On the road: 10 travel tips for the mobile photographer

Photo by Matt Coch.

Photo by Matt Coch.

Memorial Day Weekend is almost upon us, which means you and your smartphone are going places and doing cool things. Whether you’re a mobile camera wunderkind who can turn a desert tumbleweed into photography magic, or a shutter-happy tourist who doesn’t discriminate between the Grand Canyon and the sketchiest roadside diner Sloppy Joe you’ve ever seen, there’s picture-worthy gold in them thar hills. Take a cue from professional photographer Matt Coch, an avid Instagrammer with 27,674 followers as of May 22. Coch recently went on an 8,000-mile cross country road trip and spells out the benefits of mingling with locals, getting lost, backing up your images, public transportation, and – most importantly – remembering to take everything in. Happy trails!

Roy's Motel and Cafe. Photo by Matt Coch.

Roy’s Motel and Cafe. Photo by Matt Coch.


We all love to travel. Jump on a plane and jet-set to some exotic locale or maybe just somewhere else in the country. But what about all those places in between? You know, those places you see from 30,000 feet out that tiny airplane window?

The Grand Canyon. Photo by Matt Coch.

The Grand Canyon. Photo by Matt Coch.

Recently I had the opportunity to drive across and around the United States. Logging more than 8,000 miles, I passed through roughly 27 states in 30 days. As I crisscrossed the the highways and byways of the nation, I kept notes about some of my photography habits and jotted down some tips that others might find helpful while they document their future travels.

The Gear:

  • Nokia 1020: With a 41 Mega Pixel camera, Zeiss Lens, and manual exposure compensation, the Nokia was my primary camera on this road trip.
  • Nokia Camera Grip: The Nokia’s Camera Grip comes in handy with a shutter button on the grip, almost an extra hour of battery life as well as a threaded mount to attach a tripod to.
  • Ultra Pod II: For those low light situations, long exposures or any other number of situations, my tripod allows me to set my camera on the ground or other surface for added stability. It also has a small strap on it, so I can secure it to a tree or a post.
  • Notebook: To write down ideas, thoughts, names of people, places, email addresses and so on.
  • Anker External Battery Charger: The Anker external battery I use is capable of fully charging my phone several times before needing to be recharged itself. It has proved itself invaluable in many situations. More on charging below.


1. Stay Charged

Photo by Matt Coch

Pittsburgh, Penn. Photo by Matt Coch

I’ll admit it, I’m a little paranoid when it comes to the battery life of my mobile devices. When I’m using my phone as my camera, GPS and Internet, among other things, the battery can drain rather quickly. To ensure my battery never dies when I need it the most, I travel with a few charging options. Attached to my 1020 is the Nokia Camera Grip, which automatically charges my phone as it loses power. I also carry a USB car charger that plugs into the cigarette lighter in the car, in order to charge my phone while driving. Lastly, I carry an external battery USB charger that can slip into my pocket or bag for power on the go. Carrying all these chargers with me may seem like overkill, but it gives me comfort knowing I’m always charged and I’m never scrambling looking for an outlet.


2. Back. Those. Images. Up.

Photo by Matt Coch.

Oklahoma City, Okla. Photo by Matt Coch.

Backing up your images on the road is just as important as backing them up when you’re at home – maybe even more important. In the event of some unforeseen disaster, such as damage to, or theft of your phone, you want to be sure that your images have not been lost. I cannot stress enough how important it is to back up your images. I don’t normally travel with my laptop, so instead of backing up to a PC, I use a cloud service. There are many cloud storage services available today such as Dropbox and Box. I’ve been using Microsoft’s OneDrive to handle my mobile photography backups. Generally at the end of each day, when I get back to my hotel room, I back up the images I’ve taken that day. I wait until I get back to my hotel room so I can connect to the hotel’s Wi-Fi and minimize the data usage from my cell phone carrier.

3. Be The Early Bird

Photo by Matt Coch.

Jacksonville, Fla. Photo by Matt Coch.

I’m an early riser. When traveling, I like to get out of my hotel room before sunrise.  The pre-dawn sky offers unique light situations and colors that are hard, if not impossible to capture at other times of the day. I always take note where the sun sets the night before and figure out where it will rise geographically to where I am. I try to visualize what scenery might look good during these hours so I can get myself into the right spot when the light “happens.” I also check sunrise and sunset times so I can figure out roughly when I should be there in order to capture these conditions.


4. Brave The Elements

Dodgeville, Wis. Photo by Matt Coch.

Dodgeville, Wis. Photo by Matt Coch.

Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate with your travel plans, but don’t let inclement weather stop you from shooting. The key for shooting in adverse conditions, whether it be extreme temperatures, winds, or rains, is to be prepared for any given situation. Check the weather reports for wherever you may be traveling to before leaving. I also always pack clothing I can layer with and never leave my raincoat behind. I think the biggest problem that most people have when shooting in extreme conditions is they’re either too hot, cold, or wet. No matter what, you always want to BE SAFE, but I’m a firm believer that when you’re dressed appropriately for the weather, this rarely is a problem.

