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Take your best ever landscape photos with your phone

Whether you use an iPhone or Android, these tips will help you take amazing landscape images to wow your Instagram fans.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

The latest crop of phones like the iPhone 12 Pro Max and Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra have powerful cameras on board that can snag the sort of beautiful photographs you'd normally expect to see coming from pricey DSLRs. The 12 Pro Max has already blown me away with the quality of images I can get using Apple's ProRaw, while the S21 Ultra has its crown as the zoom king. 

In this guide, I'm going to show you how to take landscape photos with your phone, whether you're heading into the 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. 

Let's dive in and don't forget to check our guide to the best phones you can get in 2021, and head over to our phone photography 101 page for lots more photography tips. 

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 enabling the iPhone 12 Pro Max's ProRaw function I was able to pull back a lot more highlight and shadow detail when editing this image.

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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.

Apple's recent iPhone 12 Pro and 12 Pro Max can use the company's new ProRaw format, which uses some computational photography techniques like HDR blending, but still generates an easily editable DNG file. Tapping the "Raw" button on the camera screen will turn on raw shooting.

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 setting my alarm for 3am, I was able to get to this gorgeous location for sunrise. 

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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 to catch 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 assume that bad weather means bad photos.

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The moody weather adds a beautiful, ethereal haze to this scene overlooking Edinburgh.

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 favorite weather app and make the decision based on what's predicted. As long as you've packed the right clothing, 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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By switching to the iPhone 12 Pro Max's ultra-wide lens I was able to keep the small fishing boat on the left and the mooring post on the right in the frame, making it a much more attractive composition overall.

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 be 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 of which can stand out when you zoom in or 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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I've positioned the subject (myself, actually) in the right thirds of the frame here, with the lake in the left thirds. It naturally draws the viewer's eye through the scene. 

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Leading lines 

Leading lines are also great elements of 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 a 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. 

Edit your photos

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. You can check out my roundup of the best editing apps, which include various options for those of you who like to get a bit wild with your editing. 

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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 drain pipe 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 drain pipe, the image has a lot more impact.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

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. 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.