smartphone photography tips

9 Tips to get the most out of your Smartphone for Travel Photography in 2022

Nowadays, Smartphones became the main camera for many people. Their simplicity of use and direct access to Social Media allows users to share images almost immediately. It’s now difficult to tell the difference between a photo taken with a DSLR/mirrorless or with a smartphone. The quality has improved A LOT during the last years. 

This means that our smartphones offer even more possibilities to be more creative and efficient! A few tricks can go a long way toward improving your smartphone photography. This is especially useful when you travel! Depending on each brand and on the app you’re using, some features are sometimes hidden or activated in a different way. Most of the tips we are sharing here work with the newest smartphones. We’ve taught a lot of students during our tours and workshops in Hoi An and Central Vietnam. Many of them travel only with their smartphone. This is very convenient to save some space and weight.

Let’s get started with our 9 tips to get the most out of your smartphone for travel photography in 2022!

Quick launch 

Smartphones might be the “best” camera!  They are the ones you are the most likely to have with you all the time. Therefore, you are able to capture potentially any scenes happening in front of your eyes! In Asia and Vietnam in particular, anything can happen in front of you anytime, given how busy the streets usually are. Be ready to capture it! 

Reactivity is an important point. Turning on your camera app quickly is a key not to missing the photo. For both Android and iPhone, swiping the screen is the most common way to quickly activate your camera app. You need to wake up your phone first and then swipe left for iPhones. Swipe the icon up from the corner on Android phones. 
It takes then two gestures to proceed. Android phones offer an option that we find even more efficient: double press quickly the power button. This will activate your camera instantly.  No matter for example if your fingers are wet or your screen is not reactive enough. Keep in mind that a few seconds can make a difference to capture an interesting scene! 

Which app and which mode to take the best photos with your smartphone?

There are A LOT of camera apps available for both Android and IOS.  From free ones to advanced ones with payment required to unlock the best options, the choice is massive. Some apps are very interesting for the design they offer and the access to the different settings. Most of the time though, the native cameras from both Android and IOS, especially for the latest versions, are more than enough. You can do all you need and capture great images. They also have the advantage of being “made for the system”. This helps to avoid unexpected bugs as they usually get updated faster than most of the other apps. 

Some advanced apps like “Adobe Lightroom ” combine a camera and an editing app. This is very interesting if you want a more efficient workflow with your images. Lightroom and other apps also allow you to work with RAW images (more data). This is ideal if you want to do more editing. This is especially interesting for landscape photography. 

The camera apps offer different modes to shoot, from a classic “auto/semi-auto” one to a “Pro” mode. They also have different features including Video, Slow motion, Panorama or some presets like Night, Food … 

The Pro Mode usually invites you to take control of all the settings: ISO, Shutter speed and Aperture. For the Aperture, you are actually only able to “switch” between the lenses with different apertures. You can’t change your aperture, it will be a constant aperture for each lens. The depth of field will remain the same. The  “Portrait mode” offered especially on IOS is actually blurring artificially the background (If you are not familiar with camera settings you can check out technical tutorials here).

You can play with the manual focus, some of the newest apps and smartphones even include a Focus peaking: brilliant! 

To be honest, the Pro Mode is not that useful if you shoot action scenes. It can be great for Landscape, Macro or “Still life”. When it comes to travel photography, there is already a lot to handle. Less time spent on your settings is more brain left to work on your composition! Plus, all the settings on a touch screen are not that comfortable to change. When you’re walking in a busy market in Central Vietnam, you might not want to spend too much time trying to figure out how to adjust everything.  The Standard mode is usually good enough to capture great images and if you try some of the following tips as well, we’re pretty sure that you’ll see some improvement- (or this tutorial will be fully refunded ^^)!

The “HDR effect”: why do my phone photos seem to look better?

This is the “magic trick” of smartphones (and maybe the curse of Social Media images)! 

HDR, actually automatic HDR images, is a feature that makes smartphone photos always look more…let’s say… fancy or impressive! HDR (for High Dynamic Range) is known by many photographers. It is used to compose photos with more details in both the dark and the bright parts of an image. Long story short, your smartphone is going to do all the jobs for you. It will combine different exposures and increase the tones. It will finally proceed to a final image with a very wide dynamic range and some tuned colours. All of that makes it more “pleasant to the eyes” (according to some standards). Therefore, HDR is one of the reasons why you may sometimes feel that your phone takes better photos than your camera.

The downside of the HDR: photos might look “too much”. At least, they’re not showing the reality of a scene. If you shoot a dark scene for example. The work on contrast would be a key in your composition. You don’t want to get all the areas properly exposed. You also want to avoid too many details where deep dark could actually emphasize your atmosphere. It’s a situation we often encounter during our tours or workshops around Hoi An

Light in Vietnam can quickly become harsh. It is therefore essential to play with contrasts and find a way to use them to be more creative. 

HDR can have some other tricky side effects as well.  If you shoot moving subjects, it will increase the risk of getting a blurry image. If you shoot colourful scenes with a nice light, once again your image will look too vivid, not natural. It obviously depends on each one’s taste as well. 

Before shooting, you might want to choose if you need to have your HDR activated or not. Bear in mind that some images can be edited if needed. With the most recent smartphones, the HDR is somehow “smarter” than before. It tends to offer a more subtle result and is activated when needed. If you see that your scene lacks a bit of interesting light (shooting on a cloudy day), everything is a little “flat”, HDR can be interesting to use. Just remember to turn it off after that! 

Flip your phone. Shoot portrait/landscape

Your phone has an orientation to use for a call.  When it comes to photography, you can do whatever you want! 

