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Travel Photography Tips #01: Storytelling

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?

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.

Poland Soldier Gogo Bar
This soldier stopped for 5 minutes with his entire platoon in front of a GoGo Bar in Poznan. It was epic.

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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