There are almost as many Android camera apps as there are Android phones, and as of 2014 Google has its own camera app—the aptly named Google Camera.
At first glance, Google’s Camera app looks surprisingly simple—nothing but a viewfinder and a shutter release. Once you start tapping and swiping, though, you’ll find a bevy of hidden options, ranging from a self-timer and exposure settings to a panorama mode and even the ability to create a Street View-like “photo sphere.”
Read on for 12 gotta-know Google Camera features, starting with…
Note: Not all of the following features will be available for every Android phone; for example, Android tablets without a flash won’t have any flash settings, while gyroscope-less devices won’t be able to create panorama shots.
Snap photos with the volume buttons
As with iOS, tapping the (sometimes slippery) on-screen shutter release isn’t the only way to take photos.
Go ahead and press a volume button—and when you do, you’ll start snapping. And if you’re lucky enough to own a Nexus 6P, you can hold down the shutter button to take a series of “burst” photos.
Take a selfie
You might be a bit puzzled the first time you try taking a selfie with Google Camera, given that there aren’t any obvious on-screen controls besides the shutter release.
Look closely, though, and you’ll see a small, three-dot “overflow” button in the corner of the viewfinder (either the top or bottom corner, depending on how you’re holding your Android device.)
Tap it, and a series of new buttons will slide into view, including one that looks like a phone with a lens and a little arrow. Tap that button to toggle between your device’s rear and front-facing lenses.
Set the self timer
Time for a group shot, including you. Never fear: Google Camera has a self timer that’ll give you up to 10 seconds to pose after you’ve tapped the shutter release.
Just tap the three-dot overflow button, tap the button that looks like an alarm clock with a slash through it, then pick a timer setting—either three seconds or 10.
Once you’ve picked a self-timer setting, the interval you picked will appear right next to the overflow button.
Take charge of the flash
By default, the Google Camera app will fire off the flash whenever it thinks your shot needs a bit more light. If you like, though, you can take matters into your own hands and use the flash only when you want to.
Tap the overflow button, then tap the flash button to switch between three settings: auto, on, and off.
If you’ve picked any flash setting besides auto, a flash icon will appear next to the overflow button.
Focus where you want to focus
Whenever you aim the lens on your Android device, the Google Camera app will automatically pick a focal point and adjust the exposure depending on the available light. If you want, though, you can go ahead and pick your own focal point.
Just tap anywhere on the viewfinder screen to make Google Camera refocus the image and change the exposure level.
Change the exposure manually
Unlike iOS’s camera app, Google Camera won’t let you “lock” the focal/exposure point in place. That said, the app offers a setting that iOS doesn’t: the ability to tweak the exposure setting manually.
Tap the three-dot overflow button again, then tap the two-tone square button with the plus and minus signs. When you do, Google Camera’s exposure settings will appear above the shutter release; tap +1 or +2 to bump up the exposure a bit, or -1 or -2 to dial it down.
Once you adjust the exposure manually, you’ll see the new setting just next to the overflow button.
Activate High Dynamic Range mode to deal with high-contrast scenes
If you’re trying to capture a scene that includes areas of bright light as well as pockets of deep shadow, it may be impossible to get the exposure just right even after tweaking the manual exposure settings.
In such cases, you might be better off using Google Camera’s HDR—or “High Dynamic Range”—setting. With HDR (or HDR+, as Google calls it) switched on, the app will snap multiple shots at different exposures when you tap the shutter release. Once that’s done, the camera will combine the images into a single photo that resolves (or tries to, anyway) the details in dark areas of the snapshot without overexposing the brightest areas.
To turn on HDR mode, tap the overflow button, then toggle on the HDR+ setting. If you have a newer Nexus 6, 5X, or 6P handset, you’ll also have the option of an auto-HDR setting.
Take a quick look at your most recent snapshots
If you want to review the photo you just snapped, tap the bubble that appears just above the overflow button; when you do, your most recent snapshot will slide into view.
No bubble? Just swipe in from the right edge of the screen to review the latest shots in your camera roll.
Add some lens blur to your shots
Now, time for the fun stuff, starting with a clever effect that’ll add an artistic flourish to your photos.
Google Camera’s “lens blur” feature softens the background of your images while leaving the focal point—ideally, something in the foreground—razor-sharp, giving your snapshot a greater sense of depth while focusing the eye on the subject of your image.
To get started, swipe in from the left side of the screen to open the effects drawer, then tap Lens Blur. Point the lens on your subject, tap the shutter release, then tilt your Android device slowly, following the on-screen guide arrow.
The Google Camera app will then capture the image and process it for several seconds. Swipe in from the right side of the screen to check out the results.
Make a panoramic or ‘fisheye’ image
Sometimes, a single frame isn’t enough to capture an entire landscape. Enter panorama mode, which lets you take multiple images of a scene and then stitch them together in a single, sweeping snapshot.
First, swipe in from the left edge of the display to open the feature drawer, then tap Panorama. Next, tap the three-dot overflow button to pick a format for your panoramic shot: landscape, portrait, square or an exaggerated “fisheye” view.
When you’re ready, aim the lens and tap the shutter release. Next, you’ll begin a process of making the circle in the middle of the viewfinder fit over a series of large white dots; Google Camera will snap a photo each time the circle fits over a dot.
Once you’ve completed the circle-and-dot game, the app will stitch the photos together into a single image.
Create a “photo sphere”
With a little help from Google Camera, you can create your very own 360-degree Street View-style images—ones that you can pan around by swiping or even by holding up your Android device and twirling around.
The process of making a so-called photo sphere is similar to that of taking a panoramic shot, except you’ll have to snap a lot more photos to create the effect.
First, swipe in from the left side of the screen to reveal the feature drawer, then tap Photo Sphere. Tap the shutter release, then start aiming the viewfinder so the circle on the screen fits over the various white dots. Be prepared to (slowly) spin all the way around—up and down, left and right. When you’re done, the Camera app will need anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes to stitch the images together.
Once that’s done, you can swipe in from the right side of the screen to see the result. Tap the Photo Sphere button to the right of the Share button to explore the image Street View-style, then start swiping around. You can also tap the compass button in the corner of the screen to pan around by waving your Android device in the air.
Tweak your photo and video resolution settings
If space is at a premium on your Android device, you can always dial down the resolution of your snapshots and recorded video clips. Your photos and videos won’t be quite as sharp, but you’ll be able to shoot more images and clips before you run out of storage space.
Swipe in from the left edge of the display, then tap the settings button (the one that looks like a gear) in the corner of the screen. Next, tap Resolution & quality, then (under the Camera and Videos heading) tap the settings for your front and rear cameras to boost or lower the resolution for stills and videos.
Note: Owners of the Nexus 5X and 6P handsets will also find settings for slow-motion video capture, a feature that most of us (including me) can’t try on our devices just yet.
Ben has been writing about technology and consumer electronics for more than 20 years. A PCWorld contributor since 2014, Ben joined TechHive in 2019, where he covers smart speakers, soundbars, and other smart and home-theater devices. You can follow Ben on Twitter.