21 Tips for Stunning Travel Photography on a Smartphone

Capturing stunning travel photography on your smartphone isn’t as hard as people seem to think it is. Did you know that mobile photography while traveling is much easier than lugging around a traditional camera? Actually, it’s not even close.

For example, on a road trip last year, my buddy – the DSLR dude – took forever to get his gear ready when it was time to shoot. I, on the other hand, was prepared to shoot at all times thanks to the best smartphone accessories and these travel photography tips. In addition to the efficiency of smartphone photography over DSLR, I also noticed that he would lag behind on longer hikes because of his massive camera bag. I, again, just had my smartphone, a phone tripod, and a few lenses. It was pretty easy for me to steal his beer.

smartphone travel photography
PX Here

Seriously, if you’re willing to become a diehard mobile travel photographer, then we’re ready to bet your vacations improve exponentially. Chances are, your new and improved work even competes with what you were doing on your DSLR or mirrorless. If you’re doing travel photography, then chances are you’re on vacation. Enjoy the holiday, save yourself some time, and do travel mobile photography instead.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #1 – Always have your smartphone camera ready

tips for smartphone travel photography
Joe Monk (@jmmobiphoto) – Denver, Colorado. Graffiti and other city life are great to shoot when you’re inspired, but sometimes you aren’t inspired enough to have all your gear with you. You may not go out with your DSLR planning to shoot graffiti, but you almost certainly have your cell phone in your pocket when you walk past something inspiring. Use it – the camera on your smartphone is legit!

50% of photography is skill; the other 50% is luck. If luck presents itself, then your preparation is key. Lucky for you, your smartphone is likely always in your pocket.

The need to be ready when the moment strikes is especially true when you’re in nature. Wildlife doesn’t sit still for pretty pictures, so have your cell phone out, turned on, and ready to snap. That’s one of the reasons smartphone cameras are superior to traditional cameras – they’re always prepared.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #2 – Keep moving

If you’re going to do travel photography, you need to travel. Stay in a place only as long as you need to in order to capture the region’s essence. Make the most of your travels by being in new areas as frequently as possible.

Remember, you’re not trying to document a location. You just need a snapshot. Travel photography is about variety, not necessarily depth.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #3 – Travel light

smartphone travel photography gear
Joe Monk (@jmmobiphoto) –  My smartphone travel photography gear setup when I travel – large backpack with laptop holder and room for a smartphone tripod (skateboard backpacks surprisingly work great), Moment Wide 18mm, Moment Macro 10x, Lumina re-usable bowl, Yeti, Macbook Pro, Fotopro phone tripod, and an Amazon lens kit.

You don’t have to be a backpacker to be a travel photographer (though that’s an excellent experience). You don’t need to be able to climb mountains with 40 lbs on your back.

Don’t lug around a bunch of gear. Don’t carry around a bunch of non-photography gear either. Everything you need should fit in a day-pack or regular backpack. Look for some equipment made of carbon fiber or other light materials to keep the weight manageable.

Smartphones beat traditional cameras in weight every time.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #4 – Take original mobile photos

Also known as “take the path less traveled”, this is all about staying off the beaten path. The world doesn’t need another picture of a person holding up the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Besides, once you get away from the classic photo spots that everyone uses, you can find some incredible opportunities. You have room to be creative, try new things, and develop your style. Try to find a shot no one has ever taken before. That’s how you make a name (and memories).

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #5 – Exotic doesn’t have to mean far away

If you’re taking macro photos of leaves or other nature-y stuff, no one can tell if you’re in Louisiana or Cambodia.

Travel can mean 20 minutes to a nearby forest, a few hours to a national park, or across the world. Practice techniques of travel photography nearby before you make that long, expensive trip abroad.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #6 – Immerse yourself in the culture

Once you do go abroad, remember that you’re an outsider – until you ingratiate yourself! Meet the locals, eat their food, take part in their recreation.

If you want to find unique photo ops, this is how you do it. Not as a tourist with a selfie-stick, but by living the life of the locals. You can’t know what travel photos you should be taking until you have a better understanding of the place and the people.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #7 – Get to know your subject before taking the shot

Learning your subject is not just a courtesy – it’s the best way to capture context.

