Short course in low light photography, with 37 examples - by Javier García Gonzalo

Some weeks ago, here at the Club I introduced the young photograper Javier Garcia Gonzalo, a passionate self-taught photographer from Spain. Not only is he a passionate photographer, he's also a natural born teacher. He works hard on learning how to get the best results from his devices, but he doesn't keep it all to himself: he loves to share his knowledge and experience.

I love to share tips and tricks too, but I'm sure I never posted something like this, so I'm more than happy to present you with Javier's short course in mobile low light photography, with no less the 37 of his examples. I took the liberty to share all his examples on Flickr as well (link at the bottom of this post), so you can see the original results of his work.

To the more experienced mobile photographer, a lot of all this will be known, no doubt. I like the fact that his course adresses those who are more or less new to mobile photography, and really would like to get more - or even the best - out of their PureView devices (of course, a lot of his tips can be applied in general).

All you'll see below was written and captured by Javier Garcia Gonzalo.


A year has pass since I took my first camera, a Nokia 808 PureView, and after practicing with both the Nokia 808 and the Lumia 1020 (since September), I thought it could be a good moment to try to explain and show some of the possibilities with those two phones.

In this post I'll give you some advice for low-light or night shots for those starting in mobile photography and to give some ideas of how to take them.

Night shots (people, landscapes and objects):

Night shots can be taken in very different ways and with very different settings depending on the situation and the available light. So I have a few tips for different situations and night moments and some basic explanations.

Basic knowledge for night photos (simply explained):

The lower the ISO, the less light the sensor will collect, but you'll have the advantage of less noise in the picture.

1ISO 200 / 2,7s / Zoom 1,04x

The higher the ISO, the more light the sensor will be able to pick up, but the photos come out with more noise.

2ISO 1600 / 2,7s / Zoom 1,04x



Shutter speed:
The shutter time is the time the camera is collecting information for the photo, and this can range from very fast speeds, 1/5000s for example, to slower speeds like 2 to even 4 seconds.

The slower the shutter speed is, the less light the camera will pick up and the longer the shutter speed the more light the camera will collect. So, even with a low ISO level you can collect more light than with a high ISO level, if the shutter speed is longer in the first one.

5ISO 200 / 2,7s

6(Automode)  ISO 800 /  1/8s


1st The first thing I always do is search something that catches my attention in the environment (a mountain, a beach, a tree, a bridge, the structure of the city...).

2nd Once I choose what I want to capture, I look for the best camera placement to take the picture. If an object is in front, I try to take the image perfectly level and that the object stand:

In the middle if all is almost symmetric.

7 El Bridge

On 1/3 of the photo if the place isn´t symmetric or if I want to give another kind of view.


So the photographed object, bridge… make a direction in the picture, creating a depth sensation.

9Diagonal from below (river)

10 Diagonal from above (bridge)

11Straight from below (Line of the road)

12Straight from above (bridge)

3rd After choosing what you are going to get, you have to look what the light is like in that situation.

If you see that it's a place with lights (lamps or lighting lights for example), the settings I would use would be: ISO 100, 200 (lumia 1020), ISO 50, 100, 200 (Nokia 808) and a not very long shutter speed (1/3s, 1s ... depending on the amount of light, brightness and proximity of them), to avoid the lights will "burn" details from the picture. In the 808 we can use the ND filter to help us in those situations.

***For those kind of pictures we may not need a tripod, but it helps always, so that if you have the oportunity to use it or to hold the phone in any place the picture would be better.

13Here have been burned lights on the right and on the left. (ISO 800 / 4s / with tripod) 

14ISO 200 / 1/2s (without tripod)

15 ISO 50 / 0,7s / Contrast +1
On last 3 photos the lights are not burned like in the first one.

If there is a little bit of light in the place but there isn´t a bulb of light, then we will use: ISO 100, 200… (Lumia 1020) and ISO 50, 100, 200 (Nokia 808) and a shutter speed as long as we would want; to catch all the light we need.

16ISO 100 / 4s

17ISO 100 / 4s / Crop 2305x1082p

 *** We would need a tripod for those photos or at least to hold the phone completely still - which is almost impossible with long exposure time as these. If you don't have a tripod, try to find something (a wall or the top of a car for instance) to rest your hands while taking the shot.

