Trillium: Playing with the editing features on your phone can create interesting effects, as seen in this trillium photo. (Jessi Loerch)

Trillium: Playing with the editing features on your phone can create interesting effects, as seen in this trillium photo. (Jessi Loerch)

How to take great on-trail photos with your phone

Today’s smartphones have sophisticated cameras and picture-taking controls. Here’s how to get the most out of them.

  • Sunday, September 26, 2021 1:30am
  • Life

By Erika Haugen-Goodman / Washington Trails Association

Phone photography has come a long way in the last handful of years, with manufacturers and app developers creating a number of ways for photographers to take control of their images. In the early days of phone photography, you were lucky if you had any options beyond just snapping the photo, but now most phones come standard with a fairly robust camera and controls that allow you to get the most out of your photos.

Frame your photo. Most camera apps will allow you to turn on a grid overlay so you can easily see where your subjects fall in the frame. This is a handy tool when taking photos of groups of people or individuals, or when trying to highlight a specific element in your shot.

Utilizing the grid and having a solid understanding of the rule of thirds (the internet has some wonderful guides on this) will really help take your photography to the next level.

Control your exposure. If you open up your camera app and aim the lens at your subject, nine times out of 10 it’s going to take into account the total available light that the lens sees to determine the exposure of the image. This is totally fine for a quick snapshot, but if you really want to dial in the exposure to make the rich greens of the forest stand out or to ensure the clouds aren’t too bright, you can use the exposure controls.

On most phones you’ll need to tap on the screen to focus, which also sets the exposure automatically to wherever you clicked. At that point an exposure control slider should appear, which you can drag to customize the exposure of the image. Play with that to see what sort of results you can get!

Portrait mode is your friend. If you’re taking photos of your hiking partners, portrait mode can be a great way to separate them from a noisy background (though sometimes you want that scenic vista in the distance, too!). Portrait modes on camera apps essentially separate the subject you’re focusing on and then digitally blur the rest of the image to create “fake” depth of field.

In many apps you can control the level of blur, so play with that to create the look you want while isolating your subject to make them pop out of the frame. This mode is also great for taking pictures of flowers, and other small things you find on the trail, to make them stand out.

Fix it in post. It’s always a good idea to take the best possible image in the moment, but if things don’t turn out perfect, don’t sweat it. Most standard camera apps have some editing controls built in that will allow you to adjust levels on highlights, shadows and even some color correction.

Take advantage of these to clean up anything that doesn’t look quite right. If you want to really take editing to the next level, take a look at the app store and see what’s available. There are tons of free photo editing apps to try out that have more options than the app that came with your phone.

This article originally appeared in a winter issue of Washington Trails magazine. Washington Trails Association promotes hiking as a way to inspire a people to protect Washington’s natural places. Learn more at

Northwest Exposure Photo Contest

Every year, the Washington Trails Association invites photographers to share their favorite photos for our annual Northwest Exposure Photo Contest. The contest is open Aug. 17 through Oct. 18, so start shooting now. Show us the amazing diversity of our state, all year-round.

The contest features five categories with prizes awarded for the top three photos in each category. A grand prize will also be awarded for the best overall photo. The 2021 categories are: Trailscapes, Hikers in Action, Trail Family, Flora and Fauna and Instagram.

Go to to read the contest rules, check frequently asked questions and learn about the prizes.

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