Phone photography tips for travellers

Kathmandu ambassadors Alesha and Jarryd are professional photographers, writers and founders of adventure travel blog NOMADasaurus. They’ve been exploring the world together since 2008, searching for culture and adventure in off-the-beaten-path destinations.

If you’re planning on hitting the road for some adventures, make sure you come back with photos you can be proud of. Here are our phone photography tips for those who want to travel light and move fast.

Think before you shoot

Phone photography has its limitations and rules, but we all need rules in which to play and bend expectations. One easily forgotten rule for photographers on the road is to take the time to get the shot. We often succumb to a self-imposed pressure to 'get the shot' as quickly as we can, thinking that this is how true travel photography is captured and how the best photos in history have been taken. Wrong. Some of the most famous photography in the world gives the impression of being a moment in time quickly captured by the photographer, and sometimes this is the case, but often there is a process and a dedication of both subject and photographer to getting the right shot.

One of the most famous photographs in history was the fifth shot taken, not the first. Learn more about the photographer's process.

Look at the scene properly before you pull out your phone. Is the lighting nice? Does the scene tell a story? Is there a way to properly frame your image? You’ll be able to tell a lot with your eyes, and you’ll know whether it’s something you would like to capture or not.

Once you are pointing the camera still consider everything before you press that button.

Get up early and stay out late

This has to be the number one phone photography tip: get out of the hotel room early, and stay out late. This will give you the best opportunity to hit the city without the crowds, and allow you to shoot in the golden hours. Otherwise, you are just like everyone else, jostling for a shot without an arm or a leg interrupting the shot. This is an old travel photography tip but one that especially relevant for phone photography due to the impact Instagram has had on major tourist destinations. 

Just after the sun rises and just before the sun sets casts off the best light, which makes for better travel photos. During the middle of the day the brightness can be quite harsh, so make sure you do your photography at the right times! Those mountains will look a lot better with a golden glow thrown across them.

Seek alternative destinations

As mentioned above, phone photography is driving the rise of overtourism across the world, with some destinations struggling to keep up with the spikes in tourism numbers that come from Instagram and other social media tools. The island of Phi Phi Leh in Thailand, first made famous as the setting for the film The Beach before becoming world famous for a quick Instagram shot on the beach, was closed by the government and will remain closed until 2021. 

Phone photography is hard enough as it is without being generic. Head off the beaten track, there are often places only around the corner or in the next town from some of the world's most sought after photography destinations. 

Check out our Helpful or Harmful campaign to learn more about our travel patterns and how getting off-piste wherever you go can benefit both your experiences and those you meet along the way. 

Play with reflections and symmetry

You’ll find a lot of great opportunities to play with symmetry and reflections when you travel, and this can result in amazing travel photos. Having a perfectly mirrored shot of the Taj Mahal is something most photographers want when they go to India, and with phones it’s so easy to capture! This is one example of when the ‘rule of thirds’ is OK to break and you can centre the subject.

Besides reflections, keep looking for interesting lines and angles in architecture and landscapes to give your travel photos that extra class. A long road leading into a mountainous background is one example that is guaranteed to make your friends go “Wow!”

The way the trees form a twisted arch over the long road creates interesting lines in the shot, and draws the viewer's eye to the centre of the picture
The way the trees form a twisted arch over the long road creates interesting lines in the shot, and draws the viewer's eye to the centre of the picture

Crop it, don't zoom it

Unfortunately mobile phone cameras still can’t match the quality of the best travel cameras on the market, particularly when it comes to zooming in on a scene.

Most new mobile phone cameras have a feature called ‘digital zoom’, where you can pinch your fingers to zoom in or out of a shot. The problem with this is the quality drops drastically. If you want to tighten up your shot, take the picture normally and crop it later. This will still lower the resolution slightly, but won’t destroy the quality as much as zooming. Or better yet, use your feet and move closer!

Place people in your shots

You may think that getting a photo with nobody else in it is the perfect goal, and sometimes it is, but don’t look past having people in your shot to give a real sense of size and atmosphere.

