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Best Night Mode Photos: Tips from a Pro Photographer for Any Phone

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Phone cameras used to be useless at night, but the best camera phones you can buy today are capable of taking great photos even after the sun goes down. Flagship phones like the iPhone 15 Pro and Samsung Galaxy S24 Ultra have night modes that allow them to take bright, sharp images even in the middle of the night. Even more affordable phones like the Pixel 8 come with surprisingly good night photography capabilities.

This type of night photography once required a DSLR on a tripod to take long exposures over several seconds. But today’s phones can take excellent nighttime images without the need for additional equipment. And that’s great, because it means you don’t have to lug a heavy camera and tripod around town every time you want to take a nice photo after the sun goes down.

Boat on a river at night

Samsung’s recent Galaxy S lineup of flagship phones feature amazing night mode cameras.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

But getting an image you like enough to print and display on your wall takes more than waiting for darkness and pulling out your phone. You’ll still have to work a little to take photos you’ll want to look back on for years to come.

I have been a professional photographer for years and frequently take images at night with my professional camera and phone. So here are my top tips for getting great pictures at night on any phone.

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1. Know how to activate night mode

If your phone has a night mode, it’s important to make sure it’s actually turned on before you start shooting. On phones like the iPhone 15 series or other recent iPhones, night mode is automatically triggered when the phone detects that you are in a low-light situation. Some Android phones also have automatic night modes, while others will ask you to use specific night shooting modes (on the Galaxy S24 line, it’s simply called Night; on the Pixel 8, it’s Night Sight).

Different phones may have different options or naming conventions, so if you’re not sure how to use yours – or if your phone even has one – then a quick Google search for the model and “night mode” should answer your questions . Night modes have increasingly become a must-have feature on camera phones, so there’s a good chance that if you’ve bought a new phone in the last couple of years, it will have some sort of night mode integrated.

Example shot of building columns covered in festive lights

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

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

2. Look for the light

Although recent iPhones and Galaxy phones can take stunning images in low light, you still need to have a few light in the photo to create a convincing image. So, heading towards the darkest part of a forest probably won’t give you good results. Instead, try going to populated areas like city centers, where you’ll find sources of light in the form of street lights, storefronts, and perhaps even festive lighting during the holidays.

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3. Wait for your moment

Great city and street photography often includes a person as the subject in your photo, and nighttime can be a great time to capture these images. However, when light is limited, you need to make sure that person is exactly where you want them to be, which may require a little patience.

Two examples of night mode photos, taken on dark city streets

These two night mode images are heavily dependent on timing: on the left, we see the lone figure walking in the main pool of light on the ground. On the right, the aim was to capture the cyclist who was passing at full speed.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

For example, imagine that you are taking a photo on a road lit by streetlights. Each lamp casts a pool of light, and when someone walks through it, it lights up temporarily before becoming invisible again in the darkness. In this situation, my advice is to set up your shot, with your finger hovering over the shutter button. It may take a few minutes of waiting, but eventually someone will walk through that exact pool of light and you can take your photo. Patience can really pay off.

4. Stabilize yourself

Even though night modes on phones don’t require a tripod like a multi-second exposure on a DSLR would, you’ll still get your best results if you keep the phone as still as possible while you take your photo. If you don’t have a tripod with you, find a low wall, trash can, or anything else you can hold your phone on while you take your photo.

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

long exposure photo of a car with light streaks

A long exposure nighttime image taken with the Pixel 7 Pro.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

5. Use Motion modes, if you have them

The Pixel 8 and 8 Pro (and the previous Pixel 7 series) can take excellent, consistent photos at night, but they also have a long exposure mode that lets you get creative photos that wouldn’t normally be possible. only achievable using a tripod. . While the mode works well during the day for blurring things like waterfalls, it also works extremely well at night, especially for subjects like cars driving down city streets.

The long exposure blurs the headlights and taillights, transforming them from static balls of light into ethereal lines, snaking across the scene. You’ll need to use the phone’s Motion mode to achieve this effect and make sure long exposure is enabled. Long exposure photos like this work best when you keep the camera still and take a photo that includes both static subjects (like buildings and street lights) and moving subjects (like cars, buses or cyclists). It can take a little practice – and the results can be hit or miss – but when it works, it works great and adds an extra creative element to your nighttime photos.

However, not all phones have this as standard, and while there are third-party apps that aim to replicate it, I haven’t found many that really work or come close to the quality that I have obtained with Pixels.

Example images before and after editing

I love this black and white montage of a night photo. The natural contrast of bright street lamps against shadowy backgrounds translates well to monochrome.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

6. Edit your photos

As with any good photo, taking the photo is only half the story; it’s how you modify it that can be the best way to turn it into a true 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 photos can be dark, so you may want to increase the exposure first. Be careful though; Low-light images, even good night mode photos, will have image noise (a blurry grain) that will appear worse and worse as you brighten the image. You may need to reduce some highlights (especially if you’ve captured bright streetlights) and increase the shadows slightly to balance things out. Pay attention to details and make sure you don’t go too far.

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

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