Manual Mode: A Complete & Comprehensive Guide

When it comes to taking pictures using our smartphones, the truth is most of us just whip out our devices and immediately snap away. We trust the camera’s automatic calculations to give us the best picture possible.

However, there is another option available- shooting in Manual (or Pro) Mode. This takes the control away from the smartphone’s AI and puts it in your hands therefore giving you control over settings such as ISO, shutter speed, focus, white balance, and others.

There are some really good benefits to shoot in Manual mode. For one, it can improve the overall look and feel of your photos. To learn more about the benefits of shooting manually, click here.

But before you can master Manual mode, you need to understand all the settings and what they do. Let’s jump right in.


In digital photography, ISO is used to measure how sensitive the camera’s image sensor is to light. The lower the number, the less sensitive the sensor will be to light. The higher the number, the higher the sensitivity.

What this basically means is that when shooting in bright light, the ISO should be low in order to limit light sensitivity and avoid overexposed shots. In low light conditions, however, a higher ISO is necessary for you to get a brighter picture.

Smartphone camera ISO is normally set to ‘Auto’ but can be adjusted in manual mode. ISO 100 is generally considered the ‘normal’ or ‘standard’ setting although some phones can go even lower than that. How high the ISO can go also depends on the phone manufacturer.

According to PetaPixel, the Huawei P30 Pro ISO can go as high up as ISO 409 600. That’s even higher than the Canon 5D Mark IV which goes up to ISO 102 400.

However, it is worth noting that the higher the ISO goes, the more likely you are to see noise in your photos. Too much ISO and your pictures will end up unusable. Again, how high you can set your ISO before noticing any noise depends on your camera's specs.

Shutter speed

Sometimes known as ‘exposure time’, shutter speed refers to how long the image sensor is exposed to light. The higher the shutter speed, the longer the exposure time. The longer the image sensor is exposed to light, the brighter the photo.

Traditional photo cameras use mechanical shutters that physically open and shut to expose the sensor (or film) to light. Remember the ‘click’ sound the camera made when taking photos? That was the shutter mechanism at work and however long it remained open is the shutter speed.

Digital cameras such as smartphone cameras do not need mechanical shutters. Instead, they use electronic shutters. So, instead of having a shutter that physically opens and closes, the sensor itself is activated to accumulate light for whatever desired amount of time and then deactivated. In the digital camera world, the time the sensor remains active is known as the shutter speed.

Shutter speed is measured in seconds or fractions of a second. For example, a shutter speed of 1s means that the sensor is activated for just 1 second whereas a shutter speed of 1/4000 means that the sensor is exposed to light for just a fraction of a second. In this example, it’s just 4000th of a second.


A fast shutter speed is great for moving action as it reacts quickly but if you do not have enough lighting, your photos will turn out quite dark. On the other hand, a slower shutter speed will increase the brightness of your pictures but may introduce motion blur.

Therefore, when adjusting shutter speed, you may notice that sometimes you need to tinker with the ISO in order to compensate for exposure.

To better understand how they work together and how to use them to get the best photos possible, I recommend you read my article about the Exposure Triangle.


Most camera phones nowadays have movable lenses that can adjust focus by varying the distance between the lens and sensor. In ‘auto’ mode, auto-focus (AF) software technology helps the camera detect where to focus in the shot in order to capture sharp images.

Depending on the brand of phone (or third-party manual camera app) you use, you might (or might not) come across three focus options in manual mode:

      • AF-S (Single Auto-focus)
      • AF-C (Continuous Auto-focus)
      • Manual focus

Also known as One-Shot Auto-focus, this mode of auto-focus is mostly ideal for situations where the subject of your shot is not moving at all. The reason for this is because when AF-S focuses on your subject, it locks the focus in that position. If your subject moves, the focus will be out and you’ll have to adjust it again. CDAF falls under this category.



Continuous Auto-focus, as the name suggests, provides continuous focus no matter the subject movement. Once the camera is focused on a subject (by tapping on the screen), it will track the subject and keep it in focus thus allowing you to move the camera a bit and re-frame your shot without worrying about having to adjust focus again.


Manual focus on a Huawei device


Manual focus leaves the controls entirely in your hands. A slider will appear on the screen that allows you to shift focus as you please.

Although the auto-focus on smartphone cameras is fast and accurate, it’s nice to have the option to control the focus yourself especially for creative and artistic purposes. Also, manual focus comes in real handy in situations where light-dependent passive auto-focus may not work so well.

White Balance

Different lighting conditions have different properties including colour temperatures, measured in degrees Kelvin (K). That means that certain lighting conditions can look or “feel” warmer (more yellow/red) or cooler (bluish) than others, depending on the source.

For example, light from a candle indoors (warm colour temperature) will differ, not just in intensity, but in colour temperature as well from that of a clear, sunny sky outdoors (cool colour temperature). Therefore, something that looks white under one type of light source might not look the same under different lighting.

The purpose of white balance is to neutralize the colours and tones seen by the camera so that they more accurately match what we see with our naked eyes. So, for an object that appears white in candlelight to appear the same under sunlight, a white balance has to be performed.

When shooting in Auto mode, the camera cleverly measures the colour temperature of the ambient lighting and then automatically does a white balance to correct the colour profile of the picture to match what our eyes see.

When setting white balance in Manual mode, you may find several presets to suit whatever lighting conditions you’re in. For example, if you’re outdoors on a cloudy day, you can select that option from the white balance presets, and the phone will adjust the colours accordingly.



White balance slider

Depending on your phone or app, there should also be a white balance slider that is similar to the manual focus slider. By adjusting this slider, you can manually adjust the white balance to a point you wish so you have greater control over the final artistic look of your images. Colour temperature values on smartphone cameras can range from 2 000K (cool) to 8 000K (warm), depending on the phone.


Metering basically refers to how the camera makes a decision as to how bright to make the picture depending on what’s important in the frame. Using its algorithms, it measures the amount of light in a scene and adjusts the exposure settings accordingly.

There are three types of metering:

      • Matrix
      • Centre-weighted
      • Spot



In matrix metering, the camera calculates the amount of light in multiple areas of the scene. The frame of the camera is divided into zones and, depending on how much light is in these zones, the camera will calculate the average brightness and adjust the overall exposure accordingly.


Unlike with matrix metering, centre-weighted metering is more concerned with the light information in the middle of the frame. The edges of the frame are given less importance.


Spot metering works similarly to centre-weighted metering only it calculates light in an even smaller area of the frame. In fact, only about 5% or less of the frame is used to calculate the amount of light around the point of focus and ignores everything else.

Exposure Value

This appears most commonly on the camera display as ‘EV’ and refers to exposure compensation. Adjusting the EV allows you to change the recommended exposure setting on your camera in order to make the photos darker or brighter.

Similar to white balance and manual focus, the EV can be adjusted by using a slider. The standard setting is 0. By moving the slider to the right (the ‘+’ side) will increase the brightness of the image. Moving the slider to the left (the ‘-‘ side) will make the picture darker.

Moderation in adjusting the exposure value is important because moving it too far to the negative or positive side will result in a noisy or less than desirable photo.

While all these settings may seem unfamiliar and daunting to a beginner, with time and enough practice, using Manual Mode will become second nature to you. Will you need to use Manual Mode all the time? Probably not. However, shooting manually can help make your mobile photos look good.

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