Having a lone person standing in a landscape photo can give an excellent perspective to just how large the place is. With street scenes having people walking through it will make the image come to life, and give the viewer an idea of what it was like to be there with you. Wait for someone to walk through the scene, or use a travel buddy to get into position.

Having someone stand in your shot gives perspective to the size of the landscapes
Having someone stand in your shot gives perspective to the size of the landscapes

Move your feet and get different angles

The great thing about shooting your travel photography on a mobile is that you can position yourself just about anywhere to get a shot. So make sure you use your feet to get the best angles!

Your phone is so small and light that you can easily put it below your hips or above your head to change the perspective of what you’re trying to capture. Sometimes shooting from the hip looks way better than at eye level, so experiment with that.

And be as mobile with your feet as your phone is! Walk around to get the best angles and framing rather than simply taking a picture from wherever you happen to be standing.

Explore your phone photography modes

New mobile phones now come with a whole range of different settings and modes to allow you to really mix up your style and capture the best travel photos possible. Play around with them and learn how they work.

For huge landscape shots, cityscapes and architecture try out the panorama mode. This allows you to pan the phone and capture the entire scene, then the phone automatically stitches it together.

Some phones have what is called ‘portrait mode’. This mimics the dreamy, out-of-focus backgrounds (called bokeh) you get with wide aperture lenses. Great for taking a picture of your new best friend you meet on the road.

Trying to capture an action shot, like a traditional dance or somebody doing a big cliff jump? Switch it to burst mode to make your phone shoot multiple photos in quick succession. This way you’ll capture the perfect moment!

Switch your phone to burst mode to capture multiple pictures rapidly - like this shot of dolphins in the Galapagos
Switch your phone to burst mode to capture multiple pictures rapidly - like this shot of dolphins in the Galapagos

Keep the camera still and sturdy

You’ll be surprised just how much movement your hands can give off when trying to take a picture. While you may think you are very stable, the truth is if you’re shooting in low light you might end up with blurry shots. Get around this by buying yourself a small phone tripod, or resting your phone up against a wall or on a table when taking a picture at night.

Turn on the grid feature and use the 'rule of thirds'

The rule of thirds is a simple photography concept that says images are more aesthetically pleasing when elements are placed on certain lines. These lines break up the image into nine squares. The rule shows that rather than placing everything in your shot in the centre of the frame, it may look better when off to one side.

Most mobile phones allow you to place these grids on your screen so you can balance your shot correctly. You'll see the lines on your screen (they don’t show up on the end picture), and from there you can place whatever you are photographing in the right position.

Remember, rules are meant to be broken and you shouldn’t rely solely on the rule of thirds to frame your shot, but while you’re starting your photography journey switch it on for your phone and practice composition.

How to switch the grid on your phone?

  • iPhone: Go to "Settings," choose "Photos & Camera," and switch "Grid" on.
  • Samsung Galaxy: Launch the camera app, go to "Settings," scroll down and switch the "grid lines" option to "on."

Edit your shots

This may be one of the best ways to get the most out of your travel photos that some people forget to do. Editing photography has been around forever, even when shooting on film, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a single professional photographer that doesn’t edit their photos before publishing them.

Luckily with mobile phones you don’t need to pay for any expensive software, and they all have editing tools built directly into the camera. Once you take your shot play around with things like white balance, contrast and saturation to get your image looking exactly how you want.

Ready to step it up a notch? Check out apps like Snapseed and Lightroom to really push your edits to the next level, or download VSCO to get dreamy filters that are perfect for social media.

Before editing
Before editing
After editing
After editing

Clean your lens

Your phone is always in your hand collecting fingerprints, in your pocket picking up fluff, or out in the open collecting dust. This can produce blurry photographs or unusual spots.

Before taking a shot, make sure there’s nothing on your lens. Clean it carefully with something soft like a glasses cloth to remove any residue. The last thing you want is to get the chance to take an epic shot of Angkor Wat, just to find out later your fingerprints are all over it.

Practice, practice, practice

At the end of the day, the way to achieve the best phone photography is to simply get out into the world and start shooting. You can never get enough practice. With time and experience, you’ll soon start taking photos that you’ll be proud to show off to your friends and family.

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