11 gotta-know iOS camera tricks for beginners

Take a tour of iOS's best camera features, from photo filters and burst mode to panoramic images and slow-motion video.

11 gotta-know iOS camera tricks for beginners
Credit: Ben Patterson

The original iOS Camera app was so simple, toddlers could master it—and often did. Indeed, there was little more than a viewfinder, a shutter release, and a toggle that let you switch between still photos and videos.

Over the years, the iOS camera interface has evolved into a sleek, sometimes confounding array of barely there buttons, swiveling settings, and hidden features. Without a proper orientation, you could easily miss out on some of the Camera app’s most interesting functions.

Read on for a guided tour of 11 iOS Camera tricks you need to know—and no, you don’t need to be Ansel Adams to tag along.

Snap photos with the volume buttons

This first trick is actually as old as the Camera app itself, but it’s still an easy one to miss.

Snap photos with the volume buttons Ben Patterson

Just press one of the volume buttons if you’re having trouble with the onscreen button.

If you ever have trouble capturing the moment with the slippery onscreen shutter release, there’s a far more tangible alternative: the volume buttons. Just click one of them to snap a pic.

Take a selfie

Now that taking photos is a little easier, it’s time to capture your smiling mug with help from your iPhone’s or iPad’s front-facing camera.

Take a selfie Ben Patterson

You can quickly switch between the front and rear lenses with a tap of this button.

Just tap the little camera-lens toggle button in the corner of the screen—the one that looks like a camera with a couple of curved arrows inside.

Each time you tap the button, the Camera app will switch between the front and rear camera lenses, perfect for taking a selfie without taking your eyes off the viewfinder.

Try the timer

If you want to snap a group shot without leaving anyone out of the frame, you’ll need a feature than even your dusty old Instamatic had: the timer.

Try the self timer Ben Patterson

Once you tap the timer button, you can choose between two options: three seconds or 10.

For the new iOS Camera app, it’s the button near the edge of the screen that looks like a minimalist clock. Tap it before shooting your next picture, then choose either three seconds or 10.

Now position your iPhone or iPad just right, tap the shutter release, and scramble in front of the lens.

Turn the flash on or off

By default, the built-in flash for the iOS Camera is set to automatic, meaning that a delicately lit scene could easily be ruined by a bright glare.

Turn the flash on or off Ben Patterson

When you see this flash icon on the viewfinder, you know that the iOS Camera app plans on firing the flash for your next shot.

To take charge of the camera flash, tap the Flash button in the corner of the screen, then select Auto, On, or Off.

Bonus tip: A yellow flash icon near the bottom of the viewfinder indicates that the flash will go off the next time you press the shutter release.

Take a burst of photos

Even the speediest of shutterbugs isn’t always fast enough to capture the moment—or moments, as they may be. If you’re hoping to catch a fleeting image, burst mode might your best bet.

Take a burst of photos Ben Patterson

Once you take a burst of photos, you can pick your favorites and ask iOS to delete the rest.

To take a burst of photos, just press and hold the shutter release. The Camera app will begin to snap pictures at a fast and furious pace, and it’ll keep snapping until you let the shutter release go.

Once you’re done taking all those burst-mode shots, head to the Camera Roll (either by launching the Pictures app, or by tapping the thumbnail image in the corner of the screen). Burst-mode pictures will be grouped together. Tap a group and then tap Select to choose your favorites. Once you tap Done, you’ll have the chance to keep all your burst shots or to trash everything except the favorites you picked.

Tap to focus

As you aim your iPhone or iPad lens, you’ll see a small, pulsing square outline dancing around the viewfinder. That little square tells you where the iOS Camera app is currently focusing the camera lens, and it’s also the spot that iOS is using to determine the best exposure for the snapshot.

Focus the camera lens wherever you want Ben Patterson

Tap and hold the viewfinder to force the iOS Camera app to focus on a specific point, even after you move the lens.

If you want to pick the focus/auto-exposure spot yourself, just tap anywhere on the screen; the Camera app will refocus the image and readjust the exposure automatically. If you then move the lens around again, iOS will try to find a new focal/exposure point.

To keep the focal point and exposure setting fixed no matter where you point the camera lens, touch and hold anywhere on the display until the yellow box pulses and the AE/AF Lock indicator appears on the screen.

Pick a photo filter

Instagram isn’t the only app that lets you add instant photo filters to your snapshots. The iOS Camera app does, too.

Pick a photo filter Ben Patterson

Among iOS’s photo filter choices: Mono, Tonal, Chrome, and Instant.

Open the viewfinder, then tap the button with three interlocking circles, just next to the shutter release. You’ll have eight filters to choose from, including Mono, Tonal, Chrome, and Instant.

