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Whether it’s a pedestrian bridge in Winnipeg bridge. Shot on iPhone. An empty beach can be boring; a well-placed boat or person elevates the scene.

Kat Tancock

Looking for the best camera to take on vacation? Perhaps you should look no further than your smartphone.

"I often leave the SLR at home as I find it too bulky to carry around all the time," says Vancouver photographer Joann Pai, who has more than 50,000 Instagram followers on her account @sliceofpai. "Most of my day-to-day photos are captured with my iPhone, as it's the camera I have with me all the time."

But how do you make the most of what your device offers?

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Think composition first

The best pictures are those that were set up with intention, to create an image that says something to the viewer.

"When you return home, that image should trigger your memories of the place, person or experience," says Australian Instagrammer Paul Fleming (@lovethywalrus). He's photographed Canada for his more than 40,000 Instagram followers several times in the past year.

"I hope viewers who see my photos don't just think 'that's a beautiful photo,' but [think] more 'I can feel myself being there one day.'"

  • Have a subject for every photo: What will people be looking at? An empty beach can be boring; a well-placed boat or person elevates the scene.
  • Don’t always centre your subject. Play with the rule of thirds: imagine a three-by-three grid overlaying the photo, and put the subject at one of the intersections.
  • Change angles and move around. Point your camera from above or from below, and shoot both vertically and horizontally.
  • Have a foreground and background for depth and scale.

Understand your camera

Search online for the best tricks and shortcuts for your smartphone model.

On an iPhone, for instance, swipe up from the camera icon on the home screen to start your camera function quicker. You can also tap on the screen to focus on one particular aspect of the shot. Tap and hold to lock exposure and focus.

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The remote button on your headphones works to take a photo when you want to avoid camera shake.

Try the HDR setting when your photo has both very bright and very dark areas, such as people's faces in shadow with a bright sky behind.

Watch the light

"Most smartphone cameras are not fond of direct, high-contrast light sources, such as a setting sun," Fleming says. "Try shifting your composition so the light source is just out of frame. You'll end up with more balanced light, adding softness and interest to the scene."

Pai suggests shooting early and late in the day for the most pleasing light, without harsh shadows and overly bright areas. As well, faces photograph better in overcast weather or in bright shade, rather than in direct sun. And avoid shooting people with the sun behind them – their faces will be in shadow and the sky overexposed.

Avoid common mistakes

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Study your photos to see where they can be improved. Some mistakes Pai notices include:

  • Using the zoom on a smartphone. Digital zoom (unlike a zoom lens) doesn’t get you closer to the subject – it’s simply showing you a close-up of exactly the same picture. Skip it and crop when editing instead.
  • Using the flash on your phone. “It’s harsh and often overexposes photos,” she says. Stick to natural light where possible.
  • Awkward, crooked horizons. Try to shoot straight (most smartphone cameras have a setting to show you guidelines that will help), or at least adjust when editing.

Improve by editing

Even slight tweaks can make a great photo even better, Pai says. "But try not to overedit – a little goes a long way." Start with what your built-in apps can do. The Photos viewer in Apple's iOS 8, for instance, lets you crop, rotate, adjust colour and brightness and add filters. Then, go deeper by using an app with editing tools (see sidebar). Start by slightly adjusting brightness, contrast and sharpness and compare with your original. Then play with other options.

Get inspired

Whether it's on Instagram or in your favourite magazine, pay attention to photos that catch your eye and discover what makes them appealing – then try to emulate them.

"Don't get too caught up on capturing the perfect shot," Pai cautions. "Remember to put the camera down, stop and enjoy the moment."

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Useful add-ons

A small tripod such as the Joby Gorillapod Mobile with flexible legs ($27.50, henrys.com) lets you make the most of low-light situations or set up group photos that include the photographer.

The free Snapseed app for iOS or Android offers both subtle, intuitive editing tools and over-the-top filters and effects. Other editing apps with fun filters include VSCO Cam (free for iOS and Android), Litely (free for iOS) and Picfx ($1.99 on iOS).

Want to geek out on extra lenses, chargers, remote shutters or even a bike mount for your smartphone? Browse the online store at photojojo.com.

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