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Unlock the hidden features of your smartphone camera

What could be more important to photography today than smartphone cameras? It’s always there, ready in moments, and the technology behind it makes it easy to take great photos in most situations. However, I regularly meet people who are unaware of the many basic functions of the built-in camera app.

The basics of a smartphone camera extend far beyond simply “pressing the big button”. Some tools help you set up the shot, and some give you more control over exposure. A few are easy and convenient. However, these features are not always easy to find. This is where we come to.

iOS 16 vs Android 13

But first, for these examples, I’m using the two phones I have on hand: iPhone 13 Pro running iOS 16 and a Google Pixel 6 Pro It runs Android 13. I also focus only on the built-in camera apps; For more manual control, you can find third-party apps in the app stores. Many camera features overlap between iOS and Android, and it’s possible that some of them may not be available on older models, or can be accessed in a different way. If you see something here that doesn’t match what you see, crack the guide – I mean, search Google – and see if it’s available to you.

How to quickly launch the camera

Most people do the usual dance of unlocking the phone, finding the camera app, and tapping to launch it. By then, the moment you were trying to capture may be over. There are faster ways.

Related: Composition in the age of artificial intelligence – who really frames the shot?

On the iPhone lock screen, swipe from right to left to go directly to the camera app without ever unlocking the phone. You can also tap the camera icon on the lock screen. On your Pixel device, double press the Power button from any screen.

When the phone is unlocked, some additional options are available. On both phones, press and hold the camera app icon to bring up a list of shooting modes, such as opening the app with the front facing camera activated.

Press and hold the camera app icon to display some photo mode shortcuts (iPhone 13 Pro on the left, Pixel 6 Pro on the right). Jeff Carlson

I also like the ability to double-click a file Back From the phone to turn on the camera. On the iPhone, go to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > tap Back and choose Camera for the double tap (or triple tap) option. On Android, go to Settings > System > Gestures > Quick tap > Open the app and choose Camera.

Related: Beat the excessive AI in the iPhone camera

How to use the volume buttons to operate the shutter

If you miss the haptic feedback of pressing the actual shutter button, or if pressing the program button creates a lot of vibration, press the volume button instead.

On both phones, pressing either volume button triggers the shutter. Pressing the button starts video recording, just as if you were holding your finger on the virtual shutter button.

Hand holding iPhone and pressing the volume button to take a picture.
Press the volume button to start the shot to experience the haptic camera. Jeff Carlson

On iPhone, you can also set the Volume Up button to launch multiple shots in burst mode: Go to Settings > Camera > Use Volume Up in Burst.

How to quickly adjust exposure and focus

Camera apps do a pretty good job of determining the appropriate exposure for any given scene — if you forget that “appropriate” is a loaded term. You have more control, though, even if the interfaces don’t make it clear.

on iPhone

Water scene with focus on distance /
Press and hold to lock exposure and focus on iPhone. Jeff Carlson

On an iPhone, tap anywhere in the preview to set focus and scale exposure based on that point. Even better (and this is a feature that I find many people don’t know about), touch and hold on a place a lock Focus and exposure (“AE/AF LOCK” badge appears). You can then move the phone around to adjust the configuration and not risk the app resetting automatically.

Waterscape decreased with exposure.
Drag the sun icon to adjust exposure without changing focus lock on iPhone. Jeff Carlson

Once you adjust or lock focus and exposure, lift your finger off the screen and drag the sun icon that appears to the right of the target box to manually increase or decrease exposure. One click elsewhere resets focus and exposure to automatic mode.

on Pixel

On a Pixel, tap a point to adjust focus and exposure. This spot becomes a target, and remains closed even while moving the phone to recreate the scene. Clicking also displays sliders that you can use to adjust white balance, exposure, and contrast. Tap the dot again to remove the lock, or tap somewhere else to focus on another area.

Water scene with exposure slider displayed by Google.
The Pixel 6 Pro displays sliders for exposure, white balance, and contrast control when you tap the meter and focus on an area. Jeff Carlson

How to zoom in with confidence

We think of the “camera” on our phones, but in fact, on most modern phones, there are multiple cameras, each with its own image sensor behind the lens assembly. So when you tap the “1x” or “3x” button to zoom in or out, you’re switching between cameras.

