Mobile Photography: Advanced Exposure & Focus

In our last lesson in mobile photography(See Mobile Photography: Creative Exposure) we learned how to creatively use exposure to create some great looking photos. I hope you guys enjoyed it as much as I did following along on Instagram. In this lesson, we are going to explore our way deeper into exposure and also play around with some different focusing techniques. First up is Focus.


As its name implies, focus refers to what elements of a scene that will be the sharpest. The dictionary defines focus as the position of a viewed object or the adjustment of an optical device necessary to produce a clear image. In most of the pictures taken with your phone, your phone does a great job of keeping the entire scene in focus. However, in scenes that have a great distance between the background (distant) and foreground (closer) elements you might experience a situation where one element is sharp and in focus and the other is not. You can see what I’m talking about in the images below.  

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can be used to take some pretty neat pictures. Just like the photos above, you can use your phone’s camera to focus on a specific area by tapping on the area  you want in focus(either foreground or background) and have the other elements of the picture out of focus. Remember that this only works well when you have a distance between the subjects/areas. Using focus creatively can create images like the one below.  

Exposure and Focus Separation 

When using the camera on your mobile phone, you probably realized that when you focused on somethjng, the exposure was set to the same spot. While this works fine for certain spots, it can be a hindrance. Separating these two and using them creatively can lead to some great shots. Like setting the focus on something in the foreground, and set your exposure for the light in the background, or vice versa?

While the standard camera on your phone doesn’t do this, there are many different apps out there that will like Camera+, ProCamera or Camera Awesome.  I personally use Camera+. They all give you complete creative control over both the exposure and focus by separating your camera’s focus from the exposure. Plus they almost identical in operation. Once you’ve opened up the Camera+ app, tap the screen to locate your default focus/exposure point. Separating them is as simple as using your fingers to unpinch them. You should now see both a focus indicator (square) and exposure indicator (circle) like the photo below.  

 Use the Camera+ app and your newly found focus/exposure separation to practice creating a silhouette. This will help you use underexposed and overexposed scenes to your benefit. The process is quite simple, simply set the focus on the subject and the exposure on the bright sunset in the background. It helps to have a tripod, as it will keep any movements to a minimum.  

Exposure and Focus Lock
You might have noticed that if you touch an area of your camera screen long enough, the exposure/focus box will flash, and β€˜AE/AF’ will appear at the bottom of the screen. If you haven’t used a DSLR or similar camera, this will probably be new to you. Even if you have, it’s great technique that I like to use to make the photo darker or lighter than the scene will allow. Locking the exposure/focus does just what the name implies, it locks the exposure and focus so that it won’t change, regardless of the position your phone is in after the lock. The exposure and focus will remain locked until you tap the screen again. This allows you to purposely overexpose or underexposed the image. You can see an example of AE/AF lock being used to create the image below.  

 The image below is the original scene that the mobile phone was exposed for. 

My goal was to brighten up the photo and blow out the sky, making it look more uniform by getting rid of the clouds. Because the area I wanted to shoot was evenly lit, there wasn’t a dark enough are to lower the overall exposure. If you remember from the previous lesson, tap somewhere dark to brighten the photo and somewhere light to darken the photo.

Since the overall seen didn’t have many dark areas, I set the exposure for a dark area just to the side of the scene and then locked that exposure in so I could use it when I shifted back to what I wanted to photograph. The technical term for this is called recomposing.  

 The shadows worked great and were dark enough for what I needed. As you can see, the photo was successfully over exposed/brightened and the effect was exactly what I was looking for. 

I also used Camera+ to change the photo composition to black and white to create the final version of the photo. 


Last time we went in to exposure basics. This time we went further into exposure and learned some neat focus techniques that should help you creat new and interesting photos. I hope these tips have been helpful. I’d like to see you go out and use the tips and tricks discussed here. Tag the photos on Instagram with #JoeographyFocus so we can all follow along. Feel free to follow me as well @Joeography. I’ll choose a few of the best ones tagged to feature on the next lesson! Until then, never stop exploring!