Anyone can take a picture of an orphan at a bus stop in the rain. Tear-jerking, sure. But how do you even know that kid is an orphan? Maybe they’re waiting for their dad to get back from work?

You need to ask permission anyway. So, find out your subject’s story while you’re at it. Once you know the truth, you’ll be able to capture a photo with a more accurate context (and they’ll appreciate you taking the time).

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #8 – The early bird gets the worm

Smartphone travel photography
Joe Monk (jmmobiphoto) – St. Andrews, Scotland. So, this photo was taken on a seriously old iPhone in 2013 and obviously isn’t going to win any sort of smartphone photography awards. But what you don’t see in this picture is the story behind it. My dad and I had been waiting at the first tee of the Old Course hoping to play since 1:45 am and this was the scene at about 4:30 am as the groundskeeper made their way out onto the course. To be able to capture such a historic place at such an everyday time under such beautiful lighting conditions was sublime. See, it proves that the early bird does, in fact, get the worm.

You’ve heard it before, but I’ll say it again – mornings offer the best light for most travel photos (especially for landscape photography). Do be wary though that zooming when shooting is a no-no. If you must zoom, it’s best to do it in post-production as a digital zoom. More of the integrity of the image is preserved this way.

A lot of travel photography takes place on vacation. And, while it might not be very relaxing to wake up at 5:30, it is in your best interest. That warm light enables some of the crispest images you’ll get.

Besides, the glory of golden hour is a feeling worth waking up for.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #9 – Know your equipment before you go

You need to practice with your gear before you jet off to some obscure corner of the world. The top of the Himalayas is not the place to be fiddling with that new lens.

Save yourself time and frustration by working out the kinks while you’re still at home. You need to know the capacity of your equipment – what it excels at and things you should avoid.

Here are some recommended phone photography peripherals.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #10 – Learn post-processing basics

photo editing apps

Anyone who thinks they’re going to be an au naturale photographer and go far is kidding themselves. All professional photographers use Photoshop (or something similar) to some degree. Here are 37 photo editing options to choose from, so choose one and use it.

To bring your photography to the next level, you’ll need to learn the basics. Even just learning something as simple as adjusting contrast can make a huge difference.

Good mobile photos are taken, great photos are made.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #11 – Don’t use Auto mode

Hopefully, if you’re at the point where you want to do travel photography, you’re not still using the Auto setting on your mobile phone camera.

Honestly, I’m not sure why they include it on high-end cameras. Using manual affords you much more customization, which is ultimately how you get the best picture. Learn about shutter speeds, aperture, and the like if you want to get serious.

Our disdain for auto-mode goes for both traditional cameras and smartphones. No matter how right your iPhone auto setting is, you could do better with manual mode.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #12 – Do use the Rule of Thirds

Rule of Thirds
Photography Life

While this is an elementary concept for photography, it bears repeating. When you find something fascinating, which often happens while traveling, you’ll be tempted just to point and click.

Take another second, though, and set up the photo. Don’t put the subject in the center. That causes the viewer of your picture only to see the subject. Put it on one of the imaginary “thirds” lines, so that your viewer’s eye is drawn to the rest of the photo as well.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #13 – Get in your own photos!

It’s easy to forget (or omit if you’re camera shy). You’re traveling! Get proof that these pictures are you and not stolen from Google images.

Travel photography is the best kind of photography because you’re exploring while you’re practicing your art. It’s an adventure. Make memories. Take pictures of yourself so that you can recall those memories even better.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #14 – Get lost

photographing vacation on smartphone
Joe Monk (@jmmobiphoto) – Aviemore, Scotland. So this hike was supposed to stop at the end of the trail, but we kept going. We got a little lost and missed our dinner reservation, but the views of the region to the south of Inverness was worth it. Just further proof that in order to succeed at smartphone travel photography one needs to be willing to wander.

Getting lost is similar to the tip about getting off the beaten path, but there’s a different goal.

