It happens to even the best of travelers — you stumble upon a perfectly picturesque moment, reach into your bag...and realize that you forgot to pack your camera. Or a memorable moment arises and you’re still fumbling with the lens cap so you miss the perfect shot.
One simple way to avoid these fails? Ditch the fancy camera and reach for your iPhone instead. These days, smartphone cameras are remarkably advanced, allowing you to easily take professional-level shots. You just need to know what questions to ask.
For instance, what should you look for in a good shot? Once you’ve taken the photo, how do you edit on the go? And how can you make sure that when you share the photo, all of your friends see what a good time you’re having?
Don’t stress! We’ve compiled 12 tips to help you make the most of your mobile phone’s camera — and earn some serious Instagram cred.
Find a Focal Point
When taking a photo it can be difficult to find your focus — so always make a conscious decision about your subject before you snap your pic.
Even if there’s a lot going on in the background, you should be able to choose a defined focal point. This can be something that stands out from a landscape, or even a single, eye-catching item that’s part of a larger group.
Imagine, for instance, that you’re photographing a sprawling coastline. You would want to choose something like a lighthouse, floating buoy or even a brightly colored beach umbrella as your focus. Regardless of what you choose, make sure you intentionally decide where to draw the viewer’s eye.
Avoid Zooming In
Using your cellphone’s zoom feature may seem like a great hack, but in the end all you’re likely doing is hurting your image quality. Instead, try to zoom with your feet. That’s right — literally move closer to the thing you’re trying to photograph. In most cases, you’ll want to get closer than you think you need to be to capture the perfect shot.
Obviously there will be times when you aren’t able to physically move closer to your subject. In these cases, consider playing around with the setup of your shot. Is there another way you can frame the photo?
If not, you can also help remedy the problem of a blurry photo by capturing your image without zooming in and cropping it afterwards. This gives you more pixels to play with and helps maintain your image quality.
Follow the Rule of Thirds
If you’re struggling to find a focal point and can’t seem to compose a shot, the rule of thirds will be your new best friend. Simply stated, the rule of thirds refers to where the subject falls in the frame of your photo.
Imagine that your photo has been divided into a grid made of three rows and three columns, creating nine equal parts. When you take a photo, try to place your focal point on one of the four cross-sections of the horizontal and vertical lines. This will make your image more focused and draw in your viewer’s eye.
You can even turn on your phone’s camera grid so literal guidelines are there to help you compose a shot. On an iPhone, simply go to Settings, select Camera and toggle on the Grid slider.
Look for Your Light
On average, your cellphone’s flash reaches less than three feet in front of you. This means that, in most cases, you’re likely not illuminating much of your subject or doing that much to improve your photo. Plus, no one looks their best with the harsh light of your phone’s flash in their face.
Instead, look for your light, whether it’s coming from a natural source or an artificial one. Remember, there are ways to get around using your flash if you’re creative enough. Especially if you’re shooting somewhere dark, it’s likely you’ll need an external light source. Try looking for ambient light sources like candles or flashlights.
Alternatively, try bouncing light from another source onto your subject. You can easily do this by pointing a light source at a white piece of paper or shiny surface, then directing that toward your subject to reflect extra, less harsh light.
Adopt a Stable Stance
Even though you’re snapping a photo on your phone, you still want to take your stance seriously. While it may seem silly, taking a moment to set your stance before snapping a photo will help you compose your shot and lead to fewer edits later on.
To stabilize yourself, place your feet shoulder-width apart and bring your elbows to your sides. This will help ground you and cut down on the potential for a blurry photo. When shooting video on your phone, consider finding something you can use as a brace. For example, you can lean your elbows on a table while you shoot to transform yourself into a makeshift tripod. You’ll reduce the shaking in your shot and your footage will instantly look more professional.
Know Your Phone’s Features
Even if you’re an avid iPhone user, there may still be features that you aren’t taking advantage of when it comes to your phone’s camera. Take a few extra minutes to dive deep into your phone’s settings and step up your phone game.
