Travel Photography: Let's Talk Mobile Photography

Let's talk Mobile Photography real quick, shall we?

With the invention of Instagram, mobile photography has hit it's peak causing phone companies to equip their buyers with world-class cameras at the tip of their fingers.  Many photographers have taken this as a challenge to share "mobile-only" images on Instagram.  Why?  Because as photographers, it forces us to think outside the norm of fancy cameras and lenses.  It forces us to use the fixed components of a phone to tell a story.

While my Instagram is a mix of iPhone and DSLR photos, it's no secret that every now and then my iPhone takes a better shot than my "real" camera.  Mostly thanks to the HDR feature, but I don't want to discredit it's awesome-ness ;)

Since I often get questions on my mobile photography, I thought I would share my process from start to finish with you today.  So let's get to it!

Before taking any photos, make sure your phone lens is clean.  It sounds pretty obvious, but we've all taken photos without cleaning the lens and wondered why the heck the image looked "cloudy".  So do yourself a favor and beat yourself to it!

Also, before going any further, I just want to mention that I'm currently shooting with an iPhone 6s, so you may have to alter these instructions if you are using a different phone.

Taking the photo

I use the built-in "camera" app, plain and simple.  I know some people prefer to take photos in 3rd party apps, but I've always found that the camera app is what's easiest for me.

If I immediately see a shot, I'll line it up and shoot.  If I don't, I might move my phone around with the camera app open to see what different perspectives look like.  I only have a 16gb phone (which fills up so fast), so I try to be selective with how many photos I take.

Framing & Exposure

Generally speaking, the iPhone gets the exposure I hoped for as soon as I line it up.  But if it doesn't, I'll tap something darker or lighter in the frame to get a more desired exposure.

I always make sure to pay attention to anything that might be creeping into the frame - unwanted people, random tree branches, etc.  Take a few steps in toward your subject if you need to get rid of those tree branches.  Or wait for unwanted people to move.  It will be worth the wait.

When it comes to framing photos on my phone, I kind of throw all of the "rules" out the window and just do whatever I think looks good.  Simply moving my phone around with the camera app open has forced me to be more creative and take shots I may not have otherwise taken.  Here's some examples:

In both of these photos, I tilted up to capture a portion of the "world" and a portion of the sky.  I experimented with both of these shots, moving my phone around until it looked interesting to my eye.  Both of these styles of framing are something I would probably never think of or do with my DSLR, but my eyes were more adventurous with my phone!

After taking a handful of images, I'll review each one and decide which one(s) I like.  Then I'll start editing.


I have to admit that sometimes I'll edit a photo and realize I don't like it.  It happens.  Don't feel bummed if it happens to you.

I use the VSCO app to edit my photos because I like their presets the best.  Afterlight and Filmborn are also great editing apps that I would recommend, but I just happen to favor VSCO.

The Process

After opening up my image in VSCO and selecting the edit tab, I start by choosing the "M5" preset.  After years of using VSCO, I've learned that this preset is consistently my favorite so I always use it.  Sometimes it makes photos a bit too warm, but we can fix that later.

After selecting M5, I may choose to dial the filter down to about 10 or 10.5 if it just feels too extreme on the image.  Then I move on to fine tune.

I usually always bring the brightness up just a bit because M5 tends to darken the image.  Then I'll bring the contrast up a bit because bringing the brightness up can sometimes cause a lack of contrast.

If I need to straighten or crop the image, this is when I will do it.  Then I'll sharpen the image.  If I did any straightening or cropping, I usually add extra sharpening because the original image seems to get less sharp when you straighten/crop.  If I didn't do any straightening/cropping, I will still sharpen the image - usually to about 1.5 - 2.

If some of the original saturation in the image was lost by the M5 preset, I add some of it back using the saturation tool.  This is especially true of sunset images, photos of flowers, etc.  If the M5 preset has made the image appear too warm, I'll use the temperature tool to dial some blue back in, usually to about -0.3 or so.

Sometimes the image feels a bit to harsh or contrasty to me, so I'll use the fade tool to add some softness to the blacks in the image.  Be careful not to overuse this tool because it can make your images pretty flat looking!  I try not to go above 1.

When I'm done editing the image, I save it to VSCO and then export the actual image size to my camera roll.  Then, voila!  My photo is complete.

A Step-By-Step Example

Here's an example of a recent photo I shot and step-by-step how I edited it:

On the left is BEFORE, on the right is AFTER.

Filter: M5 at +12.0
Brightness/Exposure: +1.0
Contrast: 0.0
Sharpen: +2.0
Temperature: -1.0
Fade: +1.0

Now vs. Then

I was definitely a terrible mobile photographer when I first started.  It's obvious, but practice practice practice is the only thing that will make you better.  Don't give up when your first, second, or third shot doesn't feel award-winning.  If it makes you feel any better, here's an example of what my mobile photography looked like back in 2012:





It's quite the difference, right?  So don't let lack of experience hold you back because no one is amazing at their first try.

Hope this was helpful!  If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to ask them in the comments below!