You might be surprised to know that even as a professional photographer, I often go on vacation and don’t bring my big professional camera.  People often wonder if they should bring an actual stand alone camera to shoot vacation photos. In some cases the answer might be yes. Depending on the situation, I would, but you likely have a very powerful camera right at your fingertips in your smartphone.  The camera you tend to use is the one you have in your hands. Carrying around another camera is often impractical and can weigh you down. If you find yourself wanting to just use your lightweight, convenient smartphone to take photos, then this article is for you.

This article is going to be from an iPhone perspective, but most of what I will share will apply to other smartphones as well.

  1. Shoot pictures with Live Photo turned on.

How many times do you walk way from shooting a group photo and realize that Uncle Larry had his eyes shut once again?  Fortunately your iPhone has a great feature that allows you to shoot several photos and later edit to choose the best frame.  When you are viewing the picture, click Edit, and there will be a smart slider showing multiple hi-res photos. Click on the one that you like best and select Make Key Photo.  Here is an example of the difference the Live Photo feature can make.

This was captured on a hike in the Smoky Mountains.

This was captured on a hike in the Smoky Mountains.

Using Live Photo use the Smart Slider in edit mode select the frame you like best and select Make Key Photo

Using Live Photo use the Smart Slider in edit mode select the frame you like best and select Make Key Photo

2. Use the sun at your back when possible to get beautiful blue skies and well lit scenics.

When the sun is a factor, you will create more beautiful images with the sun more at your back and the scene all lit up.  Here is a good example shot. When you shoot with the sun in your face, you will tend to get washed out photos. On the flipside, if you “hide” the sun behind something, you can create some interesting silhouettes if you are going for more of an artistic photo.

Mountain bike trip to Sedona, AZ

Mountain bike trip to Sedona, AZ

Hide the sun on a bright day and create silhouettes. Sedona, AZ

Hide the sun on a bright day and create silhouettes. Sedona, AZ

3. Touch the screen before you take the picture for better focus and exposure.

Better Focus.  Sometimes you want to have something in the foreground in sharp focus and the background a little blurred.  Just touch the part of the screen you want in sharp focus before taking the picture.

Better Exposure.  It can be a challenge to get a beautiful sunset photo when your phone keeps trying to adjust for the bright sky or dark foreground.  When you touch the screen in a particular area it locks the exposure in before you take the photo. Touch the screen in multiple places until you get the ideal exposure for your photo.

Sunset on Lake Mendota in Madison, WI

Sunset on Lake Mendota in Madison, WI

Sunset in at the harbor in Malaga, Spain. Hide the Sun and touch the screen to lock in what you want the exposure to be.

Sunset in at the harbor in Malaga, Spain. Hide the Sun and touch the screen to lock in what you want the exposure to be.

4. Edit your photos.

Select the photo you want to edit.  Click on Edit. There are three icons below the photo.  I will go through them briefly here.

  1. The first edit option straightens the horizon.  You can also crop the image here.

  2. The second edit option is a series of pre-set filters.  You can click on the different frames until you find the one that you like and hit save.

  3. Sometimes the pre-set filters aren’t enough.  My personal rule with editing is to try to edit in such a way that the photo could have looked like that, in camera, with the right lighting conditions.  I rarely like to use filters that make it look unreal unless it is the only way to save a photo that is important to me. The 3rd edit option allows you to adjust Light, Color and B&W settings which can make your photos more bright, vibrant and artistic.  Here are the ones that I recommend and use the most. Most important rule to follow is to not overdo it with the smart sliders.

    • Light

      1. Exposure:  
        Smart Phones have pretty amazing technology and create images that are great often as is.  But sometimes they turn out brighter or darker than expected. This smart slider can really help.

      2. Shadows:
        In a similar way adding a little brightness to the shadows can help a photo but don’t get too carried away or your image will look pixelated.

      3. Contrast:
        I sometimes like to add some contrast after applying other edits.

    • Color

  • Cast:
    Occasionally a photo will look too blue or too yellow.  This Smart Slider will help make the white balance look more natural.  But keep in mind that you don’t have to move it much to make a big difference.

5. Don’t bullseye your photos with the subject right in the center.

When you are shooting a scene, your primary subject or point of interest should be in one of the corners of the frame to make it more visually appealing.  Notice the photo with a grid over layed. Think of it like a tic tac toe grid. When shooting scenics the horizon should be on the top third or bottom third of the image.

On the other hand when you have a group of people in a photo it makes sense to center them but still pay attention to the horizon.  You don’t want the horizon to be centered if you can help it. Just like with a scenic it should be at the top third of the scene or the bottom third.  Also, try not to have the horizon split through the subjects’ heads.

Imagine a tic tac toe grid and try to have your horizon on top third or bottom and your subject should be along one of the intersections of the grid. (Shot at the Grand Canyon)

Imagine a tic tac toe grid and try to have your horizon on top third or bottom and your subject should be along one of the intersections of the grid. (Shot at the Grand Canyon)

6. Use a remote trigger or timer.

Apple watches have the ability to trigger the shutter button on your iPhone. Using this remote trigger is a nice alternative to the famous “selfie.”  It can allow you to get more of the scene and tell a better story. I find that it is better to use the three second timer so you have time to take the picture and pose.  If you don’t have an Apple Watch you can also set a timer on your smartphone and get into position. Here is an example of a selfie shot with an Apple Watch.


Use a remote trigger or timer like the Apple Watch to capture photos you might otherwise not be able to get. Shot on vacation at Red Rock Canyon

Use a remote trigger or timer like the Apple Watch to capture photos you might otherwise not be able to get.
Shot on vacation at Red Rock Canyon

7. Use shortcuts to capture the moment.

Swipe up from the home screen to get the camera quickly without having to use your password.  Getting your camera out fast can be the difference between capturing a moment or missing it. You can also get more out of your shooting experience by using the volume buttons as a shutter release instead of just the white virtual button on the screen.

8. Change your perspective

Often a basic photo will turn into a work of art just by changing your perspective.  It might mean climbing to a peak or getting down on the ground to make your image come to life.

Change the camera perspective to create more artistic images. (Shot at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours in Lake Geneva, WI.)

Change the camera perspective to create more artistic images. (Shot at Lake Geneva Canopy Tours in Lake Geneva, WI.)

9. What about Flash?

My experience with the flash on a camera phone is not generally good.  I prefer to find better lighting whenever possible so you are not completely dependant on the flash for your light.  Or use another smartphone’s flashlight feature and have the light off center and above the smartphone’s camera so the light doesn’t make the subject look so much like a deer in the headlights.

10. Use the Pano feature to capture more of the scene

One of my favorite features in the iPhone camera is the ability to make beautiful panoramic images.  You will learn fast that you should hold your hands steady and turn slowly from left to right to get the best images.  You might have to edit or reshoot if you were too unsteady.

Use the pano feature of your smartphone to tell a more interesting story in one frame. Shot on vacation from our hotel room outside of Plaza de la Constitución.

Use the pano feature of your smartphone to tell a more interesting story in one frame. Shot on vacation from our hotel room outside of Plaza de la Constitución.

Below are some more smartphone photos you can see to provide more inspiration.