Camera Phone Tips For Travellers

As Chase Jarvis, one of modern photography’s superstars says, “The best camera is the one you have with you.” For most of us, the one camera we always have quick access to is the one on our phones.

Back when smart phones were introduced, the accompanying camera was pretty much an afterthought and really not much more than a gimmick. But with the explosion in technology, smartphone cameras are finally starting to be looked at much more seriously, with even some photographic stock libraries opening up new sections to accept camera phone images.

For travellers, this is great news. While phones still can’t match a dedicated digital camera in many areas (most significantly when shooting in low light) they have advantages all their own, the most obvious being that it’s always with you.

Couple that with the speed and ease with which you can upload your shots to social media, with the all important geo-tagging that tells your jealous audience exactly where you are and they’re not, it adds up to one all encompassing, pocket sized bragging right.

So, for those days when you can’t face hauling your digital camera around, here are some tips on getting the most from your camera phone.

The Same Rules Apply

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Photography is, always has been, and always will be about the light. Whether you’re shooting on your phone or a £30K Hasselblad, if the light’s not working for you, your images will struggle. You might have heard of ‘The Golden Hour’, that period shortly after sunrise or before sunset when daylight is at its most magical. Sacrificing a couple of hours sleep (or partying) to be out shooting during the golden hour rewards the effort. A landscape you didn’t look at twice at midday is often transformed at the start or end of the day.

That’s not to say you can’t shoot at any other time, just be aware of the light.

If it’s too harsh, your camera phone sensor won’t be able to record the same level of detail that your eyes can. Digital sensors have always struggled with the really bright parts, or ‘highlights’, in a scene. So if you shoot, say, a landscape at midday, the very bright sky is likely going to come out as an ugly white stripe at the top of your shot.

If you’re shooting portraits in harsh light, try persuading your subject to move into a more shaded area, or you’ll risk losing detail. If you’re indoors, using the softened light coming through a window works really well.

The Flash That Isn’t

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One area where camera phones have really been left behind is the flash. The two main problems with it are its position (right next to the lens, literally the worst place it could be) and the fact that it isn’t really a flash at all. It’s a torch. Both these factors add up to some really gruesome images. Harsh, cold lighting that can turn even the most beautiful subject into a horror show.

If at all possible, avoid using the flash for shooting portraits. Try and find some available light, either by moving yourself or your subject.

Move Your A**!

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Another true great from way back in the day, Robert Capa, uttered the best advice I ever read as a photographer. “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Moving closer towards your subject (within reason of course, especially if you’re on safari. Although Capa shot the D-Day landings, so…) can turn an average shot into a good one and a good shot into an absolute belter. Try and make sure that the subject of your photo isn’t being distracted from by any other element in the shot.

Don’t be lazy about it! Yes, I know your phone camera has digital zoom. No, you’re not allowed to use it! All you’re doing is enlarging the middle portion of the image-along with the pixels-and lowering the resolution of the whole thing. Looks bad. Avoid.

Also, don’t be afraid to get down and dirty in your quest for that winning image. Finding an unusual angle to shoot from can really enhance your photography.

So, get yourself face down in the dirt and shoot, or find an elevated point and try from there. You’ll be amazed at just how different your shots can look from the run-of-the-mill snaps if you’re willing to put in a little extra legwork.

A Bit Of Extra Help

At the last count, there were just over 75 gajillion apps available for your phone, and a healthy proportion of those were created to enhance your photography. Here’s just a quick look at some personal favourites.

645 Pro. (£2.49)

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Although aimed very much at the professional and serious amateur market, this very impressive app has been so well designed that anyone with even the most passing interest in photography can benefit from its huge range of features. Its user interface looks exactly like the back of a high-end compact camera, and includes a handy guide to each of its functions. Like a good digital camera, you can choose to point and shoot in fully automatic mode, or explore your more creative side and take complete manual control over exposure, metering and focus. And a feature I particularly like; trying out a range of different film effects, both black and white and colour.

Camera Awesome (IOS-Free. Android £1.87)

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This is a good all-rounder, aimed more at enthusiasts than serious photographers. It has some nifty features, including an artificial horizon to make sure your shots are perfectly level, composition aids and a handy burst mode of 9 frames per second. You have the ability to adjust many of the controls manually too, and there are more than 100 creative effects to try out, including ‘Awesomize’, a one-click image correction feature with slider control to adjust the overall strength. There’s one feature you won’t find even on most dedicated cameras-the ability to set the metering and focus points separately without having to recompose.

Photoshop Touch (£2.99)

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Trying to condense a great galumphing behemoth of a program like Photoshop into a phone app was always going to be a challenge for the boys at Adobe, but by and large, they’ve had a great stab at it. It’s not the most intuitive thing in the world, and having some experience with the full fat, desktop version is a definite advantage when trying to work out which icon you need. Most of the functions that make Photoshop the industry standard are included somewhere and perseverance should yield great results.

Snapseed (Free)

© Andy Callan

This is a great little app for editing in a hurry. Very easy to use and has some surprisingly powerful features to play around with, including HDR (High Dynamic Range) which will let you draw out details in your shot you may have thought were lost, (although it can look pretty naff if you overdo it!). Lovely, simple interface and great fun to try out all the effects. Best of all, it’s free. So there’s really no excuse not to try it and turn your shots into mini works of art.

So, those are some very basic tips and suggestions on using smartphone cameras. And they apply really to any photography, as when you get right down to it, cameras are all just boxes with lenses on the front. The subject, the light and where you stand (or crouch, or kneel, or lie down) in relation to it, are always going to be more important than what you use to shoot it.

Have fun, go shoot and good luck!

Andy Callan is a UK-based freelance copywriter and photographer. You can find out more about his work by visiting


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