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Before I purchased an iPhone 12 Pro, I was curious about the “night mode” that Apple had introduced in the previous model — how good was it? How would it stack up against my Nikons for the kind of nighttime photography I love so well? The reviews were very favorable, and many included amazing nighttime photographs shot using night mode. Could professional-level nighttime photography be built into such a small and useful device as an iPhone? I wanted to know. So I found out for myself.

This review is an entirely subjective comparison between the Apple iPhone 12 Pro night mode and the Nikon D750 and D850 DSLR’s*. I wanted to find out how night mode performed the way that I would like to use it, which right now is nighttime landscape photography. Bear in mind that the iPhone 12 Pro is the current “Pro” model as of this writing (May of 2021), while the Nikon D750 was introduced seven years ago in 2014 and the Nikon D850 was introduced in 2017.

Night mode is amazingly capable and fun, but it also has some serious limitations. In some situations, it is remarkably good, but in the extreme low light of a moonlit landscape it will lose a lot of detail and produce a lot of digital noise.

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The iPhone 12 Pro’s Night mode did very well on Arcata’s well-lit H Street at the Arcata Minor Theatre. With enough light from the city’s lights and passing cars, there was very little problem with noise (the grainy look). Compared to the Nikons, though, detail was lost in the highlights and shadows — note how the theatre’s name is blown out on the marquee. In all examples here, the size of the detail images reflect the higher resolutions of the Nikon D750 and D850, respectively. - DAVID WILSON

  • David Wilson
  • The iPhone 12 Pro’s Night mode did very well on Arcata’s well-lit H Street at the Arcata Minor Theatre. With enough light from the city’s lights and passing cars, there was very little problem with noise (the grainy look). Compared to the Nikons, though, detail was lost in the highlights and shadows — note how the theatre’s name is blown out on the marquee. In all examples here, the size of the detail images reflect the higher resolutions of the Nikon D750 and D850, respectively.

Using the iPhone’s built-in Camera app, night mode becomes available when the iPhone’s light meter detects a low light situation. In night mode, the camera will take a series of shots of the scene using different exposure settings, and then intelligently create the best image that it can from the series (an example of “computational photography”). The photographer can choose the duration of the night mode process, but one cannot adjust the actual shutter speeds involved.

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The 68 percent waxing gibbous moon and the lights from Trinidad behind me were insufficient illumination for all but the brightest surfaces of the lighthouse for the iPhone 12 Pro Night mode. Compared to the Nikons, the image suffers when there is too little light. It looks ok on the phone, where it is small, and maybe it would be fine as a small image on social media, but it’s far too noisy (the grainy look) for me to print it as an enlargement. It simply needs more light; no doubt it would look better with a larger moon, but I doubt even full moonlight is enough. I look forward to trying this with a full moon. - DAVID WILSON

  • David Wilson
  • The 68 percent waxing gibbous moon and the lights from Trinidad behind me were insufficient illumination for all but the brightest surfaces of the lighthouse for the iPhone 12 Pro Night mode. Compared to the Nikons, the image suffers when there is too little light. It looks ok on the phone, where it is small, and maybe it would be fine as a small image on social media, but it’s far too noisy (the grainy look) for me to print it as an enlargement. It simply needs more light; no doubt it would look better with a larger moon, but I doubt even full moonlight is enough. I look forward to trying this with a full moon.

Longer durations allow objects that are in motion — like the cars and clouds shown — to blur as they move through the frame, but one has no control over the actual aperture, ISO and shutter speeds involved in any of the shots that make up the final night mode image; these will be automatically set by the camera.

Night mode shines best outside at night in fairly well-lit environments like city streets or similar areas such as the Woodley Island Marina examples included. It is also best if you can mount the iPhone on a stable tripod, but it will perform admirably even hand-held in those situations if you’re steady, as my 5-second and 10-second hand-held examples attest.

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An 84 percent waxing moon and the lights of Eureka’s Woodley Island Marina provided enough light for the iPhone 12 Pro’s Night mode to make a good image. In fact, it looks great at first glance. But zooming in (see the Details), one sees that the highlights are blown out again. In editing, I was unable to bring up the shadows very much without exposing lots of noise. As expected, the Nikons both did really well with the shadows, highlights, and noise, partly because I could control the actual shutter speed, and partly because I could select a low ISO (lower ISO yields less noisy images). The iPhone’s Camera app doesn’t allow me to adjust those parameters. - DAVID WILSON

  • David Wilson
  • An 84 percent waxing moon and the lights of Eureka’s Woodley Island Marina provided enough light for the iPhone 12 Pro’s Night mode to make a good image. In fact, it looks great at first glance. But zooming in (see the Details), one sees that the highlights are blown out again. In editing, I was unable to bring up the shadows very much without exposing lots of noise. As expected, the Nikons both did really well with the shadows, highlights, and noise, partly because I could control the actual shutter speed, and partly because I could select a low ISO (lower ISO yields less noisy images). The iPhone’s Camera app doesn’t allow me to adjust those parameters.