Whenever you have a filter selected, the three-circle button will be lit up with color; if you haven’t applied a filter, the three circles will be in shades of gray. You can shoot with the filter on, or apply filters to photos you already took by viewing a photo and tapping Edit.

Capture more detail with HDR 

Let’s say you’re trying to take a photo of a dimly lit cavern with a bright sky above. Normally, such a shot is almost impossible to get right. If you try to boost the exposure for the cave, the sky above will look blown out, while lowering the exposure for the bright sky will turn the cavern into a featureless black hole.

Boost the details in high-contrast photos with the HDR setting Ben Patterson

It’s a good idea to keep your original snapshots in addition to stiched-together HDR images.

Here’s where HDR comes in. Short for High Dynamic Range, the HDR feature in the Camera app takes three photos whenever you tap the shutter release—one that’s slightly overexposed, another that’s a tad underexposed, and a third that’s somewhere between. iOS then combines the three images to create a more evenly exposed shot.

If you’re willing to give HDR snapshots a try, tap the HDR icon at the edge of the viewfinder and select On or Auto.

Keep in mind that HDR-enhanced photos aren’t inherently better than regular snapshots; in fact, HDR images can look washed out if you’re taking photos in a low-contrast setting. That’s why it’s a good idea to hang on to your original pictures too. To do so, tap Settings > Photos & Camera, then toggle on the Keep Normal Photo setting.

Snap a Live Photo (iPhone 6s and 6s Plus only)

The iPhone 6s and 6s Plus boast a novel feature: the ability to take moving photos, complete with sound.

Snap a Apple Inc.

Live Photos add a few moments of motion and sound to your stills, but they also gobble up a lot of storage.

Think of Live Photos as very brief video clips, with the Camera app capturing sound and movement for 1.5 seconds before and after you snap a picture.

Once you snap a Live Photos, you can share it with other iOS users (even those without the latest iPhone hardware) or save it to your Mac. You can also use your moving photo as wallpaper on your iPhone’s lock screen. Tumblr and Facebook for iOS support Live Photos now too.

As you might have guessed, Live Photos are storage hogs, gobbling up roughly twice as much storage space as regular snapshots. You can conserve your storage space by turning off Live Photos until you really need them. The button to toggle the Live Photo feature on and off is in the very center of the toolbar above the viewfinder; it looks like a bullseye that glows yellow when turned on, or white when it’s off.

Shoot a slow-motion or time-lapse video

If you’ve ever wanted to shoot your own National Geographic-style slow-motion video of, say, a hummingbird hovering in your backyard, your iPhone can do the trick.

Take a slow-motion or time-lapse video Ben Patterson

Slow-motion video is the best way to (for example) capture a dropped Cookie Monster as he careens off a windowsill. 

Open the viewfinder and swipe the screen until the selector (it’s either at the bottom or the side of the display, depending on the orientation of your iPhone) is set to slo-mo. Press the red Record button to start recording, then tap it again when you’re done. When you play the video back, the scene you shot will have a portion in silky slow-motion. If you want the whole video in slow-mo, or just want to change where the effect begins and ends, you’ll need to open the clip, tap Edit, and use the sliders that appear above the timeline to tweak the effect.

You can change your slo-mo video recording by tapping Settings > Photos & Camera > Record Slo-mo. You have two choices: 720p at 240 frames per second, or 1080p at 120 frames per second. The more frames per second, the slower your slo-mo videos will be—and the bigger the files, too.

On the flip side, you can also record time-lapse (or fast-motion) video, perfect for one of those sped-up scenes of, say, a two-hour painting job compressed into 30 seconds.

Once again, go to the Camera viewfinder and swipe the screen until the time-lapse setting is selected. Be sure your iPhone will remain totally still for the entire process: Use a stand or tripod, always. When you’ve got your shot framed, tap Record to begin shooting, and again to stop.

You don’t get to select the exact interval between shots—iOS uses ”dynamically selected intervals” so you get decent results each time without trying to do the math yourself. If you need more control over a time-lapse video, try a dedicated time-lapse app like Frameographer instead.

Create a panorama

Last but not least, the iOS Camera app boasts a tool that lets you take panoramic shots of your surroundings. The process is easy, but you’ll need some patience and a steady hand.

Create a panorama Ben Patterson

Just follow the arrow and twirl slowly to create your panoramic shot with the iOS Camera app.

Open the viewfinder and swipe the screen until the selector hits the pano setting. Aim the lens where you want your panorama to begin, tap the shutter release, then slowly pivot your body in the direction of the arrow, making sure to keep the iPhone level so the onscreen arrow follows the line in the center of the display. A “slow down” warning will appear if you’re moving too quickly. The Camera app will beep once it’s done taking the panorama. The “pan” defaults to left-to-right, but if you’d rather pan right-to-left, just tap the arrow before you start shooting to reverse its direction.

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