Light and Exposure in Smartphone Photography: A Complete Guide

light and exposure smartphone photography

Do you struggle to take professional-quality photos with your smartphone?

You’re not alone.

Fortunately, it turns out that most smartphone cameras are capable of taking stunning shots. You just have to know a few techniques!

Light and exposure smartphone photography
Your smartphone camera can take impressive shots, like this.

And in this guide, you’re going to discover everything you need to know about smartphone photography light and exposure–the bread and butter of smartphone photography.

Are you ready to start taking amazing photos with your smartphone?

Let’s get started.

person taking picture with smartphone.
Anyone can take incredible smartphone photos with the right techniques.

Smartphone Photography Exposure: The Basics

First things first:

What is exposure? 

Exposure refers to the overall brightness of an image. Whenever you take a photo with your smartphone (or any other camera), you could end up with several possible photos.

For instance, you could take an extremely dark photo, which would be underexposed. The key sign of underexposure is a lack of details in the dark parts of an image.

This photo is underexposed:

underexposed image
When a photo is underexposed, it is overly dark and lacks detail in the dark areas.

You could also take an extremely light photo, which would be overexposed. Overexposure is seen in the whites of an image–they lack details.

This photo is overexposed:

overexposed image
An overexposed photo is overly bright. The light areas lack detail.

Your goal is to create a perfectly exposed photo: A photo with details in the darkest shadows and the brightest whites. Perfectly exposed photos nearly always look better than their underexposed and overexposed counterparts.

This seems like a real challenge. How do you manage to perfectly expose a photo?

Fortunately, it’s not as hard as it sounds.

First of all, your smartphone has something called autoexposure. Basically, it evaluates the scene in front of you and selects the exposure it thinks best. It does a pretty good job, most of the time.

autoexposure Light and exposure smartphone
Autoexposure can be a useful tool to get the right exposure for your shot.

And when your smartphone doesn’t do a good job? What then?

Pretty much all recent smartphone models allow you to adjust the exposure yourself, after looking at the display in the camera app. So if you see that the image seems too dark, you can raise the exposure. And if you see that the image is too bright, you can make it darker.

Here’s how you alter exposure on several popular smartphone cameras. If I don’t mention your smartphone model, don’t worry. You can still adjust the exposure–just check your camera app, as well as your smartphone manual.

well exposed smartphone photo
Using manual exposure can be more helpful if you have a certain style in mind, or the auto exposure function isn’t performing as you’d like.

Related Post: 9 Top Smartphone Cameras in 2018

How to Alter the Exposure on a Google Pixel

If you have a Pixel, altering the exposure is easy.

Simply tap on your main subject (the area you want to be sharp). An exposure/brightness slider will appear on the side of the screen.

Then swipe up on the slider to raise the exposure, and swipe down on the slider to lower it.

Pixel exposure settings

Note that, wherever you tap, your Pixel will focus. Which is why I suggested tapping on the main subject.

How to Alter the Exposure on an iPhone

To change the exposure on an iPhone, tap an area you want to be sharp. This will automatically set the focus.

iphone exposure settings

Then swipe up or down on the camera display. And watch as the image lightens and darkens.

How to Alter the Exposure on a Samsung Galaxy Smartphone

To change the exposure on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, tap on an area you’d like in focus.

An exposure slider should appear on the screen. Swipe along this slider to make the image lighter or darker.

Light and exposure smartphone photography samsung settings
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Smartphone HDR: A Great Camera Setting for Enhanced Detail

Now you should have a pretty good sense of smartphone exposure.

But there’s one more thing you should know about, and that’s HDR.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It involves taking several different photos and merging them together–while taking the best details from the best shots.

This is important because pretty much every camera (smartphone or otherwise) is limited. You can’t capture a full spectrum of darks and lights in the same shot. So if you’re taking a photo with dark blacks and extreme whites, you’re probably not going to get a perfect exposure–no matter how much you play around with your camera features.

Look at this (non-HDR) photo taken with a smartphone. The whites and blacks have lost some detail, because smartphones just can’t cope with this tonal range:

non-HDR picture
When you have a lot of contrast, the dynamic range of your camera prevents you from getting the most detail in your image.

However, HDR allows you to capture a smartphone photo with perfect detail everywhere–because it uses more than one photo to capture those details. It takes a few light photos, a few mid-exposure photos, and a few dark photos. Then it creates a well-exposed composite.

This photo was taken with HDR. Notice how the clouds are light, but not without detail. And the waves are dark, but they retain details, too!

HDR seascape
Using your smartphone’s HDR function will allow you to get detail in all areas of your image.

HDR is especially useful in high-contrast situations. If you’re shooting a dark subject on a bright background, HDR can save your image. HDR is also useful when shooting sunrises and sunsets. The foreground tends to be far darker than the sky–so HDR will help expose properly for it all.

An HDR feature exists on most smartphones.

But how do you actually activate this feature?

How to Activate HDR on a Google Pixel

On a Google Pixel, the HDR setting is referred to as HDR+.

To turn on HDR+, open the camera app. Swipe right at the bottom of the screen until you see the More option.

Then tap Settings, then Advanced.

HDR Setting google pixel

Finally, tap the HDR+ control switch.

Related Post: Best HDR Cameras

How to Activate HDR on an iPhone

HDR setting iPhone

To activate HDR on an iPhone, open the camera app. Across the top of the display, you should see an HDR icon. Tap that, then (if prompted) select On.

If you don’t see the HDR icon, you may need to turn off auto-HDR from within the Settings menu.

From the Home screen, tap Settings, then Camera, then toggle off Auto HDR.

Now go back into the camera app, and follow the earlier instructions. You should be able to take HDR photos!

