Shooting at night or in low light is a fun challenge for any type of kit, but many smartphones take a lot of the hard work away, and actually yield very decent results. It’s been something that many of the smartphone manufacturers have been keen to shout about in marketing materials, so naturally there’s been quite a lot of effort from all the major producers to outdo each other in this field.
Almost all of the current smartphones on the market have some kind of Night or Low Light mode, which often kicks in automatically when there’s not much light detected in the scene.
Of course, one of the good things about your smartphone is that you’ll generally always have it on you – so if you see a scene as you’re out and about during the night, or perhaps on your way to an event, you can grab a quick shot that could be a real winner.
Smartphones are also good if you don’t have the inclination to lug lots of heavy equipment around with you – such as tripods and the like. Most smartphones, if they have a night mode, work entirely handheld, allowing you to get good results with the minimum of effort.
But, it’s true to say that some perform better than others. As a rule, you’ll (unfortunately) find the best performing night modes on the more expensive flagship smartphones – which is what we’ve mostly included here. But you can save some cash by going for an older generation model, or looking at the second-hand market.
How does a smartphone’s night mode work?
While not every smartphone is exactly the same, the reason that most allow you to shoot night shots handheld is down to the way they operate in low light.
As a rule, they work by shooting several multiple frames at varying exposures, then merging them together (in-device) to create the impression that you’d shot it with a much longer exposure.
Using artificial intelligence to assess how much light is in the scene and how it thinks it should look, the results usually appear pretty quickly, and you might be surprised by just how much detail is reproduced.
Some smartphones have additional lowlight functions, such as Night Portraits (iPhone, Samsung, Pixel) – which blends together the night functionality with the portrait functionality for shallow depth of field effects. You might even find special functions such as Astro mode (Google Pixel) for shooting stars.
If you have a smartphone tripod – or another stable surface – you can sometimes get the phone to shoot even longer exposures for even better results, but generally, the fuss-free options are pretty good these days and don’t require too much tinkering with.
Best smartphones for low light at a glance:
- iPhone 15 Pro Max – check best price
- Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra – check best price
- Google Pixel 8 Pro – check best price
- Google Pixel 7 Pro – check best price
- Honor Magic 5 Pro – check best price
- Xiaomi 13 Pro – check best price
Continue reading to find out how we tested the smartphones and why we chose these models:
iPhone 15 Pro Max
- from $1299 / £1299
The recently announced iPhone 15 Pro Max has three lenses, which includes for the first time in iPhone a 5x optical zoom lens. With the main 1x (24mm f/1.8 equivalent) lens, you get 48 megapixels, with the default resolution being output at 24MP.
There is an automatic Night mode, which kicks in when the phone detects there’s not much light in the scene. This has the effect of reducing the default pixel count to 12MP if using the 1x lens, but you can switch it off if you want to keep resolution high – if there is some available light it does a job without the extra help. You can also shoot in raw format, but again, not if Night mode has been activated.
All of the lenses can be used in conjunction with Night mode, with the ultrawide angle putting in a very good job too. The 5x zoom is the furthest we’ve ever been able to shoot optically with an iPhone and is a noticeable improvement for those that want the extra reach compared to the older model.
If you don’t fancy the idea of the large size of the Pro Max, the iPhone 15 Pro is also pretty good – but here the zoom is restricted to 3x. If the high price puts you off, there’s also the option to go for the iPhone 15 (without the Pro moniker), which also has a well-performing Night mode, but you don’t get a zoom at all.
With the iPhone 15 Pro series you can blend Night and Portrait together, with some excellent results using the 1x lens – again there have been some notable improvements from the previous generation too.
Once Night mode has been activated, there is scope to increase the exposure time – this can be a good option if you’ve got a very steady hand or something to steady the phone with, especially if the scene you’re trying to photograph is very dark.
The downside with the iPhone 15 Pro series is that since Night mode is automatic, you can’t switch it on manually. This sometimes means that some darker scenes which have areas of light in them confuse the phone – but it’s quite rare for it to happen.
You might want to consider rolling back to the previous generation – the iPhone 14 Pro/iPhone 14 Pro Max – as you can pick up some good deals, comparatively speaking at least, especially if you look at the second-hand market.
Read our iPhone 15 Pro Max Review.
Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra
- From $1199.99 / £1249
Our overall pick for the best smartphone for photographers in 2023, the Samsung S23 Ultra remains the phone to beat in most areas – including low light.
Here you get four different lenses, including a main camera unit with a 200-megapixel sensor, as well as an ultra-wide lens and two telephoto options (3x and 10x).
Just like the iPhone, the S23 Ultra will automatically detect if light has dropped and switch to shooting in Night mode. You can switch it off if you don’t want to use it, but what puts it ahead of the iPhone is that you can also activate it manually too if you want to, giving you good scope for shots where the light is mixed.
You can use Night mode with any of the S23 Ultra’s four lenses, with the 1x option putting in the best results – the ultrawide and 3x are decent performers too. The 10x doesn’t quite match up to the others, so for this reason you might also want to consider the standard Samsung S23, which includes the ultrawide, 1x and 3x but leaves you without the 10x option. If low light shooting is your priority, this shouldn’t be too much of a disadvantage and can be bought for a cheaper price.
Night and Portrait can be mixed together, with good results – particularly again with the 1x lens, the 3x option is a bit smudgier.
There’s a good range of other options with this phone too, including Pro and ExpertRAW modes, which you could choose to shoot manually with long shutter speeds and in raw format – especially if you’ve got something to steady the phone on.
The S23 Ultra is likely to be refreshed in spring next year so you might start to see some drops in prices, but, equally you can already pick it up second hand. The Samsung S22 Ultra – this phone’s predecessor – is also a great option too and is certainly worth looking at.
Read our Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra review.
Google Pixel 8 Pro
- From $999 / £999
We thought the Google Pixel 7 Pro was very good, but it just goes to show that there’s still plenty of improvements that can be made. The main sensor of the 8 Pro has 50MP, and is 1/1.31” – that’s the same as the Pixel 7 Pro, but the accompanying 25mm equivalent lens is now f/1.68.
It is joined by two 48 megapixel sensors. The ultrawide has an f/1.95 lens. This compares with last year’s 12MP, f2.2 lens. There’s also a 5x telephoto, which is similar in length to last year’s model (113mm for the new one, compared to 120mm for last year’s). It has the same size sensor, but the maximum aperture is now f/2.8, rather than f/3.5.
The wider aperture lenses are probably helping here, with the sensors able to gather more light. The Pixel 8 Pro also has a “Pro” mode, which gives you controls over things like shutter speed and white balance. There’s very little in the way of lens flare – which can sometimes be an issue with the 7 Pro – while in general, there’s much more detail on show from images from the 8 Pro. It also compares very well with other flagships like the iPhone 15 Pro Max and the Samsung Galaxy S23 Ultra.
Read our Google Pixel 8 Pro Review.
Google Pixel 7 Pro
- From $879 / £849
If you don’t quite have the budget for one of the super-expensive flagships on our list, then the Pixel 7 Pro is an excellent choice. It’s not exactly cheap, but comparatively, it’s a bit of a bargain.
Pixels have made a name for themselves thanks to advanced AI processing and a range of shooting modes that deliver excellent results in a range of different conditions. You get three lenses, with a 50MP f/1.8 main sensor, plus a 12MP ultrawide and a 48MP 5x zoom.
For low-light photography, there’s a Night Sight mode, which automatically activates when low light is detected in the scene. It produces very good results and does it very quickly too. The best results are from the main 1x lens, with the ultrawide also doing pretty well. The telephoto lens is the weakest performer, but it’s still usable in certain conditions.
If you use the phone handheld, then short exposures are created. But, if you have a tripod or a steady surface, then longer exposures enable an astrophotography mode, which might be something that particularly appeals to landscape aficionados – it actually does a pretty good job in use too. You can switch off Night Sight if you prefer, and you can also manually activate it too which is handy, especially in those Astro situations.
In Portrait mode, the phone should also detect low light and activate Night Sight. Again, you can switch it off if you think it doesn’t need it – but the two work well in tandem.
Google has recently announced its next batch of Pixel phones. For that reason, you might find some great deals on the now one-generation old 7 Pro, again especially in the second-hand market.
Read our Google Pixel 7 Pro Review.
Honor Magic 5 Pro
Here we’ve got another more reasonably priced flagship, which you can pick up for under £800 and get comparable performance to a Samsung or an iPhone.
