Travel photography basics part 1: Take great pictures – even with your phone

Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York
Brooklyn Botanic Garden, New York

I often get asked about how I take my travel photos. I took some photography courses in high school, but I have mostly learned through reading and experimenting over the years. This will be a three-part series to keep the posts shorter. I will cover basics in this post. In the next one, I’ll cover tips for setting up your best shots, and then in the third, ways to improve your photos after you’ve taken them.

You don’t necessarily need a professional camera, and a lot of equipment like I need for work to take great photos for personal use. Smartphones can do it too, and for travel, especially solo travel, using your phone is easier to carry and is less tempting for someone to take. I alternate between my phone and my camera when I travel depending on what I’m doing and the time of day.

All the photos I used in this post were taken on my phone, the Samsung Galaxy S7, and not my professional camera. I wanted to show that it can be done on a phone!

Here are some quick tips to capture better photos on your trip, or every day. With practice, these can become second nature.

Know your camera

Conservatory Garden, Central Park, New York
Conservatory Garden, Central Park, New York

Read the instructions for your camera before you start using it. It’s key to know how to change the exposure and the focus on it.

There are a variety of cameras to choose from, so all I will say is after reading the instructions, practice around your neighborhood to get comfortable with using the settings in different lighting, motion and areas. What type of camera you get depends on your needs and budget. To help me pick my first camera years ago, I researched online and then went into a camera store to talk through what I wanted.

Shoot in manual mode. If you’re new to photography, you may not know which camera settings need to be adjusted, including ISO, aperture, and shutter speed. If you want the best images, you need to know how they work together and how to adjust the settings. Here are some tips for shooting in manual mode.


Central Park in Winter
Central Park, New York in Winter

The video and camera capabilities on new phones are very high. The only real issue with the cameras on phones is their limited zoom capabilities. But if you don’t want to shell out the money for a camera, they do a great job. It’s important to read the instructions to use your camera properly.

I haven’t used Sony, so I can’t speak to its features, but here are some quick tips for iPhone and Samsung.


You can set and lock onto a focal point by tapping and holding the screen. The yellow sun symbol that pops up when you take a picture helps control the exposure. Sliding it up and down makes the photo darker or lighter.

To steady your hand, use your volume keys. They work as a shutter for pictures and videos.


Samsung’s Galaxy Note7, Galaxy S7, and Galaxy S7 Edge have the first dual pixel phone camera. It produces sharper and brighter images. There is also a faster shutter speed and more accurate autofocus than other phones, even in low light conditions.

Another amazing feature is motion panorama, which brings movement to traditional panoramic photos.

Sunrise and sunset

Washington Square Park, NYC
Sun setting in Washington Square Park, New York City

Light is one of the most important parts of taking amazing images, if not the most important. Soft, warm morning light is the best. Getting an early start also means you’ll have to deal with fewer people also trying to get photos.

One hour after sunrise and before sunset have soft, warm tones and great shadows for pictures.

Sunsets are also great and even the hour after, when the sky is still blue, but lights are turned on.

Research before you go

Check out blogs, Instagram, Facebook, and travel sites to get ideas about your destination. Talk to friends who have been there. Find out where you want to take photos, how difficult it is to get there, and how busy is it at different times of the day. You can also find out which time of day has the best light.

Be patient

Bethesda Terrace, Central Park, New York
Bethesda Terrace, Central Park, New York

Good photography takes time. Professionals spend a lot of time to get the perfect photo; sometimes it can take hours. No one expects you to spend that kind of time to get your travel pictures; you need to enjoy your vacation! But, if you have some time, even 10 minutes, find a spot that overlooks something scenic or photogenic, and wait for something that catches your eye to capture.

Wander around

You will probably take photos of the landmarks and of the things you’ve seen from others. Also, try to explore to get pictures of hidden gems. It’s how I get my favorite shots. The best way is to walk around. Get advice from someone where you are staying, or other locals. They can help you take pictures in unique spots and make sure you stay away from dangerous areas.

Quick reminders and tips

  • Always take your camera with you.
  • Make sure you always have a full charge and a portable charger.
  • If you have an expensive camera, get insurance for it.
  • Always keep everything secure to protect from theft.
  • Backup your photos on the cloud or a small hard drive.
  • If you have room, get a small tripod. It allows you to set your camera position.

St Patricks Cathedral, New York
St Patricks Cathedral, New York

These are some of my basics; what are some of yours?

As mentioned, this is part 1 of the series. Part 2 will cover how to set up your pictures. Part 3 will discuss improving photos after taking them.



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