Handheld Mobile Photography in Very Low Light

SIGGRAPH Asia, 2019

Orly Liba Kiran Murthy, Yun-Ta Tsai, Tim Brooks, Tianfan Xue, Nikhil Karnad, Qiurui He, Jon Barron, Dillon Sharlet, Ryan Geiss, Samuel W. Hasinoff, Yael Pritch, Marc Levoy


Taking photographs in low light using a mobile phone is challenging and rarely produces pleasing photographs. Aside from the physical limits imposed by read noise and photon shot noise, these cameras are typically handheld, have small apertures and sensors, use mass-produced analog electronics that cannot easily be cooled, and are commonly used to photograph subjects that move, like children and pets. In this paper we describe a system for capturing clean, sharp, colorful photographs in light as low as 0.3 lux, where human vision becomes monochrome and indistinct. To permit handheld photography without flash illumination, we capture, align, and combine multiple frames. Our system employs motion metering, which uses an estimate of motion magnitudes (whether due to handshake or moving objects) to identify the number of frames and the per-frame exposure times that together minimize both noise and motion blur in a captured burst. We combine these frames using robust alignment and merging techniques that have been specialized for high-noise imagery. To ensure accurate colors in such low light, we employ a learning-based auto white balancing algorithm. To prevent the photographs from looking like they were shot in daylight, we use tone mapping techniques inspired by illusionistic painting: increasing contrast, crushing shadows to black, and surrounding the scene with darkness. All of these processes are performed using the limited computational resources of a mobile device. Our system can be used by novice photographers to produce shareable pictures in a few seconds based on a single shutter press, even in environments so dim that humans cannot see clearly.