23 Ways to Take Better Vacation Pictures With Your Cell Phone

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Closeup of smart phone taking picture of mountains and lake
Photo credit: franckreporter/istockphoto

BETTER PIX -- IN A FLASH

There was a time when you could spot tourists by the cameras dangling around their necks. But thanks to smartphones, nearly all travelers now carry high-quality, reliable cameras right in their pockets. With a few tricks, tips and add-ons, however, you can step up your game and catalog your next vacation with cellphone pictures that look like they were shot through a high-end lens.
Action shot caught dog running with stick in his mouth
Photo credit: Tomas Maracek/istockphoto

USE BURST MODE FOR ACTION SHOTS

The default setting on smartphone cameras doesn't make it easy to shoot "in action," according to Alexander Waltner, professional landscape photographer, travel blogger, and author of SwedishNomad.com.

"With burst-mode, however, your smartphone takes multiple photos per second," Waltner says. "This increases the chance that some of the pictures will turn out good if the subject moves."

Closeup of smartphone camera lens
Photo credit: Onfokus/istockphoto

KEEP THE LENS CLEAN

One of the easiest ways to get better photos is also one of the easiest things to neglect -- maintaining a smudge- and dirt-free lens.

"Most smartphones do not have a built-in lens cover, which makes it quite easy for dirt and grease to end up on the glass when the phone is in your pocket or purse," Waltner explains. "If the lens isn't clean, it can cause blurry images or spots in the photo, so make sure to always carry a microfiber cleaning cloth."

Using smartphone focus features to take picture of skyline
Photo credit: FilippoBacci/istockphoto

TAP FOR BETTER LIGHTING AND FOCUS

Most new phones have built-in autofocus, which is usually activated by tapping on the subject of the picture, according to Waltner -- but the benefits of a single tap don't end there.

"On many smartphones, this also makes the image slightly lighter or darker because it corrects the exposure at the same time," he says. "So don't forget to use this feature as it will improve your photos and make them sharper. If you forget, your subject may be underexposed or even worse, be out of focus."

Woman standing on cliff taking photo of city below at sunset or sunrise
Photo credit: RossHelen/istockphoto

REMEMBER THAT (DAY)TIMING IS EVERYTHING

When photographing outside, the sun's position in the sky has a big say in how your photos will turn out, according to Carina Otero, the force behind the travel website She is Not Lost and curator of Instagram's @sheisnotlost, a photography community for female travelers.

"The sun is usually very harsh during midday," Otero says. "So try taking your photos early in the morning or in the evening." She also points out that by rising early, you're also likely to beat the crowds and avoid lingering tourists in the background of your photos.

Smartphone photo of a colorful building
Photo credit: RossHelen/istockphoto

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

Tourists tend to focus on natural beauty, but some of the best vacation pictures come from man-made places where people gather.

"A lot of vacation destinations will have colorful markets that make for great photo backdrops," Otero says. "Be sure to ask permission of the shop or stand owner, or even better, buy something from them. You will feel more welcome and at ease, and the photo can be a nice memento of the place where you purchased your souvenir."

Woman taking selfie on the beach
Photo credit: william87/istockphoto

RESIST THE URGE TO STRIKE A POSE

Unless you're working with professional models, posed pictures can look forced and unnatural. Instead of -- or at least in addition to -- posed shots, snap a few pics of people acting naturally in the moment.

"Candid photos are great for capturing the great time you had while on vacation," Otero says. "For those who hate posing for the camera, candid shots are also more comfortable and natural."

Woman wearing cultural garb in Brazil posing for photo
Photo credit: filipefrazao/istockphoto

CONSIDER -- AND BE CONSIDERATE OF -- LOCAL CULTURE

One of the great things about travel is being exposed to different people with different customs. But ignorance of local etiquette can lead to unwanted culture clashes.

"If you take photos of local people, always ask for permission," Otero says. "In some cultures, it may be rude to take photos. It is always appreciated if you at least ask."

Woman taking photo of the beach shore
Photo credit: boschettophotography/istockphoto

LET THE BACKGROUND BE THE SUBJECT

When you're on the road, it's natural to want to capture yourself and your travel companions along the way. But remember that what's special about vacation photographs is the scenery where the vacation takes place.

