Travel Tips: 12 Clever Uses for Your Digital Camera

Your digital camera can be a lot more useful than you might think, especially while traveling. If you’re not a flashpacker like me who doesn’t mind lugging around a cellphone, watch, PDA and laptop, your digital camera can easily pull double-duty and really help you out in a pinch. Here are twelve novel uses you probably never thought of for your digital camera:

#1 – Post a Digital Reward Flyer

Draw up a reward flyer on with a standard piece of a paper and magic marker. Include your e-mail address and a reward amount, if applicable. Take a picture of it with your camera and use your camera’s options to “lock” this file and prevent accidental deletion. It’s a small precaution, but if your camera’s ever lost, its finder will at least have a way to contact you.

#2 – Subway Map

Seoul Subway Map
Seoul Subway Map © Adam Raoof

Find a large, complete map of the local subway system and snap a picture of it. It’s like your very own Google Maps for the subway. You can zoom in and out of it. And, if you get lost, you can easily find a local bystander, zoom in on your destination station and point it out to them on the screen. Oftentimes, it’s easier, especially in Asia, to be able to point to the symbol of where you’re trying to go rather than enunciate the name of your destination.

#3 – Stadium and Arena Map

When we arrived in Montreal on a recent trip and found that U2 was in town, we knew we had to pick up a pair of tickets on the streets. We used our digital camera to capture the complete seating chart of the Bell Centre. We felt much more at ease talking to ticket scalpers outside the arena because we knew exactly where the seats were for the tickets they were trying to sell us.

#4 – Mirror

Personal Mirror
© Delgoff

Traveling with a mirror is a quick way to wind up picking glass fragments out of your travel gear and, more importantly, your hands. And forget those plastic travel mirrors that warp, fog, and crack. Just get that funky stuff out of your teeth in the morning with your digital camera. Depending on the ambient lighting, you can either use the blacked-out LCD to check out your reflection or simply take a picture of yourself and review it.

#5 – Keep You Company

If you’re traveling alone for any length of time, you’ll no doubt experience bouts of loneliness. Before you leave, take pictures of your loved ones, pets, car, XBox … whatever conjures pleasant memories of home. You also might want to lock these photos to protect against accidental deletion.

#6 – Snap Your Luggage

Face it: your luggage probably looks just like 90% of the luggage out there. Let me guess: it’s black with a few zippered pockets? Snap a few pictures of the bags your toting around before you leave. If they wind up lost in Tahiti when you’re headed to Taiwan, it’ll be much easier to show the airline clerk a photo rather than trying to explain how “It’s big and black with zippers.”

#7 – Recalling Where You’re Staying

With a digital camera, you can take a picture of your hotel and the nearest street sign, as well as any nearby landmarks, and then show those pictures to your taxi driver or to anyone from whom you might need to get directions. For English-speakers this is especially helpful in Asia, India, and any country where the language may be difficult to pronounce and read. It’s also a heck of a lot easier than asking your hotel clerk to repeat the hotel name fifteen times while you struggle to convert a twenty-two syllable word with no consonants into something legible on a folded sheet of paper.

#8 – Photograph Your Child

Perhaps the quickest, easiest precaution you can take while traveling with children is to take their photo everyday. If they get lost, you’ll have an instant visual of exactly what they were wearing to show local law enforcement. (Hat tip: Budget Travel)

#9 – Avoid Rental Car Scams

Search Chris Elliott’s site and you’ll find no shortage of car rental company scams. Use your digital camera to take your own photos of your rental car the minute you pick it up. As an added safeguard should you ever wind up in court disputing when any damage occurred, you might want to get your cell phone in the photo too since the date and timestamp is difficult to fake.

#10 – Remembering Where You’ve Been

Restaurant in Tokyo
© P F C

This may seem obvious, but I personally admit to taking a dozen or so pictures of newfound friends while traveling and then having no idea where I met them or where the photo was taken. Oddly enough, this happens most often at bars and pubs. Hm.

As mentioned above, this is also particularly useful far off the beaten path, where English is not likely to be spoken. You may have only symbolic signs to show where you’re eating and visiting. And the pronunciation of locals may be of little help. Snap a photo of the outside of your favorite restaurant, club, etc. and later you can show someone where you’d like to go back to or where you’ve been. One traveler noted:

I live in Japan and have been hopeless at learning the writing system. Now I take pictures of signs/shops etc that I’ve been looking at for years but still don’t know what they mean. I take the pic, get on the train, pull out my electronic dictionary and look-up the ‘kanji’ and am starting to learn a lot faster now.

