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How does “Night mode” work on smartphone cameras?



A smartphone that takes a picture of a city and the sea at night.
Maria Vonotna / Shutterstock

From Apple̵

7;s iPhone to high-end Android phones from manufacturers such as Samsung, every flagship phone now has a night mode camera. This is how these phones manage to take such detailed photos even in poor lighting conditions.

Night mode keeps getting better

Every year, smartphone manufacturers promote the new and improved cameras on their latest flagships, and with good reason. Over the past few years, phone cameras and the image processing techniques that power them have become exponentially better at taking photos in challenging lighting.

Just a few years ago, phones struggled to take even half-decent photos in the dark unless the flash was used. Now they can capture a spectacular amount of detail, even when shooting subjects that would be challenging for professional mirrorless or DSLR cameras.

Apple has also improved the low-light camera on the iPhone 12 series. The press photos include some dimly lit areas in the middle of the night. Using computational photography techniques, the company has also expanded the night mode feature to work on all cameras on its devices. This also applies to the ultra-wide angle and telephoto lenses.

Google Pixel Night Sky Photo
Google

Google’s Night Sight feature has helped the company become the market leader in low-light photography via smartphones. Google also recently introduced a unique astrophotography feature to its devices. It allows people to take clear pictures of the night sky with details and stars. On most smartphone cameras, these would be nearly invisible.

Light and photography

Before we get into the gist of night mode, here are a few photography basics that are helpful to familiarize yourself with:

  • Exposure: The amount of light reaching the camera sensor. It determines how bright or dim a photo will be.
  • Shutter speed: The length of time the camera sensor is exposed to light. Slower shutter speeds allow longer exposure to light, but can cause blur.
  • Dynamic range: The range of the darkest (shadows) and brightest tones (highlights) in a photo.
  • High dynamic range (HDR): An image processing technique in which a camera takes multiple photos with different exposures (by changing the shutter speed). Then the images are combined to emphasize shadows and highlights.

The outcome of an HDR photo largely depends on the software that does the processing. Some manufacturers prioritize different details than others.

RELATED: What is Dynamic Range in Photography?

The night mode process

Comparison of Apple night mode
Apple

Depending on the device, night mode is an automatic mode activated by the low-light sensor, or a mode that you must select in the Camera app. Either way, taking a photo in night mode is a lot like taking a regular photo at first. The first difference you may notice is that it takes noticeably longer to shoot in night mode. That long recording speed is crucial for taking pictures in night mode.

Night mode uses a variation on the HDR technique. It captures different images of the same subject with different exposure levels by taking them with different shutter speeds. Then the image processing software aligns and combines these photos to expand the dynamic range of the photos in night mode.

This process makes the photo highlights visible while maintaining the darkness of the shadows. This process reveals details in the environment that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to see in a standard photo.

Some phones dynamically adjust the amount of time it takes to take a photo, depending on how dim the environment is. With others you can adjust this setting yourself.

This whole process takes place in seconds. By the time you view the photo, all the work required to take multiple photos, combine them, and optimize the image has already been done.

Variations in night modes

Samsung Galaxy Seoul Night Scene
Samsung

Many flagship devices from Apple, Google, Samsung, Huawei and LG all have night mode.

These cameras use proprietary algorithms to determine the optimal appearance of a photo and then compose the image you ultimately see. The different combination processes (also called “bracketing”) that each manufacturer uses is the reason that there are such big differences between their night modes.

Some photos look more natural, while others emphasize the highlights too much to make the whole image look brighter. This largely depends on what aspect each manufacturer wants to emphasize.

In addition, the actual sensor is also important. Some devices pair high-megapixel cameras with a technique called Pixel Binning to take brighter photos in low light. This process involves reducing large pixel sizes to produce brighter, more detailed photos.

Take great shots in night mode

Whatever phone you have, if the camera has a night mode feature, there are a few things to keep in mind if you want to take good photos.

An essential part of this process is aligning all the different shots you take. If the long exposure shots taken in night mode are too blurry, you won’t get an optimal photo.

This is why most manufacturers strongly recommend that you stay completely still when shooting in night mode. That is why you will only see stationary subjects in most promotional images. If possible, use a tripod when shooting in night mode.

Also try to shoot in an environment with at least a weak light source. Not only does this improve the quality of your photos, but it can also make your photos look more dramatic after they have been processed.

RELATED: How to take great iPhone photos at night or in low light




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