What is Night Mode and how does it work?

Those following the latest smartphone camera trends have probably heard of “Night Mode”, “Night Sight”, “Bright Night”, or  other similar terms. These new shooting modes seem to give smartphones night vision, and results have proved to be amazing.

What is all this Night Mode talk about, though? How does it work? Is it the right tool for you? Today we are here to tell you everything there is to know about these low-light smartphone shooting modes, so stick around to clear all your doubts.


Understanding low-light Photography and its limitations

Shooting photos in low light has been a challenge since the inception of cameras, simply because they work with light. Technology has come a long way, but certain limitations still stand.

Terms to consider: 

  • ISO: Refers to film sensitivity to light. The higher the ISO, the more sensitive film is to light, making it quicker to expose an image. Raising the ISO also creates more noise.
  • Shutter speed: Refers to the time the sensor is exposed to light. Reducing the shutter speed can make images sharper. A longer shutter speed can be affected by movement, creating motion blur.

Size matters when speaking of image sensors. A larger sensor can handle higher ISO levels and produce less digital noise. More ISO sensitivity also reduces the need for longer shutter speeds, effectively making the image sharper.

Most smartphone sensors are 1/1.7-inches or 1/2.3-inches, with some going a little lower or higher. As you can see in the image above, that is not much. So why not throw a larger sensor in a smartphone and make it all better? 

The main problem here is size is also an important factor to consider with smartphones, as they are packed with technology yet have very limited space. It is very hard to throw a large sensor into the back of a phone. This means smartphone makers are tasked with improving low-light images while keeping sensors small, and the best way to do this is through software. 

Post-processing can increase exposure, tune white balance, level colors, and more. All these changes come with consequences that affect image quality, though. This is why Google and other manufacturers are opting to aid users with techniques known as “Night Mode”, or Google’s “Night Sight”.


How does Night Mode work?

These low-light enhancement modes are a bit complex to understand, but they essentially work similarly to the technique known as HDR.

  • Mobile HDR: What’s all the fuss about?
  • What a pro photographer can do with a cheap Android phone camera

Terms to consider: 

  • HDR: Stands for High Dynamic Range. It is a technique used to balance illumination levels across a photo. HDR is accomplished by shooting multiple images at different exposure levels (usually changing the shutter speed only). These photos are then merged to expose the shadows and lower the highlights, bringing more details cross the frame.
  • Bracketing: General technique of shooting the same image with different settings, then merging them together using specialized software. This is good for when taking a single image won’t suffice.

Essentially, Android Night Mode (or whatever your manufacturer may call it) uses artificial intelligence to analyze the scene you are trying to photograph. The phone will take into account multiple factors, such as light, the phone’s movement, and the movement of objects being captured.

The device will then shoot a series of images at different exposure levels, use bracketing to put them together, and bring out as much detail as it can into a single picture.

A comparison between the iPhone XS and Google's Night Sight.

Of course, there is a lot more going on behind the scenes. The phone must also measure white balance, colors, and other elements, which is usually done with fancy algorithms many of us don’t fully understand.

In this post we’ve mostly discussed Google’s implementation. However, while different manufacturers may use slightly different techniques the overall process should be very similar across the board. 


How Night Mode helps

If we were to simply increase the ISO, the photo would come out either too dark, too noisy, or too softened. Unless you go with a long exposure shot, which requires taking the image over an extended period of time, in which case you need to keep the phone very stable (usually with a tripod). Manually bracketing an image also requires stability.

With Night Mode, the average consumer can forget about carrying heavy tripods, learning complex techniques, or settling with horrible low-light photos.

Edgar Cervantes

With Night Mode you get the best of both worlds. You can hand-hold the smartphone camera, shoot an image over a few seconds, and let the software do the rest of the work. The average consumer can forget about carrying heavy tripods, learning complex techniques, or settling with ugly photos.


Night Mode downsides

Everything comes with a cost in Photography, and Night Modes are no exception. The technique does have its downsides.

The main culprit is that Night Modes don’t do well with moving objects. Because the technique requires multiple shots, subjects in motion can be blurred out, or completely erased. The mode is better equipped to deal with static scenes.

Of course, taking any shot in Night Mode will also take longer. Life is full of fleeting moments, so if you don’t have 3-5 seconds to spare, you best stay away from these specialized shooting modes. You might be better off in Auto if you want to take a picture of that speeding Lambo.


Ready for Night Mode?

Now that you know what Night Mode is all about, you might want to use it for your nighttime adventures. Sadly, not every phone currently offers a night mode feature, but we will list a few of our favorites here. While the phones listed below are all flagships, there are certainly a few budget devices that have introduced the feature such as the Honor 10 Lite and Realme 2 Pro.

Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL

Pixel 3 XL hands on

Night Sight is available on all Pixel phones, but the Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are obviously our favorites. These phones have an amazing camera quality, great image stabilization (which will help with Night Sight), and are awesome devices, overall.

  • Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL review: The Android iPhone
  • Google Pixel 3 cameras: Here’s what they can do
Buy from Google

Huawei P30 Pro

Huawei P30 Pro back standing up (37 of 60)

Of course Huawei’s latest and greatest camera phone does come with Night Mode. The Chinese company is well-known for its photography capabilities, so this could be another great option for you.

  • Huawei P30 Pro review: A phone with superpowers
  • Huawei P30 Pro camera review: Next level optics, low-light king
Buy from Amazon

Samsung Galaxy S10 and Galaxy S10 Plus

Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus Back upright

Samsung’s Bright Night feature used to turn on automatically when it detected very dark environments, but an April update made it possible to activate the feature manually. The phone happens to also be an industry favorite. 

  • Samsung Galaxy S10 review: Finding the middle ground is hard
  • Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus review: Almost apex
Buy from Amazon

OnePlus 6T

OnePlus 6T back

OnePlus calls its own mode Nightscape. Starting at $549, it is the most affordable flagship-level device on this list, but this doesn’t mean it falls behind. The OnePlus 6T is a great smartphone all around.

  • OnePlus 6T review: Fundamentally great
Buy from Amazon

Wrapping up

Is Night Mode here to stay or is it a passing fad? It’s certainly a nice feature to have around when it’s especially dark, but hit the comments to let us know if you will be using this feature. 

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