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Low Light Shooting with the iPhone

Apple 3Gs iPhone. Location: Skate ramp at sunset, Clifton Hill.

I wanted to share with you example images and my initial conclusions from my second shoot with the Apple 3Gs iPhone. I must say that I haven’t been a fan of mobile phones. I’ve never felt comfortable with the lack of privacy, particularly after hours, which has resulted from our acceptance of mobile phones. I’ve found them to be expensive and have been frustrated by poor reception. However, the fact that I was able to run my last mobile through a car kit was, when it worked, a positive and timesaving feature. And now, with my recent purchase of the new Apple 3Gs iPhone, I’ve really started to embrace the technology. Wonderful design, very good reception, a far superior contract (including $600 of free calls per month), great apps and an intuitive interface have made this a fun and valuable tool. I now rarely use my home phone line.

The above image was made at sunset, with the aid of side lighting, to emphasize some of the structures at the skate ramp. The structures dynamic lines and the warm light contrasting with the cool blue sky make for an interesting image. If I had made the image 10 minutes earlier the brighter light would have produced even darker shadows and resulted in an image with unacceptable high contrast. Timing can be critical in landscape and architectural photography.

Apple 3Gs iPhone. Detail at Sunset, Skate Ramp, Clifton Hill.

For this second image at the skate park I moved in closer and concentrated my composition around a particularly colorful and more evenly illuminated structure. The lower Scene Brightness Range (contrast) present made for an even better result.

Apple 3Gs iPhone. Textural Study to test Sharpness.

At the beginning of my walk I passed this lovely gum tree in the process of shedding its bark due to the hotter summer temperatures. The tree’s trunk and the surrounding vegetation provided a good scene by which to test sharpness. Actually the scene would have appeared sharper if lit with side light but, as I often photograph in open shade, this scene seemed appropriate for me needs.

The Apple 3Gs iPhone LCD screen is high quality: large, bright and relatively high in resolution. But when you look at an image on such a screen you are only viewing it at a low resolution and at 72 dots per inch (dpi), which is really not sufficient to determine it’s sharpness. Viewing the image of the tree trunk may even look quite sharp on your current computer, but viewed at 100% magnification it will lack critical sharpness.

But, put into context, that’s not necessarily a problem. The image was made under low light and may have been adversely affected by slight camera shake. If you’re wanting to make photographic prints from this type of file, you may be disappointed, as I was. But I’m a professional photographer who, as a teacher, prepares people for a life in photography. Most iPhone users could be described as amateur and enthusiast photographers who are probably more interested in the experience and social networking (sharing) aspects offered by the phone’s camera and associated technologies. So, as long as you’re not planning to shoot a wedding with an iPhone, or similar featured mobile phone, you’ll probably find it’s camera worthwhile and of a high enough standard for email, Face Book and the like. I’II write about the ability of the iPhone to produce actual prints, which require a much higher resolution (e.g. usually 300ppi) at a later date.

Apple 3Gs iPhone. Low Light Long Exposure Test.

The final image is somewhat disappointing. It was made on the way home, well after the sun had gone down. Actually the image looked great on the iPhone’s LCD screen, particularly as I was viewing it under near dark conditions. But, when viewed at 100% on my computer monitor, quality concerns became evident. You’ll notice fairly significant noise in the water in the middle and bottom right of the image. Noise describes seemingly random patterns of information artificially generated by the camera’s sensor. Most likely to occur during long exposures and at high ISO’s noise is particularly noticeable in shadows as well as areas of smooth tonality (e.g. relatively still water, blue sky, clear skin, certain building materials). While still present noise is less visible in highly textured areas like grass.

Look forward to more tests and comments with the iPhone over coming weeks.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


4 Responses

  1. Hi Glenn, glad to see you’re enjoying the iPhone. I’ve also recently picked one up and have been plesently surprised. And have certainly enjoyed using it as a medium for photography when I don’t have the DSLR on me.

  2. Have you tried this app for the iphone? http://www.imsense.com/product/iphone/

    The company states that it will reveal detail in low light situations 🙂 – may be worth a look.

  3. Hey Richard,

    Great to hear from you. I’II have a look at the app you mentioned. At this stage I’m really just trying to understand the strengths and weakness of the iPhone for stills photography. When I need more shadow detail I pull out one or two Photoshop tricks. But of course, time always being tight, I’II eventually settle on one or more third party apps, or possibly make my own, to enable me to quickly process iPhone pics to a standard suitable for the outcomes (e.g. Flicker, Facebook, Twitter) best suited to this phone. But right now I’m more interested in discovering and communicating to folks what you can and can’t do with the iPhone. The next step, for those interested, will be apps. I’ve already begun working with a couple.

    All the best,


  4. You the Man Michael,

    It’s great fun playing around with the iPhone. I’II share a couple more pics from mine in a day or so together with some suggestions for folks to made better pics with their own phone camera.

    Hope to see you soon,


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