Whenever possible, stick to preset zoom levels. Level 1x uses the main camera (what Apple calls the “wide” camera), Level 3x uses the telephoto camera, etc. These are optical values, which means you’ll get a clearer picture because the sensor records light directly.

The water scene itself, zoomed in with the pinch to zoom in.
When you drag the camera selection buttons, this zoom dial appears to increase the telephoto up to 15x. But if you’re not at 0.5x, 1x or 3x levels, you’re sacrificing image quality for digital zoom. Jeff Carlson

But wait, how about using the two-finger pinch gesture to zoom in or out? Or you can swipe left or right on the zoom select buttons to reveal a carousel control (iPhone) or a slider (Android) to let you configure your scene without having to move, or even how to zoom in to 15x or 20x.

It is very convenient, but try to avoid it if possible. All those between the values ​​are numerically calculated: the software distorts what the scene will look like at this zoom level by artificially enlarging the pixels. Digital zoom technology has improved greatly over the years, but optical zoom is still the best option.

How to quickly switch camera modes

Speaking of switching, the camera apps feature many different shooting modes, such as photo, video, and portrait. Instead of clicking or trying to drag a row of mode names, on both iOS and Android, just swipe left or right in the middle of the screen to switch between modes.

Two flowers in different views.
Swipe anywhere in the middle of the preview to switch between shooting modes. Jeff Carlson

How to use grid and level for stronger combinations

Whether you subscribe to the Rule of Thirds or just want some help keeping your prospects level, the built-in networking features come in handy.

On iOS, go to Settings > Camera > Network and turn on the option. On Android, you can choose from three types of network by going to Settings in the Camera app, tapping More settings, and choosing a network type (such as 3×3).

The grid on the iPhone, and a related setting called Framing Hints on the Pixel, also enables the landscape plane. When you hold the phone parallel to the floor or table, a + symbol appears in the middle of the screen on both models. As you move, the phone’s accelerometer indicates you’re not evenly horizontal by displaying a second + icon. Maneuver the phone so that both icons line up to ensure the camera is in the horizontal plane.

Close-up of a pink flower.
When the phone is parallel to the ground, a pair of + symbols appears to indicate its level. Line them up to get the level shot. (The iPhone is shown here.) Jeff Carlson

How to control the flash and “night” modes

Both camera systems are great at providing more light in dark situations, whether that’s turning on the built-in flash or activating Night Mode (iOS) or Night Sight (Android). However, the interfaces to control it are minimal.

On an iPhone, tap the flash (lightning bolt) icon to toggle between Off and Auto. For more options, tap the karat (^) symbol, which replaces the camera modes below the preview with buttons for more features. Press the Flash button to choose between Auto, On, and Off.

On a Pixel phone, tap the Settings button in the Camera app, and under More Lights tap the flash icon (another lightning bolt).

Dimly lit night scene in an old car.
A crescent moon icon indicates that the Pixel 6 Pro is using its own Night Sight mode. Jeff Carlson

The Pixel includes a Night Sight mode in the More Light category. When enabled, Night Sight activates automatically in dark situations – you’ll see a crescent moon icon on the shutter button. You can temporarily deactivate this by tapping on the Night Sight Auto button that appears to the right of the camera modes.

The iPhone’s night mode is controlled by a separate button, which looks like a crescent with vertical stripes indicating a dark side of the moon. Tap it to turn night mode on or off. Or tap the carat symbol (^) and tap the night mode button to reveal a slider control that lets you choose an exposure time beyond just automatic (up to 30 seconds in a dark environment when the phone is stable, for example in a tripod).

Dimly lit night scene in an old car.
The yellow night mode button indicates that the current maximum light is set to 2 seconds. Jeff Carlson

Put the fun into your smartphone basics

As with every camera – smartphone or traditional – there are plenty of features to help you get the best shot. Be sure to explore the app’s settings and other buttons (like setting self-timers or changing the default aspect ratio) so that when the time comes, you know exactly which smartphone camera feature to switch to.


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