How to Activate HDR on a Samsung Galaxy Smartphone

To activate HDR on a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, open the camera app.

HDR Setting samsung

Tap Settings (the gear icon), then tap HDR (Rich tone) to activate the HDR option.

Related Post: How a Smartphone Can Help You Become a Better Photographer

Working With Light on a Smartphone: 4 Tips for Stunning Photos

Now that you know all about exposure, it’s time to learn about exposure’s main companion:

Light.

Light constantly affects exposure. Different types of light alter your ability to expose. And certain lighting scenarios result in much easier exposures than others.

Light and exposure smartphone photography
Light and exposure go hand-in-hand, you need to consider both when shooting on your smartphone.

Unlike exposure, light is about choice. If you’re working with natural (outdoor) light, you have to choose whether to go out at midday, or in the late afternoon, or in the morning on a cloudy day. You have to choose how to position your subject in relation to the sun.

And in the next section of this article, I’m going to give you four tips for working with natural light.

Starting with:

1. Shoot During the Golden Hours for the Absolute Best Light

Smartphones aren’t always quite as good as DSLRs at capturing a full spectrum of tones.

But when you shoot during the golden hours, it hardly matters–because your photos will just look incredible.

The golden hours refers to the hour or two just after sunrise and the hour or two just before sunset. This is when the sun is low in the sky, and it casts a fantastic golden glow over the entire scene.

Which makes for amazing photos.

person shooting in golden hours.
The golden hour is an excellent time to shoot.

In fact, the golden hours are the best time for all types of photography, be it landscape, macro, wildlife, portrait, street, or travel. They really are just that good.

Just make sure to use your smartphone exposure controls to keep details in the shadows. It’s easy to let the photo become too dark–and, in the process, lose details. So always be mindful of the exposure of your golden-hour photos, and be prepared to add a touch of brightness.

(Better yet, shoot in HDR!)

palm tree hdr
Using HDR can enhance a photo.

Related Post: How to Shoot Better Landscape Photos With Your Smartphone

2. Shoot During Cloudy Light for the Best Colors

Golden-hour light is the best light for smartphone photography, hands down.

But there’s another type of light that works pretty well. And it’s especially useful for photographing subjects with bright colors:

Cloudy light.

You see, clouds diffuse the bright sunlight, making it nice and soft. And that soft light helps bring out colors.

Flower photographers love cloudy light for that very reason. Because you can capture photos like this:

cloudy light flower colors
Shooting in cloudy light helps bring out the colours in your subject.

Notice how the hues are deep and saturated? That’s the wonderful effect of the cloudy light.

Another great thing about cloudy light is that it makes for very even exposures. That is, the softness creates low-contrast scenes, which are easy for cameras to capture. Smartphone cameras, in particular, will do very well with cloudy-day, low-contrast scenes.

Light and exposure smartphone
Cloudy light makes for low contrast scenes which your smartphone can handle with ease.

Here’s the bottom line:

While the golden hours are great for smartphone photography, cloudy days work well, too. And you should take a lot of photos on cloudy days if you’re a photographer who often works with bright colors.

3. Use Frontlight to Capture All the Details of Your Subject

While the golden hours are a great time for smartphone photography…

…not all golden hour lighting is equally fantastic.

Because you can’t just point your smartphone and shoot. You have to think about the direction of the light.

beach picture Light and exposure smartphone
It’s important to consider the direction of light when doing photography.

What do I mean by this?

When the sun is low in the sky, it has direction in relation to your subject.

For instance, if the sun comes from off to the side of your subject, it’s sidelight.

If the sun comes from behind your subject (and points toward your camera), it’s backlight.

And if the sun comes from in front of your subject (but behind you, the photographer), it’s frontlight.

While sidelight and backlight have their place, frontlight should be your go-to lighting direction as a smartphone photographer.

person using smartphone
Shooting using frontlight is a good default option. It provides even light and shows all the detail in your subject.

Why?

Because frontlight evenly illuminates your subject. It shows off all of the beautiful detail–without creating harsh, contrast-heavy shadows.

Of course, you should still pay attention to the exposure on your smartphone, and be prepared to make any necessary adjustments.

But with frontlight, you won’t need to do this very often!

4. Use Backlight to Capture Stunning Silhouettes

Here’s one of my favorite lighting tricks for you–which will allow you to capture stunningly dramatic silhouettes, like this:

backlight silhouette Light and exposure smartphone photography
If you’re trying to take silhouette photos, you should shoot using backlight.

You can do it in three steps.

First, find a nice subject. Something with a clear outline that you can easily position against the sky.

Second, make sure that your subject is backlit by the rising or setting sun. Ideally, the sun won’t appear in the picture; you can block the sun with your subject, or you can compose so that the sun is just outside the frame.

I suggest getting down low so that your subject is framed by the sky. Also, make sure that nothing intersects your subject–this will cause problems with the final silhouette.

Third, frame the photo with your smartphone, and underexpose by a significant amount. Drag the exposure slider until you have absolutely no detail in your subject (but a nice, colorful sky).

And you’ll have a stunning smartphone silhouette!

Related Post: 3 Must-Have Smartphone Apps

Light and Exposure in Smartphone Photography: Next Steps

Hopefully, you now feel confident about working with light and exposure on your smartphone.

Because smartphone photography doesn’t have to be difficult. And you can take stunning smartphone images–as long as you follow these techniques.

well exposed building
If you keep these simple light and exposure techniques in mind, you’ll get stunning smartphone images.

So remember to think about light. Remember to think about exposure.

And, when you can, get out and start shooting!

Light and exposure smartphone beach picture
Consider light. Consider exposure.

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