Smartphone Photography 101: 15 Essential Tips For Taking The Perfect Travel Photos


Luqman Hakim •  Dec 14, 2018

[Updated 23 June 2019]

Can’t afford an expensive DSLR? Or just not willing to lug around tons of camera equipment with you when you travel? Here comes the smartphone to the rescue! Aside from its portability, you can download applications and invest in external accessories to give your smartphone camera “DSLR-like” qualities.

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We have many photography tips for the traveller in you, and all you need is a smartphone with a camera. It doesn’t matter which phone you are using, whether you are #TeamApple or #TeamAndroid, as long it is a smartphone! Do note that the camera capabilities of various smartphones may differ though.

1. Play with angles

Who says you can only take photos at eye or chest level? Sometimes, visiting a well-photographed place might be a drag as there are so many other travellers around too. But here's one way to make your photos stand out from the rest - by playing with different angles!

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Playing with angles can easily enhance your photos and bring new perspectives to them. Using low or high angles will add interest to your image because it’s not something we often see at eye level. For one, it can make something look bigger or smaller than it really is. It's also great if you want to make your subject stand out especially if there are a lot of distractions in the background and you want to eliminate them.

2. Use HDR mode

If you're caught in a situation where there's a high contrast of light, you can still take a nice picture without disrupting the light in both the bright and dark areas. Just turn on the HDR (high dynamic range) mode of your phone's camera! What this does is that it combines a few pictures with different exposures and generates several options for you.

This way, you can still see the details in parts where the photo is very dark or very bright, making the lighting in your photo more consistent. The good thing is, even with HDR mode, your phone will still save the non-HDR version so you have more options.

3. Use natural lighting

The sun is a photographer’s best friend. Forget using your built-in flash, use natural lighting instead. Find the perfect angle to fully illuminate your subject before capturing the stunning photo!

Using natural lighting not only gives you beautiful photos, it also conserves your smartphone’s battery life, one crucial factor in smartphones.

4. Explore smartphone camera settings

Professional photographers would probably be familiar with the term “Rule of Thirds”, which can be activated on most smartphones. The “Rule of Thirds” is basically a 3x3 grid which will appear on the camera screen, providing a guide on where to position the subject of the photo.

Another function most smartphone cameras have is the Manual or Pro mode, which simulates the exact functionality and settings of a DSLR camera. These settings include the adjustment of the camera’s ISO, shutter speed, aperture and white balance settings.

5. Adjust exposure

Usually, when you take photos with your smartphone, you can just point and shoot but there might be times when you find it's too bright or too dark. To rectify that situation, you can adjust the exposure manually on your smartphone's camera. If you're using an iPhone, all you have to do is tap lightly on the screen and move the sun icon up or down to increase or decrease exposure.

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For Android phones, you'll usually find the "+/-" icon that'll help you to adjust exposure. This way, you get to decide what kind of mood you want for your photo, be it emphasising on bright lights or dark shadows for a dramatic feel.

6. Use apps to take long exposure shots

Capturing gushing rivers and moving city traffic using a DSLR camera can be tricky, but there's an app that captures it minus the hassle of serious stabilisation. We're talking Spectre Camera that focuses on taking brilliant long exposure shots.

Powered by AI, it can turn any moving elements, from ocean waves to waterfalls, into a gorgeous blurring effect. With the app, you can stabilise the shot for nine seconds of exposure without the help of a tripod! Besides that, it has a feature that removes the crowd from busy touristy places too. So you'll get a nice and clean shot of the attraction and landscape. Spectre Camera is only available on iOS.

7. Shoot in RAW

Most smartphone cameras allow you to shoot in RAW + JPEG. Just like DSLRs, a RAW and JPEG version of your photo would be saved in the phone’s gallery when you capture a photo using the RAW + JPEG setting. Do note though, saving both the RAW and JPEG versions of your image requires a lot more memory space. So, use this function only if your phone has enough storage space.

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RAW photos provide you with maximum quality for your photos, perfect for photo editing. You need photo-editing software such as Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop. This would allow you to process and edit RAW image files.

8. Never miss a shot with the burst mode

A perfect photographic moment may just be gone in a blink of an eye. For example, capturing the moment when a bee lands on a flower or when a bird flies past. Never miss this opportunity by activating your burst mode.

