How to Use a Cell Phone for Dramatic Night Photography

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Night has fallen. All of the beautiful golden light that flooded across the landscape during sunset has slowly slipped away over the horizon – replaced by inky darkness and twinkling stars. But that doesn’t mean that you need to put away your camera until tomorrow! In fact, you most likely have an excellent source of light in your pocket or purse right now – your cell phone flashlight!

A man photographed using a phone flashlight as the key light -How to Use a Cell Phone for Dramatic Night Photography

A man photographed using a cell phone flashlight as the key light.

Whether you’ve packed your camera bag light or are simply looking for a creative way to make a picture work in extremely dark conditions, your mobile phone flashlight is a surprisingly capable and adaptable lighting tool.

Creating dramatic off-camera lighting

You might be wondering; “Why bother with this at all? My camera has a pop-up flash. If it’s dark outside, my flash can provide all the light I need.”

It’s true that you can use your on-camera flash to light a picture even in near-complete darkness. However, the light that comes from a pop-up flash is direct. This isn’t how we experience light on a daily basis; we experience light coming down on us from the sun or light fixtures in the ceiling.

Directional light is that which comes from an angle, and creates pleasing shadows and depth, whereas on-camera flash erases shadows and textures, resulting in a flat look.

A photo of a man lit by one camera flashlight as the key light - How to Use a Cell Phone for Dramatic Night Photography

Even using light from one phone flashlight can create dramatic shadows and interesting directional light.

Another problem with on-camera flash is that it often kills the ambient or existing light of a scene. If you want to save the soft glow of city lights in the background of your shot, you’ll often find that your on-camera flash is too overpowering and unnatural looking.

A photo of a man taken using on-camera flash to illustrate the lack of depth and shadow that occurs with this technique - How to Use a Cell Phone for Dramatic Night Photography

This picture is taken in Automatic Mode, which used the on-camera flash. The light on the subject is flat, the background is dark and all drama or depth in the picture is lost.

Directional light is often what makes or breaks a photo. This isn’t just for photographers using flash. Natural light photographers can spend years learning how to properly position their models in relation to the sun and natural reflectors in order to create pleasing lighting on the subject.

Using a cell phone flashlight allows you to bring the light on your model in from an angle, which can be used to add dimension, enhance textures and create a sense of drama.

Taking the picture

The main advantage of using a cell phone flashlight is accessibility. Most people carry their phone wherever they go, so it shouldn’t be hard to quickly get two or even more light sources that you can use for your picture.

Behind the scenes of lighting a model with light from a cell phone flashlight

Using a cell phone flashlight gives you a mobile lighting kit that is ready for use within five seconds.

A portrait of a man lit by two cell phone flashlights he is holding in his hand

Looking to add more light into your scene? Simply add a second cell phone flashlight!

Things to watch out for

Of course, there are also some drawbacks that you need to be aware of when taking pictures with this technique. First off, most mobile phone flashlights aren’t very powerful. Fortunately, there are three ways to make the light more effective.

    1. Open your aperture wider. With a wider aperture, the camera will collect more light – including the light from your flashlight. Bear in mind that this will also make the whole scene brighter, background and all, so there needs to be a balance.
    2. Turn up your ISO. A higher ISO means your camera’s sensor picks up more light. Again, this effectively makes your cell phone flashlight stronger. Just like with the previous point, this will also make the background brighter.
    3. Move the flashlight closer. Saving the most practical method for last – if you aren’t getting enough light on your subject, try moving the light closer. Sure, you may not want to have a hand holding a cell phone in your image, but getting as close as you can, will add as much light as possible.

The second drawback with using mobile phone flashlights is that the color of the light may not be consistent or carefully balanced like you would find in a typical camera flash. This means that using more than one camera flashlight in a shot could result in slight differences of color.

The last drawback is that a phone flashlight is a small light source and, consequently, produces hard light. If you want an exceptionally soft light that leaves very faint shadows, you would need to use a large softbox or umbrella. But we’re aren’t expecting studio light when we pull out our phone – this is a quick and dirty solution to light.

Examples and comparison

But even with these drawbacks, using a phone flashlight allows you to create directional light that results in more interesting images. Consider the following two examples:

A man photographed in the city, lit by on-camera flash - How to Use a Cell Phone for Dramatic Night Photography

This picture is taken on Automatic Mode. In the darkness, Auto decided to use the on-camera flash. Once again, all shadows and textures are gone from the subject’s face and the pleasant night-time ambience of the city in the background is lost.

A man photographed in the city, lit by a flashlight on a cell phone as the key light

By using a cell phone flashlight just to camera left to light the side of the subject’s face, I was able to add depth and drama for a shadowy, film-noir style image.

Post-processing

A picture lit with a cell phone flashlight will always benefit from some work in the editing room. It’s a good idea to shoot in RAW rather than JPG in order to have as much flexibility as possible with your edits.

The good news is that if you took the time to properly position your lights during the picture, you should have a pretty decent image right out of the camera.

How to Use a Cell Phone for Dramatic Night Photography

This is the unedited, straight-out-of-camera image. It’s already pretty close to the final product.

The first step is to make some corrections to the color of the lighting. You may need to play with the White Balance, or even selectively reduce the saturation on a specific color in order to get natural skin tones.

For example, some cell phone flashlights might produce an overly green light. Pulling saturation back on the greens in your editing program will help to fix that.

You might also need to tackle some hot spots in the post-processing phase. A hot spot is when the center of the light is significantly brighter than the edges. This can be corrected with by using a brush to “paint” the hot spot a bit darker.

How to Use a Cell Phone for Dramatic Night Photography - processing

This is the final edit of the photo shown above. Converting to black and white was a way to add mood while also helping remove some color issues that came with using a cell phone as a key light. This image was shot at 1/100, f/1.4, ISO 1000.

Play, experiment and have fun!

Practice, practice, practice. Taking the time to experiment will help you to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of this style of lighting.

Of course, if you need high-quality lighting for a shot, don’t expect your cell phone flashlight to produce the same results as a softbox. But if you’re in a pinch and need to improvise some lighting in a hurry, remember that you’ve got a ready-made light source right in your pocket.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Frank Myrland is an avid photographer from Toronto, Canada. Many years ago he picked up a camera on a whim, and he's been hooked ever since. As an active and independent learner, Frank likes to continuously explore ways to make his images worth a second look. You can see more of his work by visiting his website, or by connecting with him on Instagram and Facebook.

  • Francis

    I love this website, this is very helpful to those people that want to be good in photography like me. Thank you.

  • Bob Butler

    Can’t a phone manage anything more than selfies?

  • Please read the article. He’s using the light from the phone, no selfies here.

  • Bob Butler

    A misleading title to the article which leads the reader to expect something different. The images give the impression of a selfie so the two combined give a totally wrong impression.

  • FYI that is one image. The man on the right is holding the phone lighting up the man on the left. No selfies there at all. Sorry if you feel that way. If you read it though you will see that is not the case. So please comment on the content after reading it. Thanks.

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