How to take great travel photos with your phone


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Do you hesitate to call yourself a photographer because you don’t own a DSLR or mirrorless camera? Don’t. A good photographer isn’t defined by their piece of equipment but instead by their perspective. Different people may visit the same destination, but some will take better photos than others.

So, what do we mean when we say better? We are defining “good” or “better” photos as images that evoke a feeling. They may not be technically sound (depth of field, anyone?), but they narrate a story and have an ability to transport you either into the subject’s shoes or to the specific moment in the photo. They make you want to linger. “A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away,” as writer Eudora Welty said.While every day presents us with moments to pause, traveling often inspires us to pull out our cameras and record our experiences. If you find yourself browsing through other people’s travel photos, thinking yours could never look so good, think again! Our guide to phone photography will give you tips on how to take good travel photos.

Travel photos
Maxim Medvedev / Unsplash

1. Avoid Templates

This is step number one to taking photos you’ll love to browse and share, photos that will help others see a destination from a different perspective. Many of us go on a vacation and hesitate to do anything that isn’t a part of the plan. Change that! While having a broad plan on the things you can do in a place is always good, sticking too close to that plan is a sure way to miss out on experiences that stories (and photos) are made of.

Ditch the Uber and take the bus. Turn off Google Maps and allow yourself to get a little lost. Forget Yelp and walk into a restaurant. You may not get to your intended destination, and the food may not be what you expect, but you are sure to witness scenes, meet people and have new experiences.

Woman in nature mountains
Max Ilienerwise / Unsplash

2. Be Open to Experiences

Whether you enjoy landscape photography, food photography or taking portraits of people you meet, any time you point your camera at a subject, you are inviting them to open themselves to you. If you don’t in return open yourself to them, the photos you take will lack feeling. They will be just like anyone else’s. The type of camera you use has very little to do with the kind of photos you will get. It is your openness to experiences, your comfort with vulnerability that will lead you to a good photo.

Phone cameras may not allow you to get technically as creative as a DSLR or mirrorless camera, but their small size is perfect for travel. In addition to being easy to carry, they are also less intrusive. If your subjects are people, it’s also easier for them to get comfortable with a phone camera.

Travel photos
Jesswin Thomas / Unsplash

3. Pay Attention to the Time of the Day

If you are even minutely interested in photography, you may have heard of the golden hour. Witnessed just before sunrise or sunset, this is one of the best times to take photos. When you combine “magic hour” with your ability to minutely observe and soak your environment, you can get some exceptional photos. One of the biggest joys of photography is the chance to bump into scenes and shots, but if you are truly committed to taking swoon-worthy photos of your travels, consider using apps such as Magic Hour that can calculate the exact time golden hour will strike on any day.

Light is the single most important element of your photographs. While a bigger, manual camera gives you more freedom to light up your shots in an effective way, phone cameras can come very close. Google Pixel’s night light mode, for example, does a great job of lighting up night shots without making them too bright. Even if you don’t have the latest phone with the most upgraded camera, don’t worry. Use your immediate surroundings as ways to play with light.

Use buildings or trees as shields against the glaring light of the sun at midday. Make use of the languid afternoon shadows.

Deers in nature
John Royle / Unsplash

4. Pay Attention to Light & Shade in Nature

The time of the day is important not only for the light in your photographs, but also if you want to capture some unusual scenes in a city or in the wilderness. When you are out hiking, waking up early is the best way to increase chances of spotting wildlife. Herds of deer grazing with their young, a lone moose bellowing smoke as it breathes from its mouth, a wild hare hopping across a desert: You are more likely to witness and record these scenes early in the morning.

City at night
Alexander Schimmeck / Unsplash

5. Take City Photos in the Morning & at Night

If you are vacationing in or around a city, early mornings and late nights are the perfect time to take some unusual photos. The view of majestic buildings and maze-like markets is going to be extremely different from what you may witness in the afternoons or evenings when most people are out and about.

If you photograph people early in the morning or late at night, you are likely to capture them at their simplest, most uninhibited moments. Similarly, these times of the day are perfect to capture a landscape or cityscape in its rawness.

Tourist destination travel photos
Steffen B. / Unsplash

6. Research Your Destinations

When we say learn about your destination before you begin your travels, we don’t mean simply reading up a few articles on the “top things to do” there or bookmarking your favorite travel influencer’s posts. We mean that before you hop on the plane, you should take the time to learn about the culture and history of the place you are visiting.

Use this as a north star when you are taking travel photographs. Researching your destinations in advance helps you add context to your frames and, most importantly, guides you on how to go about taking photos in a different country or state. For example, if you plan to travel through Native American lands, you should know that there are certain sites and structures that are sacred to indigenous people. Stepping on or over these in an attempt to get a good photo isn’t a good idea at all. You could, of course, get into trouble, but more importantly, this will go against the ethics of travel photography.

Stylish senior woman
Dinesh Kag / Unsplash

7. Get Permission from Your Subjects

Similarly, when you travel to certain countries, you may be dazzled by the everyday fashion you see on the streets. However, before pulling out our cameras and setting up our frames, it is important to seek permission from our subjects.

Our research should also have shown us how to take these photographs. Many cultures are gregarious, and people in these cultures may not mind if you get physically close to them while taking a photo, while other cultures hold on to their personal space. If you make your subject feel uncomfortable in any way, the discomfort is going to reflect in the photos.

Researching your destinations also helps you plan your frames in advance. Find out the architectural details of heritage buildings or the energy of an open-air market. You’ll be able to truly see a place from different angles when you research it in advance.

Sunset over a lake
Vasundhara Mohan

8. Have the Right Mindset

Travel photos are a source of personal comfort and inspiration, but they are also a great way to document our ever-changing world. When you invest time and effort into your travel photos, you add to an evolving archive of places, culture, and environment. So, on your next vacation, remember, it is not the camera but the subject and viewer who are making the photograph.

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