#11 – Photocopy Flyers

Urban centers are riddled with flyers promoting club goings-on and events at local bars and pubs. If you see one you like, snap a photo of it rather than carrying the tattered remnants of a flyer in your pocket.

#12 – A Backup Light

If you find yourself waking up in the middle of the night in a dark hostel somewhere, use your digital camera as a makeshift lantern. Flick through your recent travel photos to a nice, bright outside shot or simply keep a photo you’ve taken of a washed-out, sunlit sky. The light from the LCD screen on most digital cameras is bright enough to work as a backup flashlight/lantern in a pinch.

The flash is also a nice, bright light source, albeit a bit more difficult and, in the case of hostels, rude and inconvenient to use.

Aside from taking plain ol’ photos, what clever uses do you have for your digital camera while traveling?

87 Responses

  1. Amanda

    Cool ideas! I’ve also used my camera to take pics of info/notes etc in museums, both to remind me what the hell I took a picture of (the enthusiasm of the moment is sometimes lost later!) and as a cheap travel writer’s trick to use some of the info in an article later.

    Some of these tips remind me of things my (English-learning) students do in class – too lazy to copy down the homework from the whiteboard, they just take a photo of it. But now that I read this I think perhaps I’ve got it all wrong and they’re not lazy, but genius!

    Reply
  2. Debbie

    Here’s two more:

    We use the camera to take one picture the kids’ toys we’re packing. When it comes time to pack up, we have a good record of what we brought, which makes it easy to make sure we don’t leave something behind.

    I’m a big book buyer & I’m always seeing new books that I “need” while on vacation. Instead of lugging them all home in my suitcase, I snap a picture of the cover and order what I want when I return home.

    Reply
  3. Mike Richard
    Mike

    Amanda + Debbie: great tips and thanks for sharing!

    I suppose the best clever use is simply for: “Remembering things you’ll probably forget later”.

    Reply
  4. Andy

    I always take a photo of my passport and travel docs, i.e insurance forms as it becomes very handy should you miss place them!

    Reply
  5. Lea

    Another thing I do is to take photos of some of my important documents (like insurance certificates etc.) so it acts a bit like a filing cabinet.

    Running my business on the road, I also use services like qipit.com and scanr.com which allow you to scan, copy, fax & share things you take with your camera.

    Reply
  6. Andy Frazer

    I also photograph those plaques at Points of Interest; the ones that explain who invaded this castle, when, and why, and etc. I usually don’t have the patience to read them while I’m at the site, but they’re worth reading when I get home.

    Reply
  7. Mike Richard
    Mike

    Thanks to everyone for contributing your own personal tips. I think we’ll need a follow-up post just from reader-submitted comments.

    Reply
  8. Doug A

    #12 – A Backup Light

    Take a snap of an all white wall or something else white, this really illuminates the dark.

    Reply
  9. Camera Phone User

    Nice ideas – check out SpotOn – a program for your phone that keeps the backlight and camera flash on for even better emergency flash light use.

    Also Shozu for automatically uploading your pictures to the web or email

    Reply
  10. Ohng

    My TV weighs about 65kg (140lbs).

    I took a picture of the connectors on the back of it before I put it against the wall. I can now feel my way around to the connectors, instead of having to move it and look.

    I also have a picture of the make, model, and serial number for reference.

    Reply
  11. Jessica

    As someone mentioned earlier, I also use my digital camera to take pictures of covers of books I want to read. Then I go home and input them into my account at my local library instead of purchasing them. This really helps while traveling, because it’s easier than making a list or lugging them around.

    Reply
  12. Mike Desjardins

    I realize that these tips are geared for tourist/traveler ideas, but I found that another good use for digital cameras are with grocery shopping. I snap a photo of my fridge and pantry before heading off to the store, so I can remember what I need to stock up on! :)

    Reply
  13. Andre

    I once took a photograph of my computer keyboard before removing all the keys for cleaning. The pic came in handy while fitting the keys back.

    Reply
  14. james mullins

    Interesting article indeed,I found myself taking photos of a wall next to my home where sexual comment and pictures appeared after phone and written complaint to our National Broadcasting in reference to public service Broadcasting…

    Reply
  15. Lorraine

    Just to those who said to take pictures of book covers–please be aware that some retailers (maybe not so much for books) prohibit people from taking photos in their stores, so that they don’t have people stealing their intellectual property. (I had a man from europe sketching out the GapKids store I was working in once!)