The burst mode allows you to capture multiple images just by holding onto your shutter button. Your smartphone camera will instantly save every frame of the burst shot. Select the perfect photo you want from the many shots you’ve taken. Warning though, you may be spoilt for choice!

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9. Use lens flare to your advantage

They say lens flare can ruin a shot, but when captured in a precise moment, it can add a reflective mood to your picture. Look out for the golden hour, after sunrise and before sunset, to bring a sunny glow to your snapshots.

There are many types of snapshots that can benefit from lens flare. You can use it to capture someone performing sun salutations or resting on a grassy field before the sun sets into the horizon.

10. Add reflections

It's one of the most effortless ways to add a visual dimension to your travel photos. Keep a lookout for windows, serene lakes, rainy day puddles or any body of still water to create this photography magic.

Besides the amazing mirror-like effect that it brings, it can also provide an emotional reflection of the subject in the picture. Go ahead and explore what this effect can bring!

11. Applications – camera modifiers, filters and editors

Behold! The cheat code to getting the perfect photo. With third-party applications, you don’t have to be a professional photographer. Just download these applications and capture amazing photos using filters and camera modifiers. These applications can be downloaded from the iPhone App Store or Google Play Store.

One example of a well-known camera application is VSCO. You can capture your photos with various filters and even edit them on the spot. Spend your time on the bus/train/plane editing your photos so you can immediately upload them on your social media accounts such as Instagram during your trip.

There are other smartphone photo editing apps to discover too! Try Adobe Lightroom CC that allows you to edit exposure, white balance and colours easily or Adobe Photoshop Express that comes with convenient presets and colour enhancement tools. Alternatively, you can use Snapseed that is great for changing the depth of fields, perspective and RAW editing or Afterlight 2 to perform simple tweaks on saturation, curves and tone.

12. Use portrait mode (for newer iPhones)

If you want to achieve a ‘Bokeh’ effect in your photos, use the Portrait mode for newer versions of the iPhone (from the iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X onwards). New features of this mode (only available in even newer iPhones such as the iPhone XS and XS Max) include the all-new depth control, which allows you to control the blurriness of the background.

The ‘Bokeh’ effect gives a stunning depth of field to your photo with a beautifully blurred background. This, however, only works in certain environments. Cityscapes with light sources would bring out the best in the iPhone’s Portrait Mode. A stationary subject would also be necessary for better sharpness and focus.

13. Invest in external lens

Be creative with your photos using an external lens for smartphones. These miniature lenses for smartphones can be found in shops selling phone accessories and they don’t exactly cost a bomb.

There are many types of external lens for smartphones, more commonly wide-angle and macro lens. Just simply position and clip it onto your smartphone to capture stunning photos!

14. Get yourself a selfie stick

A great invention made for smartphone camera users is the selfie stick (or monopod)! They don’t cost much and can be found at flea markets or camera accessories shops.

The selfie stick allows you to capture selfies or “we-fies” (group selfies) in all kinds of environments. The selfie stick also allows you to capture photos of a subject without any obstruction in a crowded area. Do take note though, it may be a nuisance to some especially in crowded areas as you may end up hitting someone with the stick if you are not careful.

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15. Manage and organise your photos

Your gallery may end up looking a mess after a few days of capturing great photos for your trip. Make a habit to organise your photos in your gallery. One method is by categorising your photos in labelled folders according to the date it was taken, followed by flagging selected photos for edit during or after your trip.

Another method is to make use of a cloud or drive such as Google Drive for Android phones or iCloud for iPhones. This allows you to have more storage on your phone for more photos.

Bonus: Lens care and maintenance

Do take care of your camera and external lens. The last thing you want is to have scratches on your lens, affecting the quality of your photos. Store your phone’s external lens in a safe and secure place.

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Bring along a lens cloth everywhere you go. Wipe off any fingerprints or dirt on your lens before pressing the shutter button on your phone. Having prints or dirt on your phone would affect the focusing functionality on your phone and thus, affecting the quality of your photos.

Hope we’ve got you covered for your next trip! With these tips in mind, your smartphone may very well be an all-in-one device for your trip! So, snap away and capture stunning memories of your trip using just that small, portable device. Just make sure you watch where you’re going when using your phone.

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