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Take Better Vacation Photos: 7 Tips From a Travel Buff

Here's how to get great pictures from your travels, no matter what camera or phone you have.

Geoffrey Morrison standing in the middle of the road in a desert.
A vacation selfie taken on a humble smartphone.
Geoff Morrison/CNET

Here's a secret: You don't need an expensive camera to get great photos. Sure, it can help, and there are some photos only a "real" camera can take. However, you might be surprised at how good your photos can be just using your phone or an inexpensive camera. Learning these tips and techniques will help you if you ever upgrade to a big camera too.

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Who am I to give this advice? I'm a travel writer and photographer, with over 150 photo galleries here on CNET taken all over the world. I have an expensive camera, sure, but I also use my phone more than you'd expect. 

There's an overused, but still true, adage: The best camera is the one you have with you. So if you can get photos you like without spending money on a camera you might only use once or twice a year, even better.

While each phone is slightly different in its hardware and camera app, I've kept the following tips general enough that they should work on just about every device. More expensive phones can generally take higher quality images than cheaper phones, but you should be able to get great results no matter what you have. Also, if you're confused by any of the terminology, there's a glossary of some often-used camera terms at the bottom.

For more, here's how to take great vacation videos with your phone camera and some tips for getting great shots even if your phone is old. Plus, here are the seven things you should always pack when you travel and what travel veterans recommend before leaving on vacation.

1. Clean the lens

Fingerprint smudges on a smartphone.

Does your phone screen look like this? I bet the camera does too. Few things can improve the quality of your photos more than a clean camera lens.

Serhii Shleihel/GettyImages

I can't stress enough how important this is. Well, I guess I can stress it since I'm putting it first. I'm amazed how often I see washed out and smudged images that are the result of fingerprints or other schmutz on the camera lens. Just cleaning your lens will improve the quality of your images probably more than any other tip. 

How often? I literally check my camera lens before every group of photos. Important ones, anyway. Phone comes out of my pocket, I check the camera lens. 

Ideally, you'll use a microfiber cloth, the same sort that comes with glasses/sunglasses. If not, even a soft shirt will be fine. Nothing rough or coarse. Nikon sells a nice microfiber cloth that comes in its own tiny neoprene baggie. This keeps it clean and conveniently on hand.

If you have a real camera, always (always always always) use a lens cap. I get such anxiety when I see people pull a camera from a bag, or have it dangling around their neck, and there's no lens cap. Scratches are even worse than smudges since they permanently decrease the image quality possible with the lens. Lenses are the eyeballs of your camera. Treat them as such. 

If you're worried about losing your lens cap, or hate juggling it while you're handling your camera, check out cheap lens cap straps. They're great.

2. Tap the screen

A photo of the camera app on a Google Pixel at sunset.

The camera app on a Google Pixel

Google

This always seemed obvious to me, but I've regularly caused "ah-ha!" moments giving this advice. When lining up your shot, if it doesn't look right, tap the screen. Most phones are pretty good at figuring out what you're trying to photograph, but not always. Tapping on your subject, a person, animal, thing, whatever, and changes the focus and exposure.

Here's an example. Say you want to take a photo of your partner on the beach at sunset. Three beautiful things in one photo: partner, setting sun, ocean. The beach too I suppose unless you don't like sand. This is called a backlit photo, and it's extremely hard to do. Most often, your partner will be underexposed (see the terminology section below), as in they'll look dark/shadowed. 

With most phone and camera apps, you can tell the camera where to expose the image. In this case, on your partner. The sun will then be overexposed (blown out), but you'll still get the idea it's a sunset and you'll be able to see your partner, which is generally the point, right? If your phone is able to take HDR photos, this image will look better than if it can't. 

There is some editing you can do to make a photo like this look better, but that can only go so far. We'll get to editing a little later. 

3. Don't use the flash

A man taking a photo with his camera and flash.

If you're this close to your subject, sure, try the flash. Most phones and cameras have decent low-light capabilities, so the image might look better with the flash turned off. It's worth checking.

