Smartphone cameras have come a long way since their inception, and these days, in the right hands, can produce professional quality images. There are Smartphone travel photography competitions, and entire photo books have been published using only camera phones. Many photographers carry them as a very lightweight backup. While the phone will never replace pro equipment, it can be nice sometimes to leave your heavy gear in the hotel while you go to dinner or are otherwise not “on the job”. As photographers we can feel “naked” going out without our camera, afraid we might miss a great photo op and end up kicking ourselves. The Smartphone can definitely mitigate that feeling and come to the rescue on those occasions when you spot something you really want to capture.
Of course your camera phone won’t have all the features of your big dollar mirrorless or DSLR, but it’s still a powerful little tool. It’s light, quiet, and full of artistic possibilities. Here’s several ideas on how you can make the most of Smartphone travel photography.
1. Look for Interesting People in Crowded Places
Railway Market, Yangon, Myanmar. Photo: A.P. Soe
Smartphone photography comes with many interesting advantages. If you mute your phone, you can take photos of people more confidently. A professional camera tends to stand out much more than a simple phone. (Bonus points if you have a very simple phone case!). Using your phone can give you lots of opportunities to take candid pictures of locals without being noticed.
Some of the best photos of people are spontaneous. Keep this in mind as you look for interesting strangers to photograph. Look for genuine reactions within scenes. Keep your distance so that nobody notices you or feels uncomfortable in your presence. You can use a zoom lens for smartphone photography. I’m sure you’re aware that smartphone zoom lenses look like strange little telescopes, but they can help you take intimate photos without getting close to your subject.
If you want to photograph people up close, a smartphone camera is the way to go. People tend to feel less intimidated in the presence of a phone, and normally ev3en know you’re taking a photo of them. Professional cameras, on the other hand, everybody sees! This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can be intimidating to some and does make candid image making more difficult.
2. Embrace the Vibrance of Street Photography
Callejon de los Sapos, Mexico
Street photography is all about capturing movements, routines, and cultures in action. Keep an eye out for graffitied walls, traditional stores and workshops, colors and patterns. Take the images without people if you choose, and/or stake out the scene and wait for interesting people to enter your frame. What is unique about the country and its people? Tell a story about that. Using a phone in the street, nobody will take much notice of you.
3. Look for Details That Go Unnoticed
Many wide-eyed travelers pay attention to anything and everything obvious. But what about the seemingly insignificant things? If you look closely, you’re likely to find a lot of hidden gems in places that visitors (and even locals!) ignore.
Try going out of your way to embrace those things. Make some time for a meditative experience out in nature. Since your phone is lighter than your regular camera gear, you can go hiking without lugging it around. Make a point of going to locations that wouldn’t be as appealing to you if you were carrying a heavy or obvious camera.
Keeping an eye out for details is likely to make you more appreciative of your travel experiences. Take your time. You’ll have more opportunities to bond with people and locations that may not be as popular as some tourist destinations. If something goes wrong and you get bounced or a scene is created, at least you’ll have an amusing story to tell. It’s a win-win, nothing ventured nothing gained. But again, with a phone, (or a Luminous Journeys trip leader!), this is much less likely to happen.
4. Smartphone Travel Photography “Selfies” without Showing Your Face
Selfies can be very fun, especially if they include extravagant backgrounds. All you need to do is stretch out your arms to keep everything in the frame. It’s not that easy to achieve the same look with professional cameras. If your professional camera has a cropped sensor, or if you don’t use a wide-angle lens, your “selfies” might end up looking distorted or blurred. The solution is to use a tripod and a self-timer, but that can take time and be inconvenient.
So how do you make your selfies look flattering and unique? Pay attention to backgrounds and foregrounds. Make sure the light hits both you and the background evenly. If you shoot against a source of light and focus on yourself, you’ll get an overexposed selfie. The more even the light, the more flattering your composition will look.
Make sure to take it further by not showing your face in each selfie. A selfie doesn’t always have to include your face. It can be your feet standing in front of an interesting monument. It can be your finger pointing to a famous building in the distance. This is very easy to do with a phone. These seemingly insignificant snapshots can turn into valuable memories that will remind you of special atmospheres, smells, and emotions for years to come.
5. Avoid These Things When Creating Individual Portraits
Photos of people and portraits are very different things. When you take a portrait, you usually have to approach your subject. They have to be aware of your intentions. This can be daunting, especially when you’re in a foreign country. However, remember that most people are okay with being photographed. If you approach them confidently and with kindness, they’re likely to feel comfortable in your presence.
When you take photos of one person, consistency is key. Take as many photos as possible so that you have many options to choose from. Avoid using flash unless you are aiming for that look, or it’s absolutely necessary. Avoid the zoom feature, but don’t get too close to your model. Digital zoom compromises the quality of smartphone pictures. If you get too close, your model’s face will look distorted. Worst of all, your model won’t appreciate that their personal space was invaded.
Keep a comfortable distance between yourself and your model. If there is too much space around them, you can crop your final results. Use the same lighting rules for selfies in portrait photography. The more even the light, the better.
6. Look for a Story When You Photograph Landscapes
The same landscape can be photographed in many different ways. Some of the most striking landscape photos tell a story. You can achieve this by picking out a subject to set against the landscape. It can be a statue, a lone figure, a tree, an animal, a train, etc. Including a figure in your foreground will add depth to your photographs and improve the way you look at compositions.
Make sure you turn on grid display. If you’re rushing to take a great smartphone picture during a tour, a grid display will help you avoid crooked horizons. It might seem like a tool for beginners, but it can be a fantastic guide for experienced travel photographer as well.
Landscape photography has many different elements to it. Even when the light is perfect, you’ll have areas that are too bright or too dark. To avoid this, you can shoot in HDR mode. Make sure you exposure your photographs manually. If this option isn’t available in your camera phone, download a manual camera app. You’ll get access to many features that are readily available in professional cameras. If you want to photograph wider landscapes, you can use a stitching app like Panorama 360.
7. Use Diptychs to Tell Two Stories at Once
Diptych Images: A.P. Soe, Myanmar
A diptych is a collage made of two photos. You can easily create diptychs using any collage app. Diptych photos are usually vertical, but they can be horizontal. You can also do triptychs or polyptychs. They’re usually made to tell a story, emphasize funny differences, compare/contrast, whatever you are trying to say. Many photographers use their travel photography outtakes to create bigger and better compositions through diptychs, etc.
Embracing travel photography using your phone can be an opportunity to explore more places and enrich your travel experience. Many famous travel photographers use their smartphone cameras as often as their professional ones. If you need inspiration, check out Kevin Russ and Debbie Fortes. These people have mastered the art of smartphone photography using simple but effective techniques. If you want to take it further, consider taking some iPhone photography classes.
Taya Iv is a photographer, writer, and avid bookworm. She specialises in portrait photography but thoroughly enjoys learning about other genres. In her free time she writes music and spends time out in nature.