How to Shoot Great-Looking Low Light iPhone Video

January 15th, 2018
How to Shoot Great-Looking Low Light iPhone Video

Shooting quality low light iPhone footage is not only possible, it can actually work well. Here are some tips for achieving some great results.

low light iphone

 

First of all, I need to say the video below was shot with the utmost skepticism that anything useable would come of it. It is, however, a great example of how your smartphone can turn any outing into a story. I was at the Dubai Opera for a show with no intention of shooting anything until I arrived. I figured I might as well use up what battery life I had left and take advantage of the beautiful surroundings.

Here’s the somewhat accidental result after editing and grading in Resolve.

How To Shoot Great Looking Low Light iPhone Video

The next video below is a full tutorial which reverse engineers the above video. I’ll show you how I set up FiLMiC Pro for this shoot, and dive deeper into noise reduction in DaVinci Resolve.

Keep Your ISO Low

The biggest enemy of getting acceptable results when there’s really not enough light is noise. Under-exposure means gain, and gain means noise, and noise – when it comes to video shot with a smartphone – usually means the shot is unusable. I have pretty much zero tolerance for noise, and I won’t think twice to throw out the shot. Many shots won’t make the cut and, in the case of an experimental shoot like this, if too many shots are noisy I won’t bother cutting anything at all.

What I’ve learned shooting with a phone is there is a golden rule when it comes to noise, and the golden rule is lock your ISO as low as possible. In this case, the interior shots were locked at ISO 22, and exterior shots further away from the light spilling out of the building were at a maximum ISO of 125.

Flicker – Be Careful of Lighting Power Frequency

I normally shoot at 24fps, but in this case the building’s interior lighting was all the light I had, and some of it is not flicker free as it’s driven at 50Hz. This meant I needed to shoot this video at 25fps instead. It’s important to adjust your frame rate, or sometimes your shutter speed, to avoid flicker.

Shutter Speed – Go Slow

When there’s not enough light to get a good exposure at your standard 180 degree shutter (this would be 1/50th sec at 25fps) then don’t be afraid to shoot at minimum shutter speed. In this case most shots are at 1/25th sec shutter speed. This gives you a full stop increase in exposure compared to locking at 1/50th sec. A bit more motion blur is better than video noise. Noise can kill a shot, but as long as you keep your phone steady, a bit of motion blur on subjects moving through your shot is not going to be a big problem.

Let Go of the Shadows – Use the Light

Just let it go. You’re not going to get any usable information out of the deepest shadows. Even protecting your mid-tones can be touch-and-go depending on the shot. What you will get are the highlights, and you should try and find shots where the brightest lit highlights help define the shapes, areas and action you want to capture.

If light is spilling against a wall, use it. In the case of the Dubai Opera, there is a massive chandelier hanging down through multiple stories providing some light that reflects back off the polished marble floors and glass. Architectural lighting inside or outside a building can provide all kinds of possible interesting shots, and angles where you can find acceptable exposure.

Go Easy on Noise Reduction

It happened with this video that many shots didn’t really need any noise reduction. However, I did use DaVinci Resolve’s temporal noise reduction in the luma channel only, with frame averaging at 1 frame, and luma threshold of 20. This is pretty light when it comes to NR, but it was enough to clean up the noise. If you have time, you can use power windows, qualifiers or a combination to mask and get more selective over which parts of the image you tackle with noise reduction.

Know the Limits

The one thing I always keep in mind shooting with my iPhone regardless of lighting conditions is that it’s a device with limitations. If you know and understand the limits, you can compose shots that avoid the limitations and give you good results by playing to the capabilities of a smartphone image sensor. These are always going to be the shots that come out best, and that you’ll end up using.

Give it a try and let us know what kind of results you get. Feel free to ask questions in the comments and let us know what you think of these techniques.

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Oscar M
MemberJanuary 15th, 2018

nice result – all described applies to all cameras – no iPhone secretes there:)

 Bernard Shaw
Bernard Shaw
MemberJanuary 16th, 2018

The iPhone X is an amazing camera when using Filmic Pro extreme 1.8 stabilized lens. In goo light is is really startling how good it can be especialling shooting log. Yes it is not a high end cinema camera. Still it is really useful in so many ways during high end weddings being so small and unobtrusive.

The writer of this piece is an extremely competent and experienced pro. Thank you so much for the very useful article

Aimee Blue
Aimee Blue
GuestJanuary 11th, 2019

Thank you so much for suggesting FilmicPro. Just bought the app and it is awesome.

Jeff
Jeff
Guest13 days ago

I could use some advice.

I’m exploring using an iPhone for creative shooting and have upgraded from a 6s to a 11 Pro. I’m so far concerned with the results I’m getting comparing the two models.

For consistency of comparison, I’m using FiLMiC Pro settings of 4K, 24fps, FiLMiC Extreme, and Natural gamma curve.

Even in good light, the 11 Pro has a higher base ISO (32) and is noticeably more noisy than the 6s at its base (23).

On the 6s, low light shooting is noisier, but seems to resolve more naturally – the noise moves ‘freely’, and the detail ‘behind’ the noise reads well, with natural looking gradual shadow fall-off. It seems like it would respond well to careful noise reduction/film grain application, whereas the image I’m getting from the 11 seems far too degraded to do much with.

On the 11 Pro, in low light I’m seeing smudgy noise, smeary loss of detail (especially on the margins of the frame), and color banding in exposure fall off (like along a neutral wall as it goes into shadow).

Click on the links below for examples of the 11 in less than ideal lighting conditions The first clip was shot with a ludicrous ISO (1920) specifically to bring out the way the 11 interprets low light level detail :

Smearing & Smudging – 11 Pro 1920 iso 24 shutter (https://youtu.be/m2RX3msSM18)
Banding – 11 Pro 32 iso 48 shutter (https://youtu.be/gSEAXHU6ID4)

The 11 Pro is brighter, but going from a low Average Picture Level to high, there’s a flooding of light into the sensor (I think) – basically, even with ISO and Shutter Speed set, there’s a huge visible exposure shift. This is still present in the 6s, but far less pronounced, leading me to believe it’s common to how light enters the lens and hits a small sensor, with the increased dynamic range of the 11 making the shift more problematic. Would a ND filter (or UV, or CPL) soften or spread the way light hits the sensor?

The 11 Pro is more detailed (in good light), but going from movement to resting compositions, there is an artificial-looking ‘grabbing’ of fine detail. Sharpening?

Check out the example below for ‘detail grabbing’ on the porch railing, and ‘sensor flooding’ during tilts and pans:

Grabbing & Flooding – 11 Pro 32 iso 24 shutter (https://youtu.be/T0ltkTF9QKE)

Did Apple change something fundamental in their iPhone camera systems somewhere between the 6s and the 11 Pro? I briefly checked out a friend’s iPhone 8, which seemed consistent with my experience of the 6s – specifically, the same kind of ISO noise. It was a bit more pronounced, but so was the apparent detail, and I didn’t find it objectionable in the least.

I’m left wondering if there’s a model at which I part ways with Apple’s approach to image-taking, or if there’s simply something wrong with my 11 Pro.

– Jeff

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