"Frame your photos so you can capture the background and show the destination," Otero says. "Sometimes I will see someone upload a photo captioned 'beautiful view at the Eiffel Tower' to social media, only to see a selfie that could have been taken anywhere."

Woman taking picture of historical building on a cloudy day
Photo credit: aja84/istockphoto

FORGO THE FLASH

Your phone's flash only illuminates a few feet in front of your camera -- and rarely looks good, according to RaShea Drake, a photographer who works in Verizon's Content Creation department.

"Try not to use it when you can avoid it," Drake says. "The shadows are harsh and ugly." Instead, Drake suggests using another cell phone flashlight to illuminate the subject and your phone to take the picture. "It takes some finagling, but it totally works with selfies," she said.

Woman taking selfie in front of window
Photo credit: portishead1/istockphoto

USE DOORS AND WINDOWS AS POWERFUL PHOTOGRAPHIC TOOLS

No matter where you travel, you're bound to encounter entranceways and windows that offer the perfect opportunity to snap a frameable vacation keeper.

"For portraits, selfies or otherwise, being near the opening of a door or window will give you great portrait lighting every time," Drake says. "This also works with parking garages or any place where the lights drops off immediately. Step just inside the shade and enjoy that natural beauty lighting."

Photo with VSCO filter
Photo credit: #Vsco by ROBERTO CARLOS PECINO MARTINEZ (CC BY-NC-ND)

UPGRADE YOUR PHONE'S FILTERS WITH VSCO

Most smartphones come not only with good cameras, but with a small selection of filters that can improve photos -- but better options are just a few clicks away.

"VSCO is a fantastic filter app," Drake says. "The filters are less gimmicky and more useful for vacations. It's also got a simple layout so it's easy to use. They also make filter sets for pros to use with Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, so they know what they're doing."

Morning sun and mist on the lake
Photo credit: Morning sun and mist on the lake by MomentsForZen (CC BY-NC-ND)

USE THE HDR APP VIVIDHDR FOR IPHONES

Ben North, who has shot for visitor bureaus, hotels and other travel clients during his 16 years as a professional commercial photographer, recommends using HDR apps. Unlike DSLR cameras, the small sensors in smartphone cameras aren't good at capturing data in both shadows and highlights.

"An HDR app takes one picture for the light regions of the photo and another one for the dark regions and automatically combines them," North says. "I have tested over a dozen HDR apps and vividHDR is by far my favorite due to it's simple interface and great results. Unfortunately, vividHDR is only available for iPhones."

Creekside waterfall in an autumn forest photo
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FOR ANDROID, USE THE PRO HDR APP

Android users, don't panic -- you've got good HDR options, too. "There is an app called Pro HDR that works on both iOS and Android platforms that works well," North says.

North reminds novice photographers that HDR apps are not cure-alls or jacks-of-all-vacation-photo-trades. "HDR apps are great for landscapes and cityscapes," he said. "But they are not ideal for photographing action or portraits."

Sunset in a field
Photo credit: South Dakota Sunset by Thomas (CC BY-SA)

COME AT SUNSETS FROM BOTH VANTAGE POINTS

Your chase for the perfect sunset picture can finally end if you follow a few simple rules. First, North recommends waiting until the sun dips below the horizon to start shooting. But it's the next step that might mean the difference between a throwaway pic and an Instagram sensation.

"After you shoot the sunset, turn your phone in the opposite direction to capture the landscape or cityscape in the soft, warm light the low-hanging sun provides," North says. "Often, this shot will be better than the actual sunset shot because the dynamic range will be easier for your smartphone to contain than the contrasty sunset photo."

Photo of man standing on a bridge using Snapseed app
Photo credit: An Altered Perspective by Jeffrey (CC BY-ND)

MAKE GOOD PHOTOS EVEN BETTER WITH SNAPSEED

What you do after you shoot matters, so don't rely on the limited functionality of your phone's native editing program. North recommends using Google-owned Snapseed, which is free.

"This is a pretty powerful photo editing app that offers many filter options and contains some great features like selective focus, color adjustment, cropping and even a healing brush," he says. "Snapseed will allow you greatly improve your vacation photos -- and it is a fun way to pass the time on the return flight home."

