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Phone Photography 101: Take better travel photos with your smartphone

LET’S FACE IT: Phone photography (or PhoneTography as they love to call it) have become not only increasingly popular, but smart phones have become technologically advanced and powerful that they could sometimes compete with entry-level dSLR’s or mirror-less cameras. Sure, smart phone cameras are still no match to the potential and capabilities of SLR’s and mirror-less cameras, with their interchangeable lenses and special features, and you might even say that those gizmos are still worth the buck especially when it comes to capturing uber-precious moments. But for those who are neither professional photographers nor budget-capable travelers, smart phones will do just fine and can even sometimes do the job better.

We have indeed come a loooooong long way from the days when our phones have crappy 3.5MP rear cameras and it is such a wonderful time to be alive. With a full armada of smart phones available in the market and each new release getting better than the last, one will definitely never run out of choices. However, let us be honest: it is not the phones that are taking the photos. It is the person tapping the digital shutter button. So regardless what brand or model or how high-tech your smart phone (or dSLR or mirror-less for that matter) is, if you don’t know how to take photos and use these gadgets properly, your photos will still end up crappy.

So with this I present to you my GUIDE to taking better photos with your smart phone. Take note of the ALL CAPS. I intend this to be a guide and not a rule book of sort. Feel free to find your way around until you perfect your craft. Okay? Okay! Also, this guide is intended mainly for travel PhoneTography as I feel that, aside from the unending barrage of selfies and food photos, smart phones are more commonly used for such.

Alright, let’s begin.

#1. Level the horizon

The most common mistake I see from people posting their travel photos and photos of beaches is that the horizon is not leveled out. The ocean/sea is meant to be shown flat. Straight. Not tilted. Period. There’s no arguing about that. You might miss this out when taking a photo of your significant other or your friend/s with the beach in the background but this isn’t something you can’t easily fix using your favorite photo-editing mobile app.

Hyams Beach, NSW. Lenovo S650
Hyams Beach, NSW/ Lenovo S650

So the next time you shoot the beach or the beach as the background, make sure to level it out.

#2. Shoot wide

The goal of taking photos is to tell and show the world where we are, what we see in front of us, and make them feel, in one way or another, how it felt to be there. When shooting travel photos, try to take as much of what you see in front of you in one photo. Panoramas are okay but try not to overdo it. Don’t be afraid to step back a little and make your subject (your friend or you) smaller. Don’t worry, you can still tag them on Facebook or Instagram so people would know that it’s them.

Morrisette, NSW/ Asus ZenFone 3
Morrisette, NSW/ Asus ZenFone 3
Sydney Harbour/ Asus ZenFone 3
Sydney Harbour/ Asus ZenFone 3

#3. Always have a foreground and a background

This one is pretty basic for photography and you don’t need a high-tech gadget to apply this. Imagine for example you’re at the foot of Mt. Mayon. Don’t just shoot the iconic volcano as it is. Look for a subject that you can use as a foreground. This may be a fellow backpacker sitting in one corner of your frame, enjoying the view, or a farmer toiling the farm land with his carabao, or a puddle reflecting the sky and the clouds. It could be anything. The thing is, it’s really up to you and your imagination. Be creative.

South Coast, NSW/ Asus ZenFone 3
South Coast, NSW/ Asus ZenFone 3
St. Mary's Cathedral, Sydney/ Asus ZenFone 3
St. Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney/ Asus ZenFone 3

Take this photo for example. I was in Hyde Park in Sydney one Sunday afternoon and decided to walk towards St. Mary’s Cathedral to take a picture of it. I arrived in front of the cathedral and for a few minutes, enjoyed its beauty. After a while, I looked around to look for a subject which I can use as a foreground and have the cathedral as a background. Sure, shooting the cathedral’s facade on its own is beautiful, but having the flowers on the foreground made more impact.

Don’t have a foreground? Create one!

Newport Beach, Avalon, NSW/ Asus ZenFone 3
Newport Beach, Avalon, NSW/ Asus ZenFone 3

#4. Go minimalist

“Less is more.” This one is pretty hard to pull off, especially considering that most of us travelers would want to take as many photos of as many things as we can see, and that’s okay. But minimalism, when done right, creates more interest. Take these photos below as examples.

Sailing in Sydney Harbour/ Asus ZenFone 3
Sailing in Sydney Harbour/ Asus ZenFone 3
Light at the end of the tunnel/ Asus ZenFone 3, edited in SnapSeed
Light at the end of the tunnel/ Asus ZenFone 3, edited in SnapSeed

#5. Shooting a jump shot? Go down. Waaaaaay down.

Jump shots are one of the very common shots that never gets old. I know you’ve done a couple of times, either as the one taking the photo or the one jumping. Sometimes they come out really cool and sometimes, they’re okay. So to make it almost always look really cool, you only have to do one simple thing: go down, waaaay down. Like almost-on-the-ground down.

When you take a photo of your brother
When you take a photo of your brother
When your brother takes a photo of you
When your brother takes a photo of you

Shooting from the ground level creates the illusion that they jumped high and it’ll turn out pretty cool. And of course, don’t forget the timing of your shot. But then again, timing is a bitch, which leads me to my next point…

#6. Pre-focus

When doing high-speed action photography (like jump shots), the best thing to do make sure you don’t miss the shot is to pre-focus. In dSLR’s and mirror-less cameras, this is done by half-pressing the shutter button. In phone photography, this is done by tapping on the screen where you want the camera to focus. Pretty simple, right? Right. But most people tend to forget this especially when they’re excited. This is also helpful when doing close-up shots like macro or tight portraits. Sure, your phone’s camera is smart enough to figure out the closest object and to focus on that but this sometimes takes a milli of a second. And unfortunately, that’s also the only time you need to miss your shot.

Bonus points

If your phone’s camera application is smart enough to have a manual mode, use it. Although all of the photos in this post are taken on AUTO mode, sometimes it’s best to use the manual mode, especially if and when you know what you’re doing. Your camera application might also have other features and modes, it’s best to try those out and experiment as well.

Epilogue

Mobile photography is no different than casual or regular photography using dSLR’s and mirror-less cameras. The concepts are the same, the principles are the same, and most often than not, the procedure is the same. The only difference is basically the medium used to take the photo. If you have the time and money to learn digital photography and pursue a path to dSLR’s and mirror-less, then good for you. However, if you’re short of budget or it isn’t that much of a deal for you, then mobile photography is for you and I hope this guide helps you to achieve better quality photos for your travels.

* Banner photo: Sunrise in Newport Beach, Avalon, NSW (Asus ZenFone 3)

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