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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How to Take Great Cell Phone Photos in Outdoor Lighting Conditions

Cell phone cameras are amazing. They have come a looooong way. We take them for granted, but this technology is sci fi come to life. In our lifetimes, our phones also functioning as cameras became a thing. Before that, it was something out of Star Trek. Don't forget that.

The ease with which we can now take images, without buying film and loading it, without even having to bring along a bulky camera body that does only that one function (gaw! It doesn't make phone calls?), has lead to an explosion in the quantity of images we possess. 

Yet, even with all the built in auto focus, color correcting, exposure, etc.etc. built into these amazing feats of technology, we can still end up with lousy shots. Tech cannot correct all our least not yet...

So, while we wait for that, here are a few tips for great images in a variety of outdoor lighting conditions.

Before you can make these small adjustments to vastly improve your images, you need to know the basics of assessing light quality. This might sound daunting, but it's not rocket science. Simply ask yourself:

Is the mid-day sun blazing down on me with nary a cloud in the sky? Okay, that's intense, full sun. Think: dark shadows, unflattering, contrasty.

Is it an overcast day with nary a sliver of sun shining though? That's diffuse light. Think: even light, flattering, not as much light, very few shadows.

Is there sun one moment and then overcast conditions the next? You've got mixed light, baby! This will keep you on your toes. But the same rules just have to adjust to which rules to use as the conditions change.

(Then there's night time, but that is a post for another day).

None of these types of light quality negate photography. Au contraire, if you know what light you are dealing with, you can adapt to it in order to get the best shot possible.

Full Sun:

This is the type of light professional photographers who like to use natural light, shy away from like vampires emerging from the crypt prematurely. Why? Because intense sun creates too much contrast. So much so that one end of the spectrum, either the light or the dark is not going to register in the image. It can also be very, very unflattering on a subjects face: dark shadows in bad locations, squinting subjects.

So, if professionals don't want to shoot in it, should you not take any shots then? Of course not, photographers have to take shots in full sun all the time at weddings and other engagements. They have some secrets that help them deal:

1. Find solid shade (not mottled as this will be far worse!) and take a picture there. Easy peasy. Just don't try to include a background that is in the full sun, like a mountain range, flower garden with open sky etc. All of the background that is in the sun lit area will be blown out beyond recognition. Frame in only what is in the shade.

2. If no shade can be found, place your subjects back to the sun and shoot towards the sun. Have your subject block the sun with their body, or use a tree to block the strongest rays. Turn on your flash mode to force a flash. You will need this to fill in the big shadow that is your subjects face. You want the person to be perfectly exposed for and let the background blow out. Expect to have some crazy flare and haze in your shot...but it can be really cool and desirable to have depending on where the flare is placed. Experiment with your shooting angle.

3. Use the environment to help reflect fill light back onto the subject. Think white, or light. Have the subject stand on a light walk-way with the sun behind them. The light ground will take some of that light and reflect it back onto the subject and fill in some of that shadow.

I want to show you how dang easy it is to improve a shot on a sunny day. Below,  yours truly, taking a rare selfie with her phone just to prove a point:

Direct, unfiltered sun.

Direct, unfiltered sun.

Here I am in the first shot. The sun is directly infront of me, it's about 2pm, I have to squint to see anything. The light has thrown dark shadows under my eyes, the shadow lengthening along my nose is unflattering, my eyes look dark, I even have a shiny spot on my forehead. Not a keeper.

Now, take a look at my second shot. I literally took two steps to change my location and vastly improve the results. What did I do? I stepped in the shade. Note how the light is now even on my face, there are no gnarly shadows where they shouldn't be. I look like I'm glowing in comparison to the background that is in shadow. You can even see the detail in my eyes which are now nicely lit up. I can also smile and look at the camera without squinting.

Fixed! I let the shade be my light modifier.

Fixed! I let the shade be my light modifier.

The location. One side is in full sun, the other in shade.

The location. One side is in full sun, the other in shade.

As you can see, I simply had to move from one corner of the building to the other. A few steps. This was at the Children's Museum in Santa Rosa. I took these two images on the way to the car with the girls. It took all of 30 seconds and most of that time was taken with unlocking and pulling up my camera on the screen. Simple fixes, folks.

Overcast Days: Diffuse Light

These are the best days for portraits/selfies. Overcast (even rainy) days are like stepping into the shade on a sunny day, only you don't have to find any shade because there isn't any (at least not much). The cloud cover provides a defused light, much like photographers achieve with light boxes in their studio.

The only caveat is that the filtered light provides less light, so be careful of blurry images because the sensor can't collect enough light quickly enough. Stick to subjects that are going to stay relatively still.

Some helpful pointers:

Tilt your subject's face slightly upward while you shoot downward...this allows more light to fill in under the eyes. Shooting upwards at a subject is inherently unflattering and in this type of light, you will not have enough available light to fill in the subjects face very well.

See here, another example. This one I shot quickly as we exited the house and the sky was completely overcast. When I shoot from below everything is a mess, namely I look like a gremlin that is all cheek and jowl, and nostrils! Don't forget the nostrils! The shadows overwhelm my face, there's just not enough ambient light to light my face properly. Then in the second I simply hold my camera at an angle slightly higher than I am and I tilt my face towards that beautiful light box in the sky and voila! Much better, don't you think?

Dull days can be...well...dull. So make sure that you use color to your advantage...pops of color in the background or better yet, on you, will make your image more interesting. During overcast conditions, colors are at their best, not blown out, not in shadow but lit just perfectly. So go find that patinaed barn door you love, that rock wall with glowing moss, your electric blue corvet, put a red rose in your hair and take some pics!

I hope you found this helpful. Please comment below, ad your tricks for improving photos, or ask any questions that have popped up for you.

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