How To Get Amazing Smartphone Travel Photos
It’s no secret to anyone who knows me that I love taking photos. As a kid I went through probably hundreds of disposable cameras and Polaroid packs, and I eventually abandoned engineering school for an art degree. The past few years I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to travel quite a bit, and I always go into my trips with the very best of photographic intentions. Unfortunately, it didn’t take much time to discover that I hate lugging around heavy cameras and lenses, and didn’t take nearly as many photos as I wanted to. If I have to make a choice between enjoying my trip or taking awesome pictures, having fun wins every time!
Needless to say, I think smartphone cameras are one of the greatest inventions of all time. I rarely print my photos anymore, so a bag full of camera gear sort of feels like overkill. My past couple trips I left my ‘real’ cameras at home as an experiment in packing light. Just as I hoped, I ended up with more photos than ever! Going from a dedicated, full manual control camera to a smartphone can be a bit tricky, so I put together a few things I’ve learned about squeezing the best travel photos out of your phone camera.
Choose your phone wisely
Most new smartphones take pretty decent photos, but when my last iPhone was dying a slow death, a great mobile camera was at the top of my priority list when I was looking for a replacement. I settled on the Google Pixel 2 after seeing the images a friend took with it, and I’m in love! I’m not the only one either – Joseph and another one of our friends got the Pixel 2 XL, and there’s a whole Pixelography subreddit dedicated to Pixel phone photography.
Clean your lens
Number one tip! Unlike detachable camera lenses that are carefully tucked away when you’re not using them, the lens for your phone camera is out and about getting smudged with all sorts of stuff. Nothing ruins a great shot like a fingerprint right over the whole image. Give it a quick wipe with a microfiber cloth (or your shirt, if we’re being totally honest with ourselves here) to make sure it’s crystal clear.
Take advantage of software
One of the perks with smartphone cameras is all the cool features built right in! A couple quick taps can combine exposures to automatically create HDR photos, or give you a perfectly blurred background for portraits. I know some purists aren’t fans of those kinds of things, but I’m all about whatever will get the best shot. (I will say I avoid beauty mode/face retouching, especially when I’m taking photos of a makeup look.)
Use attachment lenses
My only real complaint with smartphone cameras has been the lack of flexibility in focal length. For years I’ve been wanting a phone camera with true optical zoom, but I realize that’s a huge challenge (or maybe impossible?) with the size & weight you’ve got to work with on a phone. Fortunately I’m not the only one who wants that, and now you can get attachment lenses that give you more options to be creative. Beware though: they’re definitely not all created equal. I tried several budget lenses that just had really poor image quality. While I was searching for options that would make my photos actually look better instead of worse I discovered Sirui, and they were kind enough to send me a set of their lenses to try out. I took them with me to Paris and London, and they were exactly what I needed! The telephoto lens came in really handy when we were at the football match and taking photos from the top of Tour Montparnasse, and the wide angle lens helped get sweeping views of the city. I didn’t use the fisheye quite as much, but it did make for some creative, more artsy perspectives when I did.
I got quite a few questions on these when I posted them in my instagram stories, so I put together a quick album showing the different fields of view. I also included a few samples I took with various budget lenses for comparison.
To answer some of the most frequently asked questions:
- How is the quality? – These use high quality optical glass (not plastic), so the images look just as good as the ones taken with the camera by itself. The wide angle has just a tiny bit of softness at the corners, but it’s only noticeable if you’re looking for it (and the same is true of a lot of my Nikon lenses).
- How does it attach? – You twist the lenses on to an adapter, which clips on over the phone’s camera lens. Unlike some of the cheaper adapters I tried, this one has a no-slip backing that won’t scratch up your phone and keeps it from sliding around.
- Is there any vignetting? – When the adapter is used without a case, there’s none at all. Per the product info and the person I spoke with, cases more than 2mm thick can cause vignetting (dark corners) since it increases the distance between the camera lens and the attachment lens.
- Does it work on any phone? – In theory, I don’t see why not. They make cases or snap on adapters for a few different versions of Samsung and iPhones, but I’ve only personally used the lenses on the Pixel 2 and Pixel 2 XL.
- Are they worth the price? – That’s a question I’m usually hesitant to answer because it’s really subjective, but I would say yes! At $70 each they’re not exactly cheap, but you get what you pay for (as I learned after ordering & returning several other ones from amazon). If you’re considering all three lenses, the 3 lens kit ($189.99) will save you some money and also has a carrying case that’s really handy.
Steady your camera
A lot of newer phones have image stabilization built in to avoid that low light/shaky hands blur, but keeping your camera steady can still make a huge difference in the photo quality. A small tabletop tripod is great if you’ve got a purse big enough for it. If not, just bracing your elbows on a table or wall will help reduce camera shake.
Use the volume button as a shutter
Did you know most smartphones have a feature that will let you use the volume buttons as a shutter button inside the camera app? That came in so handy for me, especially when I had the picture framed just right, or when I was shooting one-handed. It’s worthwhile to look up features specific to your phone/operating system, too. For example, I discovered by accident that if you hold down the shutter on mine (either on screen or volume button) it will go into burst mode – wish I had known that sooner for action shots!
Again, I know some people consider any kind of digital editing to be ‘cheating’ but I’m here to tell you – if that’s true, then every photographer in history is a cheater! I couldn’t begin to count the number of hours I’ve spent in darkrooms adjusting contrast, color, combining exposures, etc. It’s just that now it’s way faster, and I don’t have to experiment on paper that costs $2 a sheet. Bonus points for my shoes not smelling like darkroom chemicals anymore. Thank goodness for technology, right?
There are too many photo editing apps out there to count, but my hands-down favorite is Snapseed. It has built-in filters, or you can manually tweak just about any setting you want. My favorite tool is the selective brush – it lets you select a specific color (white, for example) and change the brightness, saturation or contrast on it with just a couple clicks. It also has an eyedropper white balance tool which is a life saver for places with weird lighting.
Back up your photos
One final perk to using your smartphone as your main travel camera – photo backups! If you’ve ever lost an entire SD card you know what I mean. A big selling point on my phone was unlimited Google Photo storage for the first couple years, but you can also set photos to automatically back up via iCloud, Dropbox, and all sorts of other cloud storage. Just be sure to set it to back up over wifi only if you don’t have a ton of mobile data to burn!
Are you a phone-only kind of travel photographer, or do you take the whole kit along with you? What are some of your favorite tips to get the best travel photos?