The sophisticated cameras in our smartphones are changing the nature of travel photography: taking pictures has never been so quick or so easy, and sharing them on the fly is now the norm.
Yet the simplicity of snapping on a mobile can come at the cost of quality; lacklustre holiday shots slip across our screens with increasing regularity. It doesn’t have to be this way, though – follow our tried-and-tested tips and your mobile travel photography will leave them scrolling for more, not to mention garner a lot more ‘likes’.
Handwoven tapestries hanging over the rail of a Sacred Valley mountain overlook is a simple but striking way to frame Peru's Andean Peaks using the rule of thirds © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Cultivate good habits
Search for the shot
Arriving in a new destination can be a sensory overload, but it’s also a great opportunity to find subjects for standout images. Pay attention to the details as you’re going through the typical motions of travel and you’ll soon spot unique moments worth shooting.
Snaps of must-see sights are fine, but richer viewpoints abound. Develop a ‘photographic eye’ to see past the predictable selfie-or-it-didn’t-happen shots; look around for striking juxtapositions, unique shapes, vibrant colours, stunning silhouettes or unexpected reflections in a body of water. Get high, get low, get creative; move your body to search for fresh angles.
Vibrant colours, stark shadows and rich textures make portraits pop in Peru's Lamay district © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Capture a sense of place
Great travel images often document a destination’s culture in a compelling way – and smartphone cameras, which are always to hand, ready to shoot in seconds and above all inconspicuous, make the job of catching a candid moment of local life a lot easier.
Take time to observe the behaviour of people around you; weigh up whether there’s potential for a telling shot. Never overstep the mark, though: if they notice your presence, ask for permission before continuing to hit the shutter button. No means no in any language or culture, so respect requests for privacy and be prepared to move along.
The architecture of Jesuit missionary-built churches on Chile's quiet Chiloé Island is striking in its own right, but something as simple as a bird flying into the frame adds movement to an otherwise static scene and helps establish a sense of place © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Stay in the moment
Sometimes, the best photo opps appear when we aren’t searching for them. Maintaining a keen eye is important, but don’t look so intently for a potential image that you disengage from the present altogether; it’s great to have a series of photos to recall your trip, but accept that some scenes just can’t be captured in that way. Know when to simply soak up what’s happening around you. The perfect moment might present itself when you least expect it.
New York City's Flatiron Building is one of Manhattan's iconic and often-photographed structures; capturing a different side of it in 'golden hour' light brings out its photo-worthy intricacies © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Time to get technical
Learn about light
Smartphone cameras restrict the ability to adjust aperture, shutter speed and other settings, as you might do on a conventional camera. But knowing how to ‘read’ the available light is still a key skill.
First, observe the light with your eyes alone, then look again through the smartphone’s display; pay attention to how it can affect shadows, direct attention and, in particular, shift colours (in addition, the colours we see with the naked eye rarely appear the same on a display).
Light determines the quality, mood and richness of colour. At noon, you’ll experience stark but neutral light with sharper shadows as the sun reaches its zenith; the hours after sunrise and before sunset, known as the ‘golden hour’, make colours warm, rich and soft, transforming even the most mundane scene into something ethereal.
Shooting indoors can be tricky due to a lack of light, the shifty incandescence of filament bulbs, or even worse, the blue-green cast of fluorescents. But even the colour shifts of artificial light have the potential to create atmosphere and convey a specific mood, so take that into consideration and make it work in your favour – the results just may surprise you.
When capturing indoor activities, such as a cooking lesson in Chile's Lake District, opt for HDR over flash for a softer exposure to bring out close-up details © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Flash v HDR in low-light conditions
In-camera flash on smartphones has the potential to wash out a subject, hamper focus (which should be tack-sharp, unless you’re aiming for a soft-focus effect), and cause the dreaded red eye. Try utilising the HDR function over flash – it captures a series of shots at different exposures and layers them into one photo with a more balanced light and detail.
If you must use artificial light in a dark setting, get help from a friend. Ask them to point their smartphone flashlight (or a proper flashlight, if available) at the subject. For an even cleaner, softer look, unfold a white paper napkin – separate it into a single ply if needed – and ask your new assistant to shine the flashlight through the material to create an impromptu photography studio.
