Using the hidden functions of your smartphone camera

This article originally appeared on Popular photography.

What could be more fundamental to photography today than our smartphone cameras? They’re always there, ready in moments, and the technology behind them makes it easy to get great photos in most situations. And yet, I regularly run into people who don’t know many of the core features of the built-in camera app.

The basics of smartphone cameras go beyond just “pressing the big button”. Some tools help you set up the shot, and some give you more control over exposure. A few are just useful 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’ll be using the two phones I have on hand: an iPhone 13 Pro with iOS 16 and a Google Pixel 6 Pro with 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 iOS and Android operating systems, and some may not be available on older models or accessible in a different way. If you see something here that doesn’t match what you see, grab the manual — I mean, Google it — and see if it’s available for yours.

Launch the camera quickly

Most people perform 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 gone. There are faster ways.

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

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

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 the back from the phone to launch the camera. On iPhone, go to Settings > Accessibility > Touch > Tap Back and choose Camera for the Double-tap (or triple-tap) option. In Android, go to Settings > System > Gestures > Quick tap > Open app and choose Camera.

Using the volume buttons to activate the shutter

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

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

Your smartphone's camera has great hidden features - here's how to find them
Press a volume button to start recording for that tactile camera experience. Jeff Carlson

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

How to quickly adjust exposure and focus

The camera apps are good at 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 clear.

on the iPhone

Your smartphone's camera has great hidden features - here's how to find them
Press and hold to lock exposure and focus on iPhone. Jeff Carlson

Tap the iPhone anywhere in the preview to set the focus and measure the exposure level based on that point. Even better (and this is a feature I think a lot of people don’t know about), tap and hold a place to lock the focus and exposure (an “AE/AF LOCK” badge appears). You can then move the phone to recompose and not run the risk of the app resetting them automatically.

Your smartphone's camera has great hidden features - here's how to find them
Drag the sun icon to adjust exposure without changing focus lock on iPhone. Jeff Carlson

Once the focus and exposure are set or locked, 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 the 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 spot becomes a target, which remains locked even if you move the phone to recompose the scene. Tapping also displays sliders that you can use to adjust white balance, exposure, and contrast. Tap the point again to remove the lock, or tap elsewhere to focus on a different area.

Your smartphone's 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 measure and focus on an area. Jeff Carlson

Zoom with confidence

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

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

Your smartphone's camera has great hidden features - here's how to find them
When you drag the camera selection buttons, this zoom button appears for a telephoto magnification up to 15x. But if you’re not on 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 drag left or right on the zoom selector buttons to reveal a circular control (iPhone) or slider (Android) so you can compose your scene without having to move, or even zoom in far to 15x or 20x.

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

Switch camera modes 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, simply swipe left or right in the center of the screen to switch modes.

Your smartphone's camera has great hidden features - here's how to find them
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 some help keeping your horizons level, the built-in grid features come in handy.

In iOS, go to Settings > Camera > Grid and enable the option. In Android, you can choose from three types of grids by going to the settings in the camera app, tapping More settings and choosing a grid type (such as 3×3).

The grid on the iPhone and a related setting called Framing Hints on the Pixel also allow 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, the phone’s accelerometer indicates when you’re not level evenly by displaying a second + icon. Maneuver the phone so that both icons are aligned to ensure that the camera is level horizontally.

Your smartphone's camera has great hidden features - here's how to find them
When the phone is held parallel to the ground, a pair of + icons will appear to indicate how level it is. Line them up for a level shot. (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 Vision (Android). However, the interfaces to control it are quite minimal.

On the 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 functions. 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's camera has great hidden features - here's how to find them
The crescent moon icon indicates that the Pixel 6 Pro is using night vision mode. Jeff Carlson

The Pixel has its Night Sight mode in the More Light category. When it’s enabled, Night Vision is automatically activated 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 a dark side of the moon. Tap it to enable or disable night mode. Or tap the carat icon (^) and then tap the Night Mode button to open a slider that allows you to 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's 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

Bring the fun into smartphone basics

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