Night mode falls utterly flat for my purposes when photographing landscapes, even under an 84 percent waxing gibbous moon. It leaves most of the shadows dreadfully  underexposed and full of noise. One can eliminate the noise in Adobe Lightroom, but it requires a very heavy setting that wipes out far too much detail, leaving the images looking unnaturally smooth, like plastic. Indeed, in other reviews I have seen online, the landscape photos have just that look. In my Trinidad Lighthouse image, I deliberately left most of the noise in to preserve more image detail. Editing is always a matter of personal taste.

What one considers “good enough” is both subjective and dependent on the intended use. I would not want to depend on the iPhone 12 Pro’s night mode to produce a nighttime image that I intended to print very large. There is simply too much noise when it is underexposed. Under ideal conditions, it can capture images that would make decent enlargements, but the real world often deals less than ideal conditions.

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The iPhone 12 Pro whupped the pants off of my Nikons when it came to hand-holding it for long shutter speeds. Under a nearby streetlight and the 84% waxing gibbous moon, it performed admirably with me hand-holding the phone for both 5-second and 10-second exposures. I attribute this to a combination of the Night mode’s computational photography, in which it combines details from many exposures into the result, and to the built-in optical image stabilization of the iPhone’s camera. The Nikon, having no image stabilization nor any computational photography abilities, relied entirely on my steady hand, which was not at all steady for a 5-second exposure, let alone the 10 second one. - DAVID WILSON

  • David Wilson
  • The iPhone 12 Pro whupped the pants off of my Nikons when it came to hand-holding it for long shutter speeds. Under a nearby streetlight and the 84% waxing gibbous moon, it performed admirably with me hand-holding the phone for both 5-second and 10-second exposures. I attribute this to a combination of the Night mode’s computational photography, in which it combines details from many exposures into the result, and to the built-in optical image stabilization of the iPhone’s camera. The Nikon, having no image stabilization nor any computational photography abilities, relied entirely on my steady hand, which was not at all steady for a 5-second exposure, let alone the 10 second one.

Is night mode a “professional” feature? I will say this: if you’re a professional and you find yourself out at night with something to photograph, and all you have is your iPhone 12 Pro, then it’s professional. A professional photographer wants to create the best images possible, and if one didn’t have a DSLR or modern mirrorless camera handy, then night mode could get one by in many cases.

In brighter nighttime situations such as scenes with city lights, night mode does amazingly well — extremely well for a phone camera. And if you need to hand-hold your camera for a several-second exposure, night mode on the iPhone 12 Pro will produce an image with very little motion blur — while my Nikons yielded extremely blurry images in the same situation. That could very well save professionals who find themselves without their real camera or a tripod.

But for all other low light occasions, if you also have your DSLR, a tripod, and the time, the DSLR will give you better results; the Nikons produced much larger, crisper, richer, and less noisy images. Except when it came to hand-holding the camera for multiple-second exposures, where the iPhone 12 Pro’s night mode did a phenomenally better job, there was really no contest.

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The relative sizes of the images produced by the three cameras in this comparison have a bearing on how much the images can be enlarged as prints. Generally, higher resolution images produce better large prints — but size is not everything; even with a large enough image, if it is blurry or noisy it will produce a low quality enlargement. - DAVID WILSON

  • David Wilson
  • The relative sizes of the images produced by the three cameras in this comparison have a bearing on how much the images can be enlarged as prints. Generally, higher resolution images produce better large prints — but size is not everything; even with a large enough image, if it is blurry or noisy it will produce a low quality enlargement.

Notes: All images for this review were shot in RAW format (except for the iPhone angel photos; those were shot in Apple’s regular .HEIC format (I forgot to change it to RAW). Because editing is important to my process, all images have been edited with the attempt to show them at their best — just as I would for any other purpose — with particular attention to maintaining detail in highlights and shadows.

Untested: Night mode also works with the front-facing camera for selfies; it works in Portrait mode; and it works with the iPhone’s time-lapse video features.

* “DSLR” is short for “digital single lens reflex”; you may recall that 35mm cameras were SLRs (with the exception of point and shoot cameras). I used DSLRs in this comparison because that is what I have, but having seen many results from modern mirrorless cameras, I am sure most current models would produce results similar to my DSLRs; the differences between the mirrorless cameras and my cameras would be minor compared to the difference between my cameras and the iPhone 12 Pro’s night mode.

To keep abreast of David Wilson’s most current photography or purchase a print, visit or contact him at his website mindscapefx.com or follow him on Instagram at @david_wilson_mfx and on Twitter @davidwilson_mfx . David teaches Art 35 Digital Photography at College of the Redwoods.


https://www.northcoastjournal.com/NewsBlog/archives/2021/05/30/north-coast-night-lights-iphone-12-pro-night-mode-vs-nikon-d750-d850