A Pocket Guide to Stellar Smartphone Travel Photography

I get asked all the time what I use to take the travel photos I post on Facebook and Instagram.  When I say that most of them were taken on my iPhone, I usually get some pretty surprised looks. What I always tell them is: It’s not the camera that matters, it’s the process.

Ever since I was a kid I’ve struggled to find a footing with photography.  I got my first camera right before a high school class trip to Washington, D.C. and I was beyond excited.  It was clunky and most of my prints were half developed, blurry, and hugely off-center. My photo of a boat traveling on the Potomac had turned into a legitimate contender for a Lochness Monster sighting.

Fast forward to years later, through my next couple of cameras and my first smartphone, and, still, my photos were not much better. They certainly looked a lot sharper and had better color, but all lacked something and felt flat.  I had much to learn. Up to this point, I had expected the camera to do the work but I eventually realized that I had no idea how to actually take a good photo. 

That’s what this simple guide is about–nothing fancy.  Just some basic tips that I have found are the most crucial to getting great photos.  I’m sure you have a phone with you right now and it’s the perfect tool for taking beautiful, vivid travel photos, not just selfies.

Great Photography is Great Storytelling

If you can 1) notice a great moment, and 2) capture it with a reasonably composed photo, you will have something worth showing people.  This might sound obvious but it really is amazing how quick we are to just take photos without stopping even for a moment.  

Before you press your shutter button, just think: What is this photo about? Like, REALLY what is it trying to say? Think about the emotion and the main subject of the photo.  Everything in the photo should support it. If it doesn’t, zoom in and crop distractions out. If your photo is about the space, make sure you get far enough back to capture the entire scene.  

Tip: The zoom on most smartphones is terrible, so use your feet.  You can accomplish a lot by simply moving around a little bit to capture a better framing for your photo.  A little movement can go a long way.

smartphone photography austin
The Graffiti Wall. Austin, Texas (Alt-Nomad)

Develop a Photographer’s Mind

When I’m traveling and find something to photograph, I like to walk around for a moment.  To get a feel for the area. What’s moving, where is the light coming from, what’s it hitting, reflecting on?  What are the textures like? You may be standing in front of the Eiffel Tower and obviously, you want to get some great pictures of it.  But it is what’s around the Eiffel Tower that will make your particular photo interesting.

Tip: if you have a hard time envisioning what a picture will look like, take photos of one subject from a few different angles and locations.  You will learn a ton about the environment and how to best capture it, too. 

Know Some Basic Composition Rules

There are a ton of great general guides out there about composition (I think Eric Kim’s are excellent).  Since you’re using a phone and are probably shooting with automatic settings, I think the most important rules are:

  • The Rule of Thirds – A critical one to master right off the bat.  If you draw a tic-tac-toe set of boxes on your image, it divides the horizontal and vertical space into thirds.  Make sure your subject is on one of the lines. Like all great rules, you should follow it till you know it well and then break it when you need to.  Tip: You can turn on the grid mode in your camera’s phone app to see the lines clearly.
  • Use Natural Light – Lighting really is everything when it comes to photography and video.  Turn off your phone’s flash.  And consider where the light is when you take the photo.  I find light is a great reason to move around a little to get a better photo. For example, if the light is shining toward you, consider putting it behind something to help keep lens flare from becoming too harsh.  
  • Try Something Different – After you take a picture, just try an alternate composition before you move on.  If you are zoomed out, get closer. If you are close, back up and capture more of the background.  Try an angle way down low or vertical vs. horizontal. Sometimes you may just find that you like the experimental ones the best. 


Boston Public Library (Alt-Nomad)

Always Show Your Best Photos (Post Processing)  

I am always amazed when I browse through Facebook and see that someone has posted 91 photos in an album from their backyard barbecue this weekend. I don’t think anyone (the poster included) really wants to browse through that many photos.  It’s probably why they just posted them all in the first place. 

This is one step that I think a lot of people just don’t do. And really, if you are serious about upping your game with photography, you don’t want to stop here.   

The most important first step of my iPhone photos post-processing is to go through and delete any that are: duplicates, out of focus, or boring.  From there I select a handful of photos (5-10).  Remember, when you are posting something you are really telling a story, so pick the ones that have the best flow and most impact. You can just keep all the rest in your “favorite photos” folder and come back to them later.  

Editing on the native phone apps on your phone can be permanent.  I use a non-destructive editor Camera+ and then when I am done editing, I save them to my photostream.  A program like this allows you to have much more control over the small edits and makes a huge difference. 

Some super simple basics edits you should always do:

  1. Straighten and crop
  2. Try the auto color/exposure correction.  Adjust the highlights and shadows.
  3. Add a little sharpening
  4. Add a filter as appropriate.  These are a bad idea for really great photos, in my opinion, but perfect for sharing on social media.  

You might be worried about the time this takes but once you get used to the basic controls, it should only take you a few minutes to delete the poor photos and about 30-60 seconds to edit each of them.  

To-ji Temple. Kyoto, Japan (Alt-Nomad)

Just Keep Your Finger on the Capture Button

One of the worst feelings I have is when I see something beautiful or interesting and I don’t have a camera to capture it.  Having a phone makes this problem go away, so whenever you see something beautiful just snap a shot. Take more photos and review them and you will get better. Deliberate practice will lead to results.

I’ve really been focused on my landscape photography lately using an SLR with manual settings and constantly learning and refining my approach.  It’s a never-ending journey and that’s what excites me most about it.  Also, there are of course lots of gadgets like lenses, tripods, etc. you can get for your phone and some of them really do make a great impact, but I would get to know your phone’s camera and take a ton of photos before you invest in any other equipment.  

Good luck and remember to add an #altnomad tag to your favorite travel photos on IG!


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