    Please don’t give the poor, beleagured retail employees a hard time when they politely ask you not to take pictures–no matter HOW cute your child is, we are instructed to prohibit this.

    and please don’t call me a “clerk” . . .

    Reply
  16. Robin

    Because I have a very picky teenage daughter, we went on a photo shoot of all of her Christmas wishes! Then I knew exactly what necklace or jeans to get! She emailed me the photos, then I could email some to aunts and uncles too.
    I also take photos of leaves, or intersting things to use as background images for powerpoint or general graphics when I need something seasonal.

    Reply
  17. Vegas Videographers

    This is awesome! I’ve also used my digi cam to snap shots of things I see at Costco or other electronics stores so I can avoid the “impulse” sale buying…I can take my time, shop the thing online and see if the item was really a good deal or not. This helps me to keep costs down as I try to run my video production company in Las Vegas. Thanks for the blog!

    Andrew Hamilton
    Hamilton International Productions
    Videographers in Las Vegas
    http://www.hiproductions.com

    Reply
  18. Anon

    Great idea, great tips.

    We use the backlight of our cell phone as lantern. If u have a camera phone, u could use the flashlight as a lantern too!

    Reply
  19. Ralphie

    Why not photograph key pages of a foreign language phrase book and/or travel dictionary so you don’t have to carry the book around with you? With one gigabyte memory sticks selling for ten bucks or less this seems like a new media opportunity that publishers should be considering — reference books on ‘film’,…

    Reply
  20. sy

    I fly a lot and park my car in airport parking lots in the very early morning. I take a photo of my car, included a background reference point so I can find it when I return. I also take a photo of the the little shelter (including the number and/or letter sign on that particular shelter) where the airport van picks me up…I send that to my flickr account for safe keeping. I no longer walk aimlessly (and dangerously) searching for my car upon my return. :-)

    Reply
  21. Billie

    I always ask if I can take pictures inside museums when I visit. After I shut off the flash, I wander happily & snap pictures of things that catch my eye. On the way out, I stop at the gift shop to see if they have prints. I used this technique at the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay in Paris. The gift shop employees thought it was a great idea. It was much easier than trying to describe the “Monet with the blues and purples in it”

    Reply
  22. Justin

    caveat: when using your camera as a light source, such as to find the bathroom in the middle of the night in joshua tree national park, do not set it down on the toilet paper rack. you’ll probably finish up, grab some TP and knock your camera off onto the hard concrete floor. true story.

    Reply
  23. Mrs. Mecomber

    Good article. But hope you have an extra suitcase of batteries!

    We can send a man to the moon and a probe to Mars, but still we languish with double-A’s. The world is so cruel.

    Reply
  24. Wanda

    These are great ideas. I travel a lot and never ever thought to use my digital camera in such a way.

    I carry as small battery charger these days with a couple of rechargeable batteries. These things are quite compact to slip in the suitcase.

    Thanks for all the tips

    Reply
  25. Amanda

    Just saw a friend’s photos yesterday, she’s backpacking around Australasia and has no money, can’t afford to print out her hostel reservations when she books them at internet cafe – so just took photos of the screens showing the booking details and the map of how to get there! I was pretty impressed!

    Reply
  26. Lisa

    You tips are definitley clever …some good use of camera…never thought we cud do so many things out of it.

    Reply
  27. Than Washere

    Hell I better take a photo of my child just so I can remember what the hell they look like PERIOD!

    Am I right? Am I right?? Up top, up top

    *click of beer can opening*

    Reply
  28. Lisa in Bama

    I took a digital camera for the first time on a trip to Italy a few months ago. It is extraordinarily handy. The best use for me was taking a picture of the bus stop that we would have to return to later to pick up our car. I could just show the picture to the bus driver and he knew just where to let us off.

    Reply
  29. Richard

    I take pictures of Christmas ornaments and print them. Taped to the box, it makes a great “key” for which ones belong in which box.

    Reply
  30. Lyn

    Took a date-stamped photo of myself in the mirror when trying out my new Nikon D70 (which also has a 55-300 zoom lens), and (somehow) managed to “lock” it. Took the camera on holiday to France a couple of months later and had the camera bag stolen. Caught the culprit in a short chase which also involved the local gendarmes (police). The thief attempted to say I was trying to steal the camera from HIM but, thanks to the earlier photo (which I’d never bothered deleting) I was able to prove that the camera was, in fact, mine. Traveller “1″ … thief “nil” !!!

    Reply
  31. Rob O.

    Not exactly a travel tip, but a nifty use I found for my digicam was when eyeglasses shopping.

