The best camera is the one that you have on you.

As much as I love to travel, one real downside of traveling is the increased chance of getting robbed.  A few months ago, someone at the Cologne bus station in Germany decided to relieve me of my camera bag (complete with all my camera and gear).  All I was left with were the photos on my iPhone 5S, and all I had to take photos with was said iPhone.  It was an interesting challenge, and what I discovered was that my phone was quite capable of capturing beautiful photos, and with the support of a few select apps, I’ve been quite happy with the results.

So for those who want to take nice travel photos without having to carry around a heavy DSLR + lenses (or, god forbid, you also find yourself in my situation), here’s how you work your phone.  (I can only speak for my model of iPhone, but my assumption would be that later models as well as other smart phones with quality camera capabilities will fall under the same category).

The Basics:

Hold that phone still.  Brace yourself against a wall or something stable if you must.  A sharp, in focus image will almost always look better and more professional than a blurry one.  It’s worth the few extra seconds to prepare.  You can also try taking a deep breath and slowly exhale as you take the photo to steady yourself.  This is especially important in low lighting situations such as during sunsets and sunrises.

Turn off your flash.  Don’t set it on auto, set it on off.  I have yet to come across a situation where the flash helped me get a better photo.

Keep your lens clean.  If you start noticing that your photos are looking a bit gray or unclear, you might just have a dirty lens that needs to be wiped off.


Because it’s much harder to control exposure on your camera phone compared to a DSLR, I generally try to expose for the sky, even if it means underexposing the rest of the image, when I’m faced with less than ideal lighting situations.  On the iPhone, you can tap on the area of the image you want to expose for.  Under lighting conditions with lots of contrast, you will have a very bright section (oftentimes the sky) and when you tap that area, the rest of the scenery will go dark if not black, and if you expose for a darker area (usually the foreground), then the sky might become blown out and just look white.  So the reason I choose to underexpose is because it’s easier to pull details out of the shadows than out of the overblown areas with a nifty little app called Photoshop Express.  There is a function called Shadows, and all you have to do is slide it to the right and it will bring out the details in the shadows without changing the lighter areas.  I also like to bump up Vibrance for for a little more color and the Bueno filter to sharpen the image further.  The result has a bit of HDR feel, which I like in landscapes.

Here are some before and afters:

IMG_7437Souq Waqif in Doha, Qatar


IMG_5903Ballerina on the Charles Bridge.  Prague, Czech Republic

Composition and isolating the subject:

When taking photos of people with a phone camera, you have to be extra conscious of the composition.  With a DSLR and a good lens, it’s fairly easy to isolate or draw attention to your subject simply by opening up the aperture, creating a shallow depth of field, with the focus on the person and the rest of the image blurred out.  You can’t really do that with your phone, and composition becomes even more important in making sure your subject doesn’t get lost or clash with the background.  Even in the ballerina photo above, you can see the problem area where her leg intersects with the lamppost and both are in full focus.  If I had shot this with my DSLR, she would have been in focus and the lamp would have been blurred to separate the two.

Here are a few photos I took of my parents in Sri Lanka and the Maldives with my phone that turned out a bit better.




Maldives pano


If you want to take a close up of something small, it’s possible!  It’s also the one time that the phone camera is pretty good about creating a shallow depth of field.  The key here is to hold the phone extremely still and be patient, it’ll struggle with focus but it’ll get there.



I set my phone on the table for extra stability to get this shot of a hermit crab.

All that being said, there are many positives to taking travel photos with your phone.  For one, it comes with a very wide angle lens and the capability of panning is excellent for landscapes.  A good wide angle lens can be quite expensive, and for a photographer like me, not one I would use often for weddings and portraits.

IMG_7178Sri Lankan Tea Plantations

iceland pano 2Jokusarlon Glacial Lagoon, Iceland

iceland pano 1

IMG_7262Seaside town in Iceland.

It also makes it so much easier to quickly edit and share photos.  I really enjoy posting travel photos on Instagram and then looking at photos that others have taken in the same location.  I also like to preserve the ratio of the image instead of defaulting to square.  Squaready is a good app for adding the white space above and below the image for this purpose.

A few more photos for your enjoyment and I can be found on Instagram @amyxbao