Travel Photography Ideas – Creating a Compelling Travel Story

Travel is a wonderful pastime, even more so with a camera by your side. Brenda Tharp shares some superb travel photography ideas and shows you how to create an appealing travel story .

Rainbow over a butte near Monument Valley, Utah. ©Brenda Tharp

“Tlacolula!” cried the bus driver. I pushed my way along the platform towards the bus, past women with babies in one arm and live turkeys tucked under the other.

“Is this the bus to Tlacolula?” I asked as I climbed aboard, wanting to make certain I was heading in the right direction. It was, and I threaded my way through the crowded aisle in search of a seat. A sea of brown faces and dark eyes looked intently at me.

Everywhere, laps were piled high with crates of chickens, babies, sacks of potatoes and onions. Seats were non-existent, so I stood as we jounced along a bumpy highway, out of Oaxaca, Mexico, towards the outlying villages of Ocotlan, Tlacolula, Teotitlan del Valle, Mitla and Yagul. Babies wailed; chickens clucked; men sat quietly; and women chatted – all at once.

The biggest challenge was how to photograph it? I wanted to capture the chaos inside this bus, but in reality only a multi-sensory experience was going to tell this story. Fortunately, many other photographic opportunities awaited me.

Markets, outdoor vendors, churches, hilltop views, archeological ruins, and colorful street scenes – where to begin? I wanted to produce an interesting and colorful travelogue that told of my experience in this colonial part of Mexico.

Where To Begin With Travel Photography Ideas

I’m going to guess that many of you have felt the same way. ‘Where to start?’ is a valid question. Initially, we are often overwhelmed with the photo possibilities and intimated by the strangeness of a new place.

To distinguish the best images, we need to get past that inertia. I like to visually warm up to a location by landing the luggage in the hotel room, resting up a bit, and then going for a walk – carrying a simple system of one camera body, one zoom lens. I head for the main square, plaza, or center of the village–if there is one–for a variety of activities that I can observe to ease into the culture.

It’s a good way to acclimate and get your bearings.

So now you’re rested and ready to go. Here are some tips to help you produce your own dynamic travelogue of your travels, a slide program that will keep your friends, family, and members of your camera club on the edges of their seats:

Spain, Andalusia, Seville. A section of the walkways of the Metropol Parasol, a huge wooden art sculpture that affords views over Seville. ©Brenda Tharp

1. Create a sense of place.

Is it Venice? Rio? London? New Orleans? Make photographs that tell us (your viewers) where you are.

Nothing is more powerful than a cultural landscape that captures the mood, the energy of a place. No matter where you are, you can create images that visually describe it. Some simple ways include photographing signs, recognizable landmarks, buildings, and other elements that are unique to the area.

Trolley cars on a very steep hill say, “San Francisco.” Red wooden phone booths say, “England.” Gondolas say, “Venice.” Terraced rice paddies say, “Bali” (or someplace nearby.) While this method may sound quite literal, how you include these identifying elements is the important part. Well-composed, unique perspectives can make ‘literal’ images more expressive.

Look for activities that speak about the culture–like fishing with nets, dyeing textiles, selling camels, herding reindeer. These will give a strong sense of place to your image.

When it comes to travel photography ideas, incorporate people in your landscape or scene. Native dress, ethnic faces, festivals and events can help to define a location and give the viewer a sense of where you are in the world. In fact, people photographs can speak volumes about a culture.

Guatemala. Santiago de Atitlán. A mother and daughter portrait. ©Brenda Tharp

2. Photograph the people.

Portraits, candids, and details add an important dimension to the overall story you are trying to tell. Capturing people is, perhaps, the hardest job to do for many of us. Even if you’re comfortable photographing people you know, photographing strangers isn’t always as easy. Here are a few tips to help:

a. Learn enough words in the language to say, hello, please, thank you, beautiful, interesting, may I, etc. You don’t need to carry on a conversation, yet it helps tremendously if you can show respect by trying to communicate in the native tongue.

In fact, it helps you establish a rapport, and that can lead to great photographic opportunities. It’s also important to remember that we all communicate with an unspoken language–through body language, eyes, and gesture–so being sincere about your intentions is of the utmost importance.

You can say so much with a smile, a genuine interest in someone’s activities, etc.

Remember, if you’re comfortable with the process of making the photograph, the subjects are more likely to be comfortable, too.

b. After you’ve received permission to take photographs of some local people, take the time to make good ones. Don’t rush off after the first frame. Spend the time to make photographs that honor who they are and make them look their best.

Be mindful of the protocol in the country you’re visiting, and don’t attempt to adjust their clothing, touch, or point at them if it’s inappropriate to do so. Use gesturing to do that, or get someone they know nearby to help.

Perhaps candid moments are our favorite people images, because they’re easier to attempt. We don’t need to make eye contact, know the language, or gesture to move someone into a better position or location. Also, candid images speak to the natural, unaffected life of the culture.

The very things we find ordinary here become interesting “over there” as we tell the story of a place.

