The Case Of Shooting With Mobile Phones In Low Light

There’s this recent trend in fashion magazines shooting their covers with mobile phones, most notably with iPhones. Locally, since I am from the Philippines, we also had our very own Pia Wurtzbach on the cover for Metro Magazine using a Huawei P10.

Mobile phone’s tech definitely reached the standard on every day usage. There was a time in 2010 when my boss wished she had a camera that she can easily pick from her pocket instead of bringing her bulky DSLR. Fast forward to 2017 and mobile phone cameras have caught up. However, we know that mobile tech hasn’t quite nailed down people as subjects yet. Marketing teams tried to create all sorts of trends like replacing selfies with faux-bokehs. iPhone claims their software can do DSLR-like bokehs in iOS 11 etc. But let’s be real, it may appear blurred, but guassian blur isn’t anywhere close to real lens blurs. These new features are pretty much a gimmick at this point.

It seems that mobile phone manufacturers are really pushing the envelope in developing a standard for portraiture but they seem to pass out a key player in photography which is Light.

Light is key

In order to take a good photo, we need sufficient amount of light to illuminate a scene.

I have noticed in recent Huawei ads that they’re particularly targeting the fashion market. In the recent shot-in-iPhone magazine covers, the photos were taken in broad daylight, there’s hardly any problem when you have sufficient illumination. However, it’s important to know that lack of illumination results to a darker output and lacking in detail.

Shooting with a mobile phone in low light

I won’t lie, this post had been triggered (no pun intended) when the Pia W. cover was released. In contrast to previous mobile covers which were shot in broad daylight, this was shot in a studio with 3 LED lights with parabolic and octabox as modifiers. To shoot in a low light environment like this, they would need all the power from the LED continuous lights and it still won’t be enough. LED lights simply aren’t that powerful. This results with digital color noise which was very apparent in this shot and this is where I got particularly nitpicky.

Digital color noise have always been a problem in low light. It also appears to lack in detail which could have been solved with better quality of light and the low dynamic range which accentuated with the lack of illumination. These problems just doesn’t do it in print.

NOTE: Not to diminish the capability of Huawei P10 (they’ve come a long way), or the photographer (the photos are stunning) or Pia W. herself.

But we need to talk about the limitations of a mobile phone camera in low light conditions.

What we do need is sufficient amount of light. Light more powerful and brighter than LED, light produced by what we call strobes and speedlights.

Why bother with strobes when you have LED lights?

Coincidentally, there was this YouTube video that came out a few days ago about shooting portraits with LEDs, specifying the pros and cons of it.

It works for the most part of what he is trying to do but a comment on Fstoppers made a really good point on the case of LEDs [source]

Naturally and as mentioned, because the power of LED is not enough, we need to shoot in wider apertures and slower shutter speeds. We can’t control the aperture on a mobile phone so we can only compensate with the shutter speed.

There’s always a case of how much ambiance we want, we don’t want it look too artificial or fake. We do this by dialing our shutter speed with likely a slower shutter speed since we need all the light we can get.

When we meter our subject, the continuous light of LED will influence how our shutter speed decides the right exposure. Whereas with strobes, you can independently control the shutter speed.

Basically, using strobes give us more controlled light. Now that we’ve established why we actually want to use strobes rather than continuous LEDs, how do we trigger them from our mobile phone?

This is where Xenon Flash comes in.

There are several ways to trigger external speedlights and strobes:

What is Xenon flash?

I’m not too technical to answer that but i’ll go copy and paste this instead:

A xenon flash produces an extremely intense full-spectrum white light for a very short duration. It consists of a glass tube filled with xenon gas which emits a short and very bright flash of white light when a high voltage is applied. [source]

This works with external speedlights or strobes because Xenon flashes give much brighter and faster burst of light than LED. Studio lights in slave mode can detect the bright pop of light and then triggers itself, therefore gives a brighter and more powerful luminance than the continuous LED lights.

This concept is of course not new. Nokia Lumia 1020 did this years ago and I have the pleasure to also try this with a Nokia Lumia 1020.

Please do note that this is for demonstration purposes only. It’s not to say that this is a better photo but to simply show that triggering studio lights can be doable.

Light Setup — Triggered Strobes


Better quality of light maintains details, eliminates color noise and better dynamic range

Modern smartphones ditched Xenon flash unfortunately

There used to be a number of mobile phones equipped with Xenon Flash. However, because of form factor as phones get thinner, they’d have to go with the smaller counterpart called LED. Another reason is that Xenon flashes takes a lot of power, in an era where we cry out for better battery life just won’t do at this point. And besides, we can’t have the handy flashlights if it wasn’t for LED since that isn’t possible with a Xenon flash.

Ok, So…?

I know it’s quite an overkill to ask. ‘Coz why would a photographer use a mobile phone for studio photography? Lol, I don’t know either. There’s really no point really but just to show that it’s doable.

Basically, it’s a fun experiment.

Originally published at on July 12, 2017.