One incredibly powerful feature is HDR, or High Dynamic Range. This setting allows you to take high-quality photos from a distance by enhancing the detail and quality your phone captures. To turn on HDR, simply click on the HDR icon in the top left of your camera screen.
You can also manually control your camera’s exposure to ensure the best shot. Simply hold your finger down on the camera screen and when a yellow square with a sun icon appears, swipe down. You will then be able to adjust the exposure of your photo using a slider to the right of the icon.
There’s nothing worse than pulling out your phone to capture a picture-perfect moment, only to discover your phone’s storage is full. Before embarking on an adventure, make sure that your tech is in tip-top shape. Run any of the pesky software updates you’ve been avoiding to ensure things run smoothly on your trip, and backup old images to make sure you have plenty of room for new memories.
Don’t forget to clean your camera lens every once and awhile too. It may seem simple, but even though your phone’s camera lens is small, it can still collect a serious amount of dirt and grime. Keep it clean to ensure you don’t end up with mysterious specks in your shot.
Perfect Your Selfie Pose
In order to take a terrific travel selfie, you need to perfect your pose. Despite public perception, when snapping a selfie it’s best to avoid unnatural angles and duck faces. Instead you should hold your phone directly in front of you and angle it slightly downward. Pay attention to your light sources and move if necessary to avoid harsh shadows that may skew your selfie.
To take a more attractive selfie, be sure to look up toward the camera while elongating your neck. Also remember to face the camera at a slight angle instead of head on — cellphone cameras can sometimes distort your features at close proximity.
Get Creative with Your Backdrops
Even though you’ve perfected your selfie pose, you don’t want to take the exact same photo at location after location. Instead, get creative with your choice of backdrops and angles. Keep an eye out for colorful street art, unique architectural features and scenic views — these all make for interesting selfie settings. If you’re traveling with someone, have them take your photo in different settings instead of always relying on a quickly snapped selfie.
Even if you’re traveling solo you can still switch up your backdrops. Use your phone’s timer setting to capture staged photos farther than arm’s length. You might even consider investing in a bluetooth remote or small flexible tripod like a GorillaPod to help you stage the perfect photo.
Shoot Outside of Instagram
It can be tempting to open Instagram and use the in-app camera feature to quickly capture an image to add to your grid. But when you don’t use your phone’s native camera app, you’re setting yourself up for a sub-par shot. Not only do you lose some image quality, but there aren’t as many ways to control how you capture an image in third-party apps.
Your best bet is to focus on capturing and editing your photos first, before you upload them to social media platforms. In fact, even though your iPhone allows you to shoot in Instagram’s square shape, you may not want to do so. By shooting horizontal photos instead, you create more opportunities to crop and create different images through framing.
Don’t Be Afraid to Edit
Just because you’re shooting on your cell doesn’t mean that you can’t do some quick editing to give your photos an extra punch. There are countless mobile apps that allow for edits of all sorts, but over the years a few have proven their staying power, both for their affordability and ease of use.
Adobe Photoshop Express is a free mobile version of one of Adobe Creative Suite’s most powerful products. Correct color, create collages and add text to your images with this powerful, easy-to-use app. Another popular app is VSCO, a free application that allows users to capture images, manipulate them, and share the finished product to an in-app community feed.
Harness the Power of Hashtags
What good is it if you take a stunning shot but no one sees it? If you’re sharing your travel photos on platforms like Instagram, play upon the power of hashtags to make sure your hard work is seen by more people.
Currently Instagram allows its users to include up to 30 hashtags on each post. This may sound like a lot, but hashtags can be one of the most effective ways to broaden your social media reach. Consider using hashtags that are both general and specific to the photo you’re posting. For example, some general travel hashtags, along with hashtags relating to the specific destination you’re visiting, will help adventure seekers and fellow tourists alike find your post.