Smartphone photography jargon busted

Alex Yau
May 12, 2015

Photography has become an essential part of our daily smartphone usage. It’s hard to go anywhere these days without spotting someone taking selfies for Snapchat or taking holiday snaps for Facebook. Smartphone photography has now become so advanced and feature-packed that many phone cameras rival DSLRs, the standalone cameras many professional photographers use.

These many features can also make smartphone photography a bit intimidating, however. Most don’t usually venture outside auto shooting mode because the other features on offer can be very technical and confusing. Ask anyone in the street and most probably couldn’t explain what ISO, white balance or similarly confusing terms mean.

Those of you baffled by photography jargon needn’t scratch your heads in confusion anymore. We’ve taken the most common, and confusing, photography features available on every smartphone and explained them in a way anyone can understand. After reading our jargon buster, you’ll be able to confidently shoot with your phone’s various camera modes and impress all your buddies with some professionally taken photographs.


Megapixels (MP) are the units used to measure the quality of a phone’s camera. For example, a phone that has a 20MP camera will usually take better quality photography than a phone that only has a 13MP camera.


Filter is another term used for an effect that can be added to photographs after they’ve been taken. Photos with filters can, for example, look much warmer or like they were taken on a grainy Polaroid camera.


ISO settings adjust how sensitive your phone’s camera is to light. A lower ISO setting will decrease sensitivity and a higher setting will increase sensitivity. A higher ISO favours photography in darker locations because your phone’s camera won’t have to rely on its flash. This is particularly useful because a smartphone camera’s flash can make your photography look unnecessarily bright. There are drawbacks. A higher sensitivity setting can make your pictures look more grainy and distorted.

Shutter speed

Shutter speed controls how long your smartphone’s camera stays open for when taking a photo. The longer the shutter stays open, the more light it’s exposed to. A fast shutter speed is perfect for fast action shots. For example, if you use a fast shutter speed whilst snapping a quick moving car, the car will appear perfectly still with no blur in the photograph. Set a slow shutter speed and a motion blur effect travelling in the direction of the moving object will be added.

Exposure value

A smartphone camera’s shutter speed usually adjusts to ensure photographs aren’t too bright or dark. Exposure value helps the user tweak this more  by making the photograph darker or lighter. Users can adjust exposure value into either negative or positive values. Negative values will decrease brightness, whilst positive values will increase brightness.

Automatic exposure bracketing

Automatic exposure bracketing will take three shots of the same image at different exposures. The camera will take one photograph at an exposure value it thinks is right, whilst the other two will be under and overexposed.

White Balance

When you take a photograph, you may sometimes notice that objects appear more orange or blue than they are in real life. That’s because different light sources can alter the colour of objects seen by a camera lens. White balance helps counter this by adjusting the colours of objects in photographs so they closely resemble what we see with the naked eye. For example, a tungsten white balance setting adjust the colours of objects in an indoor setting to closely match what you’re seeing with your eyes.

Timelapse photography

Timelapse photography involves shooting several photographs of an event like a sunset over a long period of time. It then turns these photographs into a video. What makes this video unique, however, is that it speeds up the event you’ve shot. For example, a 20-minute sunrise can appear like it happened in 30 seconds.


Bokeh photography modes help the camera focus on one object, whilst blurring out everything around it. Perfect if you want to draw attention to a certain subject.

Beauty mode

Beauty mode can help smooth out blemishes that anyone in your photographs might have.

Manual focus

Manual focus helps you adjust your camera’s focus on a subject of your choosing. Want to focus on a piece of fruit? Simply find your subject and adjust the manual focus until that fruit is the clearest object on screen.

Auto mode

Automatic mode automatically adjusts your camera’s ISO, white balance, focus and flash settings for the best shot it thinks it can take. This is perfect if you want to quickly get a snap without having to faff around with too many settings.

Dual shot

Takes two photos at once using both the front and rear cameras.


Panorama is used to take wider landscape photographs that other modes would otherwise be unable to take. This mode requires you to start from one point and slowly move the camera horizontally to another. It’s great for sightseeing when you want to fit an entire landscape into one image.


Macro photographs involve snapping extreme-close ups of very small objects. The resulting photograph makes these objects appear significantly larger than they are in real life.


The square setting crops your photograph into a small square frame. This is great when you want to upload your images to photo sharing sites like Instagram, who crops your photos in a square frame. By applying the square setting before you’re uploading to Instagram, you’re ensuring that your photographs will be framed as you want them to be.


HDR improves the details in the lightest and darkest areas of your photograph.

Best photo

Your phone’s camera will take several photos continuously and you can select which you think is the best.


Watermark uses your phone’s WiFi or data connection service to add information on temperature, current location and date to one corner of the photo.

Think we’ve missed something? Let us know in the comments below.

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