Jenner Images/Getty Images

There's no such thing as a good camera flash on a phone. They're all terrible. Even the big add-on flashes for full-size cameras only work in certain situations. Believe it or not, in most cases you'll get a better photo turning the flash off completely. Not 100% of the time, however, so it's worth trying both options. 

This is especially true if you're using a full-size camera with built-in flash. In every scenic place I've ever been there's at least one person trying to take a landscape photo and their flash fires. Flashes, even the best, only work within a few feet of the subject. Not only will they do nothing for landscapes, they'll wear down your battery faster at best, and mess with the exposure at worst. 

You can turn off the flash in your camera app's settings. More on that below.

There is such a thing as a Slow Sync Flash photography that can be great when trying to photograph people in front of a twilight or night landscape. I'd classify this as a bit more advanced, but with a bit of practice the results can be great!

4. Get a selfie stick

Grandparents getting ready to skydive taking a selfie with a selfie stick.

Grandma's gonna find that reindeer and enact revenge.

Geber86/Getty Images

Selfie sticks are good. I have apishly long arms and I still have one, though I typically use it for my 360 camera. My 80-year-old dad has one. They're great. People should take more photos of themselves, of their family and friends, everything. I honestly don't get the hate. Photos are great! Preserve whatever memories you can. Future you will thank you. 

To put it more pragmatically, a selfie stick will let you get a wider field of view of yourself, the people you're with and where you are. It just makes for a better photo. 

When you're using them, certainly be wary of your immediate surroundings and the people near you. Some locations, especially crowded or dangerous ones, tend to restrict selfie stick usage. Keep an eye out for signage.

If you're not sure how much you'll use it, there's this $8 option on Amazon that extends to 28.7 inches, has a Bluetooth remote built in, and has a base that extends out into a tripod. It collapses down quite small too. For something a bit more elaborate and sturdy for an action camera, GoPro's own 3-way 2.0 configures to a wide variety of positions and angles. It's made for their cameras, of course, but many action cameras use the GoPro-style mount.

5. Get a better angle

A picture of a sleepy pug in the sun.

This is Smeagol and he is a Very Good Boy.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Most people just bring the phone or camera up to eye level and take the photo. Sometimes that's fine, but you can often get far better results with a different angle. Try holding the camera above your head and aim down. Photographing people from below tends to be rather unflattering, but slightly above often looks great. If you're taking a picture of a kid or animal, get down to their level. A dog's-eye-view of a dog is almost always a more interesting photo than a human's-eye-view of a dog. 

This is an aspect where a selfie stick helps. Extend it out and you'll be able to easily frame that epic photo of you and the fam at the Grand Canyon where you can see you, the fam, and the Grand Canyon instead of you, parts of the fam, and a sliver of the Grand Canyon.

6. Learn your app's settings and modes

The different menus and screens of the iPhone's camera app.

Changing the default settings on your phone's camera app can have big results.

Apple

Nearly every phone's camera app is capable of a variety of different photo styles. I'm always surprised to see how many people have no idea. Portrait mode, landscape mode and night mode all let you take vastly more interesting photos than the basic mode, all with just a few taps on the screen. Check them out, see what they do. 

As far as settings go, generally the stock ones should be fine. It's worth checking to make sure it's taking the highest-resolution it can and that the flash is turned off (see No. 3). Some apps let you shoot RAW, more info on that in the terms section below.

I'd also recommend enabling manual controls, if available. They'll just take a few minutes to learn and they should help you get the photo you want when, like described in No. 2, the camera itself is struggling to do so.

Fun fact: Many camera apps have the option to use one of the phone's buttons as the shutter. If it's too hard for you to tap the screen while holding the phone, perhaps using the volume button instead will be easier. There are also timer functions that give you a countdown of a few seconds to get your pose and people ready.

Read more: How to Use the iPhone's ProRaw Mode to Make Your Photos Look Better Than Before

7. Editing

Note the different editing possibilities cycling through on the right.

