It wasn’t that long ago that anyone even remotely serious about photography carried a camera. Whether it was a DSLR or even just a point-and-shoot, most cameras could out-shoot your phone. That is no longer the case. Smartphone cameras have surpassed cheap point-and-shoots, and many are approaching DSLR quality these days.
As good as modern smartphone cameras are, you could probably be taking better photos. Many recent Android phones include manual modes in their cameras, as do third-party camera apps. Taking manual photos gives you better control over exposure, focus, and other factors that can create stunning photos.
Before you can start taking photos, you’ll want to find out if your phone includes a manual camera. Many phones from Samsung, LG, Huawei, and other manufacturers include manual cameras. On the other hand, some popular phones like the Google Pixel 3 don’t include a manual camera.
Don’t worry if your phone doesn’t include a manual camera mode. There are plenty of apps available that can add manual camera capabilities to your phone. Camera FV-5, Proshot, Open Camera, and the aptly named Manual Camera all provide manual controls. Open Camera is free, while others will cost you a little bit. We’ve compared a few of these in the past, but you might want to experiment a bit.
The interfaces may be different from app to app, but once you’re familiar with a few terms, you shouldn’t end up lost. Speaking of terms, there are a few you’ll need to know.
Shutter Speed: The shutter speed determines how long the sensor is exposed to light. This will also affect how motion is captured. Faster shutter speeds can capture fast motion, while longer shutter speeds can lend a pronounced blur effect to photos. You can be used to this artistic effect, but won’t always want to be.
ISO The ISO number describes how sensitive the camera is to light. Lower ISO numbers capture darker images but with less noise. Higher numbers capture more light and include more visual noise that looks similar to film grain. If you’re shooting outside during the day, lower numbers in the 100 to 200 range will work. Nighttime shots will need a higher ISO, around the 800 to 1600 range.
Focal Length: This is the distance of your subject. Setting this determines what in the shot is in or out of focus. Aperture width or f-stop – the range of what is in focus – also comes into play here, but smartphone cameras have fixed f-numbers.
Exposure Value: Exposure Value or EV is calculated by the combination of a camera’s f-number and shutter speed. This is used when measuring whether a photo is underexposed or overexposed. Typically, this number should be 0. Some camera apps include EV compensation, which automatically adjusts shutter speed and ISO to meet a desired Exposure Value.
White Balance: This determines what in the scene is pure white. Improper white balance can make shots look overly yellow or blue. Usually, sticking with automatic white balance will be fine.
Taking manual photos
Your first attempts at taking manual photos could feel a little awkward. There are a few steps to follow that will make everything easier.
1. Start with metering. Remember, you want to aim for an Exposure Value of around 0.
2. Set your shutter speed. Keep in mind whether you are looking to capture motion or are looking for a more blurred look.
3. Set the ISO. Remember to use lower numbers for bright light and outdoor shots. Use higher numbers for low light situations.
4. Check your focus. Some camera apps include focus lines to help show when your subject is in focus.
Take more photos than you think you need, especially when you’re starting out. It’s better to have to prune your shots down to the best few than to be disappointed with what you have. When in doubt, shoot a little on the darker side. You can often “rescue” shots that are too dark after the fact. You can fix overly bright shots as well, but these are much harder to work with.
Should you always use the manual camera?
For a majority of photos, the automatic settings will be just fine. As with other camera tech, the automatic settings for camera apps are getting better all the time. If you’re snapping a photo of a receipt or something else for reference, auto mode will work perfectly.
If you’re looking to become a better photographer, you’ll want to shoot in manual mode as often as possible. While it may seem awkward at first, manual shooting will eventually become second nature. Once you’ve honed your skills, you might wonder why you ever used the auto mode in the first place.