Taking smart phone pictures of food in a restaurant
Photo credit: Alexandra Iakovleva/istockphoto

TURN ON THE GRID FUNCTION

Julie Diebolt Price, who teaches photography in Orange County, California, and who has worked professionally for 30 years, also swears by Snapseed, which she says can "take your ordinary images to extraordinary." But she also recommends utilizing one of your phone's built-in functions.

"If you haven't already, turn on the grid, which looks like a tic-tac-toe on your screen," Diebolt Price says. "This grid assists you with the 'rule of thirds.' Place your subject where the lines intersect or in one of the squares that are NOT in the center. This creates a stronger picture."

Young woman taking smart phone photo of the Eiffel tower
Photo credit: anyaberkut/istockphoto

SCOUT THE LOCATION

Diebolt Price also reminds her students about the benefits of doing homework -- not just in the classroom, but out in the field.

"When arriving at a location, take the time to scout the area and determine the composition of all the images you want to capture," she says. "Take the time to really 'see' the area and be creative. This is the planning phase and is time well spent."

Young boys playing in the ocean, smiling at the camera
Photo credit: Imgorthand/istockphoto

GO BEYOND SAYING 'CHEESE'

Peggy Farren, who runs Understand Photography, the largest photography training center in Southwest Florida, wants vacationers to act like they're on vacation when it's time for the big photo.

"Instead of shooting your family standing blandly in front of a monument, have them doing something," Farren says. "A picture of your kids looking at each other laughing will be a more interesting photograph and give you a warm memory of the day. Toast to the camera with your drinks, jump up and down -- do anything but just stand there." Family photos can be improved in a number of other ways, too.

Photo of feet dangling off a dock and reflection in the lake
Photo credit: TommL/istockphoto

MAKE EVERY DAY SPECIAL WITH PHOTOGRAPHIC THEMES

When you assign each day of the vacation a photographic theme or special photographic technique, you not only make your scrapbook more interesting, but you give yourself a mental landmark to remember each day.

"Themes could be people, architecture, doors, nature, fun, or history," Farren says. "Techniques could be extreme closeups, reflections, or different perspectives like shooting from below, above, or tilting the camera."

Older woman sitting on the beach at dusk
Photo credit: jacoblund/istockphoto

USE YOUR FLASH STRATEGICALLY

Most photographers agree that the artificial light a cell phone flash throws at a subject is harsh and unforgiving -- but the creative ones know when to put the feature to good use.

"For sunset or sunrise photographs of people on the beach, use your flash," Farren says. "Otherwise, your people will be dark like a silhouette."

Silhouettes of two runners on the beach
Photo credit: anyaberkut/istockphoto

SILHOUETTES: GO FOR THE GHOST

In the era of high-pixel-count smartphone cameras, it's natural to go for the big high-def shot where every string and drop of dew is vibrant and colorful -- but don't forget the power of ghostly outlines in silhouette photography.

"Shoot a silhouette at dusk for a dramatic picture of a special place," Farren said. "Bridges, buildings, piers, birds, and people all make wonderful silhouettes."

Panoramic photo of senior couple sitting on a bench in a garden
Photo credit: RelaxFoto.de/istockphoto

GO LONG AND SKINNY

One of the coolest features on most smartphones is the panoramic setting, which is actually a series of images stitched together to create the illusion of a wide-angle shot.

"Panoramas are fun and really easy," Farren says. "Both Android and iPhones, as well as many of the newer point-and-shoot cameras, have apps where you can take a pano shot right in the camera."

Man standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon
Photo credit: Nikolas_jkd/istockphoto

DON'T VIEW YOUR ENTIRE VACATION THROUGH A 3-INCH SCREEN

Keepsake pictures are no doubt an important part of vacation, but not at the expense of the experience. Remember, you're on vacation -- you have the rest of your life to stare into a smartphone.

"Don't take so many photographs that you forget to live in the moment," Farren said. "Five to 10 photographs of each spot should be enough to tell the story. Do an overall wide shot or two, then close-up detail pictures and photos of your travel companions."

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