10 hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

Many stunning outdoor photos are shot with smartphones. BUT most are no accident. The photographer used good basic techniques & inexpensive gear to get that great photo. The good news is that you too can do this with the 10 following hacks and accessories for better smartphone hiking photography.

The Newest Smartphone Cameras Kick Ass!

The new iPhones (and other high-end smartphones like the Google Pixel) are intensely applying  “computational photography” (sophisticated software image processing) to significantly improve photos. This includes dynamic range (ability to handle large differences from the lightest to darkest parts of the photo), color, contrast, texture, and even focus to their photos.

The improvements can be dramatic. So much so, that many times the photos from the new smartphones often look better than photos from much larger “traditional” DSLR cameras. It may take a lot of editing of photos from a traditional camera to clearly see the benefits of a larger sensor. That being said, this article will help you get the very best out your smartphone camera.

smartphone hiking photography

The best hiking camera is the one you have with you. For me, that most often is my iPhone. I used my iPhone 6+ to quickly grab a spur of the moment shot of my wife cat napping on warm November afternoon. [And my new iPhone X would have taken an even better photo!]

 10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

smartphone hiking photographyBasic Smartphone Photography Accessories L to R: [Joby GripTight Tripod at (REI) or new JOBY GripTight ONE GP Stand] both better for larger phones & are more adjustable), iPhone X on a JOBY GripTight ONE Micro Stand (smaller & lighter), Apple headset used as a remote shutter release, a Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter (Joby), Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery (keeps phone charged for days of use),  Black Diamond Headlamp (gets you safely to and from the magic light of dawn & dusk for superior photos).

10 Hacks and Accessories for better smartphone hiking photography

For only $25 and some basic technique, you can take far better photos with your iPhone or Android.

  1. Take the photo! Don’t ever think your smartphone camera is holding you back.
    As hockey great Wayne Gretzky says, “you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.” The same applies to photography, maybe more so. Grab your smartphone and start shooting. Some of my best photos were taken on a lark. An “I wonder what this will look like attitude” pays off!
  2. Clean your camera lens. It’s likely filthy! That layer of grime will make every photo worse.
  3. Get an App for manual control of your camera. Camera+ is a personal favorite for it’s ease of use and power. It also has decent photo editing capabilities.
    • For iPhone: Camera+ , or Manual, or VSCO, or ProCamera, or ProCam 4 – Manual Camera
    • For Android: Open Camera (free), Camera FV-5, and VSCO
    • Note that your Camera App doesn’t need to be complicated or hard to use. All you really want is control over ISO, shutter speed and focus area. This is mostly for shooting off the tripod in the magic light of dawn and dusk. [Ideally, you want to manually set focus and a low ISO (around 32) to get the best images.]
    • Tip: Get the best quality photo negatives from your smartphone. If you will be doing serious editing of your photos (see #9 below) then use your camera app to also save in RAW format.
  4. Get a small tripod: This eliminates camera shake, and blurry photos in low light.
  5. Get a remote shutter button: This prevents photo blur when you press your camera to take a photo (the camera moves/vibrates while touching it). It’s also fabulous for high quality selfies (e.g. without your face smashed into the phone see more on this below).
    • Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter
    • Or use the 2 or 10 second timer setting for your smartphone camera
    • Or a little known free feature: Your iPhone wired headphone set works as a remote shutter button. Just press the ‘+,’ volume up button to take a photo!
  6. Get closer to your subject and fill the frame (if you can).
    • Closer is almost always better! So walk, scramble or climb closer to your subject.
    • DON’T USE YOU CAMERA’S ZOOM! (unless you have one of the new dual lens cameras like the iPhone 7+, 8+ or X. Then go ahead and use that ‘2x’ button.)
    • All your smartphone’s “zoom” function does is pre-crop your photo. You aren’t getting any more pixels or resolution than if you just cropped it yourself. As such, you might just as well have the additional area around your subject in case you want to use it later.
  7. Try and shoot with the sun behind you, or around 90 degrees from the sun (sun to your left or right.)
    • If you shoot into the sun, light will fall directly onto your camera lens. This will create washed out low contrast photos lacking in color and detail.
    • If you absolutely need to shoot into the sun… you can try and shade the lens with your hand, but this can be difficult to do and still tap the shutter button. Sometimes a friend’s hand is a big help.
  8. Take a breath and carefully REVIEW YOUR PHOTO after taking it! You’ll likely not get a 2nd chance, so make sure it’s right.
    • Sharpness: Enlarge your photo and scan it. Is everything you want in focus, especially critical areas like people faces/eyes & foreground detail?
    • Exposure: Correct overall exposure? Is there some detail in both shadows and highlights?
    • Dim Light Problems: Any camera shake (overall photo blur) from a low shutter speed? Smudging, poor color and other nastiness from a high ISO?
    • People: Eyes open? Good expression? Awkward position, clothing malfunction?
    • Extraneous Objects: Any odd objects in the photos. E.g. trekking poles you left in the foreground, piece of garbage, somebody photobombing, etc.? Also, make sure you didn’t inadvertently cut off something critical like the top of a mountain.
  9. Use a good photo editing app like Snapseed to dramatically improve the look of your photos. Spending just a few minutes editing can transform a so-so photo to something special. Many of these programs are free and simple to use.
    • My personal favorite is Snapseed but some apps like Camera+ also have decent editors.
    • And of course Lightroom Mobile is good if you already own one of the Adobe Creative Cloud Photo Plans. But some people may not like the subscription fees.
    • Tip: Use your camera app to also save in RAW format to give you the most latitude to edit your photos. The RAW file has more dynamic range (ability to capture a larger range of lights to darks without losing detail). E.g. clouds and other light objects will still have good detail while the normal (JPEG or HEIF) files will not.
  10. Manage your battery life and carry a backup battery.
    • Manage your battery life. Nothing is worse than having an incredible photo opportunity in front of you and pulling out a dead smartphone. With good battery management I get 7 days on trail use hiking with my iPhone. Read more on battery management here.
      The best batteries for charging smartphones are:
    • The 5 oz EasyAcc 6000mAh USB Battery. The highest capacity for its weight, it charges a smartphone 2 to 3 times. I use it on 7-14 day backpacking trips. It has a built-in micro-USB connector and you can connect a lightning cable to its USB port. So you can charge lightening and micro-USB devices at the same time.
    • Jackery Bolt 6000 mAh USB Battery. This has faster charging and both micro-USB & lightning connectors. Downside is it has slightly less overall tested (vs. claimed) capacity than the EasAcc.

6 Bonus Hacks

best backpacking cameras

Take the photo! Don’t ever think your smartphone camera is holding you back –  I took this shot with a cheap 2011 point & shoot camera but my current iPhone X would have taken a better photo! The major point is that I had a camera and made the time to take the photo. [Pic is Canyonlands UT: An ugly storm of sleet & snow was about to break when a sudden opening in the clouds illuminated the bluff in front of me. I had less than 30 seconds to extract the camera from my pocket, get it out of a waterproof baggie and take the shot before the sun was gone and the heavens opened.]

  1. Take High Quality Selfies. Use one of the small tripods and a Bluetooth Smartphone Camera Remote Shutter. That way you and your friends can easily pose in a picturesque spot many feet from your phone and casually press the remote shutter to take a great photo!
  2. Shoot in the “golden hour” of dawn and dusk. This is when the pro’s shoot. Take the time when you get into camp to scout out some good areas to shoot at dawn and dusk. Then get there with plenty of time to setup and wait for the light show to unfold.
  3. A headlamp is a big help to hike there/setup in the dark, and/or to takedown and hike back in the dark. Use a good Headlamp with a dimming function so you can have low light for not blowing your eyes out when setting  but also have a very bright light for hiking.
  4. Protect your smartphone in the field and save weight and money. Rather than bulky, awkward and expensive cases like an OtterBox Case, use the following items:
    1. A simple sub-$10 phone case like this Spigen Ultra Hybrid iPhone X Case or the same one for iPhone 7/8.
    2. Tempered Glass Screen Protector
    3. Pint Ziplock Freezer bag. I highly recommend using a Pint Ziploc Freezer Bag used to protect your smartphone from dust, scratches and water (effective, lighter and less expensive than elaborate waterproof cases!  And it works well for other electronics.).
  5. Take dreamy blurred water photos. Using Apples new “LIVE” mode or using an app like Slow Shutter Cam. Note that you WILL need to use a tripod and a remote shutter button to get best results. (see above for gear details).
  6. Make your smartphone into the best hiking GPS going. See How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS.

Final Hack – Improvise a “Tripod” to Stabilize your Camera

You can get much of the benefit of a tripod to stabilize your smartphone by improvising a “tripod.” You can brace your smartphone up against a rock, tree, or even hold it against your trekking pole. Remember to squeeze off that shutter gently! Every bit of stability helps to get a sharp photo.

Or better yet, you can use folded garment (or other prop) on top of a rock, or fallen tree to make an improvised tripod/camera rest. Now that you are not holding the camera, remember to put the shutter release on a 2-second delay for sharpest results. But many times pressing the camera will bump it out of position or knock it over. In this case, use a bluetooth remote shutter release (or for iPhone users, remember that your headphones as a remote shutter button) see details in hacks above.

Additional Reading

Best Backpacking Cameras 2017 – This highly ranked article lays out the best gear and technique for larger, non-smartphone cameras.

How to use your Smartphone as the Best Backpacking GPS – This is the definitive article on how your smartphone can blow away the best dedicated GPS units from Garmin and other major GPS manufactures.



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By | 2017-12-20T00:20:31+00:00 December 17th, 2017|Camera - Photography, Skills|6 Comments

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  1. Graham December 18, 2017 at 1:02 am - Reply

    Yep, Snapseed is brilliant.I concur.

    • Alan Dixon December 18, 2017 at 1:41 am - Reply

      Thanks Graham. Warmest, -alan

  2. Isko December 18, 2017 at 11:29 am - Reply

    I would add: shoot in RAW so you record all the data from the sensor, thus having more information for editing/post-production.

    • Alan Dixon December 18, 2017 at 3:14 pm - Reply

      Excellent point Isko!! A glaring omission for serious photos on a smartphone. I have added the suggestion to also save in RAW format to the post. Thanks for your help, -Warmest.

  3. Jim December 19, 2017 at 3:06 am - Reply

    Just to add an FYI for anyone….the 7+ also has the dual lens camera

    • Alan Dixon December 20, 2017 at 12:19 am - Reply

      Quite true. Thanks Jim. Warmest, -alan

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