©Brenda Tharp

While easier from a confrontation point of view, candid images are more difficult in some ways. You must find a way to create a strong, interesting composition while, at the same time, capturing the peak moment of gesture or expression–difficult to do if you don’t know what’s going to happen when.

This requires that you become an expert at observation and anticipation, plus, that you take the time to wait. If someone is buying produce at the market, there will no doubt be a change of currency or something – and that means gesturing.

If someone is hand painting a colorful oxcart, there is a gesture that suggests painting.

One difficulty many Americans and Europeans face is blending in with the local people in many countries. As a blonde, blue-eyed woman, I stand out quite noticeably almost everywhere I go. In Mexico, all eyes were aware of me as I traveled through an outdoor market.

I wasn’t going to seize candid moments very easily that way, so I had to find some way of disappearing. Hats and native or neutral dress helped, but the easiest way I found to blend in was to stay in a location long enough to have people get used to my presence. After a short while, they went back to their activities.

What do you do when people want to be paid or compensated for your photography of them? I try to avoid the payment of currency, because I don’t want to set a precedent where everything requires American dollars.

Also, I want the process of photographing someone to be a shared experience, not an event in which I take a photograph and simply move on to the next. There are as many ways to handle this issue as there are people who will read this article.

Here are some ideas that have worked for me when payment seems to be the only way to get the image (and I want it badly enough!):

a. Bring along something the subjects may need–sewing needles, pens, pencils, rubber/elastic bands, Bandaids®, or other small objects. These work well with children and adults both, and you can easily carry them in your camera bag or pocket.

b. Offer to buy something–a small trinket, a tomato, banana, etc. If the subject is a vendor, a purchase often serves as a fair trade. People are generally proud of whatever they’re selling.

c. Offer them a Polaroid® image, if you have one with you, or to send them a photograph, and then follow up on that promise. The good will you spread will open doors for many to come, and for you when you return to that location.

3. Capture the details.

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Detail images can tell stories as well as a cultural landscape. In the magazine world, these images are often called point pictures. They make a strong point or convey a certain feeling about the place and yet are simple, graphic details. I love these types of images.

They’re great fun to discover and to create. The pattern of hand-woven rugs, hair/hats, painted bodies, jewelry, hands, doors, windows, crafts – all of these are details that create a sense of place and, when used in a travelogue or photo essay, bring your viewer in for a closer, more personal look at the culture.

Sometimes, the experience of going in close for a detail can be quite funny. Once, in Nova Scotia, I asked a young girl dressed in her clan’s kilt if I could photograph her clothing. She said yes, yet when I dropped to my knees to do a graphic image of her tartan and a fur purse, she giggled self consciously.

I had to explain that the piece of the clothing was more interesting than the entire outfit with her in it. To be safe, however, I photographed her, in order not to be insulting.

4. Seek out images of a social nature.

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When photographing a culture, the festivities and events they engage in can tell so much. They’re an important part of all societies, even ours, and as such deserve to be included in any travelogue you’re creating. Ask at the tourist office or your hotel about special events.

Travel during holiday times. I once happened upon a traditional horse-drawn cart carrying a bride to her wedding in Switzerland. Remember that weddings, funerals, holy days, parades, and other events that we experience in our own country go on all over the world.

If you want to see more deeply into the culture of the place you’re visiting, these activities will provide many insights as well as memorable photographs.

5. Research your destination.

Maybe this suggestion should have been first in the list of travel photographyideas. It’s important to know about the place you’re visiting in order to help yourself create images that are visually compelling.

I love wandering the back streets of villages to explore and photograph the happened-upon scenes of daily life, but when I want to capture an overview of the village, I need to know when the clock tower opens for visitors.

A simple overview of a place from a good guidebook is a start, but with a little deeper reading, you can find out much more before you arrive–including the proper protocol for photographing in religious places, marketplaces, government buildings, etc.

The world wide web has expanded our access to knowledge like this exponentially. Use it and the guidebooks to prepare yourself for the trip. Even just knowing whether sunrise or sunset is a better time to be somewhere is worth the time spent in research. Then, once you arrive, ask questions of everyone that will talk to you to find out what’s going on when and where.

Polishing the slide program

The above steps will help you create better travel images, no matter where you’re headed on your next journey. Once you have your images, here are some other ideas for making your slide program memorable, informative, and entertaining:

1. Mix the landscapes, portraits, and details. Variety stimulates vision by pulling in and backing out, and this keeps the viewer’s mind and eye alert.

2. Unless it’s critical to keep things in order, don’t fall into the pure “chronological trap” of where you went on whatever days. Group images together by topic/theme–social events, work activities, villages, etc.

3. Add background music that is native to the place(s) you’re showcasing, changing it through the program, if appropriate. This is a great way to involve one of the other senses and sets a tone for the overall show. It rates a lot higher than pure narration in most shows I’ve surveyed.

4. Include some graphics, like maps, to show where you went, especially if the location was fairly obscure. You can use them to supplement up front narration or simply put them in where they feel most appropriate.

These ideas should get you started on your way to producing exciting slide programs to share your experiences with those around you. Happy Travels!

Text and Photos by Brenda Tharp

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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