    Sadly, if your eyes are bad enough to need corrective eyewear, you probably need your glasses to see what you look like with the new glasses on. See the nasty Catch-22?

    So, try on the new glasses & get a salesclerk to snap front & profile angle photos of you with them on. (Be sure to also snap pics of the inside leg of the frames so you’ll have the corresponding brand & model info on each of the frames.)

    Then you can review the pics later – with your real glasses on – to make your decision.

    Reply
  32. Susan

    Two more for you. If I’m on a trip where I’m staying in larger hotels and changing rooms every few days, I snap a picture of the door, just in case I forget my room number. I also line up my prescriptions before leaving home and snap a photo of them in case I need an emergency refill while traveling.

    Reply
  33. Theresa McBryan

    I travel with my lap top but I don’t like having to lug it down to the cyber shop for security reasons as well as laziness. So I just write my longer letters and blog posts and save them on to the camera chip as a text file. That way, all I have to carry to the shop is my camera chip. I also crop and resize photos for the web and save them back onto the chip so they are ready to post also. I guess I could use a usb key, but why bother, just something else to loose. In most places where they service the tourist trade the shops have readers for a variety of chips.

    Reply
  34. Other uses for your digital camera while traveling

    [...] This site has some excellent ideas on 12 things you can do with your digital camera aside from the obvious use of taking vacation photos. It’s actually pretty darn clever. One of my favorites? With a digital camera, you can take a picture of your hotel and the nearest street sign, as well as any nearby landmarks, and then show those pictures to your taxi driver or to anyone from whom you might need to get directions. For English-speakers this is especially helpful in Asia, India, and any country where the language may be difficult to pronounce and read. It’s also a heck of a lot easier than asking your hotel clerk to repeat the hotel name fifteen times while you struggle to convert a twenty-two syllable word with no consonants into something legible on a folded sheet of paper. [...]

    Reply
  35. Scribetrotter

    Show people where you live… often when I travel people want to see photos of my family (covered above) and of my house, village, street…

    Reply
  36. Wanderus

    Great tips! I esp like to take pictures of cross streets in Asia so that I remember how to tell the cab driver how to get back to my hotel.

    Reply
  37. gaia

    These are a fun read. I am a trael writer and travel agent. I take pictures of anything I see in writing that inspires me, to use later in conjunction with what I am writing about, do quote marks and it’s ready to go. So quick and I don’t have to pull out my steno. notebook each time and write, find the pen, etc. It is quick and easy, and great for referencing. Between that and my digital voice recorder, my traveling life is easier. I am back to Asia soon again, and will remember to use it for lighting back up, as I have always used my cell phone for that. Good options and good thinking here. nice to join you all.
    aloha, Gaia I am the best selling author of a wonderful book called a photograhic Journey, The Island of Maui, and I love my camera. I take pictures of seahorses in aquariums in their tanks, in a way that you can’t tell where they are taken and they look so cool, then I can appreciate them later and also use them to study up close for research. I have a major zoom on my camera.

    Reply
  38. Pokin

    Wow some really great ideas here – many that I would never have thought of before. I love the idea of taking a picture of your luggage. It’s been so frustrating explaining lost luggage at the airlines before. Also like the street sign part. I have that problem with parking lots all the time. What floor were we on again?

    Great post!

    Reply
  39. blondewanderer

    If you don’t want to lug a chunky guidebook around with you while doing some sightseeing, take a few photos of the pages of the attractions/restaurants that you want to see that day in the guidebook and leave the book at home!

    Reply
  40. coach charter

    great list very useful!!This is so clever – I really like the tips about taking a picture of the subway map on your camera. I love it. Great list!

    Reply
  41. Ronda

    Great ideas, I use my camera for photographing posters and flyers I see around town and then use the photo to create my event calendar.

    Reply
  42. Bee

    Howssabout using the video function (if your camera has one) to record audio when asking for directions or other info? Helps me out, being the easily distracted, forgetful sort that I am.

    PS Loved the suggestions; taking a pic of the professor’s note on the blackboard? Genius! And the ball/spaghetti combo idea? Well, maybe not that one…am I right? Up top, up top.

    Reply
  43. Amanda

    When I went to France last year, I forgot my watch at home. So whenever I wanted to know the time, I would just take a picture of wherever it was that I was standing, and look at the time on the digital display. I ended up with quite a few amazing shots that way, of just generic streetscapes or diners in a cafe.

