Taking photos is a pretty important part of travel for most of us. Even if we don’t share on social media, we like to keep them for ourselves to remind us of our adventures. Of course, to take photos you need a camera. But the real question is, do you really need to invest in a fancy camera when we all carry one in our pockets? My thoughts? No. You can do a lot with smartphone travel photography and in this article, I’m going to share my tips, tricks, and suggested accessories for how to take better travel pictures with your phone.
Can I Actually Take Decent Travel Photos with My Smartphone?
Absolutely. Smartphone cameras these days are pretty awesome considering how small and lightweight they are. So, if you either don’t have another camera or you don’t want to carry it around all the time, you can easily use your smartphone.
Of course, you need to recognize that there will be a difference in what you take on your smartphone versus what other travellers take on their DSL-Rs or even mirrorless cameras which have more pixels. But, for the most part, if you take a good shot and do some post-processing, you can get beautiful travel photos for posting on social media, printing in a photobook, or to turn into wall art.
If you are in the market and looking for a new cellphone with a great camera, consider i-phones, the Samsung galaxy phones, and the Google Pixel phones. These three brands tend to top the lists when it comes to the best camera phones on the market.
Personally, I have and use the iphone Xs. It’s not the newest model out there, but I’m still happy with the results and think it does a pretty good job. The photos in this article were all taken with my phone. I actually use it quite a lot when I travel.
Smartphone Travel Photography Do’s and Don’ts
There are a couple of tips and tricks to getting better travel photos with smartphone photography. Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Do turn the grids on for your photos: This will help you set up your shot in a more appealing way (remember photography basics like the rule of thirds!)
Don’t zoom: This will make your image blurrier and more pixelated. Move closer to the subject. If that’s not an option, you can crop in closer when you edit.
Do use burst mode when photographing movement: This mode may be annoying when you accidentally take 100 photos of the inside of your pocket (me, always). But, it can come in really handy when trying to catch movement either for people, or objects, or animals. I use burst mode a lot when taking photos of Stella (my dog) but I’ve also used it out on boats photographing dolphins.
Don’t use the flash: Turn it off. It’s crap. You are better off investing in lighting gear if you are really worried. But, overall, know that your smartphone photos will look much better when taken during the day in brighter, well-lit areas than in the dark.
Do tap to focus: This is probably an obvious one but your camera is a touch screen so tap the object or person you want to focus on before you take the photo.
Don’t rely on front camera only: Now, as technology changes, this may not hold true for every smartphone, but in general, the back camera is much better than the front camera. So when you are taking photos, especially self-portraits, try to use the back camera. I know, it’s much easier to use the front camera because you can then see yourself and position things how you want on the screen, but, the quality won’t be as good.
Do take advantage of the self-timer: Especially when doing self-photography or if you are setting up and need the camera to be very still. Hitting the button can cause movement, but if you set the self-timer then stabilize your phone, you don’t have to worry about any shaking.
My Favourite iphone Photography Tricks
As I said, I use an iphone for my smartphone photography. I’m not an expert on other brands but since smartphone cameras are so competitive I’m sure they have many of the same features and tools. So, if you aren’t an iphone user, check and see if your camera can do these things as well because I bet they can.
I LOVE portrait mode when taking photos of myself or even my dog. With portrait mode, you can create a slight bokeh effect which blurs the background while the subject of the photo stays in sharp focus. Honestly, before I got my mirrorless camera I would use the portrait mode on my iphone for most of my self-portraits because I LOVE the bokeh effect look.
Not only is it great for the bokeh effect, but you can also change the lighting when in portrait mode. Once you click this mode you will notice 6 squares pop up on a reel which you can cycle through for different lighting effects. Play with them and see what you like but I personally normally use natural light for when I’m outdoors and studio light (which is brighter) when inside.
The Live Feature
I like to keep my live feature option turned on. This means that each photo is actually a little mini video. So, why is this a good thing? It lets you get more candid in your photos and can help capture movement a little easier. For example, you flip your hair. With just a photo, you get one shot that may or may not work. If you have live turned on you can watch back and see the entire motion then pull the clip that you like best. To do this, take the live photo, click on edit. Then at the bottom of the screen, you will see the ‘live’ symbol (funny circle). Click that and it will bring up all the clips from the live video for you to choose which you like best.
You know those dreamy photos of beaches or waterfalls where the water just looks so smooth and satiny? That’s long exposure photography which most people assume can only be done with a ‘proper’ camera. Not true, you can also do it on the iphone thanks to the live feature. Here’s how.
Make sure you have the live feature turned on and take your photo. Once you have your photo, swipe up on the screen and you will see four options below under ‘Effects’: Live, Loop, Bounce, or Long Exposure. Click Long Exposure and done- it’s that easy.
