How to Use The Native Camera App on Your iPhone

Even though there are numerous great photography apps on the App Store, I take the vast majority of my photos using iPhone’s built-in Camera app. Sure, there are more advanced apps out there, but the built-in camera satisfies most of my needs and none of  the other apps can be accessed as quickly.

The iPhone is known for its intuitive user interface, and Camera app is no exception. It comes with no user manual and a three-year-old could pick it and start taking photos instantly. However, it has some very useful features that many users are not aware of.

To make sure you take full advantage of your iPhone’s camera, I will discuss everything there is to know about the Camera app. Note that some features discussed in this article are only available in iOS 5, so keep your iPhone’s software up-to-date.

Opening Camera App

One of the greatest things about the built-in camera app is the ability to launch it directly from the lock screen. Simply pull up the little camera icon, and you can start taking pictures instantly. This way you don’t even have to enter you passcode, which is huge timesaver.

This feature alone makes the built-in camera an indispensable tool for every iPhone photographer. The difference between a making a perfect shot or missing it is often just a couple of seconds, so make sure you know how to launch the Camera app quickly.

Setting Focus and Exposure

Generally speaking, exposure determines how bright or dark your image will be, and focus determines which part of the image will be the sharpest. To set focus and exposure, simply tap on the part of the picture that you want to be in focus and properly exposed. If you don’t tap anywhere, both focus and exposure will be set automatically.

In the image above the duck is completely white and thus overexposed. Any detail or color is lost. This can be corrected by tapping on the duck and setting exposure there.

The exposure is set so that the point you tap on is exposed properly (it is neither too dark nor too bright). So if you tap on the brightest parts of the image, the whole image will become darker. If you tap on the darkest parts of the image, the whole image will become brighter. Make sure you try this yourself to get an intuitive feel of how exposure works.

Compare the two images above. In the first one the exposure is set on the relatively dark vegetation in the foreground, whereas in the second one it is set on the much brighter water fountain. Note how the bottom image is also a lot darker than the top one.

As the scene of your picture changes, the iPhone will keep changing focus and exposure automatically. For more control, you may want to prevent this by locking focus and exposure. This can be done by tapping and holding the screen for about two seconds. A bigger-than-normally blue square will surround your finger, and “AE/AF Lock” will appear at the bottom of your screen. Now focus and exposure will stay fixed (until you tap the screen again).

The blue box in the top image indicates that focus and exposure will soon be locked on the sculpture. Once they are locked you will see “AE/AF Lock” at the bottom of the camera window.

In the built-in camera both focus and exposure are always set at the same point. For some creative applications it can be useful to separate the two. For this you will need a more advanced camera app (such as Camera+ or Camera Awesome).

Taking a Picture

There are several ways to take a picture with your iPhone. In order to get sharp images you always want to keep your iPhone as steady as possible, especially in low-light conditions. My favorite way of taking pictures is using the volume-up button on the side of the iPhone. This gives me a more camera-like feel and lets me hold the iPhone firmly using both hands.

Note that you can also use the volume-up button on your headphones (including Bluetooth headphones). This can be used to take a picture without even touching the iPhone, which is great if you are using a tripod and trying to keep the iPhone steady. If you have Bluetooth headphones, you can even use them as a remote for group photos and self-portraits.

You can also take pictures the shutter button on the iPhone’s screen. Note that the picture is only taken when you release your finger from the screen. Instead of tapping the shutter button, try gently releasing your finger from it. That should help you keep the iPhone steady.

Changing Camera

By tapping on the change camera icon you can quickly switch between the front and back cameras of your iPhone. The front camera is great for self-portraits, but its quality is a lot poorer. If possible, always use the back camera instead.

Changing Zoom

You can change the zoom of your photo by simply pinching anywhere on the screen. However, keep in mind that the iPhone has no optical zoom, so whenever you zoom in, you dramatically reduce the resolution (and thus quality) of your picture.

Digital zoom is essentially cropping before even taking a picture. I never use it—instead I crop my images afterwards if needed. That way I can keep my images at full resolution and make more thoughtful adjustments at a later time.

Using Flash

The iPhone (4 and 4S) comes with a built-in flash. In the camera app you can choose to turn the flash on and off. I never use the Auto setting because I want to be able to predict if the flash will be used. For the vast majority of pictures I simply keep the flash off.

Grid

You can enable gridlines by tapping on Options and turning Grid on. According to the rule of thirds, it is a good idea to place the main lines in your picture (such as the horizon) along the gridlines, and place the main objects at the intersection of those lines. While this is a useful composition guideline, also feel free to experiment and break the rules.

This image roughly follows the rule of thirds. Note that this rule is a only rough composition guideline rather than a prescription for always taking perfect pictures.

High Dynamic Range (HDR)

HDR is one of the most interesting new features of the iPhone’s Camera app. For your regular images you can only set your exposure once, meaning that some parts of your picture will be considerably brighter or darker than others. If the dynamic range is high, you may even lose some details completely. This is often the case when sky is a part of your image (see image above).

HDR corrects for that by taking each picture three times at different exposures, and then automatically combining the three images into one in which most objects are exposed properly. That way detail can be preserved in both dark and bright parts of the image.

I have to warn you though that your photos will not always look better with HDR on. HDR removes contrast and shadows from the picture, which can make it less dramatic (or even boring). Furthermore, HDR shooting is a lot slower and you get really weird results if your hands move or if you are trying to take pictures of moving objects.

For these reasons I keep HDR off most of the times (except when I desperately want to preserve detail in both shadows and highlights). When you turn HDR on, make sure your camera also keeps the original photo (Settings –> Photos –> Keep Normal Photo). The normal photo will sometimes look a lot better than HDR.

The photo above was shot with iPhone’s built-in HDR. Without HDR some detail in the sky and shadows would be lost. The warm sky near the horizon is simply white in the non-HDR version, thus making the picture look cold and less interesting.

However, all the shadows and silhouettes are still preserved in this photo. That’s because the iPhone’s built-in HDR effect is rather subtle. You can get a lot stronger effect with a specialized HDR app such as Pro HDR. However, shadows and contrast are what make the above image look good, so you don’t always need to go for a strong HDR.

  • Julia

    I can’t figure out how to set back the color on my iphone camera. My daughter was taking pictures with it and somehow it got stuck on the tonal colored tone… I tried the colored circles on the left bitten side but it doesn’t show me the normal tone anymore… Any help?

    • You see the three overlapping circles icon in your iPhone camera? Tap on that and select none among all the filters (it’s in the center). That will solve it for you.

  • louise davies

    how do you get the picture up the right way, not sure what I have pressed but Suddenly everything is upside down!!??

  • Graham

    Does any one no how to make a iPhone 5s brighter. It’s dark need to see it

  • Lynne

    My flash just won’t work, I have turned it to both auto then on but still nothing,any ideas?

  • Kaya

    I don’t have the three overlapping circles on my iPhone 4s camera and im trying to figure out how to put the circles on my camera

    • Are you running iOS 8 on your iPhone Kaya?

  • Chris

    I need my iPhone to make a deposit online by taking a pic of the deposit check. I keep getting a notice that the deposit app can’t access the camera to take the pic. Where in settings can I correct this?

  • BobStromberg

    Which version of the Camera app does this article cover? Looks like iOS 7. If so, is there an update to the article in the works?