Nighttime Photography with Smartphones?

I’m not usually one to obsess over tech specs on my laptop, phone, etc. Perhaps that might surprise some people, since I’m definitely a very technical person, and I do sport a lot of fancy gadgets (I’m very fortunate to have a family that likes to gift me such stuff). But for instance, I wouldn’t ever consider trading in my old Toshiba for a new Macbook Pro.

So anyway, yesterday I got to take a day trip to Yosemite with my uncle, grandparents, and cousin.1 My uncle absolutely loves Yosemite (he has many stories of time spent backpacking in the snow in the Yosemite wilderness); as an aside, I was the ring boy when he was married there many years ago.

The trip itself was great; a combination of its being a winter day and the existence of COVID restrictions prohibiting overnight stays (so all tourists basically have to be locals) meant that there were very few people in the valley floor. There were available parking spots at every site. My uncle, with all his Yosemite experience, said that he’d never been able to snag a picnic table at this one particularly popular spot, but yesterday, every single table was available!

Just for good measure, some general pictures from my Yosmite trip. These include Lower Yosmite Falls and, of course, the famous vista from Tunnel View. You can see how few people there are—ordinarily, the observation deck below the waterfall would be packed, I think. (full resolution: left, center, right)

But you probably aren’t reading this post to hear about the fun time I had hiking up to Inspiration Point to watch the setting sun light up El Capitán. To get back on topic, something that really impressed me was the quality of the nighttime pictures that I was able to capture on my smart phone rear camera. (For reference, I’m using an iPhone 11.)

I’m not a photography or optics expert, but it’s my understanding that one area where smart phone cameras have consistently lagged behind DSLR cameras is photography in low-light settings. Something about the light-collecting power of a lens being proportional to the square of its aperture? Now I’m sure that, in the hands of an actual photographer, the DSLR is still a much better “weapon” than a smart phone camera for any sort of photography. But I’d submit that, nowadays, for a person like me who has no clue what he’s doing when it comes to photography, a top-of-the-line smart phone camera is actually better than a DSLR, since it smartly chooses all the correct settings and does some basic editing. I don’t think that this is a particularly controversial opinion.

As a case in point, consider two different nighttime photographs that I’ve taken. In April 2019, I went to the Grand Canyon, which happens to be a national dark sky preserve. I don’t think you want to hear me wax poetic about just how beautiful the night sky was, so I’ll skip that part. I happened to have a Canon2 EOS 60D with me; I tried to take one of those pretty photographs of the stars that you see on the Internet. I set a 30-second exposure or something, but I wasn’t able to capture even a fraction of the stars that my eyes could see.

Rather poor picture of stars, taken at Grand Canyon National Park with a Canon EOS 60D. (full resolution)

On the other hand, the night sky from the Yosemite valley floor isn’t quite as pretty as it is over the Grand Canyon, but it’s still a whole lot nicer than you can see in Pittsburgh. On a whim, I tried to take some pictures with my smart phone, and I was actually really impressed by the results.

Pictures of stars, taken in Yosemite National Park with an iPhone 11. (full resolution: left, center, right)

There’s definitely a lot of noise, but you can actually see the stars (you may need to view the full-resolution versions of the photos; fair warning: the file sizes may be quite large). This is a lot better than I had expected—I am really impressed with what Apple has managed with their recent cameras.

But more than anything, trying (and failing) to take photos that live up to reality has given me a lot of appreciation for just how awesome the good old-fashioned human eye is—and also for the skill that real photographers have.

  1. I’m actually not sure what the proper Chinese term for our relationship is, but in English, pretty much every kinsman in your generation who is not a sibling is an nn-th degree cousin, so I’m going to go with that.↩︎

  2. Sigh…I’ve become a bicycle nerd. I know this because I first mistyped “Canon” as “Canyon,” a German bicycle manufacturer. Alternatively, this is just because I was writing about the Grand Canyon.↩︎