The grand architectural details of Quito's historic Casa Gangotena hotel are a visual feast. A look up the spiral staircase from the ground floor shows a skylight in the left third of the frame - the eyes are led to this focal point by the organic path of the banister © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Using the display as a viewfinder
Seeing the potential in a scene or subject is just the start – translating that potential into a compelling composition within the bounds of your smartphone’s display (the equivalent of a conventional camera’s viewfinder) is what creates interest, guides the eye and conveys the message.
The ‘rule of thirds’ is the first thing photographers learn when it comes to composition: imagine lines dividing the frame into three equal parts – vertically and horizontally – to create a grid of nine segments. Now place the focal point of the image in a position where the lines intersect, away from the centre of the frame, for a more balanced composition.
When capturing food close-ups, sometimes less is more; cropping and colour create visual harmony over a bowl of soup in Ecuador's Cotopaxi National Park © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
It’s hip to be square
Once you know the rule, it’s fine to break it. Instagram has re-popularised square dimensions reminiscent of old Polaroid and 120 mm medium format camera film – in this aspect ratio, placing a subject in the centre can produce a pleasing effect. The rule of thirds is still useful vertically when capturing a horizon line, defining the fore-, middle- and background, or establishing an image’s depth of field.
In-camera, manipulating depth of field – the distance between the nearest and farthest points in a composition that are in sharp focus – is still limited on most smartphone cameras. But it’s just a matter of time before that changes... until then, there are filters for that.
The distinctive structures of Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, such as São Paulo's Auditório Ibirapuera, are famed for their modern aesthetic. Simplicity and symmetry – plus the silhouette of a friend – guide the eye in this shot © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Sharing your shots on social media
Where to share?
So, you’ve captured the shot and tweaked it in camera or using your favourite editing app. What’s the best strategy for sharing it? Consider which platform(s) you’d like to post to, and whether it’s better to post a single snap or a curated set of images that, together, convey a feeling, tell a story or present a theme meaningful to you and the audience.
Different tactics apply to different platforms, but as a general rule, don’t overshare; no matter how great your images may be, they’ll be ignored if you bombard your followers. Timing, sequencing and linking are the keys to driving good engagement.
More than 55 varieties of corn grow in Peru – the colours, shapes and textures found in these few showcase the country's agricultural diversity © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
The nuances of cross-posting
On Instagram, limit your posts to three or four a day and spread them out over several hours if possible; blasting off one photo after another can turn people off, as they’ll see nothing but your posts as they swipe down their screens.
Linking Instagram to other social media accounts makes it simple to share across platforms, but give thought to how each image will appear in another app’s interface. Twitter’s character limit could cut off a caption, for example, and the image itself won’t come through in the tweet. If you want the photo to show up, it’s better to compose the tweet directly in the app. Doing it this way also enables you to add more images to run together, so the presentation in your followers’ feeds will look much more cohesive.
A direct share to Facebook will surface the image as it originally appeared on Instagram and won’t clip the caption, but this has the potential to overwhelm your followers’ feeds in much the same way as Instagram. It’s suitable for one-offs, but if you intend to share a collection of shots on Facebook, consider a single post of multiple photos, or creating a specific album you can add to later.
As a rule, be choosy about what appears where: if you’ve got the same followers on different platforms, posting the same image everywhere might feel redundant. If you must reuse content, space it out over a couple of days, or better yet, select an image that’s similar but different enough to offer a fresh perspective.
Get on a different level (or storey) to capture a different perspective of major must-sees; this 2-for-1 features New York City's Washington Square Arch in the foreground and the Empire State Building further afield © MaSovaida Morgan / Lonely Planet
Prepare to engage
Tell a story or share facts through your captions – it’s a great way to get a conversation started. Don’t be afraid to engage in the conversation and use direct mentions in the comments – your followers will appreciate the interaction, even if it’s a shout-out, a ‘thank you’, or a well-considered emoji.
Using hashtags may help you gain even more traction on any platform, but be conscious of your privacy settings, as they’ll only be discoverable by followers who have access to your content.