Using Manual Camera Controls: Improving the Quality and Versatility of Your Photography
In the last several weeks, I have been exploring mobile photography and have striven to offer our readers some advice for editing their own photography and shooting in RAW, and have also made a case for modern smartphones as valuable tools in and of themselves for anyone interested in exploring the art.
I hope to have assisted readers in beginning or continuing their exploration of photography by demonstrating the capabilities of the device(s) already in your pocket and by providing tips for better editing the photos you take.
Missing from this omnibus, of course, is a guide for users who are inexperienced with the actual process of taking photos, whether be it on your smartphone or a dedicated camera. Almost all cameras marketed towards the majority of modern consumers utilize automatic camera modes by default. As of late, Android cameras have furthermore been marked by a move to “auto-HDR” software features, a feature which Google’s Pixel line has widely popularized among Android fans following a barrage of (arguably well-deserved) praise that was bestowed upon its camera after release.
Automatic camera modes have significantly improved over time, but any photographer with experience in manual settings will be well aware that a completely automatic camera mode is at best a tool for specific times and places and at worst an attempt to cram a vast array of photographic situations into a one-size-fits-all tool. Thus, an automatic camera mode may ultimately deteriorate the quality of all photos taken for the sake of user simplicity.
The universality of by-default automatic cameras is ultimately a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is hard to imagine consumers ever incentivizing device and software manufacturers to promote manual photography. The general consumer prefers ease of use and a device that “just works” over something that might require constant adjustments. This is understandable, however, a great number of devices and applications either come with or support manual camera controls.
If you have ever struggled desperately against an automatic camera to produce an accurate or desirable photo, taking the leap into manual photography has the potential to benefit you immensely. It also is typically necessary to shoot in manual mode if one wants to shoot in RAW, something I have previously argued as being a boon to the potential quality of smartphone photography. Hence, I will guide you through how to use manual camera controls so you can improve your photography skill.
Manual Photography Settings
If you have a device available, open up the camera and take a look in the settings or in any other menus presented. Once you find the ‘modes’ settings (Auto, Panorama, Timelapse, etc.), scan for a “Manual” option or something phrased similarly to that.
As can be seen above, different device manufacturers and their (ahem) diverse collection of Android skins expose manual camera settings with a broad range of usability, utility, and setting names. Thankfully, most choose to go with the default, precise terms normally used in photography: ISO, shutter speed (often shown as a clock or stopwatch), white balance (typically WB), manual focus (usually a dashed square), and manual exposure tweaking (often a box with a + and – inside it). Each different implementation is likely to be dissimilar, however, and some manual settings will forego exposure tweaking or add additional options (like LG’s very well-featured manual video settings).
ISO is first and foremost a product of the International Standards Organization, hence the acronym. ISO is a standardized scale used in the camera industry for measuring a sensor’s sensitivity to light. As ISO increases, sensitivity to light also increases, as illustrated in the photo above. The viewfinder of my OnePlus 3T demonstrates the blown highlights produced by increasing the ISO in conditions with lots of light.
As a general rule of utilizing ISO, a lower ISO should always be your goal if you are attempting to produce high-quality photography. While ISO mainly increases sensitivity to light, a consequence of this sensitivity is a significant increase in image noise. This is partially what makes low-light photography much more difficult than photography in conditions with more light, as any automatic camera mode will increase ISO, and thus also noise, in low-light situations. This is intrinsically connected to shutter speed.
Innately connected to the goal of ISO manipulation is shutter speed, better understood as the length of light exposure a given image will receive. Shutter speed is measured in fractions of a second, and most cameras will feature an exposure range of 1/8000th of a second to 30 seconds. As with all aspects of manual photography, users will come to discover that each modification of settings results in other changes that may be less desirable.
With exposure length, a very brief exposure is optimal for anything moving, as this will prevent motion blur. However, shorter exposures, like 1/8000 as shown above, mean that the image sensor will receive only a small amount of light. In bright conditions, this is usually optimal and helps to prevent blown highlights while also contributing to less motion blur if there is motion in the frame.
However, it is often impossible to use faster exposures when lighting conditions are darker, and this is where ISO becomes a crucial aspect of photography in low-light. Automatic cameras, for example, will detect low-light environments and subsequently raise ISO in order to keep exposure times as short as possible. Readers may have noted that low-light photos they take are often very noisy and sometimes blurred or generally lacking in fine detail.
When there is little light available to a sensor, it needs to expose for considerably longer to produce a useful image. This is good in principle, but a longer exposure also means more opportunities for a human’s shaky hands or a moving subject to introduce considerable blur. Automatic camera modes try to prevent taking a blurry image by aggressively increasing ISO to allow for faster exposures and thus hopefully less blur.
These are all valuable things to keep in mind while dipping one’s feet into manual photography. Shutter speed and ISO are by far the main methods through which one controls the appearance of the final product, and it effectively becomes a balancing act between limiting motion blur/image noise and capturing the subject in a manner you intended. The added control of having those settings, however, is absolutely invaluable in an array of situations.
White balancing is a process in which a camera will attempt to detect the type of white light largely visible in different environments. This is typically utilized to account for different light sources (fluorescent, incandescent, etc.), as well as different weather types and times of day (overcast, sunny, sunset, etc.). White balance generally focuses on collecting the proper temperature of white light in a scene, which ranges from cold (blue-tinted) to warm (orange or gold-tinted).
This is one setting that is often best left on automatic settings, unless the viewfinder suggests that the automatic white balance is obviously wrong. Of note, RAW images will have to be manually white balanced in post-processing, as RAW shooting will not modify the white balance in-camera.
Manual focus controls are a more recent and much-appreciated addition to the control suite of manual smartphone photographers. OnePlus features a simple and intuitive circular slider which can be used to accurately set focus manually in lieu of the jumpier and imperfect auto-focus, something which is often exaggerated when trying to take photos of close subjects.
A wonderful feature of the OnePlus camera app, nevertheless, is the ability to select the automatic alternative for any of the four settings that can be controlled, including focus. Manual focus is typically unnecessary, as modern auto-focus methods are typically extremely capable and will rarely falter.
While I do not have any sample photos to use from my OnePlus 3T, manual exposure is a small supplement to ISO and shutter speed settings, and it is one of the rarer manual settings one will find in smartphone camera applications. If a combination of shutter speed and ISO produce an unsatisfying image, manual exposure is often offered as a way of tweaking the brightness of an image in-camera. It can quite easily be replaced by simply modifying brightness after taking the photo, but it can sometimes be more efficient to get the image right the first time.
Manual Camera Apps
While auto modes in modern cameras and camera apps have gotten increasingly versatile and intelligent, they are still often akin to using a hammer to kill a fly. Even if manual settings are only adopted while shooting in JPEG, the resultant images will often be much sharper and in control when compared to auto versions of the same scene. There is also something distinctly satisfying about understanding the different features manual cameras offer and applying that knowledge for the production of beautiful images. One could delve very deeply into an exploration of the homogeneous photography modern automatic cameras produce, but that is a rabbit hole we won’t dive into today.
Of course, manual photography is simply another tool for the photographer, and it is not intended as an either/or choice for users. Automatic modes simply cannot always cope with the vast number of different situations and individual tastes they will be faced with and forced to conform to. Shooting manually can simply offer an experienced user a more fluid, less fickle method of consistently producing beautiful photography, something that anyone who has dealt with exceedingly stubborn automatic camera modes can likely sympathize with.
Unfortunately, while many manufacturers support manual photography in their stock software, there are still many who do not. Whatever the reason, there are certain cases where users of the shunned devices will be able to download Android camera apps which will offer manual controls. Due to the nature of software and how cameras function, however, certain devices simply will not have the API or kernel support necessary to manually control the devices’ cameras.
Nevertheless, I will still recommend a handful of manual photography-enabling apps available through the Google Play Store. My personal favorite, which I used frequently before I purchased my OnePlus 3T, is Manual Camera. This application is minimally designed, but still quite beautiful and functional, and it only costs $3. Camera FV-5 is another highly-rated and functional paid option at $4. Regarding free camera apps with manual settings, I would recommend Open Camera or Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which both feature capable and ad-free camera alternatives to your default app.
Regardless of the application you use, learning to use manual camera settings is a way to both better understand photography and also potentially improve your own photos. As always, the best method of learning these photography-related skills is to simply go and take some pictures while challenging yourself to make use of the manual settings you have at your disposal. You may experience missteps and some ugly pictures initially, but developing an intuitive grasp of manual photography is a reasonably quick process and should not require more than a healthy dose of frustration.
Have you taken any photos lately that you are particularly proud of? Share your work in the comments for a chance to have it featured in an upcoming article featuring XDA reader photography!