    Reply
  44. kate

    I just got back from Chicago -a big venture for a country girl-and had my sister laugh at me when I took a photo of a huge map of the bus and rail system that posted on the visitor center. She wasn’t laughing a few hours later when we needed to get back home and she couldn’t find her map.
    I think these are great ideas!

    Reply
  45. A Mishmash of Travel Information for Seniors - Senior Citizen Journal

    [...] Travel Tips: 12 Clever Uses for Your Digital Camera gives advice such as,  use your digital camera to take your own photos of your rental car the minute you pick it up.  This is a good one as anyone who has fought with a rental car agency over a scratch, dent or broken item on the car knows the importance of documenting each prior to leaving the agency.  Reputable agencies have a list of all of these on a printed sheet.  Check them out and make sure that ALL of these are on the sheet . If not, document.  In China, Japan or some other exotic area take a picture of your hotel and the nearest street sign.  Find a large, complete map of the local subway system and snap a picture of it.  There are more, so take a look.  That’s it for today.  jeb [...]

    Reply
  46. David Harper

    Some great tips here, and I’d like to think that whoever found my lost camera, would return it if they found the reward flyer, but it’s rather unlikely don’t you think?
    Some of the latest digital cameras have small internal memories that would be ideal for storing such info, and keep your normal snapping for the removable memory card.
    I travel a lot, and always take pics of signs of places that I visit, as it makes a good reminder when writing my diary or blog, especially good for people with not such a good memory for names, like me!!
    Having pictures of a toilet, taxis, airport, bus/train station etc., could also be handy if you don’t know the local lingo, any picture transcends the language barrier better than the attempted spoken word every time!……….and, you can always use your camera to take lots and lots of pictures! :-))

    Reply
  47. David Harper

    Just thought of another one………….download your cameras user manual to your cameras internal memory or memory card, just in case you forget how to use some of the functions!!

    Reply
  48. Elizabeth

    I use my digital camera (and the camera on my phone) for everything. I hate jotting notes, using maps and remembering things I want to do. I take pictures of desserts I want to try so I know WHY I want to go back to a restaurant. I take pictures of menu items that catch my interest so I can look up the recipe later, I take pictures of ads I see in magazines or while walking about. If I am wondering around and notice someplace that may be of interest later, I take a photo of the place I want to return to followed by a photo of the street sign(s). Knowing WHERE someplace is located without google or a concierge is very useful.

    Reply
  49. tsa locks

    I really enjoyed reading this. My partner and I did take a photo of subway map in Tokyo. Without that we would have been lost there! It is very good idea about taking a photo of rental cars. We had ‘almost scam’ in our last trip.

    Reply
  50. Gallivanter

    Hehe, nice tips. Its often the case that I use my camera as an emergency back up light/torch in hostels rather than remembering where i’ve been. I’ll work on this though! Thanks for the post.

    Reply
  51. Melanie

    Add parking spaces to the list – especially if you leave your car for a long period of time – we always snap a shot of our parking space, marker number and if necessary the floor number – makes life easier when we return for our car!

    Reply
  52. possumonhalfshell

    I like to visit zoos when I travel and find that snapping a pic of both an animal and the descriptive sign helps me remember the new species I see.

    Reply
  53. John Goldman

    When I went to France last year, I forgot my watch at home. So whenever I wanted to know the time, I would just take a picture of wherever it was that I was standing, and look at the time on the digital display. I ended up with quite a few amazing shots that way, of just generic streetscapes or diners in a cafe. =]

    Reply
  54. Todd

    Tip #1 is totally genius, I need to figure out how to do that on my digi. In regards to #7, I know more people have smart phones these days as opposed to a few years ago. I find snapping hotel and street sign pics with my phone a bit easier, just my 2 cents.

    Reply
  55. Patrick

    We all know camera is one of the most essential travelling commodities and thus is always with us. This article gave some really innovative ideas for using our camera. It is also a good idea to capture the pictures of all the important belongings including your pass port, insurance cards, etc. If in case you lost something it will be easier to get the hotel staffs search them.

    Taking photos of the hotel delivery numbers on the bill boards also come handy when you want to take a break from food offered at your accommodation but too lazy to step out.

    Reply
  56. Lucy | gapyeardotcom

    Great post – I always take a photo of my travel documents for backup.

    The only worry is the cameras battery dying or misplacing it!

    Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  57. Davide Vadalà

    I do use it for every use already suggested except for the first one. That’s a good trick in case it’s lost! For the rest I really use it as a notepad, taking photos of maps, bus schedules, addresses, etc.

    Reply

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