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How to Shoot in Manual Mode with Your Android Camera

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Smartphone cameras have come a long way in the last decade or so. From dark, pixelated images to near-professional standard photos. The image quality is getting close to DSLR and mirrorless cameras.

But phone cameras can be frustrating. You’ll be framing the perfect shot, then the auto mode takes over. Then your photo isn’t what you expected. This is why you should change to manual mode.

Switching to your Android manual camera is the best way to get the image you want. There’s not much to it, and we’ll take you through the basics in this post.

shooting a landscape on an android manual camera
© Josh Power

Why Switch to Manual Mode?

The image quality from smartphone cameras these days is staggering. It’s like having a DSLR in your pocket all the time.

The problem is the auto mode on your camera has a lot of creative control. Switching to manual mode, or using a camera app, gives you complete control.

Manual camera mode allows you to adjust the settings for different effects. You can play with ISO and shutter speed. The white balance can be adjusted. And you can even modify the focal length.

Manual modes broaden the horizons of smartphone photography. You can go for stunning landscapes with an infinite focus. Or you can try close-up macro photography with a shallow depth of field.

Portraits give you excellent scope to practice. And you can turn your selfies into self-portraits.

All these creative opportunities are on your Android phone. Manual camera apps for Android phones put the power in your pocket. And you can share your fab images on social media in a matter of seconds.

photographing with a smart phone on a tripod
© Mona Jain

Switch to Manual Mode on Your Android

Smartphone photography isn’t just about selfies and brunch. People are now producing some stunning images using their smartphone cameras. But even so, many are still stuck on auto mode.

Switching to manual mode is easy. Open your stock camera app, then scroll left or right to get to manual mode. That’s it. On some phones, it might be called ‘pro’ or ‘professional mode’.

Not all Android phones have manual camera controls. The Google Pixel 5a has a great camera, but no manual mode. Some smartphones do have very basic manual camera controls.

If your phone doesn’t have a manual camera, there are several camera apps that put you in the driver’s seat. Camera FV-5 and Proshot have excellent manual controls. But neither are free.

Open Camera is one of the best camera apps for Android. It’s free and it gives you excellent manual camera controls.

shooting a sunset with a smartphone
© Kameron Kincade

Camera Settings in Manual Mode

You might be new to photography. Or maybe you’re using your Android camera as an entryway into photography. If so, you might not be familiar with some of the settings in manual camera mode.

We’ll help you get acquainted with some of the basic terms and settings so you can take your mobile photography to the next level. These are some of the main features of your camera app manual mode.

Shutter Speed

In digital photography, the shutter speed determines the length of time the sensor is exposed to light. The longer the shutter speed, the more light reaches the sensor.

If you’re in a low-light environment, a slower shutter speed is preferable. But if the shutter speed is too slow, you might experience motion blur. This can also happen when your subject is moving quickly.

Not all phone apps have a shutter speed selection in manual mode. But if that option is available, consider your lighting and the amount of movement in your scene.

Shutter speed is divided into fractions of a second. So the larger the number, the quicker the shutter opens and closes. (1/1000th of a second is a faster shutter speed than 1/125th of a second.)

You might also get a manual shutter option, which allows you to keep the shutter open as long as you like. This option might be labelled ‘B’ as it would be on a regular camera.

Aperture

The aperture is the hole through which light reaches the sensor. It can be made bigger or smaller by changing the f-stop. Usually, f-stops range from f/22 to f/1.4.

The narrowest aperture is f/22 and allows the least amount of light through. The widest aperture is f/1.4 and allows the most light through.

Your Android camera app will allow you to select the f-stop. Or some have a picture of a camera aperture, which you can make bigger or smaller.

ISO

Traditionally, ISO refers to how sensitive the film is to light. In digital photography, it refers to the sensitivity of the sensor.

A lower ISO, such as 100, needs more light but gives you more detail. A higher ISO needs less light, but the image might have noise.

Manual mode on your camera app will give you the option to select the ISO. As a general rule, the darker your scene, the higher ISO you need to select.

Exposure Triangle

The shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are the three elements of the exposure triangle. The exposure triangle is one of the most fundamental elements in photography.

