How to Take Better iPhone Photos at Night

shooting photos on iphone at night
Hans Neleman/The Image Bank/Getty Images
Hans Neleman/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Taking clear photos at night with your iPhone is about as likely as making it through a whole day on a single battery charge. That is to say, it doesn't happen. But it's not necessarily Apple's fault.

Odds are you're making some critical mistakes as a nighttime photographer, so here are some quick and easy tips to snap better low-light shots with your smartphone, without filtering it to all hell on Instagram.

iphone taking photo at night

Use a tripod, or make one on the fly

One of the most common pitfalls when it comes to low-light photography is rampant blurriness, since the shutter stays open longer to accommodate for limited light. To combat this, you could arm yourself with one of many excellent pocket-sized tripods out there, or in a pinch, steady your phone against a solid surface (like a railing) while you shoot the pic. If neither of those are viable options, steady yourself against something (a wall, lamp post, car, etc.) and hold your breath when you hit the shutter.

And use your headphones to control the shutter

Simply tapping the the shutter button on the screen is enough movement to botch a good shot, so do yourself a favor and use your Apple earbuds (or any 'phones with in-cord volume control) to take the photo. Once you've composed the shot to your liking, keep the phone steady and just tap the volume up or down button to release the shutter. 

Manually reduce the exposure 

If your photos are looking grainy and gray, or the highlights in the frame are a bit blown out, try reducing the exposure to produce a crisper and better-composed shot. To do this, tap the screen to set the focus, then drag your finger down. Keep moving your finger down until the gray graininess is black, and the highlights clearly pop -- in low light you always want to expose for the highlights.

Play around with HDR mode

One of the standout features of the iPhone's native camera app is High Dynamic Range mode, which snaps several photos simultaneously when you hit the shutter, each at different exposures. Your phone then automatically merges them together into one photo, incorporating the best/most well-composed elements of each exposure. In low light, this often results in a final image that looks a lot closer to what your eyes are seeing in real life.

fireworks taking iphone photos
Jose Luis Pelaez Inc/Blend Images/Getty Images

Use a third-party long-exposure app 

If you're noticing graininess even with exceptionally reduced exposure when using the phone's native camera app, consider downloading a third-party app like Cortex or Camera+, which both have the option to enable extended exposure times. This will cut down on noise and produce much crisper, clearer finished shots -- it can also produce some really interesting color-blurring when your subject is moving (think fireworks or car headlights).

Try "torch mode" when a flash is necessary

Although it'll set you back a cool $3, Camera+ boasts a suite of excellent and worthwhile features, including what's known as "torch mode." This enables you to preview how up-close subjects will look in a flash exposure, by keeping the flash constantly illuminated. This is helpful because flash photos are generally tough to frame in low light, since your subjects are dark (or even invisible) in the viewfinder except for microsecond the flash goes off. 

When all else fails, convert to black and white

If you've tried everything but are still having a hell of a time getting a clear shot, consider processing the shot in black and white (using the camera app's own edit tools) to emphasize the contrasting light levels (which will better define your subjects). Lingering graininess also tends to look much, much better in black and white than in color.

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Joe McGauley is a senior writer for Thrillist who's shot at least 16GB worth of terrible nighttime photos.