3 Top Travel Photography Tips: Telling Visual Stories

In an era when everyone has a sophisticated camera on their mobile phone, and we all share our travel experiences on social media, it is easy to start thinking, everything was photographed already, and I have nothing to contribute. The challenge for travel photographers today is to succeed in creating new and refreshing representations of our world. Is it possible? Probably so, but you will need to put in some effort. This article covers a few of the most important tips you need to know in order to capture great travel pictures and tell visual stories during your trips.

Indoor Environmental Portrait PictureCanon EOS 5D Mark III + EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM @ 24mm, ISO 640, 1/250, f/2.8

One way to take interesting travel photos, of course, is to challenge the viewer’s traditional point of view on the world with some sort of new technology. For example, extreme cameras, drones, VR, and 360 degree video are all relatively new tools which can allow us to show the world from new angles.

However, in this article, I am interested in offering a different way of creating new and exciting work – one that does not require you to travel far or purchase expensive equipment to enjoy it. I am not sure if drone photography will stay here forever, but there is one thing that humans will never get tired of: connecting emotionally to stories. That is what this article is all about.

Taking great trip photos requires that you can tell a story, not only about the people and places you saw, but about yourself and the way you felt – making each image a self-portrait.

Portrait PhotoCanon EOS 5D Mark III + EF85mm f/1.8 USM @ 85mm, ISO 1250, 1/320, f/1.8

1) Don’t Just Show a Scene, Tell a Story!

Travel photography is more than just a log of your trip. Most people do not care about the places you have visited. Once we can understand that our job is not to document the places we saw, but to tell a story about how we felt while being there, something unusual will happen – you will start creating travel pictures that evoke emotions.

How can you do that? Before your next shutter click, ask yourself: what kind of “China,” “India,” “Cuba,” “Papua New Guinea,” or any other country do I want to convey in my work? Do I want my work to tell a joyful story? Or perhaps one that is sad and depressing?

Person Diving into the RiverCanon EOS 40D + EF-S17-55mm f/2.8 IS USM @ 55mm, ISO 200, 1/320, f/5.0

Because there is not really an “India” or “Cuba.” They are all concepts we have in our mind. For one photographer, India can be a colorful kaleidoscope, while for the other, a place of joy, or a place of sorrow, or anything else. Viewers are not interested in seeing another postcard! They want to see your take on the place and time.

Think of your pictures as a feature film rather than a documentary representation of the moment. Ask yourself the most important question: what do I feel right now about this place or person? And use compositional tools to transfer that sense to the viewer, with the angle, color, space, background, etc., all adding to your message.

Kid with Red PeppersCanon EOS 5D Mark III + EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM @ 45mm, ISO 1600, 1/400, f/4.0

The Importance of Preliminary Research

Many of us make a tremendous effort to travel to distant places, just to take the same picture we have already seen before, from the same location, on the same time, in the same framing. To see for yourself, just Google Machu Picchu in Peru, or Horseshoe Bend in Arizona, or Kirkjufellsfoss in Iceland.

There is nothing wrong in that desire to create the same photo you saw before. Those locations, timing, and framing became such a cliché probably because they are so good. So, I believe that it is perfectly fine to have your own postcard, only as long as we fully aware of the fact that this is a postcard. But while postcards are nice to look at, they are not unique.

Trip Picture of Silhouettes on a SwingCanon EOS 5D Mark III + EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM @ 46mm, ISO 100, 1/200, f/5.0

I believe that the first step on the path to unique photography is in conducting preliminary research. Yes! Draw inspiration from those pictures already taken, but think of new ways to introduce familiar places. Look for new (emotional, not physical) angles to photograph and tell new stories. For example, how technology enters an ancient tribe in Tanzania is, to my mind, much more interesting to watch than just another picture of a tribal person, wearing traditional clothes.

Travel Portrait of Man with Blue EyesCanon EOS 40D @ 85mm, ISO 100, 1/250, f/3.2

2) It’s Not the Equipment, It’s You

Most of the best pictures in history were photographed with equipment which is far less good than what most of us own. Luckily, great travel photography can be done even with the simplest equipment. So, re-think getting that expensive flash or camera before your next trip, and spend your time and money on a new course, book, or workshop instead. Any of those can help you craft your ability to tell better stories while you travel.

United States Flag Travel PhotoCanon EOS 5D Mark III + EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM @ 30mm, ISO 640, 1/125, f/2.8

3) Be Prepared for the Effort

Most great images do not just wait for somebody to pick them up from the floor. Great pictures usually require effort, training, waiting and mostly, thinking! Quietly, too – even if traveling with a partner or a group, give yourself the proper time to work alone (or with a group of other photographers). Yes, even if you are traveling with your family and children.

Nighttime Trip PhotoCanon EOS 5D Mark III + EF24-70mm f/2.8L II USM @ 24mm, ISO 1600, 1/160, f/2.8

Along with that, get up early. Come back again just to get that perfect picture. Use a local guide who can take you to those special locations and handle the frustration that “nothing works today,” just to get back on the road again tomorrow.

In conclusion, excellent travel photography is all about your ability to convey a sense of place and emotional experience in your work. Emotional experience is your own take on the situation and time. It is personal, and, by that, nobody can copy it!

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