Note that although this article is mostly applicable to high-end Sony smartphones as of writing time, it can also be useful for any other (be it Sony or not) camera phone.
Introduction to Superior Auto mode
As you probably know, you have two default photography modes on your phone. There is "Superior Auto" mode and "Manual" mode, where Superior Auto mode is default when you open the camera application via the hardware camera button on the side (unfortunately there is no way of changing this to Manual mode). Superior Auto mode automatically chooses all relevant settings for you, only leaving you the choice whether you want to use the flash or not. Not only does it automatically adjust the white balance or exposure, it also detects scenes and uses presets when certain scenes are detected. Even HDR is used automatically in this mode when there is a lot of contrasting light (for a more detailed explanation on what HDR is and when it's best used, check the follow-up article on ADVANCED tips&tricks).
In Superior Auto mode you can still see what modes and circumstances the intelligent camera detects in the lower right corner. You either see an icon alone, or one with an informative label. There are a couple of noteworthy labels:
- Low Light (candle light icon) - Decreases shutter speed so more light will be absorbed when there is little available. Detected when there is little light around and images would otherwise turn out too dark.
- Sports (running human icon) - Increases the ISO so that the shutter speed can be extra high in case you're trying to capture and freeze fast moving subjects. Detected when you move your phone around a lot.
- Tripod (tripod with camera icon) - Allows the shutter speed to go lower than when handheld, since you're not moving the phone. Detected when you hold your device steady against something else for a couple of seconds; basically impossible to obtain while handheld (go ahead, try).
- Macro (flower icon) - Allows the camera to focus really close. May or may not make images more saturated (no evidence to support this claim, just my guts telling me this). Detected when you're really close to your subject.
- Backlight (sun rays icon) - Turns on HDR mode. Detected when the camera is pointed towards strong (sun)light.
Note that some of these detection icons can be combined. For more information on "shutter speed" or "ISO", check the follow-up article or click here. Also note that Superior Auto mode can only shoot images at 8 megapixels, although you can still select the aspect ratio for this resolution in the settings menu.
Introduction to Manual mode
If you're not satisfied with the results that Superior Auto mode gives despite the "intelligent" scene detection: fear not, for there is a Manual mode available. Here you have a whole range of settings you can fine-tune, although still not as much as on dedicated cameras. To start with the basics of Manual mode, let's look at the options in the viewfinder on the left. The first "SCN" option allows you to choose a scene mode, but only at 8 megapixels or less. Most of the scenes' use cases are self explanatory. If you want people with pimples to show less pimples, there's a Soft Skin scene. If you want to shoot at night, there's Night Scene for that. But beware that this mode does not allow focussing on anything up close. In this case you'd be better off with Night Portrait. I personally never use scene modes despite using Manual mode, because I like shooting at full resolution.
The second option in the viewfinder allows adjustments to the exposure compensation (EV) and white balance. The slider is used for the former, whereas the icons are for the latter. If you change any of the settings here from default, the original icon on the left of the viewfinder will show blue slider icons instead of white. This is handy to see if you're on default settings or not straight from the viewfinder. What I found is that automatic White Balance is very inaccurate and so I always change the white balance according to the lighting circumstances. In automatic, Sony's phones generally create dull looking photos due to cool (white balance) temperatures, whereas warm temperatures are generally preferred. You can always edit white balance in post processing, but that's usually too much work for non-photographers. The white balance icons are sorted from colder to warmer downwards. The icons themselves show when each setting should be used, although you can experiment with "wrong" white balance for more interesting shots. The exposure compensation slider is rather basic: the higher on the slider, the lighter the image that is produced. Note however, that when using a very low "ISO" value, the exposure compensation slider may not be able to make the image any lighter anymore (this is because the device's maximum supported shutter speed is reached then).
Below these viewfinder icons we find the settings for LED flash again. "Auto" makes the camera choose whether or not to use the flash, "off" disables the flash entirely. However, the more interesting option is "fill flash". In this case, the camera will use the flash regardless of how light it is outside. This is particularly useful for close subjects that are too dark to see any details. If the phone was equipped with a xenon flash being much more powerful, this function could've been used for example to photograph people in front of a sunset where both subjects would be clearly visible then. Note that I personally never use the flash, since the LED flash is generally too weak to be of any use.
Finally, there's the front facing (selfie) camera button. This is a very basic camera, and fixed-focus (on most Sony devices). Since the aperture and sensor of this camera are tiny, the images yielded will contain quite a lot of chroma noise. In comparison, the main camera (of the 20.7 megapixel Sony phones) mostly produces luminance noise.
That's it for the BASICS of your camera phone. The article on more ADVANCED features of camera phones can be found here, including but not limited to ISO, HDR, focus mode and metering settings and why and when to use those!
P.S. I made the first video of a photography tutorial series:
watch it here!