How to Maximize your Smartphone for Travel Photography
Written by Liz Pekler
Everybody wants to travel the world, explore different cultures, sample exotic delicacies, and meet people of different ethnicities. Unfortunately, this isn’t always possible for everyone since travel can be expensive, but when you do get the chance, make sure to immortalize those once-in-a-lifetime moments by taking lots of photos that can encapsulate the wonders you’ve experienced on your wanderings.
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to have a mirrorless or DSLR camera to take great travel photos on your trip—you can easily document your adventures with none other than your very own trusty smartphone. It’s actually preferable in some cases, because aside from eliminating the burden of having to carry a bulky camera, smartphones allow you to quickly edit and upload your images to your social media accounts. This allows you to share your travels in real-time with friends, family, and anyone else who may be interested in following your globe-trotting journey.
You can take sharp, high-quality photos as long as you make the most out of your phone and take your mobile photography game to the next level. And in case you need an extra image boost, you can always enhance your phone’s shooting capabilities by downloading some good photography apps.
Your smartphone’s camera default setting may very well do just fine, but knowing how to adjust them manually will definitely give you an edge and help you produce better photos for social media, essays, and travel blogs. Below are some tips to further improve your mobile travel photography.
Use your rear camera
If you’re travelling alone and are not used to approaching locals to take pictures of you just yet, you can simply bring a monopod or a small tripod and just do it yourself. But while this can result in properly framed selfies and group shots, it may not be the best idea if you want high-quality images, particularly since you’re more likely to use the front camera.
While using the front camera makes it easier to frame your shots, it is traditionally intended for just selfies and video calls as it has a lower megapixel resolution and a limited angle of view. Smartphone companies have only recently tried to make significant improvements in the resolution of their front cameras since consumers have been hoping to take clearer, better quality selfies.
While this is the case, it’s still best to use your rear camera as it does a better job of achieving harmony between image highlights and shadows with its added resolution and lens elements.
Keep your camera steady
One of the consequences of using a smartphone to capture your travel photos is that you sometimes get lost in the moment and end up snapping multiple photos regardless of precision. And since smartphone cameras have less powerful processors and lenses, there’s a higher risk getting soft, blurry photos.
The best way to capture sharper handheld shots is to keep your smartphone steady while clicking away. For landscape shots, tilt your camera to the side and try placing your index fingers on the upper corners, your left thumb at the bottom-left corner, and your right thumb free for the on-screen shutter button and camera setting adjustments. You’ll have a much steadier grip on your phone and your remaining fingers at the back for extra support.
Or, as previously mentioned, you can always bring a monopod or a mini tripod with you to help stabilize your phone. Monopods aren’t just great for taking selfies—they also help provide added stability for all sorts of shooting situations, making them a great supplementary accessory for travel photography.
Use the HDR Setting
When travelling, you’re bound to encounter landscapes, cityscapes, and other famous spots that are composed of vivid colours with varying exposure tones. Depending on the time of day and lighting condition, it may be challenging to capture outdoor scenes the way you see them with your eyes as your photos will usually end up with a darker foreground and brighter background.
The HDR or “High Dynamic Range” setting on your smartphone camera can help you solve this problem by balancing out the darkest and lightest aspects of the photo. When enabled, your camera will do this by taking three differently exposed shots within an interval of milliseconds and fusing them together in one photo. Since an HDR photo is an integration of three shots, it is also very important that you keep your camera still while it captures these photos.
Find your light
Photography is all about chasing the light. Your lighting can make or break your photography as it can greatly affect the overall quality of the image, as well as the mood and story you are trying to convey. Even a slight change of lighting angle can make your subject look differently and, in effect, change your photo composition.
With that said, feel free to play around with different lighting effects and angles, subject placement, and camera angles. It’s important to note, however, that the Auto Mode in some smartphones automatically increases your exposure to brighten shadows and darken highlights, depending on your camera’s metering. It helps to go on Manual Mode, if your camera has it, so you can explore other creative lighting options like backlight and silhouettes.
Set the focus
Aside from breathtaking landscapes and beautiful structural landmarks, you’re sure to find interesting statues and even small artefacts that you’ll want to take photos of. When shooting smaller subjects, make sure to emphasize your focus on the subject and separate it from the background.
As you steadily aim your smartphone, you can set the focus by simply tapping or holding your finger on the subject as it appears on your screen. You can increase your background blurring or bokeh by simply increasing the distance between the item and the background. You can also move in closer and use your camera’s macro mode (if you have it) to achieve a closer focus on an item’s texture and features or enlarge the item to life-size or larger.
Shoot in Manual Mode
While you can usually adjust your focus readily, there are other smartphones that don’t give you much freedom to adjust other camera settings while on Auto Mode. In case of instances where you find yourself in tourist spots that are dimly-lit or museums with coloured ambient lighting, you’ll need to learn to utilize your camera’s manual settings to achieve images of greater quality.
One major setting that you’ll be adjusting the most is the camera’s exposure, which determines how bright the overall image will appear. On most smartphones, all you have to do is tap and hold your smartphone screen and adjust the exposure by moving your finger up and down or left and right. You can also increase/decrease your ISO levels to adjust your camera sensor’s sensitivity to light and choose the appropriate white balance setting to get more colour-accurate photos.
Unfortunately, smartphone camera settings obviously don’t give you freedom to adjust the shutter speed and aperture just as DSLRs do, but it does allow you to modify more general exposure settings and choose between shooting modes—like Sports, Outdoor, and Night Mode—that tell the camera to use the most ideal shutter, aperture, and white balance settings to fit specific shooting situations.
Invest in specialized smartphone lenses
Using additional mobile lenses is another way that you can level up your mobile photography. These lenses come in different types and can give your travel photo a new perspective. There are wide-angle lenses that allow you to capture more of the scene; fisheye lenses that offer a unique and distorted perspective (as if you’re looking through a glass fishbowl); macro lenses for super close-up shots or enlarging objects; and telephoto lenses that offer more reach without actually having to move in or compromise photo quality, which usually happens when zooming in digitally.
Move in closer instead of zooming in
Digital zoom can’t work magic like zooms on DSLR lenses or smartphone zoom lenses, which have longer focal lengths to allow optical zooming. When you zoom in on your subject on your smartphone, you’re basically cropping the picture and decreasing image quality, resulting in grainy, low-quality photos. If you find yourself needing that extra reach, resist the temptation to zoom.
Get an external zoom lens for your smartphone camera or just move in closer to your subject to maintain good image quality for prints and social media sharing.
Use the Panorama Mode for the right subject or scene
Capturing travel photos using the Panorama Mode can be a little tricky. This mode helps you capture wide-angled photos by allowing you to capture multiple shots of a scene as you glide from left to right or vice versa and stitching the photos together to create a single panoramic image.
However, you have to keep in mind that moving subjects will come out blurry and some parts of the final panoramic image may have different exposures due to your camera’s auto exposure metering. To increase your stability and image sharpness, you can try moving your entire upper body while keeping your arms and hands steady during a panorama shot.
Download third-party camera apps
To have control over complex manual camera settings on your smartphone, you can download third-party camera applications. Top-rated apps like VSCO, Snapseed, and Open Camera give you the option to adjust your shutter speed, aside from ISO and exposure levels. You can also use the apps to conveniently edit your photos right after you take them, without the need for a computer or laptop.
Do you know any useful tips and tricks for taking great smartphone photos? Share them below!
About the Author
I am a travel photographer with several years of experience in the field. Being a freelance blogger enables me to help photography beginners and enthusiasts to tell wonderful stories of their travels as seen through their lenses. It also allows me to share my thoughts about another advocacy of mine: social equality and change. You can follow me on Linkedin or Twitter.