5 secrets to great photos in night mode: tips for the iPhone 13, Galaxy S21 and more

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Andrew Hoyle / CNET

Night mode photography on recent phones, including the iPhone 13 Pro, the Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra and a wide variety of others, allows you to take stunning bright photos even in the middle of the night. And the best part is, you don’t need to worry about long exposures, tripods, or flashes like you would with a DSLR. In fact, you don’t need any additional equipment.

You can see how the iPhone 13 Pro compares to the 12 Pro Max in our recent night mode shootout.

But getting a picture you’re really proud of isn’t just about waiting for the dark and pulling out your phone. You will still need to work to take photos that will rack up those likes on Instagram.

Here are my top tips for getting great nighttime images 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 on before you start shooting. On phones like the iPhone 12 series, night mode kicks in automatically when the phone detects that you are in a low light situation. On some Android phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra you can find a specific shooting mode that you will need to use to capture the best images in low light.

Different phones may have different options, so if you don’t know 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.

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This night shot was made even more vibrant and dazzling by those amazing Christmas lights festooning the columns.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

2. Look for the light

While phones like the new iPhones and recent Galaxy phones can take amazing images in low light, you still need to have some light in the shot to create a compelling image. It is therefore unlikely that heading to the darker part of a forest will give good results. Instead, try going to populated areas like city centers (taking all necessary precautions against COVID-19) as you will find sources of light in the form of street lights, shop windows, and maybe even lights. ‘festive lighting during the holidays.

3. Wait for your moment

Big city and street photography can often include a person as the subject in your shot and at night can be a great time to take those photos. However, when the light is limited you need to make sure that that person is exactly where you want them to be and that may require a bit of patience.

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I’m really happy with both of these images in night mode and both depend heavily on timing – on the left it was about making this lonely figure walk through the main pool of light on the ground. On the right, it was about capturing the high-speed past of cyclists.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

For example, imagine taking a photo on a road lit by streetlights. Each lamp casts a puddle of light, and when someone passes through it, it temporarily lights up before effectively becoming invisible again in the dark. In this case, my advice is to have your photo ready, with your finger hovering over this shutter button. It might take a few minutes, but eventually someone can walk through that exact pool of light and you can take your picture. Patience this way can really pay off.

4. Stay stable

Even though night modes on phones don’t require a tripod in the same way as long exposure on a DSLR, you’ll still get your best results if you keep the phone as still as possible while taking your shot. If you don’t have a tripod with you, look for a wall, trash can, or whatever 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 with both hands, holding it close enough to your chest, and bending your elbows towards your stomach. This will help reduce some of the natural sway in your hands and can make the difference in getting a sharper image.

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I like a black and white montage of night photos. I think the natural contrast of bright street lights against dark backgrounds translates so well into a monochrome image.

Andrew Hoyle / CNET

5. Edit your shots

As with any good photo, shooting is only half the story; it’s the way you modify 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 edits, but Google’s Snapseed is also very powerful and is completely free on iOS and Android.

Night shots can be quite dark by their nature, so you may want to increase exposure first. Be careful though; low-light images, even good shots in night mode, will have image noise (a blurry grain) that will get worse as you lighten the image. You may need to reduce some of the highlights (especially if you’ve captured bright street lights) and accentuate the shadows slightly to balance things out. Pay attention to the details and make sure you don’t go overboard.

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


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