You’ve conquered composition and lighting, now it’s time to talk exposure. We shine a spotlight on the main three elements to better balance your smartphone photos…

Striking the right combination of aperture, shutter speed and ISO can be a bit of a juggling act, but it makes a huge difference to the quality of your smartphone photos. Discover how to master these essential elements in our exposure exposé and impress your friends and family with your stellar shots…

According to Andy Butler, founder and editor of Mobiography.net and Mobiography digital magazine, , “a correctly exposed photo has balance. It isn’t too dark. It isn’t too light. And it retains detail in all areas of the image.”

But how do you achieve this illusive effect? Enter the Exposure Triangle…

What is the Exposure Triangle?

Far less sci-fi than it sounds, the Exposure Triangle comprises aperture (how much light the lens lets in), shutter speed (how long the camera’s sensor is exposed to light) and ISO (the sensitivity level of the sensor). These three elements in combination affect the depth of field and sharpness of your photos. If you increase one, then one or both of the others need to increase by an equivalent total to retain the same overall level. Manually controlling these aspects, rather than letting your smartphone decide for you, gives you greater control of the outcome.

Sunrise over Windermere, Lake District

A post shared by Andy Butler (@caravananders) on


When adjusting these elements, Andy recommends setting your exposure for the brightest part of any scene:

“This will likely darken the rest of the image, but it will mean you can lighten any dark areas in post-production using an app like Snapseed or Lightroom Mobile,” he explains. “If the bright areas of a photo are overexposed you will lose any detail in those areas”.

If you want to get technical, you could even consider shooting in a RAW file format using an app like Procamera or Camera+ for iOS: “With RAW you can adjust the exposure of the photo in post-production, as the file format records more information about the scene,” Andy says.

Ok, let’s break down and demystify each part of the triangle…

Aperture

A camera’s aperture setting controls how much of an image is in focus by determining the amount of light that passes through the camera lens. It’s measured in f-stop values – the lower the f-stop, the higher the aperture. A low aperture allows lots of light in, resulting in a short depth of field. A high aperture allows little light in, but shows everything in focus.

Aperture is probably the most difficult aspect of the triangle to adjust when it comes to smartphone photography. This is due to the lack of a moveable iris, as found on DSLR lenses. As aperture tends to be a fixed value, it’s a good spec to look out for when buying a new phone. However, emerging dual camera technologies are now using software to emulate the aperture-adjusting effect, and fixed apertures can also be overcome to some degree with the help of an alternative camera app like these ones or experimentation with attachable lenses.

Shutter Speed

While aperture determines the amount of light that comes through the lens, shutter speed determines the length of time your camera’s sensor is exposed to that light. The slower the shutter speed, the more action your camera records. Faster shutter speeds result in crisper photos – ideal for capturing a reaction or a race – while slower speeds can introduce a level of artistic blur.

Watching you, watching me ~ shot with the native iPhone camera app and edited in Snapseed

A post shared by Andy Butler (@caravananders) on

Many modern Android phones now have manual controls built into their native camera apps. To locate these, take a look through your camera modes to find one called ‘manual’ or ‘pro’. Shutter speed is usually shown with an icon that looks like a shutter or an ‘S’, and tapping on this setting will reveal a list of speed options ranging from a fraction of a second to right up to around 30 seconds.

No manual mode? All is not lost. Third party apps like Camera+ are a great option for iOS, while Manual Camera allows Android users to adjust shutter speed alongside other aspects like focus and ISO. If you’re specifically seeking a long exposure effect, Andy suggests Slow Shutter, AvgCamPro and LongExpo for iOS users, or Camera FV-5 and Long Exposure Camera 2 for Android. You’ll find more of Andy’s tips for long exposure photography here.

ISO

Now for ISO. Your camera’s ISO setting determines its sensitivity to light. Most of the time, you’ll want to keep this setting as low as possible for cleaner images that retain detail in both light and shadows. And, as the majority of photos are taken outside in bright natural light, most smartphones are optimised for this kind of shooting. However, there are times when you won’t be able to achieve a balanced exposure without increasing the ISO. The most common scenario is when you’re shooting in low light, particularly indoors.

By increasing the ISO, you’ll be able to shoot at faster shutter speeds or in darker conditions. But again, it is a balancing act. Increasing ISO also increases the noise and can result in a general loss of detail.

When it comes to balancing exposure, there is no one-size-fits-all. But by experimenting with your settings and manual apps, you can achieve crisper or more artistic results.

Find out more… about the essentials of smartphone photography with these tips on how to best use lighting from Mobiography’s Andy Butler.

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