Night has fallen. All of the beautiful golden light that flooded across the landscape during sunset has slowly slipped away over the horizon – replaced by inky darkness and twinkling stars. But that doesn’t mean that you need to put away your camera until tomorrow! In fact, you most likely have an excellent source of light in your pocket or purse right now – your cell phone flashlight!
Whether you’ve packed your camera bag light or are simply looking for a creative way to make a picture work in extremely dark conditions, your mobile phone flashlight is a surprisingly capable and adaptable lighting tool.
Creating dramatic off-camera lighting
You might be wondering; “Why bother with this at all? My camera has a pop-up flash. If it’s dark outside, my flash can provide all the light I need.”
It’s true that you can use your on-camera flash to light a picture even in near-complete darkness. However, the light that comes from a pop-up flash is direct. This isn’t how we experience light on a daily basis; we experience light coming down on us from the sun or light fixtures in the ceiling.
Directional light is that which comes from an angle, and creates pleasing shadows and depth, whereas on-camera flash erases shadows and textures, resulting in a flat look.
Another problem with on-camera flash is that it often kills the ambient or existing light of a scene. If you want to save the soft glow of city lights in the background of your shot, you’ll often find that your on-camera flash is too overpowering and unnatural looking.
Directional light is often what makes or breaks a photo. This isn’t just for photographers using flash. Natural light photographers can spend years learning how to properly position their models in relation to the sun and natural reflectors in order to create pleasing lighting on the subject.
Using a cell phone flashlight allows you to bring the light on your model in from an angle, which can be used to add dimension, enhance textures and create a sense of drama.
Taking the picture
The main advantage of using a cell phone flashlight is accessibility. Most people carry their phone wherever they go, so it shouldn’t be hard to quickly get two or even more light sources that you can use for your picture.
Things to watch out for
Of course, there are also some drawbacks that you need to be aware of when taking pictures with this technique. First off, most mobile phone flashlights aren’t very powerful. Fortunately, there are three ways to make the light more effective.
- Open your aperture wider. With a wider aperture, the camera will collect more light – including the light from your flashlight. Bear in mind that this will also make the whole scene brighter, background and all, so there needs to be a balance.
- Turn up your ISO. A higher ISO means your camera’s sensor picks up more light. Again, this effectively makes your cell phone flashlight stronger. Just like with the previous point, this will also make the background brighter.
- Move the flashlight closer. Saving the most practical method for last – if you aren’t getting enough light on your subject, try moving the light closer. Sure, you may not want to have a hand holding a cell phone in your image, but getting as close as you can, will add as much light as possible.
The second drawback with using mobile phone flashlights is that the color of the light may not be consistent or carefully balanced like you would find in a typical camera flash. This means that using more than one camera flashlight in a shot could result in slight differences of color.
The last drawback is that a phone flashlight is a small light source and, consequently, produces hard light. If you want an exceptionally soft light that leaves very faint shadows, you would need to use a large softbox or umbrella. But we’re aren’t expecting studio light when we pull out our phone – this is a quick and dirty solution to light.
Examples and comparison
But even with these drawbacks, using a phone flashlight allows you to create directional light that results in more interesting images. Consider the following two examples:
A picture lit with a cell phone flashlight will always benefit from some work in the editing room. It’s a good idea to shoot in RAW rather than JPG in order to have as much flexibility as possible with your edits.
The good news is that if you took the time to properly position your lights during the picture, you should have a pretty decent image right out of the camera.
The first step is to make some corrections to the color of the lighting. You may need to play with the White Balance, or even selectively reduce the saturation on a specific color in order to get natural skin tones.
For example, some cell phone flashlights might produce an overly green light. Pulling saturation back on the greens in your editing program will help to fix that.
You might also need to tackle some hot spots in the post-processing phase. A hot spot is when the center of the light is significantly brighter than the edges. This can be corrected with by using a brush to “paint” the hot spot a bit darker.
Play, experiment and have fun!
Practice, practice, practice. Taking the time to experiment will help you to better understand the benefits and drawbacks of this style of lighting.
Of course, if you need high-quality lighting for a shot, don’t expect your cell phone flashlight to produce the same results as a softbox. But if you’re in a pinch and need to improvise some lighting in a hurry, remember that you’ve got a ready-made light source right in your pocket.