Candid travel photography is one of the single best ways to bring the real feel of a place back home. Unlike posed shots, smartphone travel photos reflect the real life of the place you’re visiting, providing authentic glimpses into your experience for those that weren’t able to go with you.
The thing is, it’s not always convenient to lug around a full-sized DSLR or even a pocket-sized dedicated camera with you. Yet one thing you’re most likely to always have with you is your smartphone, and these days the cameras on them are really becoming high quality.
Smartphone cameras seem to have been made for candid travel photography.
First of all, because so many people all over the world have them, they’re remarkably inconspicuous, at least in the sense that people can’t always tell what you’re taking a photo of.
Second, they allow you to avoid the awkwardness of carrying around larger cameras, which is important if you just want to wander around with nothing more than what fits in your pockets.
Third, the image quality of the most recent smartphones has jumped leaps and bounds over the phone cameras of the past, so while you won’t be able to do everything you can do with a DSLR (like great low-light shooting), you won’t be disappointed with images taken in good natural light.
Lastly, there are a number of great apps available for everything from where to land the best shots to editing and sharing.
1. Clean the lens
If you’re like most folks, your smartphone is rolling around in your pocket or purse all day long without a lens cover. That means it’s going to be dirty every time you take it out for a shot. Sure, you can remove lens dust and grime in post-processing, but why make extra work for yourself? Giving your camera lens a quick wipe each time you take your phone out will save you a lot of time. Lens cloths are inexpensive and easy to carry with you. You can use them to clean your phone’s screen too.
2. Ditch the digital zoom
It might seem very tempting to use the digital zoom—for especailly for candid travel photography—but doing so won’t do your image any favors. Zooming in digitally only enlarges the image area at the center of the frame while trimming away the outside edges. It leaves you with less pixels to work without having truly zoomed in at all. You can get the same effect by cropping your photo in an editing program. If you need to zoom in, do so with your feet (i.e. move closer) or invest in a actual optical zoom lens for smartphones.
3. Lock your focus and exposure
Nothing’s worse than thinking you’ve landed a great shot, then finding out your camera focused on the wrong part of the scene—especially in candid travel photos where it’s likely you won’t have the opportunity to retake the photo. So while your mobile phone autofocus is pretty good in most situations (especially where there are faces to focus on), you’ll greatly improve your smartphone travel photography if you choose the focus point yourself. With iPhones it’s pretty easy to do. With the default camera app, simply tap and hold the screen where you want the camera to focus. Once the square flickers, the focus is locked. To undo the focus and exposure lock, tap on the screen again.
4. Take a portable battery pack with you
If your phone’s your primary camera and internet device, you’ll want to have at least one of these handy little devices will you. Portable battery packs allow you to always carry some extra power with you, and as long as you remember to bring your charging cable (phone to USB), you’ll be golden.
Capturing the Shots
5. Find the story
Every compelling scene has some story behind it. If you see something that captures your interest, determine the story behind it and make that obvious in your shot. If you’re feeling especially creative, take a series of shots fleshing the story out.
The background that you choose can help to add context and meaning to your travel photo, so choose well. A background that makes it immediately obvious where you are, such as street signs in a different language, are a good way to show a sense of place.
The lighting can also affect the mood of your images. If it’s a bright, sunshiny sort of image, it will give an upbeat feel. A dark or shadowy image can feel sinister, dramatic or mysterious. Try to match the lighting up to the emotion you want to portray.
6. Work the angles
Try to change your position slightly after every shot. Try moving from one side to the other, getting up high and shooting down, or getting down and shooting up. Some angles will work better than others, but at least you won’t have a series of images all shot at the same height from dead centre.
7. Take lots of images
Don’t just take one or two shots, take as many as you feel you can without repeating yourself. This will give you a much larger choice of images when you come to choose the best ones for editing. When you shoot an image, don’t just think of the big picture – close-ups, little things and details in a scene can make great stand-alone shots too.
8. Learn the basic rules of composition
While you don’t need to technical photographic genius to capture great candid shots, having a basic understanding of composition and lighting will really make a difference in the overall quality of your photos. Take some time to learn about design techniques such as the rule of thirds, leading lines, and using light and shadow. You’ll be amazed at what you didn’t know and how it can really improve your shots.
9. Be respectful
While the best candid shots are indeed those in which the subject(s) don’t know they’re being photographed, not everyone appreciates having their photo taken without their permission. If you’re seen trying to take someone’s photo, ask for permission. Or ask for permission first. You can still get candid smartphone travel shots if you ask them to carry on with what they were doing and act as if you weren’t there. If you’ve already taken it and they ask you to delete it, do so—especially if you plan to share it on social media. In the end, remember that people are not tourist attractions and deserve the same respect you would like.
Before you share
Editing is where it’s at!
Good photography doesn’t end when you press the shutter button. Everything from finding the perfect moment to sharing the finished photo is part of the process, and tasteful editing stands right in the middle of all that. Whether you stick to basic editing (cropping, leveling the horizon, adjusting the white balance, etc.) or enjoy a more creative touch, editing is vital to ending up with photos you can be proud of.
Great apps for editing on the road include Snapseed and Lightroom Mobile. (Snapseed is free and has amazing functionality.) If you’re bringing your laptop and wishing to see your photos in details, you can use Lightroom, Luminar, GIMP or one of the other editing programs out there depending on your needs, skill level and budget.
While smartphone cameras are obviously not as professional as shooting with a DSLR, with a bit of practice, anyone can take great candid shots with them. It’s the perfect opportunity to wander around unencumbered and come back with a host of great photos to share.