Google

Nearly every great digital photo you've ever seen has gone through some amount of editing. Colloquially this is called "Photoshopping" but you don't need to pay Adobe for a subscription to that specific program. In fact, there are a lot of free options. Your phone might have some built in to its gallery already. Instagram has some great adjustments too. Beyond those, check out CNET's best free and paid photo editing apps for iPhone and Android.

The easiest way to learn is to just pick a photo and see what all the options do. Visually, it will be pretty obvious what things like contrast, brightness, and so on actually do. Most of them do the same thing on your TV, if you're interested. 

Slight tweaks to contrast, brightness, and color will do wonders for any image. You can "slap a filter on it," sure, but starting with a better base image will usually make it look better after you apply a filter too.

Bonus! Cloud backup

Apple iCloud icon on a smartphone
Ymgerman

While not a camera tip per se, I very strongly recommend getting some sort of cloud backup for your photos. Integrated with your phone this means that whenever you're on Wi-Fi all your photos will get backed up to the cloud. With a real camera you can download them to the camera's phone app, and usually they'll get sent to the cloud from there. Sometimes, like with GoPro, there's an extra step required to save them to your phone's gallery.

With a cloud backup if you lose your phone or camera, you won't lose your photos. This saved me in a big way when I got robbed on an overnight train in Italy, and another time when a hard drive crashed on me. 

Also, never forget, there are only two types of hard drives: Those that have failed, and those that will fail.

Check out our six ways to keep your photos safe in case of an emergency and best cloud storage services for 2022.

When to upgrade

As you get to know your phone's camera, you'll start to find its limitations. A limited zoom is going to be the most obvious, followed by noise in the image, a lack of settings, and so on. Some of you will start wanting more. It's a logical progression, one I bounded through myself, from inexpensive options to more and more expensive options. It's a pricey hobby, to be sure. Buying used can help.

I recommend checking out my Best Camera for Summer Travel article as a next step. It's aimed towards vacation/travel options, but should give you an idea what's out there and what the upgrade steps look like.

Terms and words and stuff

You'll find these terms when reading about actual cameras, as well as about phone cameras and within apps.

Wide angle: A type of lens that typically captures more than what you'd see with your eyes in one glance. The whole forest instead of a single tree, so to speak.

The Root Glacier between the mountains in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park.

A wide angle photo, taken with my phone, of the Root Glacier in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Note the tiny people in the lower left.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

Telephoto: The tree, not the forest. Telephoto lenses let you capture images where you seem right up close to a subject but were actually far away.

Hikers make their way across a glacier.

Standing in the same place as the above photo, but with a 135mm telephoto lens on a Canon R6. These are the same hikers, a few minutes earlier, as they made their way across the glacier. Note how much closer they seem.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

SLR/DSLR: Single Lens Reflex/Digital Single Lens Reflex. Historically the "big, real camera." Usually a shorthand for a camera where you can change the lenses. Gradually being replaced, even among expensive cameras, with mirrorless versions.

Mirrorless: Lacking the moving mirror found in all SLR/DSLR cameras. What this means for you is the cameras are slightly smaller and lighter. Offered in a wide variety of prices. At the top end they're replacing professional DSLRs. 

35mm equivalent: Refers to 35 millimeter film, the old standard, as a way to describe how wide, or telephoto, a lens is. For example, a 35mm-equivalent 12mm lens is wide, a 100mm lens is telephoto. Used as a relative reference since the actual focal length will vary depending on the size of the image sensor. 

Optical zoom: This is the only real zoom. Uses glass or plastic lenses to make a subject appear closer. 

Digital zoom: Best to think of this as "fake" zoom. It merely crops the image, and then upconverts it. Doesn't make the subject more detailed, just larger. OK if there's no other option, but the image quality is vastly inferior to optical zoom.

Underexposed: A subject or image that's darker than desired.

Overexposed: A subject or image that's brighter than desired.

RAW: An image format that's just very lightly processed data from the image sensor. At the professional level, RAW files are used almost exclusively as there is more range available to edit. However, you need to be knowledgeable with photo editing and have an app/software that can edit your camera/phone's RAW files. Not for beginners.


As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.