You adjust each setting in relation to the others to achieve the perfect exposure. The lighting situation can determine the settings you choose. Or it might be down to the effect you want.

expertphotography.com graphic explains the exposure triangle

Exposure Compensation

Some camera apps include exposure compensation. This allows you to change the exposure value of your shot.

The default exposure value is set at 0. But exposure compensation allows you to change the exposure value if your scene is too dark or too light.

Changing to EV-1 will modify the shutter speed and aperture to suit a lighter scene. Change to EV+1 and the settings will be adjusted for a darker scene.

If your camera app has exposure compensation, it can help you get a grip on manual exposures. And it’s quicker and easier than having to adjust the shutter speed and f-stop.

White Balance

The white balance keeps your whites white. Usually, the automatic white balance should do the trick. But if you find your whites turning blue or yellow, you can make a change to your camera’s white balance.

smartphone photography with poor white balance
© Shuvro Mojumder

Find Your Focus Manually

The autofocus on modern camera apps is fast and reliable. But the problem with autofocus mode is that the camera will usually focus on whatever is in the centre of your shot.

Changing to manual focus mode gives you control over your focal point. You can have a subject off-centre and still have it in focus. The focal point doesn’t have to be in the middle of your shot in manual mode.

To manually focus on a camera app, you can often use your finger to select the subject you want in focus. Or you can hold down the shutter button as the app takes you through the focus range. You just pull your finger away when your subject is in focus.

Many camera apps will also have manual focus options. You might get an infinity option, which is ideal for landscapes. It’s also good if you have lots of movement in your shot. And you might get portrait or macro focus presets.

Play With Depth of Field

The freedom of manual controls on your camera means you can play with depth of field. The depth of field is how much of your shot is in focus.

A shallow depth of field means your subject is in focus and everything in front and behind is out of focus. A deeper depth of field means much more of your shot is in focus.

The focus presets might give you some pointers. But if you go completely manual, you need a wide aperture (f1.4 is ideal) for a shallow depth of field. And on a phone camera, this is no different.

You can manually adjust the settings to get a soft bokeh effect on portraits or macro shots. You need to select the widest aperture your phone app has. You can then have a faster shutter speed. And a lower ISO will give you more detail.

nature photography with a smartphone on a tripod
© Aaron Burden

Save Your Phone Camera Photos as RAW

When you take a photo on your phone camera, it will usually save it as a JPEG file.

JPEGs aren’t a problem and they are easily uploaded to social media. But if you want to edit your photos, it’s best to save the photos as RAW files.

You can load RAW files into editing software such as Adobe Lightroom. And this file format gives you more freedom when editing.

Stock camera apps may not give you the option to save as RAW. So if you are interested in editing your photos, you might need to download a more advanced manual camera app.

food photography with a smart phone in manual mode
© Randy Tarampi

Start Shooting in Manual Mode

Going manual on your smartphone camera is a great way to learn about photography. It turns your smartphone into a mirrorless camera.

You may find it frustrating at first, but practise does make perfect. Try out new things and play with the settings. Give yourself new projects and experiment with different types of photography.

One of the great things about shooting with a phone camera is that it gives you a preview before you snap the shot. When you make a change to the settings, you can see the result on the screen. If you don’t like it, you can change it without wasting a shot.

All the knowledge you gain from shooting in manual mode will transfer over if you upgrade to a DSLR or mirrorless camera. From f-stops to ISO, the theory is all the same.

But you can learn as much theory as you like. The best way to learn is to start shooting with manual controls. So take off the training wheels and go for a ride.

smartphone in a shallow depth of field
© Felipepelaquim

Conclusion

Using your Android manual camera is the perfect gateway into photography. Phone camera apps are easy to use. And going manual gives you the power to create stunning photos.

If your phone doesn’t have a manual mode, download one of the excellent camera apps for Android. It’s a great way to develop your photography knowledge and hone your skills.

Take your time and play around with different settings. You may be frustrated at first, but shooting in manual mode will make you a better photographer.

If you want to really take your manual mode skills to the next level, check out our Photography for Beginners course!

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