40 tips to take great travel photos using your smartphone

Conveniently capture awesome travel photos of your travel experiences and precious memories on your smartphone

Are you finding yourself leaving your SLR at home more often when you travel? More of us are now upgrading our smartphone or simply using our existing mobile phones to take awesome travel photos.

You already have your iPhone or Android smartphone with you when you travel - allowing you to quickly and conveniently; capture, edit and instantly share your precious moments and experiences with loved ones.

The camera, SLR or smartphone is just a tool. The basic principles of photography and how to capture a WOW photo remain, regardless of the genre:

  • determine the story of the image and make that obvious
  • check the background and remove any distractions
  • consider composition and how everything is framed
  • perform quick Snapseed photo editing to enhance your images

Are your ready for the long list of travel photo tips?

  1. Wipe the lens
  2. Tap the screen to focus
  3. Long press and swipe the screen
  4. Capture the photo using the volume button
  5. Hold the shutter button to capture a burst of images
  6. Use panoramic mode
  7. Take a wide angle lens with you
  8. Turn on the grid lines
  9. Turn HDR on Auto
  10. Blur the background
  11. Use Live Photos on the iPhone
  12. Full manual control of your camera
  13. Don’t use the digital zoom
  14. Don’t use the flash – ever
  15. Stabilise the smartphone
  16. Take a portable battery pack
  17. RAW versus JPEG
  18. Be safe
  19. Capture something unique
  20. Candid Versus Posed
  21. Photos of people
  22. Photo of strangers
  23. Include a sign
  24. Get there early
  25. Get there late
  26. Include people in the landmark photos
  27. Copy what others are capturing!
  28. Walk around before pulling out your smartphone
  29. Capture a variety of photos
  30. Look for reflections
  31. Look for small details
  32. Lighting and time of day
  33. Simple photo editing using free Snapseed app
  34. More advanced photo editing
  35. Take video
  36. Use a video replacement app
  37. Back up your photos on the cloud.
  38. Backup your photos without WIFI
  39. Ask at your accommodation for photography tips
  40. Have fun

Smartphone Specific Tips

1. Wipe the lens

I know, starting at the basics. It is amazing how we forget to wipe the lens. We carry our smartphone in our handbag or pocket collecting dust and foreign material. A simple puff of breath then wipe with a T-shirt will suffice.

 

2. Tap the screen to focus

Tapping the screen takes the phone off auto mode and starts to give you some creative control. If there are people in the scene – then your smartphone will do a great job, locating and focusing on them. The phone will likely also capture accurate colours. If, however you are capturing travel photos of a monument or landscape – there may be objects near and far or a colour that dominates a scene (sunset) that the smartphone has trouble capturing.

 

IPhone travel photos tip - tap the screen to focus

3. Long press and swipe the screen

Tap the screen to tell the camera where to focus. If you have an iPhone or a later model Android handset – you can now swipe up/down or left/right to make the image brighter or darker. How cool is that? Travel photos often involve an action shot of someone jumping!

 

4. Capture the photo using the volume button

You may have known that the volume minus button can take the photo – however, the earphones attached can also take a photo. This will enable you to take some sneaky street photography shots without alarming people.

 

5. Hold the shutter button to capture a burst of images

You may have already discovered this option by accident. Capturing a series of photos is not only beneficial to capture an action photo, you can also use it to ensure that everyone in the image has their eyes open!

 

Android smartphone travel photos tip - tap the screen to focus

6. Use panoramic mode

Sometimes, it can be difficult to fit the context of your location into the one photo. If you have not already tried panoramic mode – you will love it. Quick tip: when you pan across – instead of tapping the screen a second time to stop the recording, simply pan back in the opposite direction!

 

7. Take a wide angle lens with you

Lens attachment, such as the universal wide angle lens kit, from Struman Optics really add to the capability of your smartphone camera. They are fantastic for those indoor photos or selfies where you want to fit more in the frame. If you are an Android user and have the ‘wide selfie’ mode option, I would suggest using the timer or the above earphones trick.

8. Turn on the grid lines

The grid or grid lines can be turned on in either the settings or within the camera app itself. The lines that overlay the screen is really helpful for helping you capture a straight image and placing the main subject off-centre.

Android smartphone photography travel photos tip - turn on the grid lines - grid

9. Turn HDR on Auto

OK, HDR does not stand for High Definition Resolution! It is an acronym for High Dynamic Range. In auto mode, the camera intelligently detects that there are a high range of bright sections and dark sections in the image. It will then capture multiple images to record the details in the bright clouds and in the shadows – then automatically blend the best of each into one image. This is perfect for bright outdoor travel photos and even interior shots that have a bright window. The standard iPhone camera is not as good as most Android smartphone. Therefore, I like to use iOS camera replacement app Hydra by Creaceed SPRL.