A simple 90° turn (to a “Landscape orientation”) is already a serious change in your composition. Think about what is happening in front of you! Will it be more interesting to choose a portrait or a landscape orientation? How to tell the best story and include the most important elements of your scene? This means for instance that you can shoot a portrait with a landscape orientation if it helps to include some interesting things! 

Central Vietnam markets are usually extremely busy. You might want to include more things to show that instead of focusing on a single subject.

Most of us also tend to forget that we can use our phones upside down. Why? Imagine that you need to be very low but you want to avoid laying down on the ground! Your camera can be almost at the ground level if you use your phone upside down. It can give you a very interesting point of view. It’s perfect to use a background like a roof or a sky… It works great for silhouettes or to capture reflections from the ground! 

During our photo tours in and around Hoi An, we often push our students to find different backgrounds to simplify their images and make them easier to read. For the people shooting with a camera equipped with a tilt screen, things are easier. For those who shoot with a smartphone, it’s pretty handy too. They just have to flip their phone! 

In those situations, the next tip will definitely make your life easier!

Use different shutter buttons 

Instead of using the classic shutter button, there are many ways to actually take a picture. A simple trick is to reassign a physical button. Most of the phones now offer you this possibility, with the power button or the volume ones, even sometimes with an extra specific button. The most important thing here is that you get the shutter under your finger. Feel comfortable and avoid weird moves and finger sprain. This will obviously reduce the risk of missing your composition or getting a blurry image! Some apps give even more flexibility with a Floating shutter button. You just need to keep your finger on the shutter button and move it wherever you want on the screen (you need to activate this option first in your settings). Your shutter button will always be where you need it to be, under your finger!

Turn on the grid lines 

When it comes to composition, some rules are always a good guide. Following them is usually a safe way to make your images more interesting and dynamic. The rule of thirds for example is a classic one that we teach during our photography tours in Hoi An. It’s good to begin with and easy to play around with. To help you with that, turning on the grid lines will give you a clear view of your composition. You will see the different areas of your photo. This will help you fill the frame properly and adjust each element. Depending on the app, you can have different choices for the lines, showing different composition rules. Up to you to try it and see the ones you like the most! 

Adjust the exposure manually 

When you point your focus somewhere on your image, you might notice that there is not a lot of change. Your depth of field is usually always quite big with a smartphone. All the elements tend to be in focus unless there is an important distance between each of them. For example, if you keep an object very close to your camera and the other elements are much further in your image. 

Something more important happens when you point at something in your frame: this is where your camera is going to measure the light and adjust the exposure. 

For example, if you point to the sky (bright) in your image, the camera understands that the sky is your “main subject”. It will tend to underexpose the whole image to save the maximum details/colours in the sky. As a result, any other darker part of your image will appear very dark. You might then lose some elements you wanted to keep. 

On the other hand, you could point at an object in the dark part of your image. The camera will then overexpose most of the image to make this element clear. Any other bright part (the sky for example) will be totally “burnt”, overexposed. 

A first step will be to find a “medium” point. This is where your exposure preserves contrasts but also details in the bright and dark parts of your image. Once you get it, you can still manually adjust your exposure to get exactly what you want. 

With an IOS camera, you need to keep your finger on the focus point until a small “Sun” appears. Then, you can move the cursor up or down to brighten or darken your image. On an Android camera, the exposure line is usually already at the bottom of your image. Once you’ve pointed your focus somewhere, you can move right or left along the exposure line to adjust it. Simple but very useful! If you join one of our Hoi An Photo tours or workshops, you will experience that this technique is really helpful!

Exposure and focus lock

Did you know that you can lock both focus and exposure on any part of your image? Some apps even offer you the possibility to lock the focus and the exposure on two different areas. 

When you point at somewhere in your frame, the exposure will be measured on that point. But, if you move just a little bit, your phone usually focuses again. This might change the exposure. In some situations, it can be really annoying. You can quickly get the wrong exposure for your image and miss it. On the native cameras for IOS and Android, you just need to keep your finger pressed for a few seconds on the area you want to focus on. After a short time, you will see “AF/AE lock” mentioned on your screen. You can now move your phone and perfect your composition.  The exposure doesn’t change anymore. You can even adjust it manually as mentioned above. It will remain the same, with the focus point locked in the same area. It’s very useful for a “point-focus-recompose” shot.


One of the best functions of your smartphone doesn’t even need an app! Use it to get close and connect with people! 

Smartphones have become a daily life tool. Most people are pretty used to it. Walking around with a smartphone is less impressive than a big DSLR or even a mirrorless camera. It will be easier for you to get closer to the scene, and to the people, you want to capture a photo of. Shooting a quick image can easily not be noticed as well. During our Photo tours or Workshops in Hoi An, we always invite our students to connect with local people. Don’t be just taking away images, use this moment to live a deeper experience! One of the best ways to do so, especially when you’re a bit shy and afraid of the language barrier, is to use photography itself! Share the images you compose! Make it become a more interesting moment. Share it with the person(s) who appears on it. We bet you will trigger smiles and good memories! In Vietnam, but also in many other countries, a selfie can also be a nice approach. This helps to create a good atmosphere. This might also allow you to capture images you wouldn’t have if you remain distant! Don’t be afraid to take the first step! Some people might decline the offer, which is totally fair. Just keep going!


Smartphones now offer a proper solution for capturing nice images with some advanced features and options while travelling light. Actually, most of the latest smartphones offer more than what most users will need. Going through all the features and eventually personalizing it (through native or downloaded apps) should offer you a lot to play with. If it’s not enough, you can even find some interesting accessories (lenses, tripod, etc) to go further! As we tell all the guests coming with Hoi An Photo Tour & Workshop, the most important thing is to practice and be creative! Let’s give it a go and let us know about your experience with your smartphone!