Smartphone Photography Accessories Worth Investing In
At the end of the day, if you want to be able to take better travel photos you will need to invest in a few tools and accessories. This is the same for any type of camera, not just limited to smartphone photography. Here’s what I use and recommend for smartphone travel photography.
A Travel Tripod
My travel tripod is easily my favourite accessory. Can it be a pain to pack and carry around? Yes. But, the results are so worth it especially when I travel alone. It’s great for taking self-portraits but also for stabilization. Plus, despite what you may think, they don’t have to cost a fortune. I definitely recommend getting one. I use this one.
A Tripod cellphone adapter
I travel with multiple cameras so my tripod is not cell-phone specific which means I needed to buy an adapter. It’s easy to just screw on and off into place as needed and is pretty small and doesn’t take up much room. Try this one.
Remotes come in really handy for taking self-portraits, especially if you are using the back camera not the front camera (as I recommend above!). Remotes for smartphones are small, light, and affordable and make for an easy and smart accessory to invest in. I have this one.
An External Hard Drive
One of the disadvantages of using your photo for your travel photos is storage space. Memory on your phone can fill up really quickly with all the photos you take. I always travel with my laptop, so every night I back up my photos on my computer and then back them up again on my external hard drive just in case. Losing travel photos is one of my biggest fears and I’m not willing to take any chances. Need an external hard drive? I use this brand.
A Power Bank
Another downside to using your camera for your photos is that it will drain the battery much faster. So, for this reason, I highly recommend finding a lightweight power bank that you can throw in your purse or backpack for the day to have on hand when your battery power is getting low. Personally, I travel with two so I always have one fully charged. Need one? Try this one.
You can get super heavy-duty waterproof phone cases that you can snorkel and even scuba dive with, but that’s not for everyone. I do recommend everyone have a small pouch or holder that can keep your phone safe for water-based activities such as kayaking or even just being out on a boat for the day. You never know when a rogue wave will strike. I use this one which is cheap, easy, and I’ve even taken it in the water with me at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland and climbing waterfalls in Jamaica.
It also possible to get lenses for your smartphone. I tried a couple but didn’t have much luck with them so I have none to personally recommend.
Smartphone Photography Apps for Editing
Taking photos is great, but the post-processing process is just as important when it comes to smartphone travel photography. Here are a few apps that you can use, download, play with, and create with that might come in handy.
Lightroom App: There is a basic free version that lets you crop, adjust lighting, and adjust colours.
Snapseed: Another free app that offers a few more options that the Lightroom app. This one is really popular and can let you do quite a bit from adjusting size, lighting, colours, white balance, etc. It also has brushes so you can dodge/burn, adjust saturation, etc in certain areas.
ReTouch: Wonder how people remove things from their photos? The ReTouch app does that. It’s not always super easy, sometimes you need to play with it. But if you are looking to remove something simple, it can be done in a click. You do have to pay for this app, but it’s only a couple of bucks.
Foodie: Food photography is hard and I think a lot of it is about the lighting. The Foodie App is great in making your food shots brighter so the colours and textures stand out more. You’ll actually take your photos directly in this free app.
PicsArt: I haven’t used this one much (yet) but it’s popping up all over the place. It has a lot of cool editing options and filters. The basic version is free though there is an upgraded paid version (however, it seems kind of pricey to me).
Final Tips for Smartphone Travel Photography
At the end of the day, a smartphone isn’t going to be the same quality of a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but, you can still get some great travel photos using your smartphone. Just keep in mind the photography basics; take the time to compose the shots, keep lighting in mind, and take the time to post-process in the end.
I should also point out that many smartphones nowadays let you shoot in RAW, not just JPEG. The choice is up to you however I choose to keep mine in JPEG format. RAW photos are best if you plan on doing a lot of heavy editing. They appear pretty ‘flat’ at first glance and require a lot of post-processing work versus with a jpeg, the camera tries to automatically turn it into a proper photo. Another reason why I suggest keeping it as a JPEG is size, RAW files are massive and your storage space will fill up even faster. However, it all depends on your preferences.
Even though I have a DSL-R and a mirrorless, I still love to use my phone for travel photography. It’s easy, effortless, and can go places that, sometimes, the bigger cameras can’t. For example, I would never take one of my other cameras out with me on a kayak. But my phone (in a waterproof pouch), of course!
At the end of the day, most of us want photos to share with friends, family, and maybe use in our home décor. Smartphone travel photography will let you do exactly that.
Want to up your travel photography game? Consider taking some online photography classes. I used KelbyOne and learned some great tips and tricks for travel photography, self-portraits, photo editing, and more. You can learn more here.