How to adjust your iPhone camera's settings

Lauren Crabbe

Lauren Crabbe , Macworld 

Unlike a compact camera or a DSLR, your iPhone doesn’t let you adjust the most popular settings: aperture, lens length, shutter speed, and white balance. That said, several tools within the Camera app (and other third-party programs) can aid you in taking very attractive pictures.

Exposure and focus

iphone photo focus lock

When you tap and hold on a point to lock the focus, this yellow focus box appears.

Setting your iPhone camera’s exposure (which controls the image’s brightness) is a simple matter of tapping once on whatever part of the image you’d like to source. If you move, or if the view changes too much, the Camera app recalibrates and picks a new focus and exposure point.

If you’re taking a macro shot (where one object is in sharp focus while the background is blurred), or if you want to focus on a bright area and leave the rest of the picture washed out, you can lock the exposure and focus on a specific point. Just tap and hold on that point until a yellow focus box appears and pulsates; then release. The words ‘AE/AF Lock’ appear at the top of the app. To clear the lock and change the focus, tap anywhere else on the screen.

Keep in mind that the Camera app forces you to lock the exposure and focus together; you can’t set the exposure on one object and set the focus on another.


When using the iPhone’s camera, you can enable HDR (high dynamic range) for your photos by tapping HDR On/Off at the top of the viewfinder. Dynamic range is the light spectrum that an eye—or a camera sensor—can read; it can be great for shots that have multiple light levels. A sunset portrait shot, for example, will capture both your subject and the fire-red sky. Apple’s HDR setting takes three images at different exposures (under-exposed, overexposed, and in the middle) and combines them into an image that has more details in both the shadows and the highlights.

Though it may be tempting to leave HDR on all the time, each HDR photo takes several seconds to save, and the larger (and extra) images eat up storage space fast. If you have an iPhone 5s, consider using its HDR Auto setting instead; when it’s enabled, the device automatically decides whether or not HDR is warranted.

HDR is effective in many instances, but there are a few situations to watch out for.

When capturing motion: If you’re shooting a fast-moving subject or you move the iPhone while shooting, the final HDR image can show ghosting—in which the multiple shots are misaligned and objects appear in more than one place. To avoid ghosting, use a tripod.

When contrast is key: A good shot can create a sense of drama by contrasting light and dark—say, to play up the impact of a dark silhouette against a bright background. HDR shots decrease image contrast.

When recording vivid colors: HDR mode can bring back colors in blown-out or dark areas. But when you are taking pictures of colorful subjects that are properly exposed, HDR mode desaturates colors. To avoid this, turn off HDR. For example, if you’re shooting a horizon where the blue sky is the focus and you don’t mind a dark foreground, turn off HDR and tap to focus on the sky so that you keep the vivid blues in your image.

When you need a flash: When HDR is on, the iPhone can’t use the flash. To get both of them at once, you’ll need to use an external light source.

Burst Mode

If you have an iPhone 5s, you can activate its Burst mode to take ten pictures a second: Tap and hold the shutter button, and your device will pick the least blurry shot of the bunch. Like the HDR mode, though, this tool sucks up storage. So as you save your favorites, take a moment to delete the rejects.


The flash has saved many a nighttime photo, but often at the expense of adding red-eye and blinding your subjects.

The iPhone flash illuminates subjects well up to about 6 feet away, so you’ll want to use it in close quarters. In addition, the iPhone’s LED flash often adds an odd blue glow, though you can correct this effect by using third-party editing apps.

Here are some cases where you should avoid using a flash.

At large events: When you are shooting in a large venue, such as at a concert, your flash is essentially useless. If you want your iPhone’s camera to compensate for low-light conditions, use HDR instead.

Around glass: If a mirror, a window, or a TV or computer screen is situated nearby, your flash will bounce off of it and create a blurry ball of white light somewhere in your picture. Turn the flash off.

Square format

The square image has turned into the standard image format for social media. It looks good on any device, no matter how you’re holding it.

In iOS 7, you can elect to shoot pictures in a square format. This option is ideal for Instagram addicts, as they don’t have to capture shots using the third-party app just to get the proper framing for their image.

Live Filters

Can’t wait to add a filter in your iPhone’s digital darkroom? Since the advent of iOS 7, if you have an iPhone 4 or later, Apple has let you apply live filters as you’re taking the photo. Effects range from dramatic monochrome to more-playful color filters.

Once you’ve chosen a filter, the camera stays in that mode until you disable it. Unfortunately, you can’t use the live filter in Video or Panorama mode. And you can’t turn off the effects once you’ve saved a photo; so for serious shots, it’s best not to use a filter as you shoot, in case you want the original, unedited image later. You can still access the live filters in the Photos app if you decide to wait until later.


iphone photo digital grid

Placing your subject off-center, using a three-by-three grid, creates a more compelling image.


Photographers and artists alike adhere to the “rule of thirds,” which tells us that photos (and videos—just watch TV and movies for proof) look better when the subject is off center, aligned about a third of the way from left, right, top, or bottom of a grid composed of two horizontal and two vertical lines (see the image to the left). According to the rule of thirds, the most visually interesting parts of the photo should fall along one of the lines, or at one of the points of intersection.

Many seasoned photographers can imagine invisible grid lines when composing a shot, but your iPhone makes the task easy for you: Turn on the Grid feature by tapping Settings > Photos & Camera > Grid. This overlays a three-by-three grid on your frame, letting you apply the rule of thirds effortlessly, even if you’re a beginner.