When people find out what I do for a living, they almost always ask me what kind of camera I use and/or if I can recommend the best one for travel photography. Usually my response goes along with an adage that I wholeheartedly agree with, which is “The best camera is the one in your hand.” For me, the answer really is that simple. Unless I’m traveling with the intent to create content to sell, or I'm on a paid work assignment, typically all I bring with me is my trusty iPhone. I always take my phone with me anyway, and I'm all about traveling light.
Next comes the common follow-up question, “Will a smartphone take good enough photos?” While there’s no arguing that a smartphone’s image quality can be inferior to a full size DSLR or even a point-and-shoot camera, there is something to be said about the portability and convenience of using a device that you already have on you. Unless you still own a RAZR flip phone, your smartphone should be just fine. My current iPhone has more than enough megapixels, and I have taken some pretty great photos with it.
With a little user training, your iPhone or smartphone can take great quality photos for printing and sharing. In fact, in order to prove that point all of the images accompanying this article were shot on my iPhone.
Once you decide that you’re down to take my advice and choose to use your smartphone on a trip, here are 12 tips that will help make sure you have a great photographic experience and come out with the most compelling and interesting photographs possible.
Beat the Crowds
Taking a snapshot is easy, but taking a great photograph takes some work. Make the effort to get up early. If it’s a popular or tourist attraction, try to show up long before all the crowds and tour buses arrive. Capturing a photograph of an empty St. Peters Square at the Vatican, or of the Piazza San Marco in Venice, can be a very special and rewarding thing. Since you’re up early, you’ll then also be able to make use of that soft morning light to create magical results in your photos. Light is that element that can take a shot from mediocre to something beyond awesome. Photographer David Young said, “It is the photographing of ordinary things, in extraordinary light, which results in extraordinary photographs.” Or as Ted Grant put it, "To learn the magic of light, get up before sunrise...and watch." If early mornings aren’t quite your thing, you can also aim to be in the position to capture photographs during the ‘golden hour.’ Typically, this time runs 30 or so minutes before sunset to 30 minutes post sunset.
Tell a Story
When taking photos during your trip don’t forget to not only capture the overall scene, but also the details. Do this by combining wide shots with close ups. When you get home and share your photos you’ll be able to show much more about the place you visited. If you decide to create an album of your trip you’ll have lots of interesting images to fill the pages that provide context of what you saw. The power of storytelling can’t be overstated. Also, don’t forget to mix things up when taking ‘people pictures.’ Don't just take selfies or posed group shots - try to capture candid shots; genuine reactions and expressions often make for the best photos of people.
Don't Miss Out On Moments
When I work with clients on photography tours I emphasize the importance of not only capturing good photographs, but also to not lose out on the moment. It’s so easy to have a laser-like focus on the technical aspect of camera settings, composition, and framing that you completely miss out on what is going on around you. Make the effort to put your camera down sometimes. Enjoy the moment without constantly viewing it through a camera lens.
When taking your photos, pay attention to how things are framed. You may find that taking a step to the left or the right eliminates something distracting in the background, or removes a tree or telephone pole sticking through someone’s head. Also, by placing your subject in one of the ‘thirds’ (check out the grid feature on your iPhone) you can create a much stronger photo. Look for leading lines, or elements in the photo such as a walkway or road, that can lead the viewer’s eye to your main focal point.
A little bit of editing can really take a photo to that next level. If you’re using a smartphone, my favorite apps to edit photos are VSCO and Snapseed. Small adjustments such as boosting the contrast or playing with color tones can go a long way.
One of my favorite things to do when visiting a new city is to set aside time to get lost. I’ll leave my hotel and just walk. Don’t worry about where you are going or planning your route to see the most touristy attractions along the way. I find that just wandering without a pre-determined destination sometimes allows me to see parts of a city I wouldn’t typically see as a tourist. You’ll see locals in their neighborhoods, living out their normal lives, which make awesome photos if you have asked permission first!
If you’re traveling in a foreign country, always remember that you are a guest. Customs and traditions may be different from your own. If you want to take photos of locals, especially in exotic places, it’s easy to sometimes forget that these are real people with feelings and emotions not too different from yourself. How would you like to have a tour bus of foreigners drive through your neighborhood snapping photos of you as you walk to grab the mail with unkempt hair and wearing yoga pants or gym shorts? Try and avoid taking photos of someone that could potentially embarrass them. If you’re visiting a third world country and come across locals bathing, washing, etc., in a river, it’s probably best not to pull out your camera and grab a shot.
While it may seem like snapping a quick photo is a pretty casual interaction, think about the long term. Don't be the typical loud and obnoxious American tourist. Try and leave a good impression, and try to make someone smile. Show the back of your camera to the person you’re taking a photo of. Point at it and smile. Take a selfie with them; make funny faces. The impact of smiling at a stranger can go much further than you might think. You might end up making friends with this person... they may show you their home, or suggest interesting places to visit that might be off the beaten path or not listed in a guidebook.
If you want to take a photograph of someone you see out on the street, try and say hello first. Don’t just walk up to someone and stick a camera in their face without asking permission. Not being able to speak the local language really isn’t an excuse. While planning your trip it is useful to learn common phrases. It’s as easy as installing a translation app on your phone. If you show up unprepared or if you’re as bad at foreign languages as I am, the universal hand signal of taking a photo with an imaginary camera in your hands is pretty well understood worldwide.
If you’re in a situation where asking permission to take someone’s photo isn’t realistic, then at least try to be discreet about it. Shoot from the hip, or pretend to be taking a selfie. You can even position a friend in front of you to act as if you’re taking their photo instead (you can crop your friend out later)!
It’s easy to go on a trip and take away memories and photos. But consider leaving something behind for those you’ve met. Try to connect with locals online. Social media has become a huge tool that makes the world a much, much smaller place. Ask to exchange Instagram or Facebook usernames, and then when you get home or back on wifi send over that photo you took of them. If you’re able to get their mailing address, consider sending a physical printed photo to them once you get home. When I travel I try to always carry a Polaroid instant camera. It’s a great way to make friends and give someone a thank you gift for allowing you to photograph them.
Print Your Images
While social media and iPhones are great ways to share images, there is nothing quite like holding in your hand a printed photo that you took, or looking up and seeing your enlarged image hanging on the wall. Consider creating a coffee table book or album to share your experience. Like I said before, don’t worry about quality. I blew up an iPhone photo to 60 inches wide and have it hanging in my loft. The worst thing you can do with your photos is leave them in a folder on your computer or phone.
So instead of buying a brand new camera, save your money and use it toward a once-in-a-lifetime experience or excursion. Put your smartphone in your pocket and just go.