Unlock your smartphone camera’s hidden features

Unlock your smartphone camera’s hidden features

What could be more fundamental to photography today than our smartphone cameras? They are always there, ready at a moment’s notice, and the technology behind them makes it easy to take great photos in most situations. And yet, I regularly encounter people who are unaware of many of the core features of the built-in camera app.

Smartphone camera basics extend beyond just “pressing the big button.” Some tools help you set up the image, and some give you more control over the exposure. A few are simply practical or cool. However, these features are not always easy to find. That’s where we come in.

iOS 16 vs. Android 13

But first, for these examples, I’m using the two phones I have on hand: an iPhone 13 Pro running iOS 16 and a Google Pixel 6 Pro running Android 13. I’m also just focusing on the built-in camera apps; for even more manual control, you can find third-party apps in the app stores. Many of the camera features overlap between the iOS and Android operating systems, and some may not be available on older models, or may be available in a different way. If you see something here that doesn’t match what you’re seeing, break out the manual—I mean, Google it—and see if it’s available for yours.

How to quick start the camera

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

Related: Composition in the age of artificial intelligence – Who is actually framing the picture?

On the iPhone’s lock screen, swipe from right to left to jump straight to the camera app without unlocking the phone at all. You can also tap the camera icon on the lock screen. On the Pixel, double-tap the power button from any screen.

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Once the phone is unlocked, a few more options are available. On both phones, press and hold the camera app icon to bring up a menu of shooting modes, such as opening the app with the front-facing selfie camera active.

Screenshots of Apple and Google camera apps with shortcuts shown.
Press and hold the camera app icon to reveal 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 tap back on the phone to launch the camera. On iPhone, go to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > Back Tap and select Camera for the Double Tap (or Triple Tap) option. In Android, go to Settings > System > Gestures > Quick Tap > Open app and select Camera.

Related: Outwit the iPhone camera’s overzealous AI

How to use the volume buttons to trigger the shutter

If you miss the tactile feedback of pressing a physical shutter button, or if you press the software button too much shake, press a volume button instead.

On both phones, the shutter is released by pressing one of the volume buttons. Holding a button starts the video recording, just as if you were holding your finger on the virtual shutter button.

Hand holding an iPhone and pressing the volume button to take a picture.
Press a volume button to trigger the shot for the tactile camera experience. Jeff Carlson

On iPhone, you can also set the volume up button to fire multiple shots in burst mode: go to Settings > Camera > Use volume up for burst.

How to adjust exposure and focus quickly

The camera apps do a good job of determining the correct exposure for a given scene – if you forget that “correct” is a loaded term. However, you have more control, even if the interfaces don’t make it obvious.

On the iPhone

A water scene with focus held in the distance/
Press and hold to lock exposure and focus on iPhone. Jeff Carlson

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

A water scene with the exposure was reduced.
Drag the sun icon to adjust the exposure without changing the focus lock on your iPhone. Jeff Carlson

Once focus and exposure are set or locked, lift your finger from the screen and then drag the sun icon that appears to the right of the target box to manually increase or decrease exposure. A single tap elsewhere resets focus and exposure to automatic.

On the Pixel

On the Pixel, tap a point to set focus and exposure. That location becomes a target, which remains locked even when you move your phone to recompose the scene. Tapping also shows sliders you can use to adjust white balance, exposure, and contrast. Tap the point again to remove the lock, or tap somewhere else to focus on a different area.

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A water scene with Google's exposure slider shown.
The Pixel 6 Pro shows exposure, white balance and contrast control sliders when you tap to meter and focus on an area. Jeff Carlson

How to zoom with confidence

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

Whenever possible, stick to the preset zoom levels. The 1x tier uses the main camera (what Apple calls the “wide” camera), the 3x tier uses the telephoto camera, and so on. These are optical values, which means you get a cleaner image as the sensor registers the light directly.

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

But wait, what about using the two-finger pinch gesture to zoom in or out? Or you can swipe left or right on the zoom selector buttons to reveal a circular control (iPhone) or slider (Android) to let you compose the scene without having to move, or even zoom well into 15x or 20x.

It is so convenient, but try to avoid it if possible. All these intermediate values ​​are calculated digitally: the software interpolates what the scene will look like at that zoom level by artificially enlarging pixels. Digital zoom technology has improved dramatically over the years, but optical zoom is still the best option.

How to change camera mode quickly

Speaking of switching, the camera apps have many different shooting modes, such as Photo, Video, and Portrait. Instead of tapping or trying to drag the row of mode names, on both iOS and Android, you just swipe left or right on the center of the screen to switch modes.

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

How to use the grid and level for stronger compositions

Whether you subscribe to the “rule of thirds” or just want a little help keeping your horizon level, the built-in grid features come in handy.

In iOS, go to Settings > Camera > Grid and turn on the option. On Android, you can choose between three types of grids by going to the settings in the camera app, tapping More settings, and choosing a grid type (for example, 3 x 3).

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The grid on the iPhone, and a related setting called Framing Hints on the Pixel, also enable a horizontal level. When you hold the phone parallel to the ground or a table, a + icon appears in the center of the screen on both models. As you move, your phone’s accelerometer indicates when you’re not level by showing a second + icon. Maneuver the phone so that both icons line up to ensure the camera is horizontal.

A close-up of a pink flower.
When the phone is held parallel to the ground, a pair of + icons appear to indicate how level it is. Line them up for a level shot. (iPhone shown here.) Jeff Carlson

How to control the flash and “Night” mode

Both camera systems are good at providing more light in dark situations, whether it’s turning on the built-in flash or activating night mode (iOS) or night vision (Android). However, the interfaces to control these are quite minimal.

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

On the Pixel, tap the Settings button in the Camera app, and under More Light tap the Flash icon (another lightning bolt).

A dimly lit night scene with an old car.
The crescent moon icon indicates that the Pixel 6 Pro is using night vision mode. Jeff Carlson

The Pixel includes Night Sight mode in the More Light category. When enabled, Night Sight automatically activates in dark situations – you’ll see a crescent moon icon on the shutter button. You can temporarily disable this by pressing 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 moon with vertical stripes indicating a dark side of the moon. Tap it to turn night mode on or off. Or tap the carat icon (^) and then the night mode button to reveal a slider that lets you choose an exposure time beyond just Auto (up to 30 seconds in a dark environment when the phone is stabilized, such as on a tripod).

A dimly lit night scene with an old car.
The yellow night mode button indicates that the current maximum exposure is set to 2 seconds. Jeff Carlson

Add fun to basic smartphones

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

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