Most of the time when we snap a photo using our smartphones, we simply point and tap. All the different parameters are set automatically by the phone and we are used to accepting the results. Sometimes we might manually turn on/off HDR mode and maybe we will fiddle with the flash settings, but it’s an automatic process for the most part.

However, many smartphones today include a “professional” or “manual” mode in the bundled camera app, which gives you full access to all the different settings and gives you a greater measure of artistic control. On top of that, if the camera app can save images in RAW mode, then you will have even greater flexibility.

Finding the manual mode is different for every camera app, but it can usually be found nestled in with other creative modes like slow-mo, panorama, and time-lapse. Once activated, you’ll get an extra set of on-screen controls, which we’ll walk you through in this post.

The controls

Metering mode – One of the most important factors in taking a good photo is having the correct amount of light. Taking photos indoors during a birthday party with the lights dimmed is very different than taking a landscape shot on a sunny day. To gauge the light levels and therefore determine the optimum settings for the ISO sensitivity and the shutter, the camera measures the light in one of several ways: matrix, center, or spot.

Matrix metering takes the general light level from multiple points across the frame. The center mode does the same but concentrates more on the central area of the frame, while spot metering just takes the light level reading from one small spot in the very center. Some camera apps also provide a touch metering mode whereby you can tap the screen to tell the app which exact spot to use for measuring the light levels.

Being able to control the metering is important when the scene isn’t evenly lit. Bright light sources (like lamps or the sun) or dark areas with lots of shade can bias the light metering and then cause the picture to be wrongly exposed.

ISO speed – In the days of film photography, the speed at which the film reacted to light was an important factor. If the film was more sensitive to light then less light was needed to capture the image, for instance. This meant the aperture and shutter speed needed to be changed accordingly. Over the years there were various standards for quantifying film sensitivity. In the 1970s, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) created a scale, which is still in use today. The ISO scale is logarithmic, which means that ISO 200 is twice as sensitive as ISO 100, 400 is twice as sensitive as 200 and so on.

Shutter speed – On a traditional camera there is a physical shutter (like on an SLR or DSLR) which opens for a fraction of a second, lets the light in to hit the film/sensor, and then snaps shut again to stop the photo being over exposed. Smartphone cameras achieve the same result by capturing the data from the sensor for a certain amount of time. In fact, light is always hitting the lens, but the data isn’t being recorded. In low light situations, you want the shutter open for longer and in bright sunlight you want it to open and close quickly.

However, altering the shutter speed has lots of benefits. Slow shutter speeds can be used to add artistic motion blur (e.g. for moving water or car tail lights at night), whereas fast shutter speeds are useful for capturing fast moving targets (e.g. sports or animals). The problem with slow shutter speeds is that it increases the chances of camera shake, which is one of the reasons that some phones include Optical Image Stabilization.

Focus – As the light travels through the lens in a camera, it passes through all areas of the lens and is refracted. Coming out of the lens, the light starts to converge and the spot where all the light converges is called the focal point, where the image is clear. The focal point can be changed by moving the lens slightly and this is how we focus images before taking a photo. In manual mode many cameras also give you manual control over the focus. With manual focus you have fine grain control over the focal point, which can be useful in some situations.

White Balance – The color of an object is determined partly by the lighting conditions. An object might appear white when viewed in sunlight, or it will have a different hue when lit by candles or on an overcast day. Candlelight and tungsten lights are towards the warmer end of the light spectrum, meaning they have a definite red tint. To compensate, the white balance setting will alter the color temperature towards blue to balance the whites. At the other end, the camera does the opposite, moving the color temperature towards red. When the white balance is set to auto then the camera measures the overall color temperature and applies the relevant white balance. When setting a manual white balance you choose the color temperature compensation from a set of presets like Cloudy, Sunny, Fluorescent light and Incandescent light. You can also set the white balance in Kelvin.

EV compensation – This setting allows you to override the calculated exposure settings for a photo. The camera app will calculate the exposure, adjusting the ISO speed and the shutter speed, but this can be changed using the EV settings. A value of +1 doubles the exposure time, whereas a value of -1 halves the exposure time. Taking multiple photos at different exposures is the basis of HDR photography. Using a tripod, you can take the same photo several times with different EV settings and then merge them together. Some apps also have a mode called “EV bracketing” which will automatically take several shots with different levels of EV compensation.

Bonus: Aperture – Smartphones have a fixed aperture lens, meaning the aperture cannot be changed. Nevertheless, knowing what the aperture on your smartphone camera does is still useful. Aperture is the size of the hole letting light onto the sensor: the smaller the hole the less light can come through, whereas the larger the hole the more light hits the sensor. Cameras with a wider aperture lens (a low f-stop number, like f/1.8) typically perform better in low light situations.


Getting the best results from your camera’s manual mode will take practice and I suggest that you don’t use all the manual controls simultaneously. Each of the settings will default to automatic so you can just pick which ones you want to use. Start with the shutter speed and see the different results you can get for landscapes with running water versus fast moving objects. You can even try and make some light trails with longer exposures, but make sure you use a tripod.

Next, try playing around with the EV compensation and take several photos. Then use a program like Luminance HDR to merge them together. After that practice taking photos with different metering modes. I found the touch metering to be the most useful. By taking it slow and learning what each setting does individually you’ll better understand how to combine them to best effect.


Here are two shots taken with different shutter speeds.

Here I am pouring water from a bottle and I took the shot with a fast shutter speed. As you can see the water is caught “in action.” You can see the ripples in the water and you can see drops in the water stream. Now here is a photo of the same setup but with a slow shutter speed.

Here you can see that the water is more blurred, the drops are well less defined and the movement in the water is less clear. This technique can be used on waterfalls and rivers. You can also see the difference when taking a photo of a fidget spinner:

Here is a montage I have made of five different photos taken with a range of white balance settings. The first one is the automatic white balance and the second is the cloudy day settings. You will notice that they are very similar, as it was in fact a cloudy day!

Wrapping up

The truth is that 99% of the time you are going to take pictures in automatic mode with your smartphone. However switching to manual mode can be useful in certain situations. It is also a useful step to using manual mode on a bigger camera, like a DSLR. Finally, with practice and perseverance you can take some interesting shots — shots that wouldn’t be possible in auto mode.

Do you ever use your smartphone’s camera in manual mode? Let me know how it turned out in the comments below.

Gary Sims
Gary has been a tech writer for over a decade and specializes in open source systems. He has a Bachelor's degree in Business Information Systems. He has many years of experience in system design and development as well as system administration, system security and networking protocols. He also knows several programming languages, as he was previously a software engineer for 10 years.