Use these 5 camera settings on your Android phone for better photos

If you want higher-quality shots from your Android camera, here are a few tips to help you achieve your goal.
Written by Jack Wallen, Contributing Writer
Jack Wallen/ZDNET

Today's camera phones have reached the point where flagship models are almost on par with DSLRs. I can take photos with my phone that easily match and often best those from my Canon. 

Part of the reason for that success is artificial intelligence (AI), but that's not the only explanation. Camera apps on phones, such as the Pixel 8 Pro, have easier access to controls that can be used in real time, instead of adjusting, testing, adjusting, testing. On top of that, Android cameras are more flexible than many DLSRs. 

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But getting a good photo requires a bit more effort. I want to demystify that technique for you and explain a few concepts in ways anyone can understand.

Let's get to it. I'm demonstrating these tips on a Pixel 8 Pro. If you're using a different device, you'll need to alter the instructions or locate the feature for the camera app on your phone.

1. Use the Golden Ratio for framing

Framing is key to creating artistic photos. Most people immediately jump to framing their subject in the center but that's often a mistake, especially if you're going for an artistic look. Instead, the best framing option is the one-third rule, where your main subject is either in the left or right third of the frame. There's a way to make this technique even easier -- thanks to the Golden Ratio. 

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With Android cameras, you can enable a grid on the viewfinder that makes it easier to frame your subjects. One of the grids you can use is called the Golden Ratio (also called the Divine Proportion) which shifts the grid to the one-third rule. With the Golden Ratio grid, you should always place your subject in the upper-right or left intersection of the lines. That way, you'll get the best framing for your photo. To enable the Golden Ratio grid, open your camera app and tap the gear icon in the bottom left corner. Tap More Settings, locate and tap Grid Type, and select Golden Ratio. Go back to the viewfinder and you see the new grid, making it easier to frame your subjects artistically.

The Gold Ratio grid on the Pixel camera app.

Using the Gold Ratio grid will help you easily frame your shots.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

2. Work with manual focus

Most people prefer to allow the camera AI to deal with the heavy lifting. But there's something to be said about going manual. Although a modern phone's auto-focus can be incredible, sometimes it can get in the way of creating artistic photos. Instead, use manual focus to decide what's important in the photo. 

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Understanding auto-focus can be challenging but the Android camera app makes it fairly easy by displaying Peaking Active. This feature highlights what's in focus with a fushia outline. When you see that color on the edge of a subject, you know it's in focus. Because of that feature, manual focus is far easier than you might think. To access the Manual Focus feature, tap the Settings icon in the bottom right of the window (or top right if you're in landscape mode), locate and tap the Focus button, and adjust the focus with the dial.

Manual focus on the Pixel camera app.

Using manual focus can help you get the exact shot you want.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

3. Use the right ISO

ISO controls the amount of light your camera lets in. The higher the ISO, the more light will get through. The lower the ISO, the less light is allowed. Think of it this way: when you're out in the midday sun, the image will blow out if you use a high ISO. You don't want that to happen. Like manual focus, modern cameras are good at auto-detecing the right ISO but that doesn't mean the results you get will have any artistic flare. You might want to dial down the ISO in midday to get a dimmer look. Or maybe you're indoors and don't want auto ISO to open up so much that it looks too clinical. You can control the light you want to let in for your photos by manually adjusting ISO. To take control of ISO, tap the Settings icon, locate and tap ISO, and adjust accordingly.

ISO on a Pixel camera app.

ISO can be tricky but once you get the hang of it, your photos will look fantastic.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

4. Change your shutter speed

The shutter speed is the speed at which the shutter closes. The faster the shutter speed, the faster the exposure. The slower the shutter speed, the slower the exposure. The difference can be stark. For instance, if you take a photo of a busy downtown street at night and use a fast shutter speed, you'll get a clear image of a car going by. Use a slow enough shutter speed and create an image with streaks of tail lights for a nice artistic expression. 

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The only downside of slow shutter speeds is that you need a steady hand. In fact, with slower shutter speeds, you might even consider using a tripod because the slightest shake will harm the image. Slow shutter speeds are better in dim light situations, whereas faster shutter speeds are good for instances of bright light. Slow shutter speeds produce blurrier images whereas faster shutter speeds produce crisp images. Shutter speeds are measured in fractions of a second, such as 1/150 or 1/24 (as in 1/150th of a second or 1/24th of a second). To access Manual Shutter Speed, tap the Settings button, tap and locate Shutter Speed, and adjust accordingly.

Shutter speed on the Pixel camera app.

Adjusting the shutter speed on your camera can make a big difference.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

5. Pay attention to white balance

Essentially, white balance is an adjustment to make white images look white. This technique is important because you will take photos in different lighting, which impacts the color white in images. When White Balance is on auto, the camera app will do its best to ensure white looks white, based on the ambient or focused light. Sometimes, you might find yourself in daylight situations (where the color temperature can reach up to 6k) but you want a warmer feel. For that situation, adjust the white balance. Think of white balance in terms of cool and warm -- the cooler the temperature, the bluer the light, whereas the warmer the temperature, the more amber the light. You can access the white balance by tapping the Settings icon, locating and tapping White Balance, and adjusting accordingly.

White Balance on the Pixel camera app.

The right white balance can mean the difference between a cool and warm photo.

Screenshot by Jack Wallen/ZDNET

It might take a while to get the hang of all these techniques. But once you do, you'll find yourself better capable of artistic expression with your photos. 

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