In recent years, the presence of smartphones using a camera module has produced much better quality photos. This gives users the option to use manual mode on the smartphone camera.
The photographer thinks that the best camera is the one you carry with you and, in most cases, it is the smartphone you should use. While smartphone cameras don’t always produce great photographic experiences, advances in technology have placed them almost at the same level as most dedicated cameras.
Having a quality camera is only half the battle. It would be nice to learn how to make the most of it, and nothing better than shooting in manual mode.
By using manual controls, you can manipulate the settings to produce the desired image. Using manual mode can be intimidating for casual users, especially those unfamiliar with advanced camera theory.
Although photography is a broad subject, you can learn the basics and have you manually shoot with a smartphone in no time. So what exactly is manual mode and how to get the most out of it on your phone?
How to use manual mode on a smartphone:
Does my smartphone camera have manual mode?
The latest smartphones come with some kind of manual mode in the camera app. They can go fancy and call it professional fashion or something. Just go into the camera app and check the shooting modes to see if your phone has manual shooting capabilities.
Otherwise, don’t panic, as some phones don’t come with a manual camera mode. The Pixel 5, which is known to have one of the best smartphone cameras, doesn’t come with a manual mode. Don’t feel left out if yours doesn’t.
Third-party manual camera
The good news is that if we are facing Android, everything is possible. Your camera app doesn’t have manual mode, so open it up and download one from the Google Play Store. Here are some of our favorite third-party camera apps with manual mode.
Please note that this is a general guide. We cannot tell you exactly how to operate your smartphone in manual mode, simply because it is equipped with a different camera application. Everything looks and works a little differently, especially when using third-party apps.
Exposure triangle for manual mode
Let’s start by understanding what it takes to display images correctly. This is important for shooting in manual mode. In photography, the exposure triangle represents how ISO, aperture, and shutter speed work together.
You must find a balance between these three elements in order to render the image correctly considering how changing each element affects the quality.
ISO stands for “International Organization for Standardization”, which is responsible for standardizing sensitivity ratings for camera sensors. When shooting, changing the ISO will determine the sensor’s sensitivity to light.
A lower ISO will make the sensor less sensitive to light, which means you may need to widen the aperture and / or reduce the shutter speed. At the same time, the image will become cleaner.
Increasing the ISO will allow you to capture light faster, will allow you to speed up the shutter or widen the aperture, but will also result in an image with more grain or digital noise. Image quality decreases as ISO increases.
The camera system has a cover that covers and exposes the sensor. The shutter speed determines the amount of time this shutter will stay open to allow more light to reach the sensor.
A faster shutter speed will result in a lower exposure, but will make the image sharper. Similarly, extending the shutter speed can create motion blur, but it will let light in for a longer period of time, providing more exposure when shooting in manual mode.
The camera system has a diaphragm, a hole through which light must pass to reach the sensor. The aperture controls how wide or narrow this hole is. A wider aperture increases the exposure. This will also decrease the depth of field and make the background / foreground more blurry.
If you want to focus more, a narrower aperture is better, but you’ll have to compensate for lost exposure by tweaking the ISO or shutter speed. In this case, a larger number will determine the narrowest opening. For example, f / 1.8 is wider than f / 2.8.
Most do not need to worry about this, as the aperture generally cannot be controlled on smartphones. The only exception comes from Samsung. The company introduced “Dual Aperture” with the Samsung Galaxy S9, which allows you to switch between f / 1.5 and f / 2.4. They have also used this technology with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 and S10 series. However, Samsung ditched it with the Galaxy S20.
White balance is a very common setting that you may find included even in basic camera applications. This setting adjusts the color that white light represents, so it changes all other colors as well.
This allows for creative use of warmer and cooler shots. It is also useful to compensate for discoloration that your light source may cause. If you’ve ever noticed that your indoor shots always look orange, this is the setting you’ll want to adjust.
At the most basic level, you may have seen white balance settings that allow you to compensate for cloudy or sunny outdoor shots and incandescent or fluorescent lights.
In addition to these basic settings, some manual mode applications offer color correction using the full kelvin (K) color temperature scale. This allows a finer adjustment of the white point, between too red at 2000K and too blue at 9000K.
Camera white balance settings from top to bottom: Shade, Sunlight, Fluorescent, Auto, Incandescent. An alternative to making this decision at the time of filming is to postpone RAW filming, which we will cover in a moment.
If you’ve ever seen a camera button with + and – on it, it will be the exposure compensation control. Most smartphone cameras also have exposure compensation, and it helps when one of the settings is in automatic mode, you can leave the setting in automatic mode, even in manual mode.
The camera tries to get the correct exposure by metering the light, but you don’t always get what you want to capture. Sometimes you just want things to look a little darker or lighter.
With exposure compensation, you can tell the camera that the camera is capturing the exposure incorrectly and will replace it by automatically adjusting the settings, or usually the ISO.
Exposure compensation is normally measured in f steps such as: –1.0, –0.7, –0.3, 0.0, +0.3, +0.7, +1.0. In this case, -1.0 will be a lower stop, while +1.0 will be a higher stop.
Today, many phones have RAW support. RAW images are known as uncompressed, unedited image files. It stores all the data captured by the sensor, which makes it a much larger file, but without loss of quality and greater editing power. This is why RAW data by itself is not much to see.
RAW should only be used if you plan to re-edit your images. The file size is much larger, but it allows you to adjust the full exposure and color settings of your image, bypassing the camera’s default image processing.
When saving images to JPEG by dumping image data and compressing images, this is fine if you plan to upload the image to Facebook or take a quick photo for the gallery.
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