Lighting Options for Smartphone Photography


Smartphone photography is getting better and better each year. It’s now possible to create usable images in near pitch black and capture stunning photos of the night sky. I would advise you not to do that, at least not all the time. Dedicated smartphone photographers know this and go hunting for the best possible light for their photographs. I’m here to tell you that you no longer have to rely on available light to get a great smartphone shot, there are plenty of new lighting tools available, developed exclusively for smartphones.

Profoto C1 and C1 Plus

I didn’t think it was possible. A real lighting tool with flash that works with a smartphone? Knowledge of electronic shutters and the connectivity situation of modern smartphones says this will be extremely difficult, if at all possible, but Profoto did it with the C1 and C1 Plus. This handheld light offers the same quality you would expect from Profoto’s pro fixtures, but for smartphones. Its soft, diffused lighting is flattering and the round shape creates beautiful catch lights with nice falloff.

Profoto C1 Plus

Where the C1 and C1 Plus begin to excel is when the Profoto app is used. This provides control over color temperature—helping to blend in with ambient lighting—and power. Users can set it up for auto-exposure or take full manual control. It really is a full-fledged light for smartphone photography. Other benefits are a built-in capture button that will activate your phone when connected to the app, and convenient charging via USB Type-C. The C1 Plus has its own distinct advantages, as well, including the ability to take magnetic modifiers to add some control (grids) or a pop of color (gels). It even has support for AirTTL, so if you wanted to integrate one into your camera’s lighting kit, it is super simple.

The only downside? To get full use of the C1 or C1 Plus you are going to have to have an iPhone 7 or later. Android support is not yet available.

Compact LED Light

An alternative to the pricey Profoto options is a standard, lightweight LED. Available in nearly every shape and size, LED panels are a great choice for mobile smartphone lighting. Basic models can be found that are exceptionally compact—as small or even smaller than your phone—and will provide just enough light to illuminate a plate of food in a dim restaurant or a model out on the city streets at night. Then there are slightly better compact lights, such as the Aputure MC RGBWW LED Light, that are ultra-compact and offer full color mixing for more creativity in your images.

Aputure MC RGBWW LED Light

Relatively compact LEDs can also fall into this area, especially if you have a real camera with which you may want to use the light. Good examples here are the Luxli Viola2 RGBAW, which offer great control over color and power and can conveniently be controlled by a smartphone app. Something a bit different would be the Rotolight NEO 2. This is a circular LED, meaning you can create great catchlights. It also offers continuous light and flash modes, as well as high-speed sync support, to truly make the most of your serious camera when you put the smartphone away.

Rotolight NEO 2 LED Light

Collapsible Reflector

We went high tech, now we go simple. A collapsible reflector is one of the first things I recommend to anyone who wants to start taking photos. Limited budgets can generally squeeze in a basic model, and it can make a dramatic difference in your final images, something extra helpful with smartphones since they lack the flexibility of photographing with traditional digital cameras.

Beginners should opt for a basic white reflector, though a convertible 5-in-1 is useful for pulling off some neat tricks. Sticking with white, for our example, you can create a few different looks. One is simply to use it as most people do and bounce some light into the shadows to fill them in. This helps reduce contrast and can help bring out the details in the shadows without looking unnatural. The other option is to use it as a flag or diffuser in some situations. If you are outside on a sunny day, the reflector can be used to cut down that harsh direct light and create a nice shadow wherever you need it.

Impact 5-in-1 Collapsible Circular Reflector with Handles

A reflector is incredibly versatile and a useful tool, whether you are using a smartphone or a medium-format camera.

Any High-End Continuous Light You Want

It doesn’t end there. Since smartphones are still cameras with electronic shutters, pretty much any continuous lighting tool developed for photo or video will work just fine. You could use all the ARRI SkyPanels you desire if you wanted. Who I am really speaking to here are photographers who already have a nice kit and maybe want to take some smartphone shots for sharing alongside their pro kit, which is capturing raw images that still need to go through post.

ARRI SkyPanel S60-C LED Softlight

If you want to be more practical, those 1x1 LED panels you have lying around will certainly do the trick. Unfortunately, your strobes will have to remain packed up, because the shutter mechanism of smartphones will not work with flash. My point is, you can create amazing shots with a smartphone today if you want to put the time into setting up pro-level tools. Photography is all about the lighting.

Other Useful Tools

Just because you have a good light doesn’t mean you have all the tools to use it properly. There are a few tools you should acquire to make the most of them.

Do you think dedicated lighting for smartphones is overkill? Why not just opt for a full-fledged camera at that point, right? Or is the ease of snapping a nice photo on your phone and instantly sharing it to social networks make an extra piece of kit totally worth it? Let us know where you stand in the Comments section, below.