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7 landscape photo tips if all you have is an iPhone (or Pixel 4, Galaxy S10 Plus...)

It doesn't matter if you have an iPhone or Android phone -- these tips on gear, settings and editing tools can help transform your outdoor photography.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The latest crop of phones like the iPhone 11, 11 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus, OnePlus 7 Pro or Google Pixel 4 have cameras on board that can snag the sort of beautiful photographs you'd normally expect to see coming from pricey DSLRs. I've already put the iPhone 11 Pro to the test on a road trip around Scotland and was amazed by the results I could get.

In this guide, I'm going to take you through how to take landscape photos with your phone, whether you're heading into the rural countryside or deep into the heart of the mountains. While some of the tips apply to recent handsets with multiple lens options, many are relevant whether your phone is three months or three years old, Apple or Android.

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Some shots require some additional hardware; getting a slow shutter shot of a waterfall, for example, required Lee Filters neutral density filters, Moment lenses and a stabilising tripod. You can see the finished picture from the phone a little lower down this article.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Get your gear

While of course you can take great landscape photos with just your phone, there are some extra bits of kit that could help you snag something really special. 

Clip-on phone lenses
If your phone doesn't have a built-in wide-angle mode (as you'll find on the iPhone 11 ($699 at Amazon) series or Galaxy S10 Plus), you should take a look at Moment's range of clip-on phone lenses, available for all recent iPhones, Galaxy phones, Pixels and OnePlus phones. They're made from high-quality glass, and the wide-angle lens lets you capture an amazing, sweeping vista in a way that's simply not possible with the standard view on your camera. 

Filter adapters for your phone 
Moment also makes filter adapters for screw-in 62mm filters, such as polarizers, which can help reduce reflections on water or boost the blues in the sky. Filter adapters also let you use professional-quality square Lee Filters, which slide into a holder connected to the adapter via a 62mm adapter ring. They're something I normally use on my Canon 5D Mk4 and can make all the difference in turning an image from a simple snap into a professional-looking work of art. Of particular importance are the graduated neutral density filters, which selectively darken only the top half of the image -- making it perfect for bringing those bright skies under control when you're shooting wide landscapes.

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By using a Lee Filters graduated neutral density filter, I was able to darken the sky, emphasising the moody drama of the storm clouds.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Portable phone charger 
A portable phone charger is also a great idea if you're going out hiking into the wilderness and plan on shooting all day. I use the Anker PowerCore 20,100, which has enough juice to recharge my phone several times over -- perfect for a weekend in the hills when power points may be scarce.

Outdoor wear 
Finally, don't underestimate the importance of correct clothing. If you're hiking into the hills for your photographs, sturdy boots are essential to avoid a twisted ankle as you clamber over loose ground. I use the North Face Hedgehog Trek boots (now updated to the Hedgehog FastPack boots), which are sturdy enough to tackle any of the UK's hills and also have the benefit of being waterproof, meaning I don't return home with soaking wet, freezing cold feet. Speaking of which, a good waterproof coat is a must if you want to keep the elements at bay, and a lightweight, packable midlayer -- like the Arc'Teryx Cerium SL down jacket -- is great to keep stuffed in your bag in case the temperature starts to drop. 

Sort your phone camera settings

Your phone is probably capable of taking a cracking landscape photo in its default auto mode, but let's take things a bit further. 

If your phone has a "pro" mode that gives you manual control of settings, switch into that. If it doesn't, apps like Moment, Lightroom or MuseCam let you take control of settings like ISO, shutter speed and white balance. 

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By using the Samsung Galaxy S10 Plus's Pro mode, I was able to select a slow shutter speed, blurring the motion of the water as it cascades over the rocks.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Crucially, these apps also let you shoot in raw format. Raw images don't save many of the automatic camera settings that your phone would normally apply to a jpeg image, such as white balance or sharpening. The result is an image that lets you change the white balance, alter colour tones and rescue detail from the highlights and shadows much more easily -- and with less image degradation -- than you can do from a simple JPEG. I'll come back to this more in the editing section below.

In landscapes, altering white balance is often crucial. Being able to tone down some of the highlights from a bright sky or bring up the shadows in the foreground is important, and being able to alter your white balance after you've taken the shot gives you much more flexibility in your editing (particularly those occasions when you want to warm up the tones in a beautiful sunset, for example). 

The downside to shooting in raw is that your images will need some work in an editing app like Lightroom or Snapseed before you can share them. Photographing landscapes is often a slower, more methodical process, and spending time in editing is all part of the experience of crafting a beautiful image. 

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Time of day is everything in landscape photography. By finding my location earlier in the afternoon, I was able to capture this great sunset shot when the time came.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Shoot early, stay out late

Time of day is everything in landscape photography, because the lighting changes completely as the sun passes overhead. The best time of day for really dramatic light is either at sunrise or at sunset. The sun is low in the sky both times of day, resulting in directional light and long shadows cast over the scene. 

