Travel Photography Tips #01: Storytelling

The awakening of the Sun God Ra, Egypt
The awakening of the Sun God Ra, Egypt

In July 2014 I became a professional travel photographer. “But Raphael, you started taking travel photos back in 2012 and they were totally awesome!”.

Yes, they were. Some of them at least. The difference? I was a complete amateur who had no idea of what he was doing.

I was shooting photos from the heart instead of shooting them with the heart AND the mind. So starting in July 2014 I decided to upgrade and bought myself my first DSLR camera.

Suffice to say, I spent days reading the manual and playing with the different settings. Yes, the learning curve from a point and shoot to a DSLR is a hard one but you’re fooling yourself if you think that the camera makes the photographer.

A common misconception among DLSR users is that they are already better than those travellers taking photos with their iPhones but the cold harsh-truth is that having a good camera is only the beginning in a long road to success.

Before we begin this new series of awesome travel photography tips for beginners, let’s start by talking about the big elephant in the room (no, not a literal one!): What is Travel Photography?

The local people of Jerusalem
Travel Photography: “It’s a hard knock life”

What is Travel Photography and what is not

Travel Photography is defined by the Photographic Society of America as “an image that expresses the feeling of a time and place, portrays a land, its people, or a culture in its natural state, and has no geographical limitations.”

However, I disagree a little bit. You see, most people who claim to be professional travel photographers actually just professional photographers that travel.

The difference between a travel photography and a regular photography that you take during your travels? The subject.

Yes, an exotic landscape, a wild animal or a colorful local might as well qualify as travel photography but the truth is that everyone (including the locals themselves) can take those same exact photos too so the uniqueness of the shot is lost in a generic portrayal of the culture that even my mom can take with her iPhone.

In my opinion, travel photography has to be unique in order to be classified as such.

The Old Town of Poznan, Poland
The Old Town of Poznan, Poland

To me (and remember, this is only my personal opinion), travel photography is about those unique moments in life that you experience and see during your travels.

Moments that cannot ever be repeated or replicated by other professional travel photographers that visit the same places that you do. Travel Photography is YOUR vision of the universe that surrounds you.

In fact, only about 20% of the photos you will find here at Journey Wonders qualify as travel photography and the remaining 80% are just good quality photos that I take during my travels.

Let’s take this photo for example.

Innocence and Sin
Innocence and Sin

This is an exclusive photo that I took in Poznan about a Polish soldier who stopped in front of a Gogo Bar for 5 minutes while cars were crossing in front.

His underlings soon began to look to their left in order to admire the posters of the beautiful Polish women and were giggling once they realized that their captain haven’t noticed the posters yet!

So there was I, waiting patiently until the moment when the Captain turned his eyes to the left in order to find the shock of what was going on around him. The title of this travel photography? “Innocence and Sin”.

To me, this is the pure essence of what travel photography should be. Whether it’s a butterfly standing on the head of an unaware tiger or a kid giving a flower to a soldier during a demonstration, travel photography is about unique moments in life that will never be recreated.

And here’s the first tip to help you improve your travel photography skills in order to avoid taking boring photos.

The awakening of the Sun God Ra, Egypt
The awakening of the Sun God Ra, Egypt

Travel Photography Tip #01: It’s all about telling a story

Last year I met a self-proclaimed professional travel photographer in an hostel in Poland who was showing me a few of the photos he took in Auschwitz “Whoa, that is a very awesome shot, what’s the story behind it?” I honestly asked him. “Uh? What do you mean by that? It’s a very good photo and that’s it.” he coldly replied.

The subject of the photo, a stone in a wall, is actually part of an old Jewish tradition of honoring the dead by leaving engraved stones at the tombs of the deceased.

If you ever watch Schindler’s List, you’ll see how the survivors of the Holocaust leave said small stones in Oscar Schindler’s tomb at the end of the movie. When taking a travel photo, it is important to investigate the background behind it!

In fact, when I visited Auschwitz a few days later I took a similar photo of another stone in the same wall (a wall in which the prisoners of the concentration camp were summary executed by the Nazis) and named it “To Never Forget”.

This photo is not about a stone in a wall, this photo is about the struggle of the Jewish people during WWII.

To me, that’s the difference between professional photography and professional travel photography.

Stones at Auschwitz
Travel Photography: “To Never Forget”.

Now, I’m not saying that each single one of your photos should have an unique compelling and interesting story behind it (as I said before, only 20% of the photos you’ll see on my articles qualify as travel photography in my eyes).

What I’m saying is that if you really want to take travel photography seriously, you should start by seeing photography as a storytelling device that exists in the same universe as painting, music and sculpture.

