How to Take Great Travel Photos With Your iPhone

I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to do when I’m traveling is carrying around a heavy, impractical DSLR camera. Sure, the pictures may look great, but if you spend all your free time dealing with the settings of your digital camera, the chance are you’re not going to enjoy your holiday very much.

clouds in the mountains

This is where the iPhone camera comes in. It’s portable, convenient, and the chances are that you’re going to be carrying your phone around with you during your travels. Your iPhone can really be your best travel camera if you know how to use it right.

In this article you’re going to learn how to get the most out of your iPhone photography while traveling. You’re going to learn how to create photos that tell a story, impress your friends, and create lasting memories for years to come. Let’s get started!

Capture The Character Of The Place

One of the main reasons why we like to travel to new places is to enjoy the unique character of these places. Wouldn’t it be great if we could easily recall the unique feelings and vibe associated with a place when we look back at our travel photos or share them with our friends and family?

The problem is that most travel photos do not convey the unique character of a place, because they don’t include the unique character-defining details or subjects. It is the unusual details that define the character of a place, so make sure you capture them in your photos.

Recently I had a chance to visit Venice Beach in Los Angeles. If you’ve heard about this place before, you probably know that it has a hippie counterculture vibe. Indeed, walking on the boardwalk you can get the impression that you’re back in the 60s. There are a lot of relaxed bars, you see a lot of hippies, and it smells like weed pretty much everywhere.

Now, how do you create a photographic memory out of all this? Here’s what I came up with.

Hippie on Venice Beach

Except for the couple of more recent cars in the background, this photo could have been taken 40 years ago. While the vintage look and feel was added in post-processing using Snapseed, the actual contents of this photo are far more important.

First, there’s an old hippie who’s literally dancing on the street. You can even see the movement of his hands. How often do you see that happening? Then there’s the hippie bus and palm trees in the background, which add to the 1960s beach feel of the photo. And finally, there are drinks in the foreground, which further add to the relaxed feel of the place.

To be honest with you, I was very lucky with this photo. I was just sitting at my table when I decided to take a photo of the dancing old man. The hippie bus, palm tress and the drinks just happened to be there, and I managed to capture the old man’s swinging arms so  that they perfectly fit in with the rest of the scene. In fact, I took seven similar photos and this one was the best of them.

It may not always be possible to get everything just right, but always try to focus on the details and subjects that define the character of the place you’re visiting. If that’s not possible, you can also focus on how you feel at the particular moment. Once again, the best way to convey this is to capture the unique details that relate to your current experience.

Let’s look at another example. Soon after arriving in San Diego, I found myself near the airport looking for a rental car agency. I was feeling super excited about my upcoming holiday, while at the same time I was tired from flying and overwhelmed by the noise of low-flying airplanes. How could I convey these feelings in a photo?

San Diego Airport

When I saw another plane approaching, I got my iPhone out, found a nice spot behind a palm tree, set the composition, and waited for the plane to approach. Once again, I took a few photos just to make sure I don’t miss the moment, and this one turned out best.

I like how the palm trees add to the holiday feeling of the photo (we don’t have them in most parts of Europe). However, the cars and the plane serve as a reminder that I was still in an industrialized city, not a tropical beach. Finally, I added a filter using Starmatic to make the photo appear more relaxed, which matches the general feel of a relaxed southern California holiday.

Beware of Landmarks

When you’re traveling, your pretty much guaranteed to end up at famous landmarks and other places that every visitor should see. How could you ever go to Paris and not bother to see the Eiffel Tower?

Now, the problem with landmark photos is that everyone always takes them, and pretty much all of these photos look the same… which is of course the opposite of creativity. I think I first realized this when I was in Grand Canyon. I had probably seen thousands of Grand Canyon photos before, but when it was time for me to take my own photos, I was underwhelmed by the results.

grand canyon

It turns out that my iPhone couldn’t exactly beat pro photographers with tripods and DSLRs who spent hours on the Canyon rim waiting for the sun to have the exact right angle for the perfect balance between shadows and highlights. The point is that famous landmarks have already been photographed so many times that you’re unlikely to make a significantly better photo while you’re there.

In case you’re wondering, adding your face into the landmark photo is probably not going to make the photo that much more interesting as this is what every single tourist is doing as well. Sure, there’s still place for such photos (your Facebook profile picture, for example) but you can’t really expect them to be of high artistic value.