Midday is typically the worst time to shoot, as the overhead light doesn't create much in the way of shadow detail, resulting in scenes that can look flat and lifeless. 

If you have a particular location in mind, it's worth setting your alarm and getting out early to see what you can capture during the sunrise. If time allows, try and return to shoot the same scene at different times of day to see when it looks best. 

Watch the weather

Weather plays a huge part in any outdoor photography, but none more so than with landscapes. Different weather conditions will transform your scene, completely altering its mood, lighting and colours. But don't think that bad weather means bad photos.

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The rain clouds overhead add a real sense of drama to this scene.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Personally, I love the foreboding, moody atmosphere of a landscape with dark storm clouds billowing above. It's often the light that comes after a storm that can look particularly dramatic. So while the hike to your chosen location might be a miserable slog in pouring rain, keep your spirits up by imagining the beautiful photo you might get at the end. 

The worst weather for landscapes is that plain, miserable grey sky where there's no texture to the clouds, no interesting light on the land and no contrast to the scene in front of you. 

Keep an eye on your favourite weather app and make the decision based on what's predicted. As long as you've packed the right clothing, then you can brave the worst of the weather, and if it gets too bad then navigate Google Maps to the nearest pub to sit it out with a good drink. 

Experiment with your wide and zoom lenses

If your phone has a wide-angle mode then now's the time to give it a try. And as mentioned before, if you don't have a wide mode on your phone as standard, you can use additional lenses to get the same effect. 

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I used the Galaxy S10 Plus's super wide angle lens to capture as much of this scene as possible, but I made sure to use this millstone as foreground interest.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Super-wide landscapes can be particularly dramatic, as they capture so much of a scene in a single image. Mountain tops that would otherwise be out of frame are suddenly captured in all their majesty, while beautiful rivers can now been seen in their entirety, snaking their way into a scene.

But once you've had the excitement of seeing the scene in full, try using the telephoto zoom lenses on your phone to focus in on some of the details within it. Look out for interesting rock formations, patterns in the landscapes or unusual shapes in the scene — all things that can suddenly stand out when you zoom in and crop out other distracting elements. 

Concentrate on composition

It's easy to think that just using as wide an angle as possible is a guarantee of a cool landscape photo, but that's not the case. In fact, to get the best out of your wide shots you need to think about composition even more. 

Foreground interest 
Look for foreground interest in your scenes. Tree stumps, moss-covered rocks, even some pretty wildflowers can all be used to draw the viewer's eye into a scene. When you're at the top of the hill taking your shot, spend a couple of minutes having a look around for something you can place in your shot to help bring the scene together. 

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The road is an obvious leading line here, drawing your eye into the image.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Leading lines 
Leading lines are also great elements to look for for a brilliant landscape composition. Keep your eye out for pathways, nice walls or other long elements that wind their way further into the scene -- it's exactly that winding perspective that allows your viewer's eye to follow along that line and into your image. 

Straight horizons 
If your phone shows grid lines or a leveling tool on the screen, use that to make sure your horizon line is straight. Then double-check you're not accidentally chopping the top off your subject, be it a mountain, a building or some trees. Remember, you can do a lot to improve a mediocre image with editing, but you can't do anything to rescue bad composition. 

Use an editing app

Your image isn't finished once you've hit that shutter button; a few tweaks in an editing app is all it can take to transform a simple snap into a beautiful piece of art. 

My favorite editing app is Adobe Lightroom Mobile, but I also get great results from Google's Snapseed, which you can get for free on Android and iOS. I tend to start with tweaking the white balance so the colours look accurate -- or to give a warmth boost to a beautiful sunset. It's here that shooting in raw becomes particularly beneficial. 

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Taken on the Galaxy S10 Plus, this shot of Solomon's Temple in Buxton, England is a fine snap, but it's uninspiring and the rusted drainpipe on the outside of the tower doesn't look good. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET
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But with some work in Lightroom to adjust the colour balance, darken the sky and foreground and remove the drainpipe, the image has a lot more impact.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

I'll tweak the exposure levels, particularly the highlights and shadows in order to bring a bright sky a bit more under control or to boost shadows in the foreground. A bit of additional contrast can help add some punch to the scene as well. 

My advice is to make a coffee, sit back and play with the sliders in your chosen app to your heart's content. Try out the different filters, experiment with layering different effects on top of each other by saving and re-importing your image. Remember that there's no right or wrong way to edit an image, so enjoy the fun in playing around -- you can always go back to the original image if you don't like what you've come out with. 

Hopefully this gives you some good inspiration to get out there and get shooting. If you're looking for more tips on taking great photos with your phone, check out our macro guide, our guide on how to snag great photos of cars with your phone or get inspiration from our supercar tour of Scotland, shot entirely on the iPhone 11 Pro.

Originally published last month.