How I Improved My #ShotOniPhone Game Over 5 Months in Europe

Trust me, I was a terrible photo-taker before this trip.

I never considered myself as a decent photographer, though I always had the interest in taking good photos. After being inspired by my photographer friends and travel accounts I followed on Instagram, I decided it was time to take some notes and get down to practicing!

I relied heavily on my iPhone 8 Plus when it came to pictures and videos I took while travelling as I don’t own a camera. I am also by no means an expert, but here are a few things I learnt just by taking photos everyday:

1. Researching Beforehand

After a couple months of travelling, I started to do my research on places to visit via Instagram. I saved a bunch of photos from various travel accounts and looked out for view-points and places with a good photo opportunity (not neglecting the location’s must-sees, too!).

It’ll help when it comes to planning your route within the city you’re travelling in as well. After I located the various spots I wanted to visit, I made a list of ‘Want to Go’ (marked by green flags) on Google Maps.

Pro Tip: Google Maps also marks out some ‘Photo Spots’ and ‘View Points’ on the app as well. They are marked with a camera on the app, and you can preview shots taken by other visitors. It could potentially be a photo spot you’re interested in visiting!

Google uses a camera icon to mark a photo spot or a view point.

2. Knowing the Best Timing for Photos

This wasn't something I realised at the start, but I starting taking note of the direction of sunlight against the object when I took a photo. While I was against the sunlight, there was an unappealing flare or grey cast that appeared, making the image look rather unclear (iPhone isn’t very good in creating light flares, in my opinion).

Grey cast over the horizon when I attempted at taking a photo against the sunlight.

The sun could also cast really harsh shadows on the subject.

I felt that the best times for photos were before noon and after 4 or 5pm when the golden hour started to arise. It could be a good thing too, if it happened to be a cloudy day as the sun’s rays would be diffused before hitting the ground. But it definitely helps if the sun is in the right direction when you’re shooting your object.

3. Post-Processing

I started learning more about Lightroom Mobile before I departed for my travels; I discovered a bunch of available presets online and experimented with them. I took it as a way to learn how other photographers edited their photos as well.

After getting to know the technicalities of Lightroom Mobile better (with the help of a ton of YouTube videos), I made and saved a couple presets that I could use for most of my photos.

This is one of my favourite photos of Jewel, before and after post-processing.

I might add a quick tutorial on how I go about editing my photos in another post in the future :)

4. Portrait mode on iPhone

I felt that iPhone’s Portrait mode was really handy, not only for the depth-of-field effect, but also for when I was far away from the object I wanted to shoot. I used it in place of zooming in on the normal mode as there was a higher chance of a blurry and grainy photo in the latter.

Some photos I took with Portrait mode on my iPhone

I generally felt that the quality of photos taken with Portrait mode was better as well; so don't be afraid to experiment with what iPhone has to offer!

5. Overexposure of Background/Skies

iPhone has the tendency to autofocus on a foreground, and when it does, it overexposes the background pretty often, which gives an unappealing white flare, erasing the details that you may want in your photo.

The clouds tend to lose detail when iPhone’s autofocus comes on.

You can easily get around this by tapping on the background to remove the unwanted flare, or tap and hold on the background, to activate AE/AF Lock so that the focus does not shift back to the foreground.

You can see more details from the clouds here, after adjusting the focus.

6. Making use of Grid Lines

If you love taking landscape photos like me, you can take note of grid-lines and horizon lines that are available on iPhone! It helped me a lot when I had to align vertical and horizontal lines and when I was framing my picture.

You may use the grid to centre your photo, use the Rule of Thirds, or ensure that your horizon lines are straight. In this photo, I wanted to frame the tower as my main ‘object’ and aligned its vertical lines against the grid made available by the camera app.

Don’t worry if you can’t straighten your vertical and horizontal lines while you’re taking the photo, you can still edit them after with VSCO, Lightroom or any other editing softwares you use!

7. Walking at a Slower Pace

I'm generally a slow walker - most of the time while roaming a city, I lag behind my friends by a distance (which led me to almost being pickpocketed while in Brussels, but that's a story for another day).

I also happened to be that friend who 'disappears' because I spotted a photo op that was out of the way, ran over to snap a photo, before running to join my friends again before someone asked, "Where's Geri??"

These multicoloured buildings were located next to the Douro River and Cais da Ribeira, one of the 'must-sees' in Porto. Being very attracted to vibrant colours, I immediately noticed how these adjacent buildings were coloured brightly painted (with such pretty shades as well!) and had to step away from the group to take a shot.

That aside, I realised that walking slowly enabled me to take in more of the city or town, so it can be something you’d like to consider doing! Who knows, you might spot a couple more photo opportunities while at it.

8. Always be Ready

Some moments don’t last very long, so I found it helpful that I always had my phone on a lanyard around my neck. (I also didn’t trust myself not to lose my phone in a foreign country, and the lanyard was the safest option for me. Better to be safe than sorry, right?)

It allowed me to quickly pick up my phone, swipe left and open my camera whenever I saw a photo op.

A carriage passing through the Plaza de España, Seville.

I noticed that there was a carriage that was about to enter the frame and decided to head closer where the carriage would pass, just nicely to fit into the background.

You don’t have to have your phone around your neck all the time like me, but it helps if its easily accessible, like the back pocket of your jeans, rather than tucked deep inside your bag. But don’t stress yourself to always be on the alert for photo opportunities as it may spoil your trip! Just enjoy the everything around you and the rest will follow :)

9. Patience

I realised that patience was really important when it came to capturing a shot you really like.

A couple enjoying the view from Santa Luzia in Lisbon.

This photo was actually taken in a really crowded place in Lisbon, well known for its views of the town below. I was really lucky to see this couple sitting under the bougainvillea tree enjoying the scenery when I saw them.

Before I took my shot, I had to wait a few minutes for people to disperse as they were constantly in frame, and the couple was not always in the position I wanted to take them in (the lady wasn’t always lying on her partner’s shoulder), so that attributed to some waiting time as well.

Ultimately, if you’re waiting for a specific subject to be in frame and depending on how much you want the shot, it may take longer than just a few minutes.

10. Last but not Least, Keep Practicing!

They weren't kidding when they said to keep practicing what you want to improve in! Explore and take photos of everyday life and objects, and it will definitely train your eye for good photos.

I'm far from perfect, but I’m glad for the opportunities I had while I was on the road.



All photos in this article were taken with my iPhone 8 plus and post-processed with either VSCO and/or Lightroom Mobile.