How to use the hidden features of your smartphone camera

This article originally appeared on folk photography.

What could be more fundamental to photography today than the cameras in our smartphones? They’re always there, ready in moments, and the technology behind them makes it easy to capture great photos in most situations. And yet, I regularly run into people who are unaware of many of the core features of the built-in camera app.

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

[ Related: “Make the most out of your iPhone’s back tap feature” ]

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 focusing only on the built-in camera apps; For even more manual control, you can find third-party apps in 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 accessible in a different way. If you see something here that doesn’t match what you see, open the manual, ie google it, and see if it’s available for yours.

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. At that moment, the moment you were trying to capture might have disappeared. There are faster ways.

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

When the phone is unlocked, there are a few more options available. On both phones, long press the camera app icon to open a menu of shooting modes, such as opening the app with the front-facing selfie camera active.

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
Long-press the Camera app icon to bring up 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 the back on the phone to launch the camera. On iPhone, go to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > Touch Back and choose Camera for the Double-tap (or Triple-tap) option. On Android, go to Settings > System > Gestures > Quick tap > Open app and choose Camera.

How to use the volume buttons to activate the shutter

If you lose the haptic feedback from pressing a physical shutter button, or if pressing the software button produces too much vibration, press a volume button instead.

On both phones, pressing either volume button activates the shutter. Holding down a button starts video recording, just like holding your finger on the virtual shutter button.

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
Press a volume button to activate the shot of that touch camera experience. Jeff Carlson

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

How to quickly adjust exposure and focus

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

on iPhone

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
Press and hold to lock exposure and focus on iPhone. Jeff Carlson

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

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
Drag the sun icon to adjust the exposure without changing the focus lock on iPhone. Jeff Carlson

Once the 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 the exposure. A single tap anywhere else resets focus and exposure to auto.

in the pixel

On the Pixel, tap a point to set focus and exposure. That point becomes a target, which remains locked on even when you move the phone to recompose the scene. Tapping also brings up sliders that you can use to adjust white balance, exposure, and contrast. Tap the spot again to remove the blockage, or tap elsewhere to focus on another area.

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
The Pixel 6 Pro displays sliders for exposure, white balance, and contrast control 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 in reality, on most modern phones, there are multiple cameras, each with its own image sensor behind the lens array. So when you tap the “1x” or “3x” button to zoom in or out, you are switching between cameras.

Whenever possible, stick to those preset zoom levels. The 1x level uses the main camera (what Apple calls the “wide” camera), the 3x level uses the telephoto camera, and so on. Those are optical values, meaning you’ll get a cleaner image since the sensor records light directly.

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
When you drag the camera selection buttons, this zoom dial appears for up to 15x telephoto magnification. 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, how about using the two-finger pinch gesture to zoom in or out? Or, you can drag left or right on the zoom selection buttons to reveal a circular control (iPhone) or slider (Android) that allows you to compose your scene without moving, or even zooming in. 15x or 20x.

It is very convenient, but try to avoid it if possible. All of those intermediate values ​​are calculated digitally: the software is interpolating what the scene would 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 modes quickly

Speaking of switching, the camera apps feature many different shooting modes, including Photo, Video, and Portrait. Instead of tapping or trying to drag the row of mode names, on both iOS and Android, simply swipe left or right in the middle of the screen to switch between modes.

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
Drag anywhere in the middle 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 help keeping your horizons level, the built-in grid features come in handy.

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

The grid on the iPhone and a related setting called Pixel Framing Tips also enable a horizontal level. When you hold the phone parallel to the floor or a table, a + icon appears in the middle of the screen on both models. As you move, the phone’s accelerometer indicates when you’re not evenly horizontal by displaying a second + icon. Maneuver the phone so both icons line up to make sure the camera is horizontally level.

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
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’ 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 them are quite minimal.

On iPhone, tap the flash icon (the lightning bolt) to toggle between Off and Auto. For more options, tap the carat icon (^), which replaces the camera modes below the preview with buttons for more features. Tap 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).

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
The crescent moon icon indicates that the Pixel 6 Pro is using its Night Sight mode. Jeff Carlson

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

Your Smartphone Camera Has Great Hidden Features – Here's How To Find Them
The yellow Night mode button indicates that the current maximum exposure is set to 2 seconds. Jeff Carlson

Put the fun in smartphone basics

As with all cameras, whether 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’ll know exactly which smartphone camera feature to turn to.

Leave a Comment