You’ve likely heard this before: The best camera is the one you have with you. Trite, but absolutely true. The high-end DSLR or mirrorless camera you might own is totally worthless if it’s sitting in your car, your hotel room, or your home when a great photo opportunity presents itself.
On the other hand, we almost always have a smartphone on hand, and their photo capabilities continue to improve by leaps and bounds. So if you want to capture stunning landscapes, why not learn to take better photos with the camera you always have with you? Why not learn to do smartphone landscape photography?
More than a few times, I’ve chatted with talented photographers who scoff at the idea of serious photography with a smartphone. Knowing I shoot both phone and dedicated camera images, they sometimes admire an image I’ve made, but then ask, “Did you take that with your real camera?”
My “real camera?” Why do some think a smartphone camera isn’t real, or that a person that shoots with one isn’t a real photographer?
I would argue that if you make a nice image, it doesn’t matter what you use to make it. Has anyone ever looked at a da Vinci painting and asked whether he painted it with a real brush?
The fact is that most modern smartphone cameras have far better specs than DSLRs from a decade ago. Sure, certain factors favor DSLRs, such as the greater control, the ability to use interchangeable lenses, and the larger sensor size. But the idea that you can’t make great images with a smartphone camera? Hogwash, I say!
So let’s give you 10 tips on how you can get better images when doing smartphone landscape photography.
1. Make photographs, don’t take snapshots
To be a better photographer, you must move beyond the idea that you “take” a photo. Ansel Adams said it succinctly:
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
What’s the difference? The idea is that you think about what you’re trying to communicate with your photo, then do everything you can to include that, and only that, in your shot. Another way to put it: Snapshots are taken by people who just point and click. Photographs are made by artists who give thought to the image they are creating.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what instrument you use, smartphone or high-end digital camera. What counts is the thought you put into your work. You generally won’t need to make a landscape photograph in a hurry, so slow down and think about what you’re doing.
If you only take one tip from this article, make sure it’s this one. Your smartphone landscape photography will be far ahead of the rest of the happy snappers who just point and shoot.
2. Compose, then expose
Composition is king in photography, no matter your camera.
So study compositional techniques such as the rule of thirds. Use the thirds grid on your smartphone to assist you. Do “border patrol” of your shot, looking for distracting elements around the edges of the frame.
Consider whether you should use portrait (vertical) or landscape (horizontal) mode for the shot. Just because you typically hold your phone vertically doesn’t mean you should always take photos that way. In fact, most landscape images benefit from a landscape mode composition. (Guess that’s why they call it that, huh?)
Of course, sometimes portrait mode is better suited for a shot. Thanks to their small sensors and wide lenses, smartphones feature excellent depth of field, which can make for beautiful near/far images (with everything sharp from foreground to horizon).
3. Seek the light
Since we have our smartphones with us most of the time, we can make photos whenever we like. But images in midday sun usually won’t look great no matter what camera you use. Nice light is always going to make for a better photo.
So if you can do your smartphone landscape photography in the early morning or late evening – the “magic hours” – you’ll almost always end up with more dramatic images.
Modern smartphone cameras have also become much better at low-light shooting, so don’t overlook the possibility of night photos.
4. Take control of your settings
Yet while early smartphone cameras offered no option for manual control, many modern smartphone cameras now offer full manual control over settings. You can also find apps that expand your camera control, such as A Better Camera for Android-based phones or Camera+ 2 for iPhones.
By taking control of your camera settings, you can create better landscape photos – so make sure to explore these options, even if you currently feel more comfortable with your smartphone’s Auto mode.
5. Use all available lenses
It used to be that a distinct advantage of standard cameras over smartphone cameras was lens interchangeability. A smartphone had one lens with a fixed focal length, no optical zoom, and a set aperture.
But look at the back of a modern smartphone, and you’ll see multiple cameras. An iPhone 12 Pro Max features three cameras, while a Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra sports four. There’s also the selfie-cam on the front, but that’s not one you’re likely to use for landscape photography.
If you have additional lenses, take advantage of them! On the other hand, don’t use digital zoom. Sure, it might seem easy to “zoom” into a composition with a simple touch of the screen, but you’re actually just cropping the image and losing resolution in the process.
I’d also discourage clip-on lenses for smartphones. These are always fiddly to work with and almost never produce quality images. Save your money. If you need a more versatile lens than your smartphone but still want something pocketable, check out some of the great point-and-shoot cameras that have superzooms and good specs.
6. Three legs are better than none
As a mostly landscape photographer, I shoot from a tripod about 85% of the time. However, I often see other landscape photographers happily working away with no tripod in sight.
Yes, lens and IBIS (in-body image stabilization) has brought us a long way, and if the light permits, a fast shutter speed might negate the advantage of a tripod. Still, I firmly believe that using a tripod will improve your landscape photography.
But being a tripod-evangelist isn’t an easy assignment. People don’t want to be bothered. Now try convincing smartphone photographers they should use a tripod!
Yet I’ve got to say it: A tripod does have a place in smartphone landscape photography. When the light is low and your shutter speed gets longer, being able to keep the camera still is the difference between a fuzzy shot and a tack-sharp shot. Add the ability to take really long exposures (yes, many smartphone cameras can now do this), and a tripod can sometimes make a lot of sense.
There is one good thing, however: you don’t need a big tripod for your tiny cellphone. Pocketable tripods can do the trick; couple one with a Bluetooth remote trigger, and you can do multi-second exposures with your smartphone. Joby, the company that invented the GorillaPod, is a good place to look.
By the way, if you’re going to be using your standard tripod with your smartphone, a smartphone adapter is a good addition to your bag.
7. You’re not done until you’ve edited
Some photographers believe you should get your image right in-camera so you don’t have to edit. They don’t like to edit their images, ever.
