Galaxy S23 Ultra next to a Pixel 7 Pro and iPhone 14 Pro

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

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 capture gorgeous photos even in the middle of the night. I put these phones side-by-side to see which one is best — and they all delivered gorgeous images in the dark.

This kind of night photography used to require a DSLR on a tripod to take long exposures over the course of several seconds. But today, even some pretty affordable phones are able to take excellent-looking images at night without any extra equipment at all. And that’s great, as it means you don’t need to carry a heavy camera and tripod into town every time you want to get a good-looking shot after sundown.

Boat on a river at nightBoat on a river at night

The Galaxy S22 Ultra’s night mode is consistently good.

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But getting an image you like enough to print and put on your wall isn’t just a case of waiting for darkness and whipping out your phone. You’ll still need to put in some work to take shots that’ll rack up those Instagram likes. 

Here are my top tips on how to get great images at night on your phone.

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 will automatically kick in when the phone detects that you’re in a low-light situation. On some Android phones you may find a specific shooting mode — called simply Night on the Galaxy S22 range or Night Sight on the Pixel 7 — that you’ll need to use to capture the best low-light images.

Different phones may have different options so if you’re unsure how to use yours — or if your phone even has one — then a quick Google search of the model and “night mode” should answer your questions.

Example shot of building columns covered in festive lightsExample shot of building columns covered in festive lights

This nighttime photo has been made all the more vibrant and dazzling by these incredible Christmas lights festooning the columns.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

2. Look for the light

While new iPhones and recent Galaxy phones can take amazing low-light images, you still need to have some light in the shot in order to make a compelling image. So heading into the darkest part of a forest isn’t likely to result in good results. Instead, try heading into populated areas like city centers as you’ll find light sources in the form of street lamps, shop window displays and maybe even some festive lighting during the holidays.

3. Wait for your moment

Great city and street photography often includes a person as a subject in your shot and nighttime can be an awesome time to take those shots. When the light is limited, however, you need to make sure that person is exactly where you want them to be and that can involve some patience.

Two examples of night mode photos, taken on dark city streetsTwo examples of night mode photos, taken on dark city streets

Both these night mode images rely heavily on timing — on the left it was getting the lone figure walking in the main pool of light on the ground. On the right it was about capturing the cyclist speeding past.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

For example, imagine you’re taking a shot on a road lit by street lamps. Each lamp casts a pool of light, and as someone walks through it, they’re temporarily lit up before becoming effectively invisible again in the darkness. In that instance, my advice is to have your shot ready, with your finger hovering over that shutter button. It may take some minutes waiting, but eventually someone will walk exactly through that pool of light and you can take your shot. Patience can really pay off.

4. Steady yourself

Even though night modes on phones don’t require a tripod in the same way a long exposure on a DSLR would, you’ll still get your best results if you keep the phone as still as possible while taking your image. If you don’t have a tripod with you then look around for a low wall, a trash can or anything you can steady your phone on while you get your shot. 

If there’s nothing nearby, you can help steady the phone by holding it firmly in both hands, holding it fairly close to your chest and tucking your elbows in towards your stomach. This will help reduce some of the natural wobble in your hands and may make the difference in getting a sharper image.

long exposure photo of a car with light streakslong exposure photo of a car with light streaks

A long-exposure nighttime image taken with the Pixel 7 Pro.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

5. Use Motion modes, if you have them

The Pixel 7 and 7 Pro can take excellent regular photos at night, but they also have a long-exposure mode that allows you to get some creative shots that would normally only be achievable using a tripod. While the mode works well in the daytime to blur things like waterfalls, it also works extremely well at night, especially for subjects like cars driving down city streets. 

The long exposure blurs the headlights and taillights, turning them from static balls of light into ethereal lines, snaking their way through the scene. You’ll need to use the phone’s Motion mode to get this effect, and make sure that Long Exposure is toggled on. Long-exposure photos like this work best when you keep the camera still and take a photo that includes both static subjects (like buildings and street lamps) and moving subjects (like cars, buses or cyclists). It can take some practice — and results can be hit and 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 that aim to replicate it, I haven’t found many that really work or that come close to the quality I’ve achieved with the Pixel 7 Pro. 

Before and after editing image examplesBefore and after editing image examples

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 monochrome.

Andrew Lanxon/CNET

6. Edit your shots

As with any good photo, taking the shot is only half the story; it’s how you edit it that can be the biggest way to transform it into a real piece of art. I use Adobe Lightroom Mobile for most of my editing but Google’s Snapseed is really powerful as well and is totally free on iOS and Android.

By their nature, night photos may well be dark, so it’s possible you might want to start by lifting the exposure. Be careful though; low-light images, even good night mode shots, will have image noise (a fuzzy grain) that will look worse and worse the more you brighten the image. You may need to reduce some of the highlights (especially if you’ve captured bright street lights) and boost the shadows a touch to balance things out. Pay attention to the details and make sure you’re not pushing it too far.

From then on, it’s entirely down to what you feel looks good, so spend some time playing around with the tools available and see what you can come up with. I personally find that nighttime scenes can often look great as black and white images, as the natural contrast of bright lights and dark backgrounds lends itself well to a monochrome conversion.

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