Travel photography is, after all, an art. And shallow art (such as photographs without a story behind them) is only as good as Miley Cyrus’ latest song. Are you ready to take your travel photography to the next level?

This week’s assignment is to go through all of your photos and start telling a story based on the photos that qualify as travel photography and to give them a compelling name. Think of each one of your photos as a book:

How would you name it? Is it going to be an abstract book? A descriptive book? A mystery book? That it’s up to you and I’m sure you’ll have a blast going through your old photo albums.

And yes, please DO share your results here with me, I would love to read and see your wonderful anecdotes behind your own journey of wonders!

Have a good week and stay tuned for Part 2 in which we shall talk about technical stuff such as focus, rule of thirds, exposure, composition and whether you really need to spend a lot of money in travel photography gear in order to make it big! Until next time!

5 Travel Tips for Photography
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64 Comments

  • I think that indeed travel photography is something entirely different than photographers that travel. Most travel photography doesn’t even quality as good material but are just snaps from around the world…

  • Photography is a form of art and I think some people forget that. That’s why I felt like I was just joining the herd when I got my DSLR since EVERYONE has one and I felt nothing different. But it’s about how you capture the moment and share it through the photo, that’s what sets it apart.

    • In my hometown of Acapulco we have an inside joke where we say that 99 out of 100 people there are self-proclaimed professional photographers just because they bought a DSLR. Normally they only use their “professional photographer” attitude in order to convince naive girls to pose for them in bikini lol.

  • Just a small comment I would like to make about the statement “having a good camera is only the beginning in a long road to success”. It feel it kinda contradicts a bit with your general idea of telling a story. Of course I do agree that having a good camera helps, god knows it does :)
    But, on the other hand, to tell a story you don’t necessarily need a very expensive camera. An iPhone can take pictures that will help to tell a story. It may not be a perfect picture in terms of quality, colour, composition etc. But it can be part of a story.
    So my message is basically: don’t insists that only the best camera will do.
    This isn’t meant as a disagreement or provocation, so don’t take offense in it.
    I look forward to read more.

    • I actually used to think exactly like that (as we’ll see in next week’s article), however I’ve come to realize that in real life, the equipment is always important. Sure, Michelangelo could have done amazing sculptures using only stones and bricks but instead he invested money in expensive marble and the result truly shows.

      An iPhone simply doesn’t has the same level of depth, control over exposure and other technical details (including size itself) that are needed to create an outstanding travel photography that will last throughout the ages (although I’m sure that many interesting travel photographs have been shot using things less capables than an iPhone.)

  • I agree that there are photographers who think that a picture only needs to be technically perfect, who don’t think about the story behind the picture at all (or in some cases even about the artistic merits of the picture!). The best photographs have all of these elements, and sometimes a hefty dollop of luck as well!

  • You’re making some excellent points here Raphael. Congrats with your pics, you have some serious talent.

  • great points! I’m very much a ‘shoot from the heart’ type right now and while some things turn out great, they all don’t. Planning on spending a little more time learning my DSL-R over the winter :) ps: your innocence and sin photo is fabulous!

  • Enjoyed this post, I really agree that travel photography is all about unique storytelling moreover perfect lighting and composition.

  • Love this! And I love your quote about Miley Cyrus songs. It made me giggle out loud :-) I just got my first DSLR this past winter and I have been working hard to learn how to really use it and not just the “automatic” mode. I’m definitely a “shoot from the heart” and “ooo… that’s pretty” type of photographer. Although, I do find myself stopping to think a little bit before I take a shot about different angles and perspectives. Can you do a post about editing? I’m slowly learning Lightroom. I’m looking forward to your next post!

  • I can’t agree more! I do believe that every good photos were good because of the story they tell.. but there are photos which lie. Those which were taken beautifully and in good angle.. they could give a different story from what actually happened behind the scene.

  • I always love the stories behind a photo, and definitely agree a good camera doesn’t equal a good photographer!

  • It’s all about finding the right moment. I am an amateur (still ;) ) and sometimes I manage taking incredible shots. But you are right. The heart has to be in it!

  • I expected this post to be about settings and the rule of 1/3 but I pleasantly surprised. It’s true, the story and that unique view you can bring to the image is what really makes it travel photography. I totally need to try harder and focus more on capturing something special in my images. It gives me hope that my micro 3/4th can do great things, even though it’s a step down from a DSLR ;)

  • Great post Raphael! Shooting photography while traveling really is an art, just like it is when you take shots at a sporting event or other live event! Anyone can grab a point and click camera and take a random shot but capturing that perfect moment with the right subject and background imagery is not always the easiest to achieve!

