Take Great Travel Pictures on Your Cell Phone

STA How-To Series:

by Melissa Clifton

At this point we’ve all done it: find an interesting scene or memorable moment, take several pictures so that "at least one will turn out,” and then never look at those less-than-stellar pictures again. Armed with a bit of knowledge and some creativity, we can avoid wasting cell phone memory, and learn how to take amazing pictures of the monuments, historic places, and amazing people we will see on tour.

Today, anyone with a cell phone can be a photographer. That's great news for those without the huge budget or extra room in their backpack to haul around fancy equipment while traveling. Cell phone pictures can tell an engaging story of your school trip to others and serve to capture memories that last a lifetime.

There are many specifics to dive into when learning about photography, digital creativity or photojournalism, but let’s “focus” on four main areas for a basic introduction:


Creativity is the single most important factor in taking great pictures on your student trip to Washington, DC or New York City. Don’t worry if you don’t consider yourself creative or feel particularly inspired; as long as you are willing to try something different, you can get some interesting shots. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:


Look for moments that capture something happening in the foreground, AND an interesting background. For example: a beautiful sunset behind the US Capitol, or a student interacting with the Jefferson Memorial is usually more interesting than just a picture of the building or memorial itself. (See 2017 photo contest winner Hannah’s Vietnam Memorial photo for a great example.)

A post shared by School Tours of America (@schooltoursofamerica) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2017-07-07T16:41:58+00:00">Jul 7, 2017 at 9:41am PDT</time>


As you notice interesting photo opportunities, think about how to make it different than the standard “straight on” snap of the shutter. Try MOVING yourself to get a different angle. Holding the camera near the ground helps a viewer feel that they are “in” the location with you. Capture reflections or intentionally blur areas of your image for an interesting composition, such as this flower reflection from one of our student Instagramers, Cela. Even obscuring a part of the photo, such as behind a tree branch or bus window, can frame the photo in a way that tells a story to the viewer.

A post shared by Celä Snäps (@celasnaps) on <time style=" font-family:Arial,sans-serif; font-size:14px; line-height:17px;" datetime="2018-04-25T21:51:48+00:00">Apr 25, 2018 at 2:51pm PDT</time>


There are many free and paid apps in Android Google Play and the iOS App Store that can lend a professional look to your photos. Some have built-in features that override the cell phone camera, which gives the user more control over advanced settings such as white balance, ISO and more. Decide how advanced you want to become with your editing and photography skills and play around with some free apps before committing to a paid app. A longtime favorite FREE app for Apple and Android is VSCO (“visco”) which offers a professional camera and beautiful filters that go beyond the “Instagram look.” We recommend starting your exploration there.


Understanding a few basic photography rules can quickly enhance your skills.


This is one of the most important “rules” to help the composition, or layout of your pictures, giving them a sense of balance that is pleasing to the eye. Imagine a tic-tac-toe board laid over your picture and try to align the subject of your photo or the horizon on one of these lines, or directly in the center of the lines. Take a second look at some of your favorite art or photographs, and you will most likely notice this rule in action. (See an example with our other 2017 photo contest winner Naomi’s group shot of a sunset at Washington Monument.)


This is more of a guideline rather than a rule, because this is not always possible. Using natural lighting and holding very still typically gives a better result than the unflattering, unnatural bright light from the phone’s flash. If it’s not possible to turn off the flash, try setting it to AUTO so that the camera is only using it to fill the front of your scene with light rather than trying to be the source of light for every picture.


Don’t use the zoom if you can move your body closer. Digital zoom leads to grainy, unclear pics unless you have VERY good lighting. Move your body instead whenever possible. (Don’t get too close to anything valuable or you risk being yelled at by security guards, which happened to me at the National Archives when I was making a note on my phone in front of the Declaration of Independence! Live and learn!)


Now that you know the rules, throw them out! Once you see how the rules apply, you can use your own creativity and instincts to apply the rules as you wish.


Finally, know your camera. If you spend 15 minutes Googling “How to take great photos with Android/iPhone” and reading the tips for your specific phone, you will learn shortcuts that help you take great photos on the fly. Did you know that some phones, such as the iPhone, can take pictures with the side volume button so that you can steady the phone with both hands? Or that you can “lock in” an area of focus on a specific spot by holding down (rather than tapping) the screen to focus your camera? Also, once the focus is locked in, slide your finger up and down on the screen to change the brightness. Learn a couple of pro tips for your camera or camera app, and you will have professional photos in no time.

Have fun and be creative while you’re on tour, and you will surprise yourself with how professional, creative, and exciting your photos can be. Check out the School Tours of America Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram feed for information about the annual photo contest. The best photo and the best group photo can win some prizes!

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