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Tips for Taking Pro-Level Travel Photos on Your Phone

Tips for taking pro level travel photos on your phone header

By Amanda Russell on April 20, 2021 in Life Hacks

Cameras have come a long way in the past half-century. Hasselblads, for example, were the camera of choice in the ultimate form of travel photography: NASA missions (starting in 1962). These cameras featured a film magazine that allowed for 70 photos instead of the usual 12. Astronauts used these bulky cameras to document their first trip to the moon during the Apollo 11 mission in 1969.

Fast forward to the early 2000s: Cell phones with cameras built into the body of the phone — including the Nokia 7650 — debuted in the United States. Information about the Nokia’s camera is sparse, with the most descriptive specifications mentioning a “rear-facing camera” and “VGA.” According to Shutter Muse, “Video Graphics Array (VGA) refers to an image resolution size of 640x480 pixels (0.3MP).” That means the first cell phone cameras produced 0.3-megapixel photos that could be clearly printed at roughly wallet size.

Now, cell phones have developed into smartphones, and cameras come standard. Moreover, smartphone cameras are powerful compared to cameras of the past, with the added functionality of fitting in our pockets. Even older models of smartphones boast 12 megapixels — and that’s on the lower end of the spectrum.

Camera-equipped phones have democratized photography, too. While cameras are often an expensive luxury item, 81% or more of Americans own a smartphone. This means anyone with a smartphone can explore photography and document their world. Read on to learn why smartphone cameras are just as important to photography as their standalone counterparts, and how to take professional-grade travel photos with your phone.

Your Smartphone Is the Best Camera You Have

The best camera to take a photo is the one you have with you. While a large investment of camera gear can help you catch the “perfect” photo, you may not have a professional camera and tripod at hand when you’re setting up your campsite and see an incredible sunset. This is when you reach into your pocket and use the camera best suited for the occasion: the one on your phone.

Protect Your Camera So You Can Take Memorable Photos

You have a powerful camera at your disposal, but it’s only as good as you treat it. The glass camera lenses can be scratched by hard falls and misuse. For that reason, consider investing in a phone case that protects the camera lens (some have nifty sliders you can shift over the lens when it’s not in use).

Additionally, before you take a photo, gently wipe the lens to clear off lint, dust, smudges, dirt, and other messes that can distort the final image. Treat the camera gently and keep it clean — your photos will be better for it.

To Capture Your Travel Experience Well, Know How to Take a Great Photo

How do you take a picture that captures a memorable moment? A few key composition tips help.

Decide on the Photo You Want

Ask yourself a few quick questions:

  • What caught your attention about the scene?
  • If you share this photo with others, what do you want them to notice?
  • If you frame this photo, which part is most important?

These questions can help you decide how to focus your image. In the case of the sunset — whether it’s the colorful clouds, the way the sky reflects in a building’s windows, or the expression on your partner’s face — make sure your photo focuses on the part of the scene that made you want to take the picture in the first place.

Level the Photo

Use the built-in grid lines on your smartphone’s camera screen or the edges of your screen to help frame the shot. Balance the horizon as best you can so viewers don’t feel like they’re falling over. You can use both horizontal and vertical elements to help level the photo. If there are people in the picture, try to make them look like they’re standing up straight, not doing the Michael Jackson lean from Smooth Criminal.

Use the Grid

The lines on your screen form a three-by-three grid for two reasons. One, they help you level the photo. Two, they break the image into thirds to help balance composition. Following the rule of thirds can make an image interesting. Darren Rowse, editor for and founder of Digital Photography School, writes: “The theory is that if you place points of interest in the intersections or along the lines that your photo becomes more balanced and will enable a viewer of the image to interact with it more naturally.”

On most phones, you can toggle the grid on and off in the camera app’s settings.

When you take a picture of a mountain range, for example, you can try two different compositions.

  • Line up the mountains with the top grid line in order to see more of the landscape below.
  • Line up the mountains with the bottom grid line to showcase the sky, especially during sunset or on cloudy days.