  • I’m right at the crossroads of losing my digital point & shoot camera to a DSLR. After looking at the differences I’m definitely sold, now it’s just putting the money aside to actually purchase one. I’m looking forward to your coming posts for beginners; there is a lot for me to learn! :-D

  • Excellent post, Raphael! I want to make a comment about cameras – I think it’s important to have 2 if at all possible – a DSLR with interchangeable lenses and a smaller camera (I have a Canon G11) that can be carried in a pocket or purse ALL the time. You can’t get those special unexpected shots if your camera is not with you, and I know I am not going to carry a big camera every time I walk to the grocery store!

  • I love that these tips aren’t just technical. It’s so easy to focus on capturing the beauty of a place that you actually forget to step back and think about how you’re trying to portray it and what story you’re telling. Thanks for the reminder!

  • Photography is art and art is very subjective. However, I do agree that travel photography is different from normal photography– and not just taking snaps around the world.

  • I never realized there was an actual definition of travel photography, but it makes sense. Nat Geo wouldn’t publish a photo of a landmark, but maybe of people’s reactions to that landmark.
    I love people pictures, but I’m always shy to point my camera at a stranger- especially since my camera is my phone.
    Thanks for this post, I want to get out there and find a story now!

    • How did it go? I always ask permission from locals after talking to them before for a while. Of course, sometimes I just use a good lens to take a photo from afar without them noticing, it all depends on the context and specific circumstances.

  • I actually took a photography class this weekend, and the main message was that every photo you promote should tell a story. It can be a different story for each of the viewers, but they need to be able to connect with it in that way to make it a good travel shot.

  • This post definitely made me think about my own photography when I travel – I can see that I’ll be looking to tell more stories in my pictures for sure! That’s definitely important. I love capturing beautiful scenery, too, but I’d like to capture those rare moments in time as well.

  • I like ‘natural’ photographs, I have to say. Souped-up, HDR, oversaturated photography to me is just horrible. Why take a photo of something then over edit it, you lose all memory of the moment you had taking it…to me at least!

  • You will experience a different scenario to book yourself a journey. Now how you go about the best domestic fares? Else how do you get the best online domestic flights? All you have to do is figure out what kind of traveling fares are best for you and go online and check all the domestic flights available in India. This will not only help you get the rates you want, but you will be able to embark on a journey never traveled.#onlinedomestictickets at http://bit.ly/1GsBCMJ

      • Hi Raphael, long time enjoyer of your blog here! I hear what you’re saying about travel photography, I agree there’s ‘taking snaps’ and there’s a level of photography more skilled and more engaging, but I wouldn’t agree that pictures of monuments and so on are by default not ‘travel photography’, nor would I agree that travel photography has to tell a story, I believe it can merely illustrate. The difference more than anything is really in the quality of the work – National Geographic for instance will sometimes have incredible shots of regularly visited places, but the image quality and composition is always clearly professional. Of course, anyone can buy an expensive camera and accidentally take a picture with superb composition at the right time of day, but only a professional ‘travel photographer’ is likely to do that consistently.
        By the way I see the comment above about India so if you’re really thinking of a trip then give us a holler at http://www.tripzuki.com ! We’re photography and hotel fanatics, hopefully it shows in the quality of the images on our site (more ‘architectural’ than ‘travel’ photography though!).

  • Hi Rapahel,

    Thanks for this post. I appreciate you pondering about the meaning of your photography and art (which is more than what a number of ‘travel photographers’ do).
    Happy to help when you get over to India. Love your Poznan shot and look forward to read more, thanks!

  • I love this post. I am anxiously trying to learn how to take amazing travel photographs with 3 weeks to go until I head to India, Thailand and Dubai. I know, impossible!! But with articles like this and some practice, maybe, if I’m really lucky, I can get at least one good shot at each destination. Times a ticking…..

  • Great tips for photography, I always wanted to learn photography but never happened. I have DSLR all packed in bag :) at least not getting dusty :)

  • Telling a story through photography. Love that tip! Am traveling with my kids soon and staying at a Jackson Hole mountain resort. It’s a beautiful place but I know they are too young to appreciate everything about it. For sure I’ll bring my cam along and document everything so when they’re older, we have some (a ton!) of pictures to go back and treasure the memories.

  • Can you suggest me a camera for the best photo. Now i travel with my phone, so i want to buy one which i can bring on head

  • Thanks a lot, Rafael, for sharing this mindset-changing. I started with travel photography (with terrible techniques and sometimes even back with the cellphone cause I was not getting what I wanted with the camera). When I managed to learn how to use the reflex in the way I wanted, I stopped shooting moments during my travels… I started having a type of “selective” photography that was in fact getting me far from the touch and sensibility I used to have and which were part of my joy. Thanks again!

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