If you still choose to shoot landmarks and breathtaking views, try juxtaposing the landmarks in the background with some unique and interesting  subjects in the foreground. These secondary subjects alone may not be worthy of a photo, but if you can combine it with a spectacular landmark in a harmonious composition, the difference will be enormous. Just look at the photo below.

Lighthouse in Estonia

Even though this is clearly a photo of the lighthouse which I came across in Estonia, the house and rock in the foreground are equally important in the composition of this photo. The cloud pattern certainly helps as well. Whenever possible, don’t take photos that just show the landmarks. Try to put the landmarks in context and add some character to the photos using secondary subjects.

The same is true for any magnificent views or vistas. If you want to take a photo of a gorgeous mountain view, try to add some context and character to the photo by including a secondary subject in the foreground like I’ve done in the photo below.

Skiing in France

Here the gorgeous mountain panorama is expanded upon by adding another skier to the foreground who is also marveling at the beauty of the evening clouds. Or perhaps she is scared from the steep slope that she has to conquer in order to get back to the valley. This subject adds character and story to the photo that wouldn’t be there otherwise.

Think About Composition

Having good composition is crucial to iPhone photography, so keep that in mind while you’re taking travel photos. I could go on and on about composition, but I will keep it short here. For more information, check out my article on composition and the rule of thirds.

Let me just say that most travelers get really excited about all the nice landmarks and other subjects that they encounter, so they naturally tend to place them in the center of the photo… which is almost always a bad decision.

Instead you want to follow the rule of thirds. In its most basic form, the rule of thirds says that horizontal or vertical lines in your photo should be placed along the gridlines dividing the photo in three equal parts, and that the most important subjects in your photo should be located at the intersection of these gridlines.

Yosemite Dead Tree

Here the undisputed main subject is the dead tree in Yosemite National Park. Notice how the tree trunk lies on the right gridline, while the bushes in the foreground end at the bottom gridline. The mountain on the left is neatly contained within the middle left quadrant, thus also adding to the composition of the photo.

If this kind of thinking is new to you, make sure you enable gridlines for your iPhone’s camera by clicking on the options button inside the Camera app and turning the Grid option on. Most other camera apps also have similar grid functionality to help your compose your photos.

Memories, Memories, Memories

While it’s good to always try to take the best possible photo in any given situation, in some cases you’ll end up with photos that you’re not really proud of. And that’s fine. You don’t have to make every shot perfect, and sometimes the value of a photo is not in its aesthetic quality but in the memory that it can create for you.

shrimp dinner in vegas

The photo above is by no means good (though I’m sure you’ve seen many of these on Instagram). In fact, I didn’t even try to make this photo special. What I wanted to do instead was to create a memory of this particular dinner I had in Vegas, and this photo does exactly that.

When taking travel photos, don’t just focus on the aesthetic quality. Also think about the memories that you want to preserve. Sometimes it makes perfect sense to take simple photos of your travel companions, food, hotel room, rental car, views from balcony, and so on. Even if they’re not good enough to share with others, they will still provide you with memories for years to come.

Taking Too Many Photos

I must warn you. Travel photography can get addictive. On an eventful day you may find yourself taking two, three or even five hundred photos. Quantity will almost always improve the quality of your best photos, but you probably don’t want to spend your entire vacation looking at the world through the 4-inch display of your iPhone. And coming back from a trip with thousands of photos can certainly be overwhelming.

Sure, we all love photography and the photos you take will help you create long-lasting memories. But if your experience on the trip is ruined because you don’t have any time to actually enjoy the place, you know you’re shooting too much. Put your iPhone in your pocket, turn it off if you have to, and always make sure you enjoy your time while traveling.

  • Frank T (iPhone Photo Academy)

    Emil — Question on travel. We are planning a 2+ week New England trip this fall, and I anticipate taking many photos, primarily on my 16 GB 4S. I have, in the past, transferred photos nightly to my laptop, but may not have my laptop with me. Can you recommend a method of backing up photos while traveling? If I use photostream, can I delete the photo from my phone, and not lose it? What about uploads to a site like Flikr? Any suggestions would be most appreciated!

    • Damas Pratz

      You should buy a wifi pen drive 128 gb

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