Get the Most Out of Your Fancy Smartphone Camera

It’s getting harder to take a truly bad photo on a good smartphone. Thanks to better lenses, robust processors and integrated computational photography software to process images under the hood, even scenes in low-light, no-flash situations that used to be hopelessly murky can now turn out nicely.

Your phone’s native camera app makes it simple to grab a picture with just a couple of taps. But if you’ve recently upgraded your device and want to dive deeper into the latest hardware and software, here are a few tips — illustrated by two current models, Apple’s iPhone 11 Pro Max and Google’s Pixel 4 XL.

Each member of the iPhone 11 family has at least two cameras for ultrawide and wide shots, but the iPhone 11 Pro line adds a third telephoto lens. To quickly jump between the cameras in Photo mode, tap the screen and select the .5x (ultrawide), 1x (wide) or 2x (telephoto) buttons. To zoom up to 10x, pinch the screen or press a zoom option and slide your finger on the dial that appears.

The Pixel 4 has a telephoto lens in addition to its main 1x camera. Tap the screen twice to jump right to the 2x zoom. For manual zoom, tap the screen and move the slider. The Pixel 4 can zoom digitally up to 8x. Although the image typically loses some quality the higher you push it, Google’s Super Res Zoom technology works to enhance the look of the photo.

On the iPhone 11 line, the Night mode activates when the Camera app is open in low light and on the standard 1x zoom setting. A small crescent moon icon appears on the screen showing the capture time calculated to pull in enough light for the image. To override Night mode’s math, tap the moon icon and use the on-screen slider to adjust the capture time. Not fidgeting is important, so consider a tripod for long exposure times in dark environments.

Along with the Night mode, iPhone 11 models running at least iOS 13.2 have Deep Fusion, Apple’s machine-learning technology that snags nine versions of a shot in low to medium light and blends the best parts together into one detailed photo. Deep Fusion kicks in automatically, as long as you are not using the ultrawide-angle lens and not shooting in burst mode. The Camera app’s Photos Capture Outside the Frame setting needs to be disabled as well.

Google has its own low-light setting, Night Sight. To use it on a Pixel 4, open the Camera app and select the Night Sight mode. The shutter button then shows a moon icon. Tap the moon and a circular timer appears, instructing you to hold still while the camera is capturing the image.

Google’s Night Sight mode includes an Astrophotography feature to capture long exposures of the night sky; it works best away from places with light pollution, like large cities. To use the phone for shooting stars, make sure you are in Night Sight mode and have the device secured in a tripod or on a stable surface. When the “Astrophotography on” message appears, tap the moon icon and wait until the onscreen timer is finished.

For the past few years, many smartphones have included a “portrait” mode that keeps the person, pet or object in the foreground in sharp focus while gently blurring the background.

To use that mode on an iPhone 11, open the Camera app and select Portrait. On-screen instructions guide you on framing the shot, and you can apply lighting effects from the pop-up Portrait mode menu — before or after you’ve snapped the photo. To adjust background blur on a portrait in your camera roll, open the image, tap the Depth Control button (f) at the top of the screen and adjust the slider that appears below.

Google also made improvements to the Portrait mode on its Pixel 4 phones, which now have two cameras working the shot instead of just one. To use it, open the Camera app and select Portrait. If you want to further edit a finished portrait, open the image, tap the Edit icon and adjust the sliders for light, color and blur.

No matter which phone you have, be sure to explore all its camera menus, image-editing tools and settings for optional features like compositional aids and shortcuts.

The phone itself may offer tips onscreen, but the online help guides for the iPhone 11 and the Pixel 4 also have plenty of information to share for those wanting to get the most out of mobile photography.

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