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Mobile photography: tips for smartphone snappers

Aerial view of the beach in Santa Monica in California
Image courtesy: ©Melpomene/Shutterstock

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’.


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.

Capture a sense of place


Havana, Cuba, January 17, 2016: renovated and colorful buildings on Paseo del Prado with an oldtimer passing by.
Image courtesy: ©Agota Kadar/Shutterstock

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.

Stay in the moment

The annual sky lantern festival in northern Taiwan's Pingxi District.
Image courtesy: ©kecl/Getty Images

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.


Learn about light

woman hands holding mobile phone at sunset.
Image courtesy: ©VRstudio/Shutterstock

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.

Flash v HDR in low-light conditions

Montreal Quebec Canada - July 5 2014 - Shantel and Bocovina Orkestar live concert during the Jazz Festival night performance main stage
Image courtesy: ©joseph s l tan matt/Shutterstock

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.

Using the display as a viewfinder

Istanbul, Turkey - February 21, 2016: Sancaklar Camii is the mosque. In 2013 it won 1st Prize in the World Architectural Festival's Best Religious Building category.
Image courtesy: ©Samet Guler/Shutterstock

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.

It’s hip to be square

Cropped Hand Of Person Holding Lobster In Plate By Beach
Image courtesy: ©Delpjine Hartshorn / EyeEm/Getty Images

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.


Where to share?

Aerial view of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, USA.
Image courtesy: ©Alex Menendez/500px

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.

The nuances of cross-posting

Aerial of tea fields in China

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.

Prepare to engage

NEW YORK CITY - DEC 01 Times Square ,is a busy tourist intersection of neon art and commerce and is an iconic street of New York City and America, December 01th, 2013 in Manhattan, New York City.
Image courtesy: ©Luciano Mortula/Shutterstock

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.