Take Great Hiking Photos With Your Smartphone

Chances are you’ll want to share your incredible experiences through photos. Yet, hiking with your DSLR can be bulky and even taking your point and shoot is extra weight and space in your pack. A smartphone though, can be your ideal hiking camera. Phones are generally light, compact, sturdy and chances are, you were going to bring it anyway. Camera phones don’t always take the best pictures but with enough practice, yours can work for you.

There is no perfect recipe for a great smartphone image but there are a few ingredients that can help your photos come out looking great. I went through and broke down all these ingredients into four categories to help a cellphone photography noob channel their inner Ansel Adams: composition, technique, accessories and subject matter.

1) Composition

Composition is the arrangement of different elements within a work of art. When taking photos on the trail this could mean making a choice of where to stand in your photo, deciding what elements to focus on and how to frame them in your shot. To make your shots unique and interesting you can utilize compositional techniques. There are a many techniques to work with (some get very involved and complicated), so I chose a few to highlight that anyone can master to a big impact on their photography.

Rule of Thirds – Left  Golden ratio – Right

Rule of Thirds Left: From my recent trip to Israel. Golden Ratio Right: From apnphotographyschool.com

Rule of Thirds Left: From my recent trip to Israel.
Golden Ratio Right: From

The Rule of Thirds uses a grid of nine equal segments. Most cameras have a setting for this so you can see the grid as you are taking your shot. The trick with using the rule of thirds is to place the subject of a photo on one of the segments lines where it intersects with another line. The Golden Ratio is a more complex version of the rule of thirds that is believed to make the image feel more organic. This rule has the image is separated into unequal segments with a ratio of ~1:1.6.


Depth: From my recent trip to Israel

Depth: From my recent trip to Israel

Perceived distance from the observer, separated in foreground, background, and optionally middle ground. Depth is very useful for taking photos of the landscapes (perfect for your AT hikes!) to show the viewer how vast nature is. One way to achieve this is by focusing on a few objects in the foreground to contrast the background.

Rule of odds

Rule of Odds: From https://elijahalcantara.com/2013/04/03/sharing-knowledge-composition/

Rule of Odds (also depth): From

Use odd number of elements rather than equal.  This rule of useful if photographing objects in groups of three. According to this rule, if you have an even number of objects your eye will tend to be attracted to the space between the objects. If you have an odd number, they form a shape such as a triangle that the eye will be drawn to.

Fill the Frame

Filling the Frame: From https://www.picturecorrect.com/tips/fill-the-frame-photography-composition/

Filling the Frame: From https://www.picturecorrect.com/tips/fill-the-frame-photography-composition/

This is when the subject is up close and the background is not or barely visible. It creates a more focused and intense view of the subject. This could be fun for a photo of your friends that contrasts the standard trail pictures.


Lines: From my recent trip to Israel

Lines: From my recent trip to Israel


Lines can be used to direct a views eye to what you want to be the subject of a photo. Lines can change the mood and focus of a standard shot.


Viewpoint: A different angle makes all the different. From my recent trip to Israel

Viewpoint: A different angle makes all the different. From my recent trip to Israel

The angle that a subject is shot. Taking a look at a subject from above or below could have a completely different mood. Play around and see how this changes your shots.

Bonus: Look up more compositional techniques on your own if you’re interested. Patterns, color, texture, symmetry, background, framing an object, positive and negative space.

2) Technique

Now that you have you’re ingredients, you’ll need to learn the basics of your tools to get the most of their capabilities. Below I have added some tips for using your smartphone’s camera and remedy challenges to produce first-rate hiking photos.

Set your phone up for success

Make sure your phone has plenty of memory free for all the photos you’ll be taking. You may want to print a photo as well, so set your preferences to save images at the highest resolution.

Learn your phones editing tools

A small edit can save a photo and you would be surprised what edits your phone can make. It’s also possible to download editing programs to your phone to get more control. Don’t try to crop while taking the photo, cropping after gives you more control to change your mind. Don’t use filters. Adding a filter can distort and image, images can get cheesy, blur filters can look fake and mess with the flow of the image. If you have the patience and tools, for the best results take your photos to a computer and use Photoshop to make adjustments.


Use lens flare to your advantage

Using lens flare for silhouettes.

Using lens flare for silhouettes

You’ll deal with a lot of sun since you’ll be outside all day. Instead of letting the sun wash out your image, position it slightly behind a subject to add focus to a subject. Be careful, lens flare can get cheesy and overdone so use it sparingly.

Skip the flash

Images with poor flash are awful and pretty much every camera has dreadful flash capabilities. To avoid using the flash, you’ll have to practice holding your camera steady but you’ll avoid washed out high contrast photos. Like stated above, edits can always be done. Use edit tools to add brightness and exposure to images later.

Keep it clean

You can’t get a clear image without a clean lens. It’s that simple.

Take lots of shots

This is the best advice that I got when I was in college taking a photography class. If you take a ton, chances are higher that at least one will be in focus. You can always go and delete some extras later.

The Golden Hour: Take shots around sunset and sunrise

You get the best indirect light at these times so you can avoid any harsh glares or deep shadows.

Take a panorama

Panarama: From my recent trip to Israel

Panorama: From my recent trip to Israel

Most phones have settings for this but it can also be done later in software. You can get a great full view of the scenery around you. Perfect for hikes.

Try black and white

Color can sometimes be distracting. Taking shots without color helps you grow your photography skills by forcing you to focus more on composition.


Try different angles of a subject. Sometimes straight on is boring and sometimes you’ll take something too over the top. Maybe a subject looks awesome in the shadows. Most of the time you’ll find some gold trying something new and a ton of shots to get a good laugh at later.

3) Accessories

Add-On lenses

There are more options for seasoned photographer who doesn’t want to shlep their DSLR into the woods. Add on lenses that clip to your phone can be used to get many effects. Fish eye, macro, telephoto… you can certainly have fun.

Extra Software

Apps like Camera Awesome and Camera+ can give you much more control on your device to make edits and use manual camera settings. I started using Camera+ and noticed a big difference in the amount I could do. The only downside to an app like Camera+ is that you can’t snap a quick photo with it. If you’re willing to take the time to fiddle around with it and you can take some great images.

4) Subject matter

Memories: Photo credit Jordan Phillip Stein

Memories: Photo credit Jordan Phillip Stein

It’s my philosophy that in travel photos you should go full on tourist (without being in everyone’s way please!). Take a ton of photos of yourself and your friends enjoying yourself. There are already plenty of beautiful nature shots of the trail by skilled photographers to look at before and after your hike but never enough of your friends during those experiences.

On a thru-hike you’ll have plenty of extra time, use some of it to take great memories with your camera. You might be camera shy or feel too embarrassed to ask fellow hikers for a photo at the time but you won’t regret it later when you see all the great people you spent time with. Skip many of the impersonal landscape photos, opt for a ton of personal shots and memories.

Keep on shooting!



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Comments 1

  • John Cressey : Feb 9th

    Very helpful! Thank you, Sara.


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