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Photo Tips: Take Great Vacation Pictures with a Smartphone

Think you need to be a pro photographer with lots of gear to get awesome snaps of your travels?

You don’t need to have a fancy camera to take great vacation pictures. I’m a photographer by trade, and I used only my phone to capture the memories on my most recent travels. They won’t be winning any awards, but they are pretty awesome nonetheless. Follow these photo tips for using your smartphone to get great shots.

1. Get too close for comfort

It’s human nature to run as far away from a camera as possible. Most people get up close and personal with the attraction instead of cozying up to the lens. You can barely see them in the final photo. Instead, ask the person you’re photographing to stand only a few feet away from the camera lens. Your subject will protest and tell you your crazy, but stick with it. You won’t be disappointed, I promise. The attraction will be in the background with a nice clear picture of the person you’re shooting up front. Think of it like a selfie in reverse.

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2. Consider the lighting

To flash or not to flash, that is the question. It’s best to use natural lighting whenever possible, only using your flash when that’s not an option or you can’t see the subject in the natural light. Still, most of us set our camera to auto and trust it to do the right thing by us. But if it the ambient light directly in front of the lens is bright, it will not flash. Similarly, it will always flash in a dark space. Neither of these is necessarily a great option.

If, for example, your subject, such as your friend, is sitting in front of a window during daytime, the camera will see the brightness of the daylight and turn off the flash. Your friend will appear dark or in silhouette in the final photo. You need to override your flash, setting in “on” so that it brightens up your friends face in the photo.

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In darkness, sometimes it’s best to set your flash “off” so you can capture the atmosphere. The flash will only light up the space about 10 feet directly in front of you, leaving everything beyond that in darkness. It gives your photos a less natural look. With the flash off, you’ll capture the ambient glow of everything in the space instead. But you’ll need yo hold your camera really steady.

Pro tip: Use your arms like a tripod. Rest your elbows on something solid, like a table, and tuck your hands up close to your chest. This will help you keep your camera steady in low-light settings.

3. What’s your focus

Be sure to focus on the most important thing. Your smartphone camera will automatically decide what it thinks that is, and it might be right. But be sure you agree. If you’re taking a picture of your meal, you might want to hone in on a specific portion, like the garnish on a fish fillet, for example. Play around even. Try focusing on a few different things. You might be surprised with the results.

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4. Rule of thirds

If you were to draw lines cutting your image into thirds both vertically and horizontally, where would they intersect? That’s where the subject or focus of your photo should be. Easy-peasy. Photographing a lighthouse or a boat on the water? Stand back a bit so that it’s in one of these four focal points in your lens. You’ll have a lot of blank space around it, but it will give it that postcard feel.

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5. Take a few shots

Take the same shot a few different ways. The great thing about shooting digital photos is that it doesn’t cost you anything to take more pictures. Get down on the ground and shoot low, hold the camera over your head, shift left or right, make a goofy face. Shake things up, and get creative. I never take just one shot. You never know what you’ll get.

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6. Look behind you

Sometimes, the best shot is behind you or looking back at the attraction once you’ve passed it. For example, while everyone was shooting Paul Revere’s statue from the front in Boston, I was standing behind it. I lined up Paul’s hand with the bell tower on the church in the background, making it look like Paul was giving it a tap. Cool angle and different from what every other tourist was taking. What’s behind you or your subject? A cool fire escape? A setting sun? It doesn’t take much to turn around or walk to the other side.


7. Flip the angle

For the best shots, consider if your image should be taken with your camera help in the landscape or portrait position. If you’re shooting something long and lean, hold your smartphone upright. But for shorter, wider subjects, flip it sideways. For example, if you’re up close at the Eiffel Tower, it makes the most sense to shoot a portrait layout. But if you’re shooting it from across the street at Trocadero, flip it to landscape for a different perspective. And if you’re just not sure, try both. Heck, I often shoot diagonally just for fun.

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8. Editing is your friend

It’s hard to shoot the perfect picture. There’s someone’s elbow in the corner (or maybe even your own fingertip). Or it’s overexposed in the background. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. Don’t hesitate to finesse your finished product. Open it up in a photo editing program and give it a few enhancements. You can crop out that finger or darken the bright spots, for example. You can even select the focus and blur out the rest.

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9. Don’t view the world through a lens

This is the most important photo tip I can offer. It’s one I don’t follow often enough. Don’t forget to look at the world without a lens in front of it. Sometimes, we get so caught up in taking great vacation pictures that we forget to look at the subject in real life. Put the phone away for a few minutes, and enjoy the moment.

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Check out the photos on the Wanderlust Wayfarer Instagram page to see how I use these same photo tips to take great vacation photos using a smartphone or a simple point-and-shoot camera. Tag your photos with #wanderlustwayfarer to share your own great smartphone snaps.

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