You get three cameras/lenses, each boasting a high resolution of 50MP, pretty unusual in smartphone world. There’s a 1x, an ultrawide and a 90mm equivalent telephoto lens, which is a good focal length – not being too short, or too long.
A Night mode can be manually chosen, but here again you should find that automatically switches on if light levels are low. You can use all of the lenses with Night mode, and you can also switch it off if it’s not quite producing the right results. Overall, low light images are pretty good – with the best results seen from the 1x and ultrawide lenses, but the 3.5x zoom doesn’t do too badly either – though this is because it generally uses a crop of the superior 1x crop thanks to all those extra pixels available.
Other useful modes for low light include a Pro mode, which you can use to set your own shutter speed – choosing a lengthy one while using a tripod is a good alternative to the dedicated Night mode. There’s a Portrait mode here, but it doesn’t mix with Night mode, so if you’re trying to photograph people in low light frequently, it might not be the best choice.
This is already on the cheap side, but if you want to save even more cash, then the Honor Magic 4 Pro can be picked up at an even lower price and also has a well-performing night mode. You can also find these on second-hand sites a bit more readily than the Magic 5 Pro.
Read our Honor Magic 5 Pro Review.
Xiaomi 13 Pro
- $1299 / £1,099
For this phone, Xiaomi has partnered up with Leica for the lenses, so there’s a good stamp of quality. This is another flagship which boasts three 50MP sensors – something which seems to set the “smaller” names apart from the bigger manufacturers like Apple and Samsung.
The main, 23mm equivalent camera also has a physically large sensor too – at one-inch, plus an f/1.9 aperture, which makes it well-equipped to deal with low light, even without using any special modes.
That said, there is a dedicated Night mode which kicks into action if low-light is detected, plus you can activate it manually too. An interesting aspect of the Xiaomi phone is that you can shoot in either “Leica Vibrant” or “Leica Natural” for a slightly different look – and that also applies to Night mode too. The results are very good, with that large 1x sensor putting in the best performance as we’d expect.
A very interesting Portrait mode also comes with this phone, which gives you the options to record using different “Leica” lenses – sadly it doesn’t combine with Night mode though, so it’s probably not the best choice for low-light portraiture.
Like many Android devices, there are other useful modes that you can employ too, such as a Pro mode, which gives you the option to use a slow shutter speed with a tripod. In this mode you can also shoot in raw format to give you better scope for editing too.
While not being the most expensive phone on the market, the Xiaomi 13 Pro still breaks the $1000 / £1000 barrier. But, we typically see prices of these Chinese models come down quite sharply, so there might be some bargains to be had in the future – and it’s still a good saving over the bigger name flagships on this list.
Read our Xiaomi 13 Pro Review.
6 Tips for shooting low-light with your smartphone
To get the most from your smartphone when shooting after dark, try this tips to boost your shots.
1. Use a tripod
You don’t need to lug around a big or heavy “camera” tripod, but a small smartphone tripod – or even a special case mount can enable longer shooting speeds and take your shots up a notch from the handheld results – such as being able to set a longer exposure. Place the phone on the floor or other stable surface for landscape and architecture shots and see how much extra detail can be pulled out.
2. Tap to change the exposure
If the light in a scene is mixed – say with very dark and very bright areas – it can confuse your smartphone. Tapping around the screen to meter from a different point can result in a better overall balance.
3. Turn on Night mode
If your phone allows you to manually switch on night mode, then it can be a good idea to take control yourself. This way you might also get access to further options that you can change too.
4. Shoot in raw if offered
Many smartphones now give you the ability to shoot in raw format. Try giving this a go so you can bring back some missing detail – you might find it’s not compatible with specific Night modes, or that you have to head into a special “Pro” mode.
5. Use the timer
Another way to help keep your smartphone shots sharp is to use the self-timer, if you’re using a tripod. This will ensure you don’t introduce any shake yourself when setting off the shutter.
6. Download editing apps
Not happy with the finished result? You can edit directly in most smartphones native apps, but it’s also worthwhile downloading more extensive editing apps too. Snapseed and Adobe Lightroom Mobile (which you’ll get for free if you have a Creative Cloud subscription) are particular favourites. Instagram also has some editing options too which are worth exploring.
Check out the best photography apps for phones.
See our smartphone reviews and find more tips for smartphone photography below:
- The best budget camera phones
- Black and white smartphone photography guide
- How to take portraits on a smartphone