Take incredible night photos: pro tips for iPhone, Samsung Galaxy, Pixel and more

The best camera phones you can buy in 2023, including the iPhone 14 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra and Google Pixel 7 Pro, have night photography modes that allow them to take beautiful pictures even in the middle of the night. I’ve put these phones side by side to see which one is best — and they all produced beautiful images in the dark.

This kind of night photography used to require a DSLR on a tripod to get long exposures over the course of a few seconds. But these days, even some fairly affordable phones can take excellent looking photos at night without any extra equipment. And that’s great, because that way you don’t have to lug a heavy camera and tripod into town every time you want to take a nice photo after sunset.

Boat on a river at night

The night mode of the Galaxy S22 Ultra is always good.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

But getting an image you like enough to print and hang on your wall isn’t just a matter of waiting for darkness and grabbing your phone. You’ll still have to put in some work to get photos that will get those Instagram likes.

Here are my top tips for getting great photos on your phone at night.

Read more: Best camera phone for 2022

1. Know how to activate night mode

If your phone has a night mode, it’s important to make sure it’s actually activated before you start shooting. On phones like the iPhone 14 series, night mode turns on automatically when the phone detects low light. On some Android phones, you may find a specific shooting mode – simply called Night on the Galaxy S22 range or Night Sight on the Pixel 7 – that you should use to capture the best low-light photos.

Different phones may have different options, so if you’re not sure how to use yours – or if your phone even has one – a quick Google search of the model and “night mode” should answer your questions.

Sample shot of building columns covered in festive lighting

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

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

2. Look for the light

While new iPhones and recent Galaxy phones can take amazing low-light photos, you still need to get them some light in the shot to create a compelling image. So going to the darkest part of a forest is not likely to lead to good results. Instead, try to go to densely populated areas like city centers, where you’ll find sources of light in the form of streetlights, shop windows, and maybe even some festive lighting during the holiday season.

3. Wait for your moment

Great city and street photography often includes a person as the subject in your shot, and nighttime can be a great time to get those shots. However, if the light is limited you have to make sure that person is exactly where you want them to be and that can take some patience.

Two examples of night mode photos taken in dark city streets

Both night mode images depend heavily on timing — on the left, it was the lone figure walking in the large pool of light on the ground. On the right it was about capturing the passing cyclist.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

For example, imagine taking a photo on a road illuminated by streetlights. Each lamp casts a pool of light, and when someone walks through them, they are momentarily illuminated before becoming effectively invisible again in the darkness. In that case, my advice is to have your picture ready, with your finger above that shutter button. It may take several minutes of waiting, but eventually someone will walk right through that pool of light and you can take your picture. Patience can really pay off.

4. Keep yourself balanced

While night modes on phones don’t require a tripod like a long exposure on a DSLR, you’ll still get the best results if you hold the phone as still as possible while you take your shot. If you don’t have a tripod with you, look for a low wall, trash can, or anything else you can hold your phone on while you take your shot.

When nothing is around, you can help keep the phone stable by holding it firmly with both hands, keeping it fairly close to your chest, and pulling your elbows toward your stomach. This helps reduce some of the natural wobble in your hands and can make all the difference in getting a sharper image.

long exposure shot of a car with light streaks

A long exposure night shot taken on the Pixel 7 Pro.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

5. Use motion modes, if you have them

The Pixel 7 and 7 Pro can take excellent casual shots at night, but they also have a long exposure mode that lets you take creative shots that are normally only possible with a tripod. While the mode works well during the day for blurring things like waterfalls, it also works great at night, especially for subjects like cars driving through city streets.

The long exposure blurs the headlights and taillights, turning them from static balls of light into ethereal lines that weave their way through the scene. You’ll need to use the phone’s motion mode to get this effect and make sure long exposure is turned on. Such long exposures work best if you hold the camera steady and shoot with both static subjects (such as buildings and streetlights) and moving subjects (such as cars, buses, or cyclists). It can take some practice — and the results can be hit or miss — but when it works, it works really well and adds an extra creative element to your night shots.

Not every phone has this as standard though and while there are some third party apps aimed at replicating it I haven’t found many that actually work or come close to the quality I achieved with the Pixel 7 Pro .

Before and after editing image previews

I love this black and white edit of a nighttime photo. The natural contrast of bright street lights against the shadowy backgrounds translates well to black and white.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

6. Edit your photos

As with any good photo, getting the shot is only half the story; it’s how you edit it that can be the greatest way to turn it into a true work of art. I use Adobe Lightroom Mobile for most of my editing, but Snapseed from Google is also very powerful and is completely free on iOS and Android.

By nature, night photos can be dark, so you may want to start by cranking up the exposure. Be careful though; low-light images, even good night mode shots, have image noise (a fuzzy grain) that looks progressively worse as you brighten the image. You may need to reduce some of the highlights (especially if you’ve captured bright street lighting) and boost the shadows a bit to balance things out. Pay attention to the details and make sure you don’t go too far.

From there on, it all depends on what you feel looks good on, so spend some time playing around with the available tools and see what you can come up with. Personally, I think night scenes often look great as black and white images because the natural contrast of bright lights and dark backgrounds lends itself well to a monochrome conversion.

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