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How to Shoot Portraits on Your Phone in Challenging Light

Bring your portrait photography to life by harnessing these tools, techniques, and settings behind the lens of your phone. 

Thanks to the rapid advancement of mobile camera technology, you can shoot just about anything on your phone. The latest auto metering and white balance systems will take care of the rest.

But, even the most sophisticated smartphones can be fooled by difficult lighting, resulting in photos that don’t quite turn out how you’d hoped. Undesired traces of image noise, sun flair, low-light, and so on are all products of challenging light.

How can you best navigate shooting portrait photography, with your phone, in difficult light scenarios? It starts with understanding how poor lighting can interfere with your shot.

Great lighting can facilitate a human connection between the subject and the viewer. It can play up the subject’s character or capture them in their best light. Without good lighting, the opposite is true. 

We’ll discuss several difficult light scenarios and how you can overcome their challenges with the right phone settings, tools, and compositions. 

Close-up details of the 11 Pro Max smartphone triple-lens camera with an orange background
Challenging light can present a number of issues for photographers, but can be resolved with the right tools and know-how. Image via Hadrian.

Challenge: Your Subject Is Backlit

Backlighting is created when your subject is positioned with their back facing the light source. This can be the projection of the sun or an artificial light source. It can result in a beautiful halo effect—or rather, a rim of light—around your subject, producing a dramatic and dream-like shot.

That said, it’s a particularly challenging light to work with, as it can result in the underexposure of your subject. The intensity of the light can overpower your subject’s face, producing harsh shadows or even a portrait silhouette.

To avoid this common photography mishap simply illuminate your subject. Photographers will often use a collapsible disc reflector to bounce and redistribute light to areas of the shot that need it.

If you don’t have a disc reflector on hand, using a camera phone’s flash or projecting a soft light on your subject will also do the trick. 

Camera flashes are not always favorable as they can result in harsh lighting while destroying any details in the shadows. A portable LED panel is preferred as they often come with diffusers to produce a softer, more flattering light. 

Challenge: Working with Sun Flares

Sun flares also crop up in backlit photos. While they can be quite beautiful—and are often added into photography in post-processing—they can also be distracting, and sometimes blow out your subject.

To prevent sun flares, block out any direct light hitting your camera’s sensor. That means, you can seek shade under a tree or simply place a hand above your camera lens. 

 A giant tree shelters the noon sun
Block out any direct light. Image via MeowAndMe

By placing your hand above your camera lens, you can block any direct light to your camera’s sensor, thus reducing the chance of lens flares or eliminating it completely. There are also a growing number of smartphone camera attachments and accessories, such as a hooded lens, to block out any flares of light. 

Alternatively, sun flares can be removed from your portraits in post-processing. The app Snapseed, for example, features a Healing tool that allows you to remove sun flares and any other imperfections in the shot. 

To recap, when shooting a backlit portrait: 

  • Block out direct light to your camera’s sensor by moving your subject to the shade, or using your hand or a hooded lens to avoid overexposure or sun flares.
  • Reflect light onto your subject’s face using a collapsible disc reflector or use soft artificial lighting. Use your camera’s flash with care. 
  • Remove sun flares in post-processing using editing apps such as Snapseed. 

Pro tip: To capture a rim light around your subject, shoot your subject before a darker background to create contrast and produce a beautiful backlit glow. 

Challenge: Shooting at Sunrise and Sunset 

We’ve all seen breathtaking sunsets and sunrises. We’ve reached for our phones to take a portrait, only to discover the beautiful photo you thought you took doesn’t reflect what you saw.

As stunning as those golden hours appear, they pose a huge challenge for photographers. This is especially true when shooting portraits, as the sky appears much brighter than the ground. Too often, these photos can share the same fate as other backlit photos.

In addition to the low-light fixes for backlit photos provided above, an ND Grad filter can tame the bright sky and expose the foreground.

Think of this tool as sunglasses for your camera. It darkens the scene to varying degrees, based on the strength of the filter. You can simply add these filters to the front of your phone camera lens, giving you more control over lighting. 

Portrait of a senior farmer standing in a wheat field at sunset holding sprigs of wheat
Have your subject face the sunrise or sunset to take advantage of its soft lighting. Image via Zoran Zeremski

Lighting during the golden hour is soft, diffused, and warm. Take advantage of this flattering light by facing your subject toward golden rays of the sun, not standing with their back to the light.

Sure, you won’t capture the sunset or sunrise, but the radiance of the light will project the golden hour light onto their faces. 

Using a 3/4 facial view is also a favorable position. It can reveal the sunset or sunrise, while illuminating the subject’s face in beautiful soft, golden light.

To recap, when shooting golden hour portraits on your phone:

  • Determine if you want your subject to stand with their back to the sun (resulting in a backlit photo) or face the light. 
  • When shooting a backlit photo, reflect light on your subject’s face. Use a collapsible disc reflector or soft artificial lighting, such as a portable LED light. 
  • Adjust the direction of your subject’s face so they’re facing the golden light cast from the sun. Alternatively, you can use a 3/4 facial view, so three-quarters of their face is illuminated in golden light. 

