5 Tips for Low-light Photography using Manual Mode on Smartphone

mobile phone long exposure low light photography

In  the last couple of years, smartphone manufacturers have realized that camera is one of the key deciding factors when it comes to buying a smartphone. The megapixels have increased, sensor size has gone bigger and the latest addition has been the manual mode.

The manual mode in the smartphone camera app allows you to adjust the camera settings such as shutter speed, ISO, white balance, focusing mode and exposure compensation. By playing with the shutter speed you can tell the camera to open the shutter for the duration of time that you wish to.

If you want to capture the milky flow of water, star trails, light trails or click photos in low-light conditions, using a slow shutter speed will allow you to achieve the desired results. But there are few things that you need to keep in mind while clicking long exposure photos using the manual mode on a smartphone camera app.

1. Don’t go too slow with the shutter speed

One thing that the smartphone camera does not allow you to change while using manual mode is the aperture value. This means that if your phone camera features aperture value of f/2, you will have to click photos at f/2 in manual mode and you can not change it.

The aperture at f/2 is wide open and lets in more light, thus reducing the possibility to use slower shutter speed. The best way to select the apt shutter speed is to select a shutter speed in the manual mode and simultaneously your smartphone screen would show the exposure that your smartphone camera would capture. Sometimes this trick would not work, so you would have to use the hit and trial method to get the long exposure photo that you desire.

If you have clicked photos in low-light conditions using a DSLR camera and have a fair idea as to how long you want the shutter to remain, you will have to remember that the mobile camera would not let you adjust the aperture opening. So you will have to select a shutter speed 2-3 stops faster than what you would use on your DSLR camera.

mobile phone long exposure photography
Clicked using Asus Zenfone Zoom – EXIF: 10 sec, f/2.7, ISO 50

2. Use minimum ISO value available

ISO is the sensitivity of your camera to the available light. When you double the ISO number while using the manual mode on your mobile camera app, the light required by camera reduces by half. Similarly, if you reduce the ISO number by half, the light required gets doubles in order to correctly expose the photo.

Lower ISO number = More light required = You will be able to use lower shutter speed  = Less grains

Higher ISO number = Less light required = You will have to use faster shutter speed = More grains


If you set the minimum ISO value while using the manual mode on your smartphone camera app, you would be able to use a slower shutter speed as the camera sensor is less sensitive and would require more light to exposure the scene. On the other hand, if you use higher ISO value then you will have to use a faster shutter speed to make sure that the photo does not get overexposed.

Another advantage of using low ISO value is that it reduces the possibility of grains appearing in your photos. As you increase the ISO sensitivity of your smartphone camera, you will notice grains in your photos.

mobile phone long exposure photography
Clicked using Asus Zenfone 3 – 5 sec, f/2, ISO 50

3. Use manual focus mode

While clicking a photo in low-light condition, your smartphone would struggle to focus on the subject and will keep on going back and forth. This happens because your camera is not able to detect any contrast in the scene, due to which it fails to focus. To get the focus locked on the subject and to make sure that the photo is clear and sharp, you will have to set focus manually using the manual focus in manual mode.

While using the manual focus mode, the mobile camera lens would not focus on the subject when you tap on the screen. You will manually have to move the focus scale being displayed on the screen in order to focus on the subject.

mobile phone long exposure photography
Clicked using Asus Zenfone 3 – 5 sec, f/2, ISO 50

4. Use a tripod to avoid shake

When you are clicking photos in low-light conditions, you would be bound to use a slow shutter speed which could be in seconds. Clicking photos handheld in low-light with long exposure would result in camera shake, thus resulting in shaky and blur images.

By using a tripod you can make your smartphone stand still at one place and avoid camera shake which would have been there if you click handheld. If you are using a shutter speed slower than 1/60 second, it is advisable that you place your smartphone on a tripod to avoid any kind of shake.

To get started, you can get your hands on the Manfrotto Pixi tripod or Manfrotto Pixi Evo 2 tripod, which can easily fit in your bag.

manfrotto pixi evo 2
Manfrotto Pixi Evo 2

5. Use timer to avoid shake

The last and an important tip that you need to bring into practice while clicking long exposure photos is to switch-on the 2-second timer, which is featured on a majority of smartphones. Using the timer will eliminate the camera shake that is caused when you tap or click the shutter release button on your smartphone.

mobile phone long exposure low light photography
Clicked using Asus Zenfone Zoom – 4 sec, f/2.7, ISO 100

If you have any questions related to low-light photography using manual mode on the mobile phone or if you wish to share some of your clicks, feel free to do so in the comments section below.

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