Night mode is a huge leap forward for Apple. The iPhone 11 wasn’t the first device to include it, but its implementation is now among the best for producing natural-looking images.

However, if you really want explore night photography, like shooting cityscapes or even astrophotography, a smartphone is still a bad choice. The iPhone can film the night sky, but it lacks manual controls and a sensor large enough to capture enough light.

It doesn’t mean that you still can’t take great photos with your iPhone. Camera app can certainly help you.

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