Challenge: Photos in the Midday Sun

The midday sun is at its strongest and harshest. This makes it one of the most unflattering sources of natural light when shooting portrait photography. Most portrait photographers tend to avoid such lighting, as the sun beaming down directly overhead can result in unfavorable shadows on their subject’s face.

Scouting for a shady area is one way to avoid the sun’s harsh rays. But, when shade isn’t available, it’s best to place your subject with their backs to the sun (if possible) to avoid any squinting. Using artificial light, or a reflector of some kind, can fill in those shadows. 

Since the sun is high in the sky, it will be at its brightest, meaning you have several natural light reflectors at your disposal.

Sand at the beach is a nice natural reflective surface, as the light bounces back onto your subject’s face and fills in shadows. Light-colored floors, or any natural reflective surfaces, also do the trick. 

Portrait of African American grandparents and grandchildren at the beach with a blue sky and fluffy white clouds in the background
Shooting portrait photography in the midday sun is tough, but you can use reflective surfaces to combat unfavorable shadows. Image via wavebreakmedia

To recap, when shooting portraits in the midday sun on your phone:

  • Place your subject with their back to the sun (if possible) to avoid any squinting.
  • Use artificial light or a reflector to fill in shadows. This can include natural light reflectors, such as sand at the beach, or light-colored floors.

Challenge: Low Lighting

Shooting in low light can be a pretty frustrating experience. It often results in noisy, dark photos that are susceptible to motion blur. Smartphone cameras tend to lengthen shutter speed to better expose images, which can only worsen these issues. 

You need wide apertures, long exposures, and stability to shoot in low light. As technology advances, camera phones are becoming more equipped to shoot in low-light conditions.

For example, the latest iPhone 13 Pro and iPhone 13 Pro Max feature the most advanced cameras on iPhones. They feature all-new Wide cameras with large sensors of 1.9 µm pixels. This leads to less noise and faster shutter speeds across all lighting conditions. 

In low-light scenarios, it’s wise to take advantage of your phone’s Night Mode settings. Low-light photography mode goes by different names depending on your phone’s manufacturer.

Google calls it Night Sight. Samsung calls it Bright Night. Apple calls it the Night Mode icon—a yellow moon that automatically pops up at the top of your camera’s display in low-light environments. 

A portrait of a beautiful asian woman in low spirits leaning on a table with a dark moody backdrop
Low-light scenarios require wider apertures and longer exposures. Image via linlypu.

By keeping the shutter open for a longer time, you allow more available light to illuminate the image. Extending the exposure on your phone, depends on its manufacturer.

On an iPhone, for example, use the slider above the shutter button to choose Max, which extends the capture time. When you press the shutter button, the slider becomes a timer that counts you down until the end of the capture time. 

For best results, place your phone on a solid surface, or use a tripod to increase stability and exposure clarity. 

To recap, when shooting low-light portrait photography on your phone:

  • Take advantage of your smartphone camera’s Night Mode.
  • Opt for longer exposure settings to capture as much light as possible.
  • Use a tripod or solid surface to avoid motion blur.

Challenge: Using Portrait Mode 

We’d be remiss without mentioning Portrait Mode while discussing smartphone portrait photography—specifically Apple’s Portrait Lighting Mode, which changes the way the light shows up on your subject. 

Man looking at his phone while standing on the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset with the city's skyline in the background
Apple’s Portrait Lighting makes it possible to apply lighting styles to your portraits. Image via Personal Belongings

To start, Portrait Mode creates a depth of field effect, so your subject really pops before a blurred background. It essentially recreates photos taken on a DSLR or mirrorless camera with a long lens and shallow depth of field.

Apple’s Portrait Lighting feature makes it possible to apply styles of photographic lighting to your photos, depending on your wants and needs.

These aren’t filters. Instead, they change the way light shows up on your subject and can make your image look stylized. There are six Portrait Lighting effects, so no matter what lighting situation you find yourself in, you can find your best setting.

Natural Light is the default setting and keeps your photos looking as natural as possible. However, in low-light situations, this might be your most ideal option.

Studio Light allows you to brighten up your subject’s face, while Contour Light adds shadows to create a more defined look.

Stage Light blacks out the background. High Key-Mono is the same as Stage Light Mono. However, there’s an option to make the background white instead of black. 

Pro tip: Did you know Portrait Mode has its own brightness slider? To access it, just tap on where you want to focus in Portrait Mode, then drag your finger up or down on the sun icon next to the yellow focus box. 

Challenge: Manual Mode 

One of the best ways to mitigate the challenges of light is to manually adjust settings, such as shutter speed and ISO. Many Android and Windows phones have a Manual Mode feature.

There are, however, a plethora of apps, including VSCO, Manua Camera DSLR, and Oscura, that allow you to tailor these settings to your needs. 

Challenging light scenarios often require some experimentation to figure out what works. The tips mentioned above can be used as your guide. Return whenever you need a refresher, but ultimately, nothing beats good ol’ trial and error.

So, grab your phone, take photos in various lighting, and have fun!

Cover image via Liderina.

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