This one is about getting out of your comfort zone. Test yourself and your photography by throwing yourself into an unfamiliar situation.

You will survive. You’ll grow, too. And if you’re lucky, you’ll find some awesome never before seen shots – as well as a fresh perspective.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #15 – Don’t forget extra batteries (and memory)

memory card smartphone

Since we’re talking phones here, this means you should bring an external battery pack to recharge. If you’re shooting in raw (which you totally should for post-processing purposes), you’ll likely need an extra micro-SD card or two.

Sorry Apple users.

If your phone dies, though, you’re forced to experience the trip yourself (rather than behind a lens). Hint, that’s a positive. On the other hand, you’ll inevitably find incredible vistas and once-in-a-lifetime shots if your camera is dead (or the memory is full).

Do yourself a favor and buy some extra memory and a battery pack now.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #16 – The best camera is the one you have with you

You don’t have to go buy a brand new DSLR for $3,000. These days, most high-end smartphones are perfectly acceptable for use in serious travel photography.

Grab some phone accessories like a decent travel tripod and a lens pack, and you’ll rid yourself of camera shake. Consider a remote camera shutter, too. Those things are unbelievably useful (and pretty inexpensive also).

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #17 – Have flexible equipment

travel Smartphone Camera tripod

You could take this literally and get a flexible mini tripod, or understand that I simply mean, to bring generalist equipment.

If you took every camera, lens, and tripod, you might need for a given picture, you’ll collapse before you can find the shot! Limit yourself to one good camera, one or two all-purpose lenses, and maybe a tripod. Remember, travel light.

Besides, challenging yourself to create a great picture without optimal equipment can help you develop your skill (and even some new techniques!).

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #18 – Find lines, angles, and symmetry

While these kinds of things are common in our built environment, they’re much rarer in nature.

Finding and exploiting such phenomena will make for incredible photographs. Humans unconsciously look for patterns, so if you supply them in a unique setting, your travel photo will certainly turn heads.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #19 – Keep it simple

tips for taking travel pics on smartphone
Joe Monk (@jmmobiphoto) – This shot was taken in Luray Caverns – some of the most breathtaking underground caverns in the world. Obviously the photo is pretty bland in comparison to what’s going on in the cavern, but I thought it was worth capturing because it looked like the stone was water. Is this shot a ‘winner?’ No. But, in a series of photos about my trip to Luray Caverns, is it relevant? Absolutely.

Being in a new place can be overwhelming. When you’re excited about something, it can be tempting to try to record everything all at once.

We can’t comprehend all that much simultaneously, though. Instead of taking a panorama of a busy market street, try focusing on one facet at a time. Take a picture of the fruit stand. Catch that cute kid. Get a close up of the donkey. Find something textured and focus on that.

Getting each part individually allows for easier and better mobile photos. View them all later for a more comprehensive picture than you would have gotten with that wide-angle lens.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #22 – Keep Learning and Improving

Maybe this goes without saying, but no one is ever done learning. Even National Geographic photographers have room to grow. If you want to improve right now, then consider checking out:

When you’re out doing travel photography, you are in a unique position where you can create new situations, create new challenges, and create new opportunities. When you’re learning is the time to try something new and fail spectacularly – you still improve as a result.

Travel Mobile Photography Tip #21 – Don’t forget to put down the camera sometimes

mobile travel photography
Joe Monk (@jmmobiphoto) – You’re meant to enjoy your vacation, so enjoy it! Some of my favorite memories of trips happened when I was just relaxing – whether sipping beer in Berlin, munching on donner in Turkey, or listening to live music in Scotland. Capture the moment yes, but do it efficiently so you can soak it in.

Remember that ultimately travel photography isn’t about your portfolio or your Instagram. It’s about having new experiences. It’s about making stories you can tell your kids about one day.

Don’t spend your whole trip behind the lens. Your pictures should remind you of the time you had – not be the only evidence of your travels. So, enjoy that classic Parisian sandwich and sip on that Thai Bubble Tea, but have fun while you’re out there!

Do you have any travel tips we didn’t get to? Share them in the comments below!

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