When I took the image above, the frigid morning temperature was 40 degrees below zero. I was nice and warm underneath my multiple layers, but when I removed my gloves to work the camera my fingers began to freeze within seconds. I worked quickly to get my picture, and once I was done, replaced my gloves and retreated to the warmth of my car (fingers still intact).


5. Two Words: Get Lost

Photo by Matt Coch.

Pheonix, Ariz. Photo by Matt Coch.

Sometimes when we get lost in a strange city or place, we get anxious or frustrated. Use it as an opportunity to explore an area that you maybe hadn’t planned to otherwise. You just might find someone or something interesting to photograph, and maybe even learn something about the place you are visiting.

While trying to find a specific restaurant while walking in downtown Phoenix I got lost. What I found instead was this boarded up hotel that I probably never would have come across otherwise. In fact, I tried finding this hotel the following morning to take another photo under different lighting conditions, but I could not find it again. Guess I should have written that down in my notebook. Get lost and find those hidden gems.


6. Get Off The Beaten Path

Photo by Matt Coch.

Amarillo, Texas. Photo by Matt Coch.

In addition to getting lost, I suggest getting off main routes. Highways were generally created to get you from point A to point B as quickly as possible. If you stick to the highways and main roads, you might miss a lot of interesting things. I recommend taking back roads whenever possible. It may take you longer to get where you’re going, but it is almost always more rewarding.

If I had been on the main highway, I might have missed the kitschy Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas. Luckily, I saw it from the road I was on and made a quick stop as I passed through town.


7. Framing Landscapes

Photo by Matt Coch.

Moab, Utah. Photo by Matt Coch.

There are a number of things you can do to separate your landscape photos from the average snapshot – one of which is to include a bit of foreground in your photo. By doing this, you add depth to the image as well as scale. It also gives the viewer a sense of space and it can make them feel as though they can step into your frame.

As an example, in the image above, place your hand over the lower half of the image. Cover the ground and shrubs. The image may still be interesting but when you remove your hand, the foreground adds much more depth. You can feel how massive the canyon is and almost get a sense of how far away in the distance those white-capped mountains must really be.


8. Size Matters

Photo by Matt Coch.

St. Louis, Mo. Photo by Matt Coch.

When shooting architecture, landscape, sculptures, or even street art, it sometimes can be difficult to relay the size of your subject matter. If there is nothing in your frame to relate scale, the viewer won’t be able to tell if the subject of the photograph is 10 or 100 feet tall. Look for objects within the frame that can relate the size of your subject matter such as cars, people, or even doorways. Anything that can be relatively universal in size will do.

While taking pictures at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Miss., I worked on my composition and waited for someone to walk into my frame. The figure helps relate the massive scale of the arch. And because I have excluded the base of the arch as well as the other half of the arch from my composition, it leaves it to the viewer’s imagination to fully grasp the massive size of this city’s landmark.


9. When In Rome

Photo by Matt Coch.

Pheonix, Ariz. Photo by Matt Coch.

Whenever I travel to a city or town that I’m unfamiliar with, I try to meet some local residents. I talk to them. I try to get recommendations of places to eat, drink, or just general places to check out. I don’t necessarily want to follow the crowds of tourists or eat at the most popular restaurants. I like to get to know what a place is all about and I feel the best way to do that is to find out what the locals do in any given neighborhood.

I also like to take public transportation whenever possible. I feel like it gives me the pulse of a particular place. It allows me the opportunity to meet people and it is a great way to get around too.


10. Put Your Camera Down

Photo by Matt Coch.

Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Matt Coch.

The absolute most important advice I can give you goes beyond travel and photography. Put your camera down. Live in the moment. Too many times I’ve seen people walk up to an art masterpiece in a museum, take a picture and move on to the next one. While at the Grand Canyon I witnessed over and over again people walking up to the grand vista, take a couple of pictures and head back toward their car. Life is more than a collection of images. Remember to put your camera down once in awhile, take a deep breath, and take it all in.

This article was originally published by We Are Juxt, a mobile photography enthusiast group, and was re-printed with permission from Matt Coch and We Are Juxt. 

About the author

Matt Coch


I’m a Brooklyn, NY-based photographer with a deep passion for documenting my city and sharing it’s many stories. From everyday life on the streets to portraits and candids of the people I encounter daily. It’s all part of my visual journal as I explore and document the various neighborhoods of New York City.

Matt Coch was recently featured in ArcSoft’s photographer spotlight, which showcases pro, semi-pro and amateur photographers who have talent, unique perspectives and special skills to share. For contact information or to view more of his work, visit Matt’s blog and check out his Instagram feed


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