The key is to experiment. In digital photography, there’s no reason not to try multiple shots with different compositions. Sometimes, centered looks best; sometimes, centered feels boring and the rule of thirds makes the image more interesting. It’s up to you to decide what you like.

Focus on Lighting

Lighting determines how well you can take a picture. Without adequate light, photos can look grainy and blurred. While we often have little control over light when taking photos during a trip, you can plan for lighting conditions, including the golden hour, bright sun, cloudy days, and artificial light.

To help your smartphone camera perform its best in low-light conditions, consider the following two “cheats.”

  • Take a video, then screengrab the shot you want from the video.
    This doesn’t always work, but it can sometimes be the difference between a shot you miss completely and a photo that isn’t perfect, but still works.
  • Use a second light source.
    Taking a selfie in front of a landmark at night? Instead of using your flash, which can result in an overexposed (too-bright) face, shine a flashlight or the light from another smartphone onto your face, being careful with shadows. Then take the selfie without a flash. Both your face and the lit landmark in the background should be clearly visible. If you don’t have a source of handheld light, try taking the photo using light from a streetlamp or a car’s headlights.

Pay Attention to Angles

You can make something appear larger by taking a picture from its base and angling your camera up. Conversely, it can seem smaller when you take a picture from the top down.

When taking pictures of people, it’s generally more flattering to have the camera slightly above the person’s eyeline. Photos angled from the neck up can reduce the line of the chin and make someone look far different than they do normally, so do your best to pose the person and compose a shot with their jawline as prominent as possible.

Add Some Perspective

If you’re taking a photo to show a wow factor, include perspective for the viewer. This is why people stand next to redwoods or take a selfie of their frozen hair; now the photo shows just how big the tree is or how cold it was outside.

Perspective helps the photo tell a story — and also explains why so many photos on Instagram and travel sites feature the same poses. When you stand with your arms outstretched in a photo of a vast landscape, it’s the equivalent of nonverbally saying, “Wow!” and helping viewers understand just how big and impressive the landscape is.

Do a Spot Check

Take a moment to survey the scene on your screen before you capture the photo. Is there an overflowing trash can in the background? Does your dog have a random stick on his back? Do you have an errant hair across your forehead? Check the scene to see if you can eliminate or reduce parts that take away from the moment. Don’t forget to check people’s teeth for food.

Take a Burst of Photos

Taking a burst means you take multiple photos simultaneously. To do so, tap and hold the button that takes the picture. Then you can select the photo you want to keep and discard the rest. This can help a great deal in group photos if you need to make sure everyone has their eyes open. It’s also great if you want to capture a specific frame when there’s movement, such as the look on someone’s face at the very moment a cold wave washes over their bare feet.

Smartphone Cameras Have Their Own Level of Expertise

Get comfortable with your phone’s camera app. It includes lots of features, from zoom and focus to grid lines to help frame your shot and different modes, such as night mode, which can help you take photos in low light. The better you know your camera, the more fun you’ll have with your smartphone photography.

When You Travel, Enjoy Capturing the Memories with Your Smartphone

In prepping for your trip, you probably searched Instagram and Google for stunning locations and photo ideas. You know to arrive as early as possible to the most tourist-heavy places, or to visit as the crowds disperse during the heat of the day or around dinnertime. You did the research, and now you’re ready to take the trip and record your memories.

Your smartphone’s camera is excellent for quick pictures, selfies, surprises, and general photography when you travel. Depending on the photo, your smartphone camera can produce photos that print clearly at or above an 8x10 photograph. Regardless of how you enjoy your pictures once your trip ends, your smartphone camera will be there to help you document every moment.

Amanda Russell is a consultant for Say Insurance. She loves writing bios for other people, but hates doing it for herself. She's a senior editor, a writer, and a hobbyist photographer. When she's not working, you may find her traveling around the world or drinking a caramel latte at her neighborhood coffeeshop.