We all love taking pictures with our smartphones, some of us perhaps more than others. And what I have noticed is that most people simply pull out their phone and take a shot using the camera’s auto settings.
Full disclosure: I was one of those people, too. Before I got into smartphone photography, I was just happy taking pictures that way without ever thinking about what more my smartphone’s camera can do.
And then I started exploring the ‘Manual’ mode, also known as ‘Pro’ mode on some devices. As time went by, I got the hang of it.
I won’t lie: shooting in manual mode improved my photos A LOT!
The benefits of shooting manually are what I call The 3 C’s: Control, Consistency, and Creativity. These contribute to what makes a photo look good.
In this article, I’ll be discussing these three benefits of shooting manually. If you're not familiar with this mode and how all the settings work, I suggest you read through my detailed Manual mode guide here.
Personally, I believe this is the greatest reason to shoot in Manual mode because the other two reasons are only possible because of the control that shooting manually gives you.
Taking photographs in Manual mode allows you to control the settings of the camera, pretty much the same way you would on a normal DSLR camera.
With this mode, you can control:
This refers to exposure time. How long is the sensor is active for in order to capture an image before being deactivated again? That’s the shutter speed measurement in smartphones, which is expressed in seconds or fractions of a second.
The slower the shutter speed, the more light information the sensor receives. This is something that’s really useful, especially when shooting in low light. However, there’s also a catch here. The longer the shutter stays active, the more your images will turn out blurry from even the slightest movement.
The auto-focus system on smartphone cameras works really well. So, it makes focusing fairly simple and quick. You can just tap anywhere on the screen where you want to focus, and the camera will focus for you.
Manual focus works similarly to how it does on a normal camera but instead it’s a focus slider on the screen, not a focus ring on a lens. You simply adjust the slider to where you want to focus.
It may seem like more work to focus manually this way, but sometimes mobile phone cameras can struggle to find focus, especially in low light. In this case, focusing manually may prove to be more effective.
Different light sources have different colour temperatures, measured in degrees Kelvin. As a result, what looks white under candlelight may look somewhat bluish under sunlight.
Auto white balance (AWB) uses software calculations to correct the camera’s colours to match the scene automatically. With Manual mode, you can select the type of lighting you are in from a given list of presets.
You can also use a slider to adjust the white balance to a colour temperature that suits your scene.
Aperture (to some extent)
Expressed in f-numbers, aperture refers to the hole through which light enters the camera. The wider the aperture, the more light can enter.
In traditional photography, controlling your aperture manually is a very big deal. Smartphones, on the other hand, have a fixed aperture-- it cannot be changed.
I’ve included this point here, though, because it seems there might be a step into the variable aperture sphere in smartphone cameras. Starting with the Galaxy S9, Samsung has introduced smart devices that can switch aperture.
Though at this stage you can only switch between two f/stops, having the option of a wider aperture is a big plus, especially when shooting in poor lighting.
Having full control of these settings allows you to take images that look the way that you want them to look, not the smartphone’s calculations of what it “thinks” looks good. You are in control of how you want to deal with various lighting situations.
Not to say that Auto Mode doesn’t take good pictures. It most certainly does. Sometimes you just want to do your own thing.
However, because there are some caveats to using these controls manually, you need to understand them, how they work, and their limitations, especially on smartphones.
To learn more about smartphone manual controls and how they affect the picture and each other, I suggest you read my article Manual Mode- A Complete and Illustrated Guide, which discusses it all in detail.
Second ‘C’: Consistency. When shooting in Auto mode, the camera has a mind of it’s own. It’s constantly looking for where to focus. It’s constantly trying to detect changes in lighting and compensate for those.
As a result, it’s possible to take several pictures with varying exposure settings every time the frame changes due to subject movement, camera movement, and/or lighting changes.
Shooting in Manual mode allows you to produce images that are consistent in look and quality. If you want to take a series of images and you want them to be somewhat dark, you’ll adjust your exposure settings accordingly.
By adjusting the settings yourself, you’re able to make your pictures share the same exposure quality.
This may not sound like a good enough reason to shoot manually to a smartphone photography hobbyist. But if you’re into the art and aesthetics of smartphone photography, consistency really matters in a photo series.
The third ‘C’ is for ‘Creativity’. Without being able to control your camera settings manually, what you can do visually with your images becomes very limited.
For example, you can slow down the shutter speed in order to do long exposure photography. This does not work too well in day light on smartphones because the aperture can’t be adjusted, but it works well at night or in low light.
Example of light trails taken at night with a slow shutter speed
You can use a slow shutter speed creatively at night to create things like light trails and light paintings. If you want to take a perfectly sharp photo of a fast moving subject mid-action without any motion blur, such as someone jumping up, you’ll need to set a fast shutter speed.
Being able to focus manually not only helps you focus when your camera struggles, but it allows you take photos that can be out of focus for creative reasons.
You can play around with exposure settings to create a mood and ambience of your choice in your photos. If you don’t already know about it, learn about the Exposure Triangle and apply it to your photography to add a more professional and creative touch to it.
What you can do creatively is only limited by your imagination. However, without knowing what the tool you’re carrying can and can’t do, you won’t be able to fully explore your potential. That’s why I highly advice you learn your camera’s specs and how Manual mode works.
And there you have it. My 3 C’s of why to shoot in Manual mode-- Control, Consistency, and Creativity. Does this mean you have to shoot manual all the time? Of course not! With things like street photography, it oftentimes might be easier to shoot on the go using Auto mode.
However, when time allows and you’re in control, it’s always good to take the time to set up your shot, choose your settings, and capture the image that you want to.
If your native camera app doesn’t have a Manual mode, then you may want to consider installing a third-party app. These are sometimes better than the Manual mode that comes with the stock camera app.