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Landscape photography: tips for your smartphone

You can capture stunning landscape photos with your smartphone. Image by Robert-Paul Jansen.

In many ways, landscapes are the most difficult kind of photos to produce with a mobile phone camera. Most landscape shots taken with a DSLR have the advantage of true interchangeable lenses, depth-of-field control and ultra-long exposure times. Mobiles have none of these options. Yet stunning images of the natural world are produced every day by mobile photographers. How do they do it? We spoke with some photographers known for their mobile landscape shots to find out their approach. 

Netherlands-based Robert-Paul Jansen’s ethereal iPhone images of the rural countryside south of Amsterdam are among the best we’ve seen in the genre. 

Image by Robert-Paul Jansen.

“Smartphones typically have the largest viewfinders of all cameras, and this is ideal for making landscape photos,” Jansen said when we spoke with him recently. “Composition is key in landscape photography and a large viewfinder helps me to compose the shot easily.  There are some limitations, like a lack of a true wide angle lens and zoom, but these things can be compensated for by using the right apps.”

Jansen turns to Autostitch for help.

“This app is used primarily for panoramas but you can also stitch photos together to create any aspect ratio.“ Jansen further suggests you use another app to shoot your photos and then process them later with Autostich.

“Make sure you use an app like ProCamera or Camera+ to lock exposure to get a constant result in the final image. And I always make a photo of my thumb or my shoes to mark the beginning and the end of a series of photos which need to be stitched.”

Landscape shooting isn’t always about the awe-inspiring big vista. Often, it’s the little point of interest in a scene that makes an image come alive. These points of interest become more powerful when juxtaposed against their natural setting. A far-away fishing boat in the ocean helps create a sense of scale as well as providing a focal point. The story becomes richer and we gain a better sense of the magnificence of the water.

How do we do achieve this goal with a mobile tool that lacks the creative control and multiple lens choices of a DSLR? We asked Andy Royston, a mobile photographer who uses an iPhone 4 has been posting his live shots of the Ft. Lauderdale beach in Florida on the U.S. Atlantic coast every morning for over three years.

Image by Andy Royston.

“The limitations are just details, so the solution is to get closer,” Royston told us. “Just today, I knew from the form of the sky, the clouds, the sun that I needed a personality to make the photo come alive.  A paddle boarder was making his way out to the surf, I was pretty far away, but I needed him in the shot. I watched the shadows and the shapes, and gave myself 40 seconds to get to right there.  As a mobile photographer you soon develop a sixth sense for where the photograph is.”

Royston also emphasizes that a smartphone’s ability to shoot and then immediately process and upload is an essential part of his creative process. “For me, working on images away from the scene is heartless, pointless and ultimately meaningless. My work is an emotional reaction to the scene I witness and this experience is entirely created by the freedom of all-encompassing right-in-your-hand technology. The ability to work on the shot in the ambient light of the scene is vital and exciting. Nothing else gets close.”           

Unless we specifically set out on a photo walk, it’s likely that most people won’t carry a DSLR with them on a daily basis. “I use the iPhone to shoot landscapes because it is always with me,” says photographer and designer Todd Lee from Huntsville, Alabama. “Whatever I am doing, it’s always there in an unobtrusive way.”

Lee’s landscape work, shot with his iPhone 4S, has an original quality and is immediately striking in a painterly kind of way.

“I have always liked the classical style in which an iPhone shoots with its fixed lens," he said. "This translates to landscape painting very well, and I always think about painting while I shoot and edit.”

Image by Todd Lee.

We asked Lee about his processing methods for creating landscape images on his phone and he revealed a fondness for the app Filterstorm.

“Everything I shoot ends up in Filterstorm where it gets all the final treatments,” he explained. “I always use very big, dark vignetting, which certainly helps to draw the eye, but also adds to the feeling of solitude that I try to convey. I dip the RGB curve, then use the vignette mask to adjust the radius and falloff, and finally use the eraser to remove parts of the vignette where it is unneeded.”

While Filterstorm brings a certain power and control over image editing lacking in many mobile apps, for Lee, the creative decision making is intimately tied to the device itself. “Once I started using the brush masks to selectively apply effects, I was hooked. I prefer working in this gestural way to working with a mouse in Photoshop. It just feels more natural to me.”

One of the advantages of shooting landscapes with a DSLR is the ability to use on-camera filters. Neutral density grad filters allow us to stop down the sky and get a more even exposure between the top and bottom of the frame. Most likely, you’re not fitting your phone onto a tripod and attaching a matte box with $200 filters. But that’s what apps are for.

Image by Daniel Berman.

Graduated filters have a darker hue starting at the top of the frame and gradually become lighter until somewhere around the middle when they turn clear. This lets us darken parts of an image so the whole frame is exposed properly. The app PhotoFX by Tiffen has a whole range of grads you can apply in post-processing on your phone. Have an ugly white sky? Snap a coral colored grad on your image, adjust the opacity to your liking, move the positioning around a bit and voila, a lovely sky! Now, we can then take that image and process it in other ways without having to think about whether we’re stuck with a less appealing top half of the frame. Experiment with different colored grads and even try stacking them upon one another to create a new palette of colors.

It is important to remember, however, that the best landscape shots are taken at right time of day and that isn’t something we can fake easily with an app. As Jansen reminded us, “in the end, it is really the right use of the available light that creates the look of a great landscape photo. When the light isn't working, no app can make a great photo out of it. Light and composition are so much more important than the apps used.”

Let's hear from you: What tips can you share for capturing great landscape shots with your smartphone?

Daniel Berman, @Reservoir_Dan, is a fine art photographer, filmmaker & digital artist with a specialty in landscapes, abstractions & people. He is the founder of the Mobile Photo Awards, the world's largest competition and open gallery call for mobile photography and art. With a background as a producer of nature and music programs for television, Daniel brings a lifelong passion for rhythm and the imagery of the natural world to his photographic art. He was born and raised in Toronto, Canada and now lives in the scenic hills surrounding Milton, Ontario.


Total comments: 40

lovely work all of them.
it is the photographer that matters
and that shows here!


Not to take anything away from the photographer... but I think being at the right place at the right time (and having the vision to compose the image) is the most important aspect of taking a great photo. Robert could probably have taken the first shot using a crappy blackberry, and it still would've come out pretty decent. Taking a pic of a dump with a D800 will still give you... a dump.


I love these images !!! Congratulations !!!

It´s a pleasure to take pictures with a pro gear, but the small cameras sometimes give the double pleasure to the photographer...


These are beautiful photos, and while I appreciate the tips contained herein, it's not much use to me as I am not an iPhone user. It would be more helpful for the photographic community if a balanced view was used. If you list apps for iPhone, then list the alternatives for Android or even Windows phone.

1 upvote

These discussions about iphone and non iphone smartphones are held since 1984 between macintosh and microsoft ( later windows). They never end ! On the other hand, i bought a leica m9 for the lenses i already possessed. Honestly i take better photos and can send them out to my kids and grandchildren, use it as a notebook. Gather information on bussiness trips and fairs and so on. My pictures also are synchronised on my two iphones, my imac and macbook my ipad, my wife's iphone and ipad etc.
Forget it who invents something, remember who puts it on the market. Gui, usb, firewire, wifi, iphone, ipad... a story we hope will never end.
What will be next?


1 upvote

I have just one exception to make:
how is a digital filter going to save the day when the beautiful clouds you tried to capture are just as white (255, 255, 255) as the rest of the sky?
You'll end up with a nice-looking, totally flat violet sky.
Physical filters are sometimes really handy to have, even the plasticky clip-on filters that you can get for cameraphones.


These fab photos just reinforce the fact that its the person behind the camera that's important, not the equipment! Impressive.


Gut, wer "matschige" Landschaftsbilder mag, aber man kann ja alle zur Kunstform hochjubeln - käme nie auf die Idee mit einem Handy Landschaften zu fotografieren


I don't get this obsesion with iPhone ... it's not BY FAR the best option to take photos since there are so many better IQ out there from Samsung, Sony, HTC even Nokia.


No one said it was the best option, but it is a very popular smartphone and it is what a lot of people will have with them. It also has most (if not all) of the best camera apps.

The obsession is from fandroids who feel the need to react to every mention of the iPhone.


I disagree. It is not about best or not but about balance. If only covered Nikon in its articles then it would be a weaker site. Also the Site name is not

It would be nice to understand how OneX or Galaxy S3 or Nokia 808 or Windows Phone users who are photoenthusiasts are taking mobile pics. The cameras are different and they each have special features that are not on the iphone.

I understand the author is mostly interested in iphone camera replacement apps. BUT I'm not. I am interested in mobile phone photography in general though.

I'm not saying get rid of iphone focused articles - but add other phone cameras in too. I have seen some better shots with Sony Ericsson K850s.

Edited 3 minutes after posting

Excellent work. Simplicity is so often overlooked as being useful in photography. How we encumber ourselves with tripods and lenses and heavy all-weather metal camera bodies.

All you need is one body and a 35mm lens. Or a decent phone of course....


Check out this big gallery with some awesome Iphone Landscape photography.


This must be some strange new defintion of "awesome" I'v never encountered before.

I greatly appreciate the encouragement to start with a good image. The filtering and processing apps are excellent unless there are no details in an overblown sky or areas of noisy underexposed blackness. Know what the camera "likes" and the post effects will work wonders!


I have an Galaxy S3 and it has an EXCELLENT pano option in the camera. The Iphone 4s+ does also. No big deal. Plus my phone can do HDR but the multitude of apps to work on the colors and tilt and shift. Not sure why everyone is stressing. This is cell camera 101.

1 upvote
Joseph Jr DeRuvo

Surprise no mention of in camera HDR or manually stacking bracketed images.
Sorry for being iPhone specific (it's what I got)
But the best feature of the iPhone is the built in HDR
I also use an app called "Bracket Mode" to manually bracket images then assemble them in Pro HDR
Lastly another option is to with a single image process it for the shadows save it, then again for the highlights and reassemble the two images in HDR Pro.
But again the in camera HDR of the iPhone is quite good
Some examples

1 upvote

I totally agree with you Joseph. I use Bracket Mode as well! There was only as much space in this piece as you see here, but maybe in a next writing.

Thanks for the comment and letting this know.

Joseph Jr DeRuvo

Happy to be able to add something
Not sure why those links didn't go live


well, i don't think anyone can take issue with your comments being specific to Apple. i don't, but appreciate you being sensitive to the Chevy owners. maybe it is more like GM (Android) v. Ford. that old argument from pony car days.. anyway.

i wanted to ask about:
"I also use an app called "Bracket Mode" to manually bracket images then assemble them in Pro HDR.

Lastly another option is to ... reassemble the two images in HDR Pro. "

does Bracket Mode actually adjust exposures for each picture in a series and then blend them? from the name i would expect it to. from other comments you made, sounds like it does.

just wanted to check because sometimes, it seems, some appls have names that describe things they don't really do...

i used to use 'appl' as an abbreviation for application in DOS days. i was one letter off... or maybe Apple was one letter off. imagine the pain if the trendy abbrv. is changed from app to appl...


If you want panorama/landscape shots with your mobile phone I would suggest going old school and take multiple shots and stitch together.

Here are two I shot with my Galaxy Note I and stitched together with the free Microsoft ICE.
Click on "Original" to get the full effect of what a mobile camera can do.


Nice images - the panorama above by Robert-Paul Jansen was done with multiple images and stitched together using the iOS app Autostitch, as noted in the article. Same "old school" approach you've taken with your Galaxy Note. He shot it with an iPhone4 which does not have the built-in Panorama mode available for the 4S and the 5. It's been downsized for publication, although if you click on the image you'll see the full effect of what a mobile camera can do. It's pretty spectacular in full size.

Edited 5 times; latest 4 minutes since posting
1 upvote

Thanks Dan, I have done it like this. I like to make photos and move on and process later at home. I'm pretty sure I would still use Autostitch when I did have an iPhone 5.


Underexpose or not is one's choice. And I think they don't think smartphone should be the only way to take landscapes so neither do we should claim a certain format should be the only way.
To me it is eye opening that with the iPhone 4 I owned, someone can take a good landscape.


Thanks Kolen - excellent comment. Also, the underexposure in some of the images is clearly the choice of the photographer as outlined in the interview with Todd Lee. And you're right, there are many ways to shoot landscapes - if you happen upon a beautiful scene and the only camera with you is a smartphone it's nice to know that with a little skill and determination we can still capture some of nature's bounty.


I'm all for smartphone photography, but my main issue is a lot of the apps out there reduce the resolution of the image (like Instagram). Never underestimate how powerful a smartphone camera can be, especially if it's the only thing you have on you at the time. Here's an image a took a while ago on an iPhone 4:


Haven't read the article yet, but thems pitchers is purty. Um-hum.

I like turtles. :)


Good points Big Tom. Next time more Android. But the principles are platform agnostic even if the artists we spoke to happen to use iPhones. If they all used Canons I think Nikon users would still benefit from reading. That said, the app portion is iOS specific - so your point is well taken.


Why? I'm not claiming to be any sort of expert - the clue is in the fact I'm reading this stuff, rather than writing it. I'm one of your readers, I'm reading because I want to get advice from experts like you.

I'm trying to give some feedback about how you, in my opinion, can make the site better for all users.

It's a legitimate comment - articles like this, on general technique, don't need to be platform specific and with a little bit of extra effort and research can be written to appeal to both Android and iPhone users. And it takes next to no effort to headline those articles which are Android specific, or iPhone specific appropriately. It will help us, make it more likely we come back, stick around, engage, read and learn more.


Big Tom, the comment board is an excellent place to share your landscape tips for Android shooters. The headline complaint notwithstanding, perhaps you could offer readers an idea or two yourself. Clearly, there are some Androis users who may appreciate your input. Cheers :)

Edited 11 seconds after posting
1 upvote

Bill Bentley I certainly see your point - I too prefer to process after I shoot, sometimes even months later. I also understand and appreciate Andy's perspective and choices. Both viewpoints and methods are valid. I'm not sure much is accomplished by diminishing another's chosen creative path.

Edited 50 seconds after posting

Didn't mean to diminish. Just stating an opposite opinion is all. Andy's comment could also be construed as condescending. I agree that both approaches have merit.


I hear you Bill. To each their own I say. I'll even process photos years later for goodness sakes! Still, there is something pure to Andy's approach that I admire. His whole trip is about a daily experience so his processing is inseparable from his shooting - it's all of a piece. I think that's something unique to his project and isn't something that fits everyone's creative model.


“For me, working on images away from the scene is heartless, pointless and ultimately meaningless. " Andy Royston

For me it's the exact opposite. I try to soak in as much of the moment(s) as I can when I'm shooting. I'm trying to visualize how I might like to craft the image later. Then when I sit down to process the images I get to "re-live" the experience again. I'm in no hurry to process my images and upload them to the web. It's not news. It's art.


"Landscape tips for smartphones" - but only talks to iPhone shooters recommending iPhone apps...can we headline the articles a little more accurately so us Android users don't waste too much time? Thanks!


Exactly my thoughts. I'm tired of this.

1 upvote

I shoot android, and I generally find these articles useful despite their iphone focus - most apps either exist, or an equivalent app exists that a quick google will turn up. I would certainly find it useful if there were more of that sort of information in the article, but on the other hand, a list of android apps written by a guy who shoots iphone probably wouldn't be the most trustworthy thing.


Not against smartphone photography: it demonstrates, up to a point, that the true power of photography belongs to the photographer not the camera itself. But if photographers are worried by this re-advent of "you press the button and we do the rest", they need look no further than the f/64 group's reaction to the pictorialist style. The detail achievable by a good camera, coupled with the intention of the photographer, properly expressed through an art object that is A PHOTOGRAPH rather than an imitation of painting, will put the latest fad into perspective before long. I don't find any of the photographs in the article at all "stunning" I'm afraid. They're all passe, done before a million times, and bore me to death.

Total comments: 40
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