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[Tips for WP] Chase the Low Light

Windows Phones Tips: Mike Hill

When I was first introduced to mobile photography I was amazed by the things I saw people were creating with their phones. Coming from a film photography background and watching photography evolve from back then into what it is now with fancy digital single lens reflex and all kinds of high tech stuff I would never understand or be able to afford, I decided to dive head first into this game.

Jumping ahead to today, June 14 2013, phone cameras and low light never really worked well together until now, we have made a decent jump in the right direction with the Nokia Lumia 920 and it’s much talked about low light capabilities. But how much of that was hype and how much was reality? I decided to put it to the test in my own special way, once again racing against time in the way of  Tropical Storm Andrea, I figured with some dark storm clouds above I could test out multiple levels of low light and get some cool shots at the same time. So I hit up a spot I always see from the interstate, a three story unfinished office or hotel that is now abandoned, each story giving me a different level of outside light brightness. I’m the type of dude who takes photos of things, not people so the shutter lag wasn’t a big problem for me. I can see how it would be for street photographers though, but luckily for me I don’t find people crossing the street all that interesting.

TIP  When trying out a new app, before you start editing a photo you should upload one that has never been edited through anything else and then save it. Check to see what the resolution it saved at was, if it’s a lot lower from what it started as before you ran it through the app, then it’s probably best to delete that app and find another way to complete your idea, if you had one to start with. Sacrificing resolution is a big deal, especially if you plan on printing it. Most will give you an output good enough to post to a social network, but that’s child’s play and where the men are separated from the boys, always consider that someone somewhere may want a print of your masterpiece.

Once I got there I realized from the wind, dark moving clouds, thunder and lightning that I had about 30 minutes tops and couldn’t bring my big tripod like I was planning so I grabbed my Joby mini. I was worried that not being able to set the Lumia on a tripod would cause a blur in low light… But damn was I surprised when it handled business quite well even hand held in almost pitch black with a very small amount of light coming from the broken window board I made my entrance from. This pic below was taken with Pro Shot set to black and white with automatic settings and no flash. It came out completely black on my iPhone 5.

That room was so dark I had to use the flashlight on my phone to see where I was going, once I found the stairwell I could see a little bit of light on the second floor coming from the windows, none of them were boarded up. This next one was taken with more light, but definitely not the amount that shows up in the pic especially the rays coming in. This doesn’t show up in the live preview, I didn’t realize until after I got home later and looked through everything how bright they were. I actually lowered the brightness in post to give it a more clean look, this is the edited version, the original was too bright if you can believe that. exact same settings as before, all I changed was the brightness which I lowered by about 40%  in post processing.

TIP  The editing process starts when you see the thing you want to photograph. Pay attention to your light and framing. If you’re like me and mostly shoot in black and white remember that your subject will be reduced to it’s most basic forms and textures. Pay attention to those, the way the light hits them and the little dance they do.

So now onto the third floor which had slightly more light. It wasn’t finished so I was only able to explore a small part of it and had to stop where the elevator shafts were on my right, the lighted area ahead was where the construction had stopped for this floor so I was getting decent overhead light from the roof, but again it was nowhere near as bright in person as it came out in this photo. Same settings as before, unedited, menacing gray skies and very, very little sun.

TIP  Try and get a couple good shots and move on to the next. The best picture is usually your first and the last, so try not to take too many in between that occupies your time and phone memory. There’s more to see.

Hearing that the thunder and winds were picking up I headed to the roof to try and beat the rain. I think we can all agree that the Lumia handles business in low light but I’m pretty sure it’s not waterproof. For this next one I’ll show you and tell you exactly how I set it up and all the way to completion of the edited photo, here is a written and visual process I used for this shot:

I set the Lumia on my Joby Gorilla Pod using the Grip Tight Mount to hold the phone. Open up Pro Shot, set the ratio to 4:3 and leave it on auto settings but lower the saturation to -1. This time I shot in color to get the tones in the clouds. Here is my set up below.

And this is the exact shot below that the Lumia produced from the above pic. Notice it’s more saturated and vibrant.

I didn’t want to do a lot to this photo because it was pretty dramatic as is, so I opened up Fotor and used a 6×4 crop to tighten up the shot, taking some of the ground off and focusing more on the iron bars and the sky. I used the “relief” filter and then lowered the saturation by 45% so that it’s kind of pastel-colored and almost black and white.

TIP  Save your progress often while editing a photo. A lot of the apps crash causing you to lose what progress you’ve made. This way you can just pick up where you left off.

TIP  Check the brightness your screen is set at when processing your photos. The finished result might look different displayed elsewhere or printed. Also note that when you plug the phone in the screen brightens up no matter what setting you have it at, even at the highest setting it will still get brighter while connected so pay attention to that and consider how other people will be viewing it.

A photo is like a memory and it should reflect the way you remember a scene, and not how it actually was. Some people see things differently, some see things like you and will get it, some don’t, and some just need glasses. Your creation is an expression of you, don’t be afraid to experiment and never doubt yourself. When you’re old and gray and look back at the photo you took when you were younger on your now outdated camera phone, you should think, “Damn… I’m a beast.”


  1. Fabulous article Mike! Love the way you bring us into your process and make it entertaining and informative. The images are great and I’m quite impressed with the low light capability of the Lumia phone. Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    • Thank you buddy, for stopping by! Yea the low light feature on the Lumia 920 is pretty impressive, definitely gives it a fighting chance in this game.

  2. Awesome article. I’m very impressed with the low-light capabilities of the Lumia 920. Some low-light photos I took with mine:

    • Woah, these are great! Very impressive man, I especially like the “Pier Cafe, At The Seaport Village” shot and how bright the lights look with the darkened background. The “Ocean Beach Pier” and “Sunset At Scripps Pier” are really nice as well. The low light photos are pretty good with the Lumia 920, I wonder how much better they are with the 928.

      • Thanks. The Pier Café shot was really hard, given the fact that the sidewalk right next to it was lined with extremely bright street lamps (like here: Had to find the right vantage point and adjust WB settings quite a lot. Will definitely re-visit and try different angles.
        Regarding the 928, isn’t the camera on that device basically the same as the one on 920?

        • I see what you’re saying, man that’s another great shot!
          Hmmmm I’m not sure actually if it’s the same camera or not. It may be faster? This is my first time using a Lumia and it’s the only one they gave me, so I really have no way to compare. But I would think there was some kind of even slight bump in the camera.

          • Oh, that other shot of the Pier Café wasn’t taken by me. I was just showing the numerous street lights lined up against the sidewalk which made it impossible to frame that scene with the café in the center.

            btw, I love the effect you created by reducing the saturation to -45. I’ve never tried this before, but it looks really impressive when used correctly (like you did here).

          • Ahhh ok, I see what ya mean. Light can be just as much an enemy as a companion like that :) .

            Thank’s again my friend. I like to try that with filters a lot, sometimes they’re too harsh and I’m not a color photo kind of guy so I like to stay pretty close to black and white usually. Your photos are very impressive, I’ll add you on Flickr and look forward to more!

  3. Awesome read. Totally agree about the resolution. When an app creates less resolution in the saved pic… DELETED! That Lumia handles the dark light well, man.

    • Thank’s my man. Yea it’s pretty impressive in low light, possibly in No light as well, which is crazy!