Using iPhone 11 Night Mode Where the Sun Never Shines

iPhone 11 Pro in Murmansk Credit: Amos Chapple / PetaPixel
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You may think that Night Mode is a great feature on the iPhone 11 for when you’re out and about on the town after dark, but chances are that your reliance on the feature is nothing compared to the experiences of one photographer, who decided to take his iPhone 11 Pro to a remote settlement where there would be no daylight for 40 days.

Photographer Amos Chapple shared on PetaPixel how he set out to to Murmansk, a city in northwestern Russia that is known for being the largest northern settlement in the world at 69° north latitude. While there are other settlements further north — the northernmost is a Canadian military station at 82° north — unlike most settlements in and around the arctic circle, Musmansk is actually a thriving city with a population of around 300,000 people.

Like many places within the Arctic circle, during the summer the sun never sets, and during the winter, it never rises. Hence, Chapple figured that would be an ideal location for his latest photo essay, Forty Days of Darkness, plus a chance to really put the iPhone 11 Pro Max and Night Mode through its paces. In fact, Chapple purchased an iPhone 11 Pro Max specifically for the project.

One of the first things that struck Chapple during his first morning in Murmansk was how much of a revolution the iPhone 11 Pro truly is, noting that took him more effort to brush his teeth than it did to prepare his iPhone camera for a day of shooting.

As I walked down the corridor I remember thinking I’d just had more trouble organizing the equipment I needed to brush my teeth, than I had preparing for a 12-hour day of professional photography. No SD cards to check, no stacks of batteries to charge, no bag full of lenses… Total freedom.

Since there was no daylight during the entire time of Chapple’s trip, he “shot life in the darkness” thanks to the iPhone 11 Pro’s Night Mode feature, and as an experienced photographer, both the process and the results were so magical they seemed to defy explanation.

The iPhone’s Night Mode is the witchiest camera technology I’ve ever used. I still don’t understand it. I was shooting three second exposures made handheld, yet I never saw any movement blur. All of the shots I made were tack sharp.

That said, Chapple did discover some interesting things about Night Mode in the process. For example, he noted that the iPhone 11 Pro seems to be able to sense when it’s on a tripod, in which case it behaves “exactly like a normal camera” in taking long exposure shots, meaning that moving objects would just become faint blurs. As a result, he actually found that he preferred to use his iPhone 11 Pro Max without a tripod, since in that case the artificial intelligence behind the Night Mode would actually “freeze” a moving object in the frame and render it properly.

He also noticed a few other small idiosyncrasies to how Night Mode currently works, noting that the telephoto camera “hardly ever switched on the option for Night Mode” as compared to the standard wide-angle lens, resulting in him actually losing some good shots. He pointed to Apple “insisting that they know best” as the real problem here, suggesting that the arbitrariness of Night Mode is “the exact opposite of ‘pro’ that was a huge, hindering aspect of the camera.”

Chapple also noted some ghosting in the lens, a common problem with shooting at night, since bright points of light in the shot can become over-illuminated, resulting in a ghosting effect. However, Chapple concedes that this is a software issue that Apple could conceivably tweak in a future iOS update.

At a psychological level, shooting with a phone was a wholly different experience. I shot the photo above in an underground bar with a couple of guys drinking and passing out on their table. As I took that photo there was a bunch of fairly rough guys behind me who would have noticed me take the shot. No one much cared, but it would have felt very different if I’d had my usual M43 camera with me.

Along the same vein as the old saying that “the best camera is the one you have with you,” Chapple also shared his realization that the discretion and subtlety of a smartphone camera like the iPhone 11 Pro Max can make a big difference for professional photographers who want to take more candid shots.

All of that said, however, while Chapple had a lot of positive things to share about his experience shooting with the iPhone 11 Pro Max, he conceded that post-production options were considerably more limited compared to the RAW files generated by a more traditional DSLR, which you can tweak and play with a lot more to get better results.

With the iPhone, what you shoot is 99% what you end up with — the files look great straight out of camera, but they are very brittle and offer little editing flexibility.

With the iPhone 11 Pro, of course, there should arguably be far less need for tweaking, as the shots it produces are great to begin with, which is rather the point of Apple’s approach to computational photography. However, it’s also fair to note that while Apple’s own Camera app doesn’t offer a lot of flexibility, there are a wealth of third-party apps available for iOS that can shoot RAW images and offer even more control over camera settings.

For the vast majority of iPhone users, however, Apple has done a great job with the built-in Camera app on the iPhone 11, letting many people take pictures at a quality that they never thought was possible, and certainly the stunning collection of photos shared by Chapple bear this out, since as he notes, there was no post-production involved.

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