79 thoughts on “Mobile Photography: Advanced Exposure & Focus

  1. Given the amount of people I see travel with just phones and no other camera, I’m sure this will come in very handy.

    Some good tips, although pretty useless for me as I don’t travel with such a device…

    1. I’ve started using my phone for photos and blogging more recently than in the past. Mainly because of the advancements in the technology has made it simpler and more convenient.

  2. Photography is something still foreign to me.. ahaha blogger or not. I am more of a writer… Im still in iphone stage but considering moving up and learning a little more πŸ˜› for now..thank god for instagram filters ahaha

  3. I don’t take photos with a smartphone, wait, I don’t even have one. I’m a traditional kind of girl when it comes to photography gear, but this is a great post for everyone who feels a bit lost in the photo world. Thanks for tips.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! I still use a DSLR, as I enjoy the feel, and the functionality of it. Plus, its still a better camera, for now πŸ˜‰ The main reason for this segment is that many people don’t need a DSLR. And since we have our phones with us all the time(most of us), why not master it’s photo taking capabilities? Hopefully these post do just that !

  4. These are some useful and handy tips! I am going to try them the next time I am experimenting with my camera as well as during editing the pictures

  5. Interesting! I take most of my pics with my smartphone now. I’m not entirely happy, so I thought of buying a proper camera again. Seems like all I have to do is take a deeper look inside the possibilities of mobile phone photography! Thanks, you might have saved me a few hundred euros πŸ™‚

    1. There is many things that the cameras on our mobile phones can do. There are more lessons to come that you may be able to use to advance your photography skills. Remember, the only finite rule of photography is to have fun !

  6. Oh wow how genius. I’ve had the camera + app for years now but I never really used it as a camera. Something I’ll definitely consider once I replace my vintage iPhone. Also, those walls look familiar. Intramuros, Manila I presume?

  7. I confess, I started to read this and thought it wasn’t for me. But you got me with moving the focus. I immediately had my phone in my hand and tried it. Thanks for a very interesting post – even for a point and shoot photographer like me.

  8. Absolutely brilliant advice! I always say it’s all about composition regardless of how good your camera is but little tricks like this always helps. What are your thoughts about the HDR option? I used to be obsessed with using it for every image (at the sacrifice of not having the flash enabled) but never saw much of a difference.

    1. HDR is a great tool, but it has to be used right. Its designed to take a bunch of photos and combine them, giving you the best possible outcome. Meaning that it will use the groups of pictures and create an even exposure(as much as it can) I rarely use it, but not because it isn’t a good tool. I just adjust the settings too much in order for me to benefit from it. It’s great for landscape shots though. Just make sure you don’t move it while shooting or you’ll end up with ghosting(parts of the previous image that aren’t aligned correctly)

  9. Very interesting post especially for me that doesn’t like to take pictures with my mobile. Now I think I will start trying and see what happens. Great apps as well i will check them out!

  10. Very interesting. I’m definitely a beginner with a lot of the technical aspects of photography. I have the Camera+ app and I’ve booked marked this post to try out some of what you talked about here. I also saved your creative exposure post. I really want to learn more about how I can take better photos and tweak what I have. What do you think about the Pro HDR X app? I have used that in some situations, in addition to Camera+.

    1. I’m glad the lessons have been a help! Pro HDR is a great app, but I rarely use it. The way I shoot, HDR isn’t a benefit. That’s not saying that it isn’t for you. The great thing about HDR is that it takes multiple pictures and combines them to creat an even exposure, which is awesome for landscapes. There are more lessons to come, and those will help out a lot in taking a great picture the first time, and hopefully limiting the need for editing! If you have any specific questions, message me or comment. I’m always happy to help!

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed the post! Camera+ is great for editing as well, I always use it for white balance and cropping, especially if I already took the shot on the proprietary app.

  11. Great! This is the first time I am reading about this. I will look out for the next lessons. Great tips I actually tried them out. I use my phone a lot for photos, but I also use a couple of other point and shoot cameras.