 

10. Blur the background

Sometimes you do not have the luxury of time while you are travelling to set up the perfect photo – shooting from an alternative angle or physically removing distracting objects in the background. You can blur the background by using the ‘Live Focus,’ ‘Portrait’ mode or ‘Near Far’ options on various smartphones. Alternatively, blur the background on any smartphone using the three tips in this article.

iphone photography - travel photo tip - Blur the background

11.   Use Live Photos on the iPhone

Previously I was not a fan of Live Photos. Now I love it. I have listed many new features in the article iOS 11 hidden features – including how to turn an image into a long exposure (motion blur) and grab a more precisely timed image from the 3 second video (live photo).

 

12.   Full manual control of your camera

If like me, you like to take full control and be a little more creative – install a camera replacement app. My favourites are Camera+ (iOS) by Latenite Apps and FV-5 (Android) by FGAE. You can adjust the ISO, shutter, white balance, focus, image file options, long exposure, add copyright information, etc.

When taking travel photos, I like to keep it simple and stick with the standard camera app - it is still amazing.

13.   Don’t use the digital zoom

Digital zoom degrades the image. I know you will be tempted to zoom in to the action. If you cannot walk closer – there is a 14x optical lens attachment available by Struman Optics. Quite often, I will take a photo and crop it, locating a photo within a photo. If you digitally zoom in and fill the frame, then you have removed this option.

 

14.   Don’t use the flash – ever

Geez, I am being harsh now – telling you what not to do. The flash is a burst of uncontrollable light that produces bright spots and dark shadows. A really simple and very effective alternative, is to use the torch on a second phone. If you are travelling alone, you can purchase a little LED light to attach to your keyring.

 

15.   Stabilise the smartphone

Holding the phone in two hands and elbows tucked in by your side can really help. The best option for selfies or night time photos is a small, simple travel tripod. You can then use the timer or earphones to totally avoid touching the smartphone.

Smartphone photography - travel photo tip - Stabilise the smartphone

16.   Take a portable battery pack

These handy devices will remove the anxiety of running out of battery while out and about all day doing the tourist thing. Simply attach the USB end of your charging cable into the device to recharge your smartphone. If you forget the cable (I have) – then you can put your smartphone on aeroplane mode to conserve battery.

 

17.   RAW versus JPEG

These are file formats have been a hot topic of debate for many years! Every smartphone is set up by default to capture JPEG file format. Each device applies some automatic image enhancement to make the images look better – and you more satisfied with their product. RAW images simply capture the image and leave it up to you to edit the photo. They can look really flat, lacking colour and sharpness. The extra benefit of Raw is that the larger file size stores more visual data that is lost in JPEG.

My preference when travelling is definitely JPEG. I do not want to edit all my photos – just further enhance my favourites.

 

Travel Specific Tips

Don’t get into the trap of taking a huge amount of photos to record your travel. Be selective, think about each photo you are capturing – the story/subject, the composition and editing.

18.   Be safe

The priority is ALWAYS your personal safety. There are a range of risks, including person who do not wish to be photographed, environment hazards, including tripping, passing vehicles, hydration, etc. Trust your instincts – if you feel unsafe then do something about it. No photo is worth putting yourself at risk.

 

19.   Capture something unique

Walking around your travel destination - be observant for any unique travel photo opportunities, that encapsulates the vibe of the area, culture or simply something interesting to capture.

Mobile photography - travel; photo tip - Capture something unique

20.   Candid Versus Posed

I am not going to suggest one is better than the other. What I will say though, is capture both. As a rule - you should always strive to mix up your travel photos. No one wants to look at hundreds of the same shots! Capturing the different subjects and angles help you grow as an amateur photographer.

 

21.   Photos of people

Portrait images are always best at either eye level of from slightly above. Objects closer to the lens look bigger. A shot from slightly below will produce an unflattering larger jawline!

 

22.   Photo of strangers

In your travels, you may find some unique and interesting people to capture. My suggestions would be to become familiar with local customs and cultures. It may be offensive, against their religious beliefs or there may be an assumed financial expectation.

Assuming that it is ok to take photos of people in public places, you could simply point to them and your phone with a smile and judge their reaction. You could even offer to tag them in Instagram photos to allow them the opportunity to receive the photo themselves.

 

23. Include a sign of where you are

A sign or some other indicator of where you are when you captured the travel photo. An example below includes ‘Flinders Street Station.’

Smartphone photography travel photo tip - Include a sign of where you are

24.   Get there early

Have you experienced a time when you arrive at a location – to find it filled with tourists ruining your postcard photo? Getting there bright and early can minimise that busy foreground of people. Sometimes, the bustling crowds can add some context to the story you are capturing.

 

25.   Get there late

Quite often, travel locations are totally different after dark. Reflections of lights on water, flood lit buildings and night markets can be really interesting images.

 

26.   Include people in the landmark photos

I mentioned arriving at landmark locations early to avoid people. However, including people in such a photo can provide a great sense of scale.

 

27.   Copy what others are capturing!

Watch what other people are taking photos of and try and look for a more unique, interesting perspective.

Smartphone photography travel photo tip - Include a sign of where you are

28.   Walk around before pulling out your smartphone

There are conflicting studies out there – suggesting that taking photos either diminishes or enhances your enjoyment while travelling. My advice, take a moment to appreciate the experience and scope the scene for photographic opportunities. This will help you to have a sense of purpose when you do take an image – rather than simply taking thousands of photos, simply recording your experience.  

 

29.   Capture a variety of photos

A simple way to achieve this is to think of ‘people, places and things.’ That will help you to avoid becoming pre-occupied with capturing just buildings and realizing after the trip that you forgot to take photos of the local cuisine or people.

 

30.   Look for reflections

If you are struggling for creativity – reflections is always a great place to start. Reflections in mirror, water, buildings and even car windows can provide a really interesting, new perspective.

 

Smartphone photography travel photo tip - Look for reflections

31.   Look for small details

One of the main reasons I love photography, is it forces me to slow down and notice things around me on more of a macro level. I am always looking for the small details, priding myself on noticing things that people just overlook in their everyday living. An example could be the textures on a building surface or the unique local flora and fauna. Macro photography can produce some outstanding images.

 

32.   Lighting and time of day

Consider the time of day that may be best to capture a particular location. Midday is the worst time for outdoor photos – when the sun is overhead and really bright. This might be the best time for the indoor activities (architectural). In the early morning or late afternoon, the sun is lower in the sky and produces a softer more directional lighting.  

 

33.   Simple photo editing using free Snapseed app

This is a massive blog post in itself! I have detailed a quick and easy six step process to improve any photo, using the free Snapseed photo editing app.

 

34.   More advanced photo editing

If you are more familiar with the desktop Adobe photo editing programs and have a Creative Cloud subscription – then Lightroom mobile is a great app. When taking travel photos on your phone, it is extremely helpful to edit on your smartphone. Here is my article featuring 101 mobile photo editing options using apps.

35.   Take video

Photos are fantastic. However, nothing helps your diminishing memory more than actually watching a video. Remember to hold the smartphone horizontally if you intend on watching the video on a television.

 

36.   Use a video replacement app

The standard video camera on your smartphone is amazing. If you want to take full manual control over ISO, shutter, focus, frame rates, audio, etc – then Filmic Pro is a great app available on both Android and iOS.

 

37.   Back up your photos on the cloud

Have you ever lost your travel photos? How devastating was it?

Commonly used services, include: Google drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, Apple iCloud and Backblaze. All of these services can be set up to automatically back up once your device is on charge and connected to WIFI. How is that for care-free?

 

38.   Backup your photos without WIFI

Two options: Purchase a cheap laptop to transfer your images. Make sure it is properly set up and you have tested this before you travel. The other option is a very clever and easy to use device and app – Picture Keeper. This USB device is compatible with most iOS (Picture Keeper Connect) and Android devices (Picture Keeper for Android).

 

39.   Ask at your accommodation for photography tips

The service person/concierge at your accommodation may have a shot list available of great locations in the area that they personally recommend or may have compiled over years of chatting with guests who have taken some great images previously.

 

40.   Have fun

Enjoy taking photos. However, do not let it be at the detriment of co-travelers’ experience. Some of us can get a little obsessive about getting the perfect shot. If you need to move on and miss the photo – there will be others. You do not want to miss the last transfer of the day back to the cruise ship!

Conclusion

As you can see, there is so much more that your humble smartphone can achieve. Taking advantage of these features and applying some basic travel photography principles will have you well on your way to confidently capturing those amazing memories and experiences.

Love taking photos on your phone and want to make them even better? We have an amazing community and regular smartphone specific tutorials available on our 'get started here' page.

Mike James hosts regular mobile photo walks, delivers private and business group workshops, corporate training and speaks at events. Not in the Geelong and Melbourne area - check out our online courses.

Daily tips and featured images from our community can be found on our Instagram account.

Remember - be passionate, be creative and keep learning.

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