How to Take Great Cell Phone Photos in Dim Lighting

Last week I did a post about taking better photos in outdoor lighting conditions, with natural light. Today I want to address the more challenging conditions of low light, indoor photography. While shooting in low light can be challenging, there are a few tricks that you can use to vastly improve your images.

Well, you say, "low light, no problem, just use a flash". Yes. Yes, you can use a flash. It's very easy to default to flash by pressing that lightning bolt symbol, but, in all honesty, it doesn't look very good. Cell phone camera flashes end up making an image look cheap and ill exposed. Take these two images for example, I bet you can guess which one is with a flash:

The first is with ambient indoor light, it is slightly yellow and a bit fuzzy around the edges. Cameras have a hard time focusing in low light and have to "collect light" by keeping the shutter open longer. This is the case even with digital as well, the sensor needs more time to gather the info. Thus a slightly blurred image. 

The second one is with flash. It is a lot clearer because the flash shortens the time the sensor needs to be exposed to collect light, thus no blur. However, there is a cut-out quality ( due to the cast shadows) to it that I just don't like. It throws a cool light on the subject which is different from the warm light around them. Often the flash leaves shine marks or "hot spots" on the subjects face. I would choose the image on the left and adjust the yellow cast using filters. There is a time and a place for flash- namely at a party, with revelers goofing off for the camera. In that instance the subject being sharply highlighted by the flash in all their glory with the background fading to black is acceptable. That is the one exception.

Here is a set of three images, 1. No flash, 2. Flash (in Selfie mode which is inadequate), 3. No flash and adjustment filter:

In number one the shadows are terrible. Number two looks just too blown out. Both one and two have bad shadow placement and uneven light. Number three is shot with no flash and a simple adjustment using the phones built in filters that evens out the shadows, de-saturates the color, and in my opinion looks the best, not good, but better than the first two.

Okay, so if we are going to avoid using the flash, what kind of light should we be looking for?

Look around you for the sources of light. If it is overhead lighting, make-sure that you stand a little ahead or behind the light, not directly under or you will look like this:

 Narly, unflattering shadows as a result of standing directly under can lights in the kitchen.

Narly, unflattering shadows as a result of standing directly under can lights in the kitchen.

The easy fix is to stand a little back of the direct light and to tilt your head upwards:

 

 By stepping back a bit and tilting my chin up, I achieve more even lighting on my face, though there are still a few shadows around the nose (unfortunately the camera back-focused, but that's another problem entirely).

By stepping back a bit and tilting my chin up, I achieve more even lighting on my face, though there are still a few shadows around the nose (unfortunately the camera back-focused, but that's another problem entirely).

Better yet, look around you for white or light, neutral walls. White is your friend, your handy dandy natural light reflector (conversely, very colorful walls are your enemy since the color will be cast back onto you). Take a look at these two photos up next. In the first I have my back to the bright white of my kitchen walls and cupboards. In the second, I simply rotate in place and I face towards the white. Tell me which one you find to be better lit (hint: the second one!), even the color of my skin is better and more accurate as white does not have a color cast.

I took a shot of the space, our kitchen (don't tell my hubs, he'd be mortified by the clutter). On the right the wall is bright, but not as much as on the left which has under cabinet lighting that bounces around against the white tiles and cupboards.

Okay, here's another tip that might seem like a no-brainer, but you'd be amazed how often this rule is not followed: Face towards the source of the light. Unless you are going to use flash to fill you in, never put the light behind you when it's dark.

Here's a shot of my hallway. The light in the bathroom is on. In the first shot I stand in the doorway facing out to the hallway. In the second I stand in the hallway facing the source of light:

So simple, right?!

Okay, last bit of advice. Our phone cameras are pretty smart these days. They automatically adjust to lighting conditions as best as their amazing tech can, quite frankly I'm amazed at how well they can take photos in low light. Even in how the camera tries to calibrate color.

Here's the thing, if you are in mixed lighting, i.e. you have a good ol' tungsten light on (think yellow cast) alongside a fluorescent or more likely these days, a cool tone LED overhead light, your camera is going to start flipping-out a little. It will do it's best to adjust half way. But it's not always going to get it right.

So, here's how you help your poor camera sensor out: Choose one light source and eliminate the other (if you can. If you are at a club, forget about it- just go with whatcha got!) by turning it off.

Here's an example for you again:  I am in my art room. I've got the overhead light on which is tungsten ( conventional light bulb) and I'm standing by my patio door with natural light spilling in (cool light). My camera was working over-time switching between making me look blue or yellow as it tried to decide how to read the situation. It settled at this:

 Here I am looking decidedly blue.

Here I am looking decidedly blue.

I decided to have mercy on my camera- I turned off the room light and was left with only the light from the window.

 Me looking decidedly more human and less like an alien from Star Trek.

Me looking decidedly more human and less like an alien from Star Trek.

And that is it! Simple fixes for getting the best shots you can in low light, indoors. I hope you found that helpful. Try out some of these fixes and let me know how it goes.

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With gratitude,

Sharolyn