Portable Lighting Could Make Your Smartphone Pics Look Better

Control the light, control the image

  • Portable lights can elevate your photos from dull to amazing. 
  • The Profoto C1 Plus is a portable studio light for phone cameras. 
  • Off-camera lighting with a phone is much easier than most other kinds of photo lighting.
A hand holding the Profoto C1 Plus portable lighting for smartphone cameras.


With night mode, sweater mode, and all the other modes, do we need to use lighting with our phone cameras?

Phone cameras are incredibly capable. They can shoot in the near dark. They stitch panoramas together instantly, blur the backgrounds of portraits, and have you ever wondered why you never get a photo of somebody blinking, even in a group shot? And yet there’s one thing any camera needs to make a good photo, no matter how clever its computers brain—good lighting. 

"While sweater mode and night mode are helpful, there is nothing substitute for good lighting," Robert Lowdon, a professional photographer, told Lifewire via email. 

BYO Lighting

There are two main reasons to use external lights for your photographs: Quantity, and quality. You can add more light when you don’t have enough. Smartphone cameras do an amazing job with low light, either layering multiple exposures together, or using algorithms to tease more information from the darkness, but more light is always better in this regard. 

"Dark environments can introduce all sorts of artifacts into your shots, including noise and pixelation," professional travel photographer Kevin Mercier told Lifewire via email. 

Smartphones have their own built-in lights, and these can help, but they suffer from the same problem that on-camera flashes have suffered forever—a small light, close to the lens, creates a harsh, unflattering light for portraits, and adds ugly shadows. 

"Using a flash tends to wash out pictures, and the autofocus features on the iPhone may have difficulty in low-light situations," Michael Ayjian, co-founder of 7 Wonders Cinema, told Lifewire via email.

Lights, Camera, etc.

To deal with this, there are ever more lighting rigs meant for smartphones, like the new Profoto C1 Plus. Unlike flashes—which are a no-go because phones have no way to trigger a flash in sync with the camera’s shutter—these lights are continuous. And because they use LEDs, they stay cool, so they’re good even for extended use indoors. One note—the Profit C1 plus can also be used as a flash with regular cameras, and with your phone via an app. 

Continuous lights like these have another advantage over flash—you can see what you’re getting before you take the photo. This means you can compose the shot, and the lighting, and get everything just right before taking the picture. 

Compare this to the days of using flash with film. Everything was done blind. There was no way to dial in the flash exposure, or even check to see that you had correctly aimed the light at the subject until the films were developed. If that sounds terrifying, it was. But if you managed to learn flash lighting, you would be rewarded with dramatic results.

Someone using the Profoto C1 Plus portable smartphone light while taking still life pictures.


"Lighting makes the picture. Like with all cameras, the quality of pictures taken by an iPhone is still dependent on the quality of lighting. While you don’t need a professional lighting set up to take quality photos, having a knowledge of where to place subjects in relation to light sources will help greatly when lighting a shot," says Ayjian. 

Bringing your own lights gives you way more control over your images. You can pick out a subject from the background, you can flatter a portrait subject’s skin, or make them look rugged. In the end, photography is all about light, and if you control the light, then you can do anything you want. 

And you don’t even need to invest in extra gear. Camera phones are so flexible that you can just grab any lamp from around your house and start experimenting. You might want to take a look at using light modifiers—reflectors and diffusers) to make those lights less harsh, but why not just start playing? 

A great, if old, place to learn about off-camera lighting is at The Strobist, a blog that teaches lighting, and contains several courses on using it. It’s designed around flash with regular cameras, but the principles are the same for continuous lights and phone cameras. But whether you’re diving into the principles of lighting, or just shining a flashlight through a colored cellophane candy wrapper, it’s totally worth experimenting, because whatever you come up with, you can guarantee that nobody else will be getting the same effect from an Instagram filter. 

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