A thoughtful guide to travel photography

Disclaimer: photographs in this article have been taken over the past decade so skill level will vary 🙂

I recently read a caption on an Instagram post (I can’t remember who was the original poster, sorry) stating that travelling less should be a goal for this year. Coming from a travel writer, it surprised me, but I understood what he meant. For one, international travel is one of the main global polluters of the atmosphere.

The Instagram post author’s intentions are poignantly relevant today because we’re living times when holidays and international travel for leisure are on the rise. A report by TripAdvisor attributes the value of the travel and tourism industry to $5.29tn in 2017, with particular growth in Asia Pacific, the Middle East and Latin America. On top of that, World Travel and Tourism Council advised that 1 in 10 jobs around the world are related to travel and tourism.

So, as you can see, travelling for leisure has become a significant part of our lives. The question is how we portray our adventures, and what it means socially.

dog in parthenon
A dog lays next to the Parthenon in Athens, 2009

#travel has, at the time of writing, 381 million posts and is growing by the minute. We’re obsessed with communicating where we go and what we do there, carefully curating a picture of the places we visit and us in them.

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain in London. I was moved by the emotion behind every image, but also it was food for thought. Let me clarify that I’m not comparing war photojournalism to travel photography in any sense. The former has a duty to report and inform, while the latter’s intention can be to sell and curate. This doesn’t mean that we can take a few lessons from photojournalism.

We need to get consent


Woman in Berlin
A woman waits to cross the road with her child in Berlin, circa 2013. There aren’t any identifiable features, so I didn’t ask for consent at the time.

I’m guilty of having done this, I admit it. I hardly ever share pictures of children when I go to a different country, but, what about when I was 17 and went on a volunteering tour to Romania? You can bet teenage, feel-good Mer posted those pics online. This is something that I wouldn’t do now. Let’s not get into the purpose of volunteer tourism – we can discuss this another time – but children cannot give their consent.

Children are adorable, worldwide. They have big eyes and bright smiles and make for wonderful subjects. They can also highlight the way we are different. So, before you rush to a baby to take a selfie, ask yourself why do you want that picture so much. Would you do it with a cute baby at home? If not, then maybe don’t. And please ask a parent or guardian if they’re happy with you taking your camera out. Children are not props.

Consent also applies to adults. Shoving your camera into people’s faces is intrusive and uncomfortable. Of course, you’ll want to take gorgeous portraits of those you meet along the way, but always ask them before or after you snap a picture. In cases where language is a barrier, I often lift my camera to my face and then look at them to say OK or pose.

Crowds and places of movement are different. Silhouettes where you cannot identify the subject, or a group of people who aren’t staring directly into the camera, don’t have the same issues. However, take into account how you’re portraying the subjects. Are they in a compromised position? Then you need consent. Always.

Man hiking in Mallorca
A man hikes the mountains in Mallorca at twilight, circa 2016

Transmitting emotion is what makes an image stand out

Photographs help us build narratives around a place or around people. What I love most about great photojournalism is when you can feel raw emotion in the subject – be it a human, an animal, or a landscape.

Tramuntana, Mallorca
A sunset in Mallorca, circa 2016

Whenever I take out my camera, I always try to capture that millisecond of emotion. It adds a new dimension to your image and to your message. Being able to capture emotion in your travel pictures also helps you humanise your subjects and the place you’re visiting. Most of us can recognise feelings on other people’s faces, so by seeking these similarities you’re less likely of Othering someone.

While we travel emotion can also be found in landscapes. Some of my favourite shots don’t have any human subjects in them, and yet they still capture the emotion I attached to that place, or how I felt in that specific moment. Towns, cities, country escapes and coastal treks have a personality of their own, and I find that’s a crucial element in my photography. If it doesn’t make me feel anything, then why did I take the shot? To me, that’s also a way to stay in the moment, and not just photograph everything for the sake of it.

Photography is a tool to capture the beauty in routine

I’ll never stop pushing myself or my photographer friends when it comes to getting a special shot. While that means that we have to get out of the routine, it can involve getting into somebody else’s day-to-day.

man at Malecon
A man looks to the horizon in Cuba, 2016

There’s a certain type of beauty found in the most basic tasks. From buying a cup of coffee to selling food to ravenous tourists, those things that bore us often make for fascinating scenes. It is when you see people immersed in their own thoughts, living their life undisturbed. Routine can add a touch of peace to busy scenes, or calm in chaos. When it comes to travel photography, it will help you remember raw moments from your destinations.

Couple in London
A couple have a look at their pictures in London, 2019

I’ll stop now. I’m aware that I’ve been writing this article for nearly two weeks now, in between reading photography books, going through my archives, and trying different angles. It’s ended up being a guide to photography, which I didn’t think I’d ever write. Hope you enjoyed it, I’m off to the next one.


1 thought on “A thoughtful guide to travel photography

  1. What beautiful photos! Thank you for sharing!


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