  12. Oh, I have missed earlier lessons! Hope you can provide us links for all the lessons. I have a DSLR but would love to use my Note 4 camera more. I find that there are increasingly more times when I do not have my DSLR and a photo-op come up. I would like to see the other posts you have on the subject!

  13. Perfect timing I just upgraded my antique smartphone and this could help. I normally use my DSLR, but as you say you always have the phone with you, I don’t carry my DSLR everywhere. I will look forward to the rest of the series.

  14. Really great tips! Now I just need to get out there and practice. Thanks for the inspiration and knowledge to try something new with my camera phone.

  15. Mind blown! I had no idea that you could use phone apps to do this kind of stuff. I’m looking to improve my photography, thank you for the detailed tutorial, I’ll be coming back to this over and over.

  16. This is such a great guide! Thanks for sharing this with us. I’m totally helpless with cameras and I really want to learn how to take better photographs. It’s great that you have this guide for a simple mobile phone camera, so everybody can practice (instead of having to buy a pro camera)!

    1. I still use my DSLR a lot as well! There’s just something about it. Plus there are a lot more options in regards to macro and zoom. But the mobile phone is a great secondary camera!

  17. I love learning new things! I didn’t realize there were so many photography apps out there to enhance camera phone photos. The iPhone does a pretty nice job, so I can only imagine how much better my shots could be by taking your advice about exposure and focus!

    1. Practice makes perfect! Plus that’s the fun part! All in all, photography should be fun. And hopefully these lessons will help create awesome pictures, only furthering the fun being had!

  18. Great tips! I didn’t realise Camera+ existed. I’ll look into that for better phone photos. I travel with both a camera and phone but it never hurts to invest a it more time in using the phone camera better for those quick shots or times you aren’t lugging around a camera and lense. Thanks for sharing this advice

    1. Camera+ is a great app, and it helps you use the mobile phone camera to its potential. The great thing about your phone is it’s always with you, so it’s perfect t for those quick shots you mentioned!

    1. Camera+ should be on both, but if not, ProCamera is. I think CameraAwesome is on both as well. They function almost identically, so the same tips and tricks will carry over.

  19. Such helpful tips, thanks for sharing! I never knew about the β€˜AE/AF’ feature where you can separate exposure and focus. I’ll definitly have to download Camera+ and give it a shot!

  20. Thank you for the great photography tips. I hadn’t heard about Camera+ before, and I’m always looking to improve my photography. I’m one of those travellers who’s moved completely to smartphone photography, and I can’t wait to try out your suggestions. Thanks again!

  21. I think I recognize the photos, is it in Manila? πŸ™‚ These are all neat tips, I always just use the camera never tried the app, time to start digging around a bit more with the above in hand

    1. It’s a great second camera. Especially with the newer phones, since they have 16 Megapixel cameras and higher on them. DSLR’s are still king, you just have to lug them around everywhere πŸ˜‰

  22. A very useful post for the beginners, and the whole series for this matter. I know many people that buy quite good cameras but don’t bother learning the basics hoping that the camera will take the pictures itself.

    1. Learning the fundamentals is key to a great photograph, regardless of the platform. The best thing about these tips and tricks is you can use them to take better pictures on phones or DSLR cameras. Even point and shoot cameras

  23. We’ve recently invested in the Lumix GH4 and have been having a blast experimenting with 4K Photo mode, it’s amazing what a wealth of funstions and apps are avaliable to help budding photographers these days! Thanks for the insight into Focus and Exposure Joe!

  24. I am a very visual learner so these photo examples are very much appreciated. Isn’t it crazy what we can do on our phones now? Just added you on IG, looking forward to following your travels through your lens. I’m a big fan of photography!

  25. Great post, Joe. I had no idea there are apps to help you improve the camera functions on our smartphones. I don’t quite use my phone for photography, unless it’s an ad-hock photo that I need to take fast, but it’s good to know I can do better with it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *