Chances are that your smartphone uses an LED flash for when you're in a low-light photography situation. You might also see the occasional (rare) phone that boasts a Xenon flash. So, what are the differences between the two and which is best for smartphone photography?
The nigh-ubiquitous LED is the most common way of illuminating a dark scene when you're taking a snap and there are some obvious benefits to it. The LED itself is cheap and they don't consume a lot of power, which are the same reasons why they're popular for lighting the home.
They're also quite small which makes them ideal for smartphones where thinner is always better. They can be easily installed without creating any additional bulk to their carefully-engineered design.
A final bonus is that they can be run continuously, which is how you get the torch or flashlight feature on your phone.
However, there are downsides to an LED flash. Although it doesn't feel that way when you accidentally stare at one, LEDs are quite dim compared to other flash technology. That also means they cover only a small area when they're fired off.
Further, they're slow when they flash so moving objects might get blurred. The issue you're likely to be most familiar with is that the colour can be a bit odd for indoors lending a slightly blueish tone at times.
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So what about Xenon? Most standalone cameras use this technology, which is at its most basic a tube of gas that flashes super bright. (Apologies to the photographers and chemists who are no doubt infuriated by that explanation).
The reason photographers love it is that it's bright! It's up to 1000 times brighter than LED. It illuminates a big space and it happens super-quickly, so it's better at capturing motion.
The reason it's not tremendously popular for smartphones relates mostly to the additional hardware required. You need to install that tube of gas (again, apologies) and that requires a lot of additional fiddling around with the phone body. It's also a flash: it can't replicate the torch function of an LED and anyone who watched the first Saw movie knows that it's never a good idea to try and use a camera flash to illuminate a room.
Xenon flashes are far more power-hungry, meaning that it will significantly impact your overall battery life. But it's not just LED vs Xenon, these days. There is a third option...
Dual LED flashes use two LEDs of slightly different colours to get past the tone problem of LED.
Taking a flash photo uses both LEDs – one "warmer" and one "cooler" – and then has the phone cleverly combine the two flashes to match the best colour for the environment. At the moment, unless you're a serious photographer who's decided to only use a smartphone for some strange reason, a dual-LED flash on your phone will produce the best results for happy snaps.
And remember, filters were invented to make photos on social media look more interesting than they actually are, so slap down a few of those if you're worried. After a top-notch phone for photography? Check out our guide to the very best smartphones money can buy.
Nic Healey has over 20-years' experience talking about tech and gaming, whether that's in print, online or even on radio and in podcasts. When not working he spends too much time posting photos of his cat.
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