How to lock focus and exposure separately in the Camera app on iPhone

Exposure compensation control allows compatible iPhone cameras to lock exposure independently of focus. If you struggle with balancing exposure and focus, you can lock them both separately. In this tutorial, we show you how it’s done, which iPhone models are compatible, and what you need to pay special attention to.

Three iPhones kept side by side

How focus and exposure controls work

This feature was introduced in iOS 14. Before jumping to the tutorial section, please take time to read how locking focus and exposure works in earlier versions of iOS.

Focus and exposure on older versions of iOS

In iOS 13 and earlier, Apple’s Camera app had a combined focus and exposure control. That’s hardly ideal for anyone serious about iPhone photography, which is why some folks use third-party apps that provide advanced capabilities like the award-winning Halide Camera app.

The iPhone camera automatically sets the focus and exposure before you tap the shutter button while face detection balances everything out across up to ten faces. Here’s how changing focus and exposure worked earlier:

  1. Tap the screen to reveal the automatic focus area and exposure setting.
  2. Now tap where you want to move the focus area (the square yellow outline).
  3. Next to the focus area, drag the vertical sun icon up/down to adjust the exposure.

To lock your manual focus and exposure settings for upcoming shots, tap and hold the focus area until you see “AE/AF Lock” (AE=Automatic Exposure; AF=Automatic Focus). Doing so prevents these values from changing automatically as you move your iPhone camera away.

Locking focus and exposure are especially useful for taking a series of images of the same scene. To unlock these values, simply tap the screen.

Check out: How to take consecutive iPhone photos faster

Current Focus and exposure settings on iPhone

On iOS 14 and later, iPhone lets you lock your manual exposure and focus settings separately. This gives you better control and brings a dash of professionalism to the Camera app. The feature is provided as a new exposure compensation control (ECV). Changing this value affects all photos and videos taken during an entire Camera session, but you can also retain it between sessions if you like.

iPhone camera exposure focus compensation value - iPhone 11 Pro press event slide - iPhone 11 Pro's camera quality gets shown off at the press event

Thankfully, you still get the handy vertical sun slider for quickly brightening or darkening an image after AE/AF is locked. However, tapping somewhere else in the camera viewfinder no longer resets your manual exposure adjustment back to zero like in earlier iOS versions.

You get the best of both worlds — locking the exposure value separately from the focus for an entire Camera session via the new ECV value, plus the ability to adjust exposure for a specific shot with the sun slider, like before, without changing your global ECV value.

ECV feature device compatibility

The ECV feature supports iPhone XR, iPhone XS, and newer. Older devices don’t support this handy photography feature.

How to lock iPhone camera focus and exposure separately

Follow these steps to lock focus and exposure separately in iPhone’s camera:

  1. Open the Camera app.
  2. Swipe up or hit the chevron icon to reveal hidden controls.
  3. Tap the “+/-” button to access the new ECV control.
  4. Drag the horizontal ECV slider to change shutter speed and f-stop from –2 to +2.
Exposure button in iPhone Camera app

Dragging the horizontal slider towards –2 o the left makes the image darker. Conversely, dragging the slider towards +2 on the righthand side makes everything brighter. To reset your ECV adjustment, bring the slider back to zero to deactivate the adjustment.

You even get a tiny live histogram when interacting with this control — tap it to reveal or hide the ECV slider when in use. Red bars on the histogram’s left side denote underexposed areas while red bars on the right indicate overexposed areas. This can be pretty useful if you’d like to prevent losing image data to areas that are too dark or too bright.

As mentioned, you’re able to refine exposure levels for a specific shot past your current global ECV value by playing with the vertical sun slider, as shown on the GIFY animation below.

The iPhone camera keeps adjusting exposure even while you’re interacting with the ECV slider, and that’s by design. To prevent that from happening, just lock both ECV and EV values by tapping and holding a desired area of the viewfinder until you see “AE/AF Lock”.

Saving ECV setting across Camera sessions

As mentioned, the ECV slider locks your exposure compensation value for photos and videos for an entire Camera session. By default, the value resets after you quit the Camera app. You can tell your iPhone to optionally preserve your camera settings, like the ECV value. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Open the Settings app on your iPhone.
  2. Choose Camera from the main list.
  3. Tap Preserve Settings.
  4. Slide Exposure Adjustment to the ON position.
Preserve Exposure Adjustment settings on iPhone

iOS will now remember your chosen ECV value across Camera sessions until you change it again manually. And that’s all you need to know about the ECV feature on iPhone.

Check out next: