A Quick Start Guide to the iPhone Camera

The iPhone is still the most popular point-and-shoot camera on the planet, but many users still aren’t away of all that the camera can do.

Since our last beginner’s guide, Apple has added many more features and made various enhancements to its camera app. With leaps in hardware and software, you’d be forgiven for no longer carrying a dedicated compact camera.

If you’re new or still haven’t explored the iPhone camera, today you’re going to learn a few things about exactly what your camera can achieve.

Note: The features described in this article are found mostly on the iPhone 5s, 6, and 6 Plus phones. Some features may not be present in older models of the phone (notably slow motion and burst fire).

Exposure Control

You don’t need to know about aperture and shutter speed controls when it comes to wielding the 8-megapixel iPhone camera, but is good to know that the camera includes the ability to adjust the amount of light coming into the lens as you set up the shot.

To control the exposure, first compose your shot. Tap on the screen where you want to pin focus, then slide your finger up and down to adjust the exposure (the small sun icon will move too). The iPhone camera automatically exposes for lighting and this feature overrides automatic controls, so be careful you don’t over or underexpose your shot.

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Exposure Control

Tap Focus & Face Detection

When you’re taking photos of people, allow the iPhone camera to detect faces of subjects to get sharper photos. When one or more faces appear on the screen, the camera will identify them with a yellow square. Close range shots provide better detection, so move close to your subjects.

To get the best shots, you should also tap on the screen to focus on the subject you’re capturing, which will tell the camera to focus on that particular part of the screen. With the camera’s f/2.2 aperture, if there is a significant distance between the foreground and background of your subject, the iPhone camera can often establish a pretty good shallow depth of field using this feature.

Face detection

Zoom In

The iPhone camera camera doesn’t have real real optical zoom, but it does, like many digital cameras, have digital zoom, which basically enlarges the central part of the subject in the screen. It’s always best to physically get closer to your subject, but when you can’t, pinch out with two fingers on the screen and zoom in. A slider will appear, which you can use to zoom in and out with one finger.

Digital zoom

Shooting Modes

The iPhone camera now offers six different shooting modes —three still photo modes, and three video camera modes. To change shooting modes, swipe your finger on the screen to the left or right to select the desired shooting mode.

Don’t forget: You can also use the iPhone’s “volume up” + button to as a shutter, either on the phone itself, via an attached headphone cable or using an Apple Watch paired with your iPhone.

Shooting modes

Photo: For regular photos shot in landscape or portrait orientation. Tap to focus and expose, hit the big white shutter button to take a shot.

Square: Photos are shot in a square frame, like with a medium format camera. This is useful for Instagram shots, but note that photos shot in the square mode are permanent. Whereas you can edit a regular photo shot and crop it in the camera editor.

Pano: you can actually shoot really great pano shots for scenes that are wider than what can be captured by the regular photo setting. To use a pano shot, frame the first part of your subject, tap the shutter button, and then slowly move your camera in the direction shown to capture the rest of the scene (you can tap the box that appears on-screen to switch sides). Try to keep the camera steady within the guide, without moving the phone up or down for best results.


Video: The iPhone shoots great video, and you can even enable the built-in flash which will remain on while you’re shooting in low light situations. When shooting video, it’s always best to shoot in landscape orientation.

Notice a white shutter button next the red video button will appear while recording. The shutter actually allows you to snap a still photo while you’re shooting video. Just keep the camera steady. The photo feature does not work well with fast moving shots.

Slo-Mo: Allows you to shoot slow motion video at either 120 or 240 frames per second. Once you’ve shot your video open it in the Photos app and drag the sliders below the camera roll to determine which segments of your video run in slow-mo.


Time-Lapse: Time-lapse captures a series of shots over a period of time and then it plays back like a video. It’s great for capturing cloud movement, the sun rising and setting, flowers blooming or boats in a harbor. After opening Time-lapse mode, frame your subject (landscape mode is recommended), tap on the screen to adjust the exposure and focus, then tap the red button to begin the capture.

Time lapse shots are best done using a tripod, and your iPhone will automatically process the results into a video based on how long you’ve been shooting.

Burst Mode: There is no dedicated button for burst mode shots, but you can hold down the regular shutter button, and the camera will fire off 10 frames per second. It will save all the shots in a dedicated folder in the Photos Library app, where you can select the best one. Burst mode is great for capturing fast action subjects, such a baseball game or children playing.

HDR Shooting

In certain high contrast lighting conditions, you can try shooting in what is called HDR (High Dynamic Range) mode.

HDR quickly takes three separate exposures in a single photo and blends them into one. In the Settings app > Photos & Camera, you can select to have the phone keep the normally exposed photo in edition to the HDR version. Note: on the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus, the HDR camera automatically creates high dynamic range photos using the camera’s sensor, instead of blending three separate shots.

Photo Filters

The camera also includes photo filters that can be applied when taking shots. These filters are not that great, and they can also be applied in the camera editor after the shots are taken, which is the best way to do it. Like all photo editing on the iPhone, filters are non-destructive and can be removed at any point (even if you shot the photo with the filter on).

Photo filters

Other Shooting Features

The iPhone camera also includes a few other handy features, such as a 3 or 10 second timer, and of course the front facing camera.

Camera timer

To use the timer, select the timer button that appears in the Photo and Square shooting modes, and then select the time, which will begin after you tap the white shutter button.

The camera also includes automatic geotagging, which puts your photos on a map based on where you took them (you’ll need Location Services enabled). Unfortunately you can’t view that information or your photo map on your iPhone. Apple’s iPhoto and the new Photos application will show GPS information, and if you want that information removed an app called Metapho can do so.

Editing Features

The iPhone camera also includes some pretty robust editing tools that don’t require a six week course to use. You can access your photos either in the Photos app of you phone, or by tapping on the small window next to the shutter button when the camera is opened in one of the shooting modes.

When you open a photo, tap on the Edit button and from there you find tools for cropping, filtering, and editing the photo’s various attributes. Don’t be afraid to play around with these settings, because the Photos app is a non-destructive editor. You can always revert back to the original image after edits are applied.

Photo editing

Note the blue magic enhancement button at the top of the editor. Sometimes this feature corrects the exposure a little to improve the shot, but your mileage may vary. The white circle button on the left side allows you to open the photo in another iOS camera app.

Magic enhancement

Also, the cropping feature in the editor allows for both free form cropping of images, as well as as predefined aspect ratios, which is great for when you want to crop and post photos to the photo sharing site, Instagram, or when you need to crop photos for particular printing size. Note too that cropped photos can always be resized by re-opening them in the crop editor and tapping on the Reset button.


Happy Shooting

The iPhone camera saves users tons of money and time on camera equipment and post processing software. By practicing with the camera’s features and tools, you too can produce great photography with a smartphone.

Share your best iPhone photos in the comments below!

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