Whether taken with a regular camera or a smartphone, almost any shot can be made better with some editing. You will often want to crop, adjust exposure, and perhaps go even further. Fortunately, there are excellent editing apps for smartphones, and they’re often free.
My absolute favorite is Snapseed. It’s available for both Android and iPhone and is completely free. It’s very easy to learn, has a nice array of tools, and it is rare that any smartphone image I consider a keeper does not get the Snapseed treatment.
There are many other great smartphone editing apps, though. Adobe Lightroom has a mobile version that is very good. Some may argue that the whole idea of smartphone photography is “quick and easy photography” and therefore balk at editing. I get it, but I still think that almost any image can be improved with some fine-tuning.
8. Got a backup? Make one!
With standard cameras, we typically have image files stored on a card in the camera. Remove that card, copy the files to the computer, and make a backup – that’s the standard workflow.
Shooting with a smartphone, however, the images are stored in internal memory and sometimes on a micro SD card in the phone. You can connect your phone to your computer or plug in the micro SD card, but who does that? Most people just let the images stay on their phone. Which is fine, until your phone crashes, the storage is corrupted, or you break or lose your phone.
Now, what if your images were backed up to the cloud – as soon as you shot them? Not only would you have a backup, you’d have the images in a place where they could be easily shared to social media, emailed, whatever you prefer. There are many apps that will do this, but as an Android user, I look no further than Google Photos. iPhone users can also use Google Photos, but might instead opt for iCloud.
Whatever option you choose, the idea is to have an app that immediately and automatically syncs your smartphone images to the cloud for safe backup.
9. Use GPS data to track your photo locations
Almost all smartphones will embed the GPS coordinates of a photo in the EXIF data. Bring up a photo, and in many apps, you will be able to see exactly when and where that photo was made. Some apps will also present pins on a map showing where a collection of photos was shot. If you decide you want to go back to that spot, it’s easy to find it again.
There is a downside to photos being tagged with GPS data. If you post a GPS-tagged image on social media, viewers can determine exactly where the photo was taken. This has caused an ethical dilemma for landscape photographers. Places that used to be known only to a few are now known widely. Photographers seeing a great photo online often think, “I want to go to that spot, too!” The problem is that beautiful places are being overrun, trampled down, littered, and even vandalized by unscrupulous people. Some places are now closed off because they were “loved to death” by the crowds who discovered them online.
So as an ethical landscape photographer, you may wish to consider stripping off the GPS data from your images before posting. It may not be necessary for the most well-known spots, as people already know where those are. But if you find a really great waterfall way up a mountain trail, consider keeping it a secret. Not only will you have an exclusive shot, but you’ll prevent hordes of people from descending upon it.
10. Previsualize with your smartphone camera
When out on a landscape photo outing, I almost always have my smartphone in my pocket and my main camera and equipment in a backpack. Often, I will use the smartphone as a tool to previsualize and help compose a shot. I’ll make some photos, consider my vantage point, and then determine if I even want to set up my tripod and bring out my other gear. This has several advantages.
If the shot doesn’t have merit, I will move on, not even going to the trouble of bringing out my DSLR. On the other hand, if it is a good shot, I will have captured GPS data, plus I’ll have a smartphone image that will be uploaded to the cloud.
And here’s the kicker: Occasionally, my smartphone shot will be better than what I later shoot with my DSLR. There have been times when, with changing light, the first capture is best. Sometimes the smartphone camera will process the image as a JPEG and achieve better results than I get when editing the RAW file from my main camera. There have also been times when I didn’t bother to shoot a DSLR photo – the smartphone shot was all I took – and was later happy I did because it turned out great.
11. Try shooting in RAW
The article title promised 10 tips, but I’m going to throw in this 11th item, just for free! Really, it’s not so much a tip as something for you to explore.
Many newer smartphone cameras can now shoot in RAW format. My current LG V30 does this, and I have successfully brought its DNGs into Lightroom for editing.
That said, I often find that the additional work this requires (plus the huge file sizes and the drawback of not having an easily uploadable JPEG) makes RAW smartphone shooting too much of a hassle. AIso, I’m usually hard-pressed to edit a RAW file into a better image than a JPEG.
If your smartphone can shoot in RAW, give it a test and see what you think. I typically advocate shooting in RAW, but if the end result isn’t any better, why do it?
Smartphone landscape photography tips: conclusion
I’d never tell you to sell your dedicated camera and shoot only with a smartphone. As a dedicated photography tool, your DSLR or mirrorless camera should generally be capable of making superior images, especially if you’ll be printing large. But smartphone cameras get better with every generation, and it’s become impossible to dismiss them as not “real cameras.” As has been the case since the early days of film, it is the photographer, not the camera, that makes a great photograph.
Of course, practice makes perfect. If using the camera you have with you causes you to take more photos and get the shot you otherwise would have missed, then by all means, start doing more smartphone landscape photography!
Smartphone landscape photography FAQs
Most likely. Some believe a smartphone is not a “real camera,” but modern smartphone cameras are now more sophisticated than the DSLRs of just a few years ago. Unless your intent is to make large prints, your smartphone images will be more than adequate for most purposes.
The answer is the same for any kind of photography, regardless of what kind of camera you use: composition is king. Take the time to frame up your image using the standard rules of good composition, and your shots will automatically be better than those of the “happy snappers” who just point and shoot.
Learn to use the manual controls of your smartphone camera. These may be built in, or you may need an app, but just as serious photographers using standard cameras learn to work in manual modes, you should learn to do the same with your smartphone camera.
Edit your images. Many smartphone photographers think they’re done when they click the shutter, but almost any photograph can be improved with some editing. For smartphone photography, Snapseed is a great place to start.