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10 Simple Tips to Help You Take Stunning Vacation Photos on Your Smartphone

Travel light and leave your stand-alone digital camera at home

spinner image two japanese women gesture broadly in traditional outfits
In Japan, kimonos are worn for special occasions these days, so you’ll want to ask for a picture when you see one.

Heading out for vacation soon? Good news: You don’t have to bring your big, bulky camera anymore.

You can do almost everything with your smartphone. The only exception is an ultra-closeup of wild animals. Family pictures, landscapes, portraits, night-time shots, moody black-and-whites, you name it — a smartphone camera on an Android, Google Pixel or iPhone is so good that it will serve you just fine.

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When taking two big trips to Japan and France, I left the big cameras at home and had no regrets. Here are some tips to make your vacation photos pop like a pro.

1. Stop by the local tourism office

Do this first. Look at brochures, magazines and photographs.

If these look like what you want to photograph, ask where they were taken. The staff knows more about the area than you do, so their advice should be extremely helpful.

spinner image a dawn photo of  paris with the eiffel tower in the background
Paris at dawn: If you wake up before the rest of the city, you can get great light and avoid hordes of tourists.

2. Wake up early

Popular vacation spots tend to attract huge crowds, and you really don’t want to see a lot of people in your beauty shot of Yellowstone’s Old Faithful geyser or the Eiffel Tower. Luckily, you have an easy fix. Wake up early and get your shot first thing in the morning, when most cinematographers and photographers get their best images because the light is at its softest and warmest.

Way fewer people will be walking around than right before sunset, the other “golden hour” in the day. Generally, as the day progresses, the number of people increases. If you can be on the scene just after sunrise, you’ll be in better shape for a great shot.

You can always go back to the room and nap afterward.

3. Find shade on the road

The worst time to snap family photos is midday when most people want to take them. The sunlight is harsh, and it produces heavy shadows on faces.

The easiest fix? Find a bit of shade, and everyone’s face will look great with soft, even, shadow-free lighting. If you see a spot of sun on a face, move the subject slightly until it disappears.

Want to Learn More?

Senior Planet from AARP has periodic smartphone photography classes among its other courses on smartphone use.

What if you want a photo of the family in front of an icon, such as California’s Hollywood sign or Arizona’s Grand Canyon, where shade may be nonexistent? Have people don hats and sunglasses, and the shadows won’t seem as harsh.

The solution is a trade-off. With shades on, you won’t be able to see their eyes.

4. Learn to use exposure control

Smartphone cameras are fantastic. They get everything right — always — until they don’t.

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Sometimes a camera senses lighting incorrectly, so you’ll need to adjust. To change the lighting on an Apple iPhone and Samsung Galaxy, press your finger on the screen for a second or two until a little icon of a sun shows up.

Move your finger up and down to go lighter and darker. If you’re holding your phone horizontally, you may have to drag your finger right or left.

5. Capture the wide-open spaces

Shoot big skies with the widest possible lens setting on your phone, generally 0.5x, to see as many clouds as possible. Better yet, take advantage of the time-lapse tool on your smartphone to make short videos of the world flying by at top speed.

They’re simple to do. Just open the Camera app on the iPhone, and swipe right, i.e. move your finger from left to right at the bottom of your screen, all the way to Timelapse. On Android phones, the feature is usually called Hyperlapse and is housed in the More section.

Timelapse photos need a book or other solid object to set the phone against or a tripod. You’ll want to keep the camera running for 15 to 30 minutes; no person can hold their camera that long without shaking or swaying.

spinner image a smiling man in a cap holds out a crepe
A crêpe maker in Lyon, France, cracks a shy smile.

6. Take photos of locals

You can come home with beautiful photos of buildings, but what draws people in are faces.

They make your photos pop, and it’s not hard to do. Every time you visit somewhere or buy something, ask the person you’re doing business with to smile for the camera.

They’ll usually say yes. So will most others if you walk up to them and ask nicely for a pose.

7. Remove stray people

If you can’t get up early, tricks and apps are available to erase inadvertent photo bombers or even power lines from your shot when you edit it. After all, you’re not trying to be a news photographer. These are sentimental shots.

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Android users have access to Google’s Magic Eraser in the Google Photos smartphone app, which lets you wipe people and objects from the photo. Tap Tools | Magic Eraser and the app will offer suggestions, choose Erase. It then uses artificial intelligence to blend the area into the background.

Apple users need to subscribe to Google One, which starts at $1.99 monthly for 100 gigabytes of online backup, to get access to the eraser tool in Google Photos.

8. Remember Reels and Shorts

Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and even TikTok are all about showcasing short little video clips to their audiences. Don’t be left behind.

Hold your camera vertically and snap short videos, as quick as 10 to 15 seconds, to share your vacation with others back home. You can even string several clips together in Instagram, TikTok and YouTube when you upload, making you an editor without realizing it.

spinner image a woman on a bicycle talks on her phone
Rain amplifies bright colors because of the reflections it creates on wet pavement, even when you’re not in Japan.

9. Shoot at night and in the rain

Some of your best colors will appear after the sun goes down, especially after or during a rain. Remember that smartphones are water-resistant, and you can get them very wet without having to worry.

Use this to your advantage to get color streaks and reflections of neon signs.

10. Use the latest phones to get closer

What about those animal shots? If you have the latest smartphone models, use the telephoto feature, up to 3x on iPhones and 5x on recent Galaxy models, to bring you closer to your subjects on safari or at the zoo.

Don’t get so close that you’re in danger of getting a wild animal mad. Be careful. We want you back on the road.

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