Also very important: if you're going to take this kind of photo with the 1020, before press the shutter bottom, be sure you have kept the phone in the tripod for a few seconds, because the picture could be blurred: the OIS could be moving still. It might be wise to use "shutter delay" as well, so the phone will not be hindered by you touch the hardware or screen button.

I usually preffer illuminated places without direct light to the camera to take night photo

4th In the fourth place I want to mention that it is important to wait untill the ideal light moment to take night picture. In my short experience taking pictures I have seen that there is a lot of difference between taking a photo a few minutes before a dark sky or taking it without having full moon or having a completely dark night.

So it is extremely important to look for those moments when there still is at least some light in the sky. My advice would be to take the night shots always trying to find that moment I said before (especially being landscape). And thanks to the collected light with long shutter speed, phone may get a bright sky even being at night, with bright colors and strong contrasts.

18ISO 100 / 1,91s / Exposure level -0,3

19ISO 100 / 2,7s

Anyway, if you have a completely dark place with no light, it still is possible to take “good” photos too.

20ISO 1600 / 2,7s

*** If you are using the 808 I would tell you to playwith the contrast, saturation and sharpness, because moving them you can achieve very different photos from the same scene and moment.

21ISO 400 / 2,7s / Contrast +2

22ISO 400 / 2,7s / Contrast +1 / Saturation +2

You can also play with the black and white option to give to the photo another appearance.

23ISO 1600 / 2,7s / B&N

24ISO 1600 / 2,7s / B&N (without tripod)

*** In the 1020 case, you should play with the white balance options to achieve exactly what you could want from the picture you are taking. The result could be very different from one to another.

25ISO 200 / 4s (automode)  

26 ISO 200 / 4s (incandescent) 

5th To take peoples photos at night (without flash), you would need the one you are capturing to hold extremely still and you should try to illuminate it focusing it to any light. This way and very carefully you could achieve a good “people photo” not being so blurred.

27ISO 800 / 2,7s (without tripod)

28ISO 800 / 2,7s (without tripod) crop 1966x1106p

6th Playing with long exposures, we could achieve draws from lights or blurred water...

29ISO 100 / 1,23s 

30ISO 50 / 2,7s (draw with a candle) 

31ISO 100 / 3,2s (trail of a car) crop 2256x1095p

***We can also take a faster picture taking less light if we want (in the 808 playing with the exposure level, moving it till -4) being able to capture it without tripod.

32ISO 200 / 1/8s 

33ISO 800 / 1/300s

7th Taking photos of the moon.

For those kind of shots the settings in both phones are so different so Il explain in 2 parts.

-          Lumia 1020:

To take a shot to the moon, you have to put the full resolution mode, ISO 100 and use a shutter speed between 1/800 and 1/5000 seconds (more or less).

34ISO 100 / 1/1250s

-          Nokia 808

You would need: flash on, exposure level -4 and full resolution mode.

(Sometimes you could need ND filter too).

35Flash on, Exposure level -4, Full resolution 

In the photography there isn't one unique valid advice, so please keep in mind those I have given you above are not the only and the best. I hope these tips will encourage people to practice and that they will provide ideas that make them play with their shots. The best thing you can do to improve your photography is practicing with the device you have, and of course try to be imaginative and creative.

And finally I'd like to ask everybody to share his or her pictures and knowledge, because any photo, even if it is not a good one, could create a good idea for another to improve his or her next shots. As it happens with children in school, sharing ideas is the most important thing, because any idea creates another for who listen to it.

Like even when a child's answer isn't the correct one, it would create another idea or answer into the classmates heads... With the photography it's more or less the same; my photos will give new ideas to those who see them - and vice versa. It's so important to share our experiences with others.

Last but not least: be patient, good photos can't be taken the first time (or at least not always :-). Enjoy each picture! :-)

36ISO 100 / 2,7s / Zoom 1,23x

37ISO 800 / 1/8s / 1,37x / recorte de 2110x1362 

by  Javier García Gonzalo, 2014

You will find all Javier's original shots on the PureViewClub Photostream on Flickr.

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