Inspiration Photography

Spice up your travel photography with themes

Add variety to your travel images and make them tell stories.

Travel photography is about telling stories about places through your photos. When we travel, our experiences come together into a story of the places we visit, people we meet, how we felt.

To tell stories, travelers use common subject types, like landscapes, portraits, documentary, night, and wildlife. The variety of images that you can shoot to show what a place is as wide as the range of human activity in any country.

Recently, a friend told me she’d unsubscribed to an Instagram profile of a place I hope to visit because after a week of following the Instagram account of a popular island tourists love to visit, the photos from that account all looked the same day after day: high vantage point, coastline, coastline, coastline –most likely shot by drone.

It seems variety of the images people take of a place, its people, its lifestyle, and travel experiences to be had, is something an audience might appreciate.

Chasing after variety

If you want your photos to tell stories, how can you avoid shooting the same scene, over and over, only in a different place?

The answer to this question may rest not in the exotic and most far away place you can afford and access. It may not rest in the type of equipment you own and can lug around when you travel. Maybe the answer rests in how you approach the image making.

The way you think about what you are shooting could be some of the most important set of decisions you could make to spice up your travel photos and allow the stories to unfold without words.

Think up some themes

Going out on different days intending to shoot different themes is a way you can spice up images of your travels. While you can remain open to opportunity and not let the day’s theme limit what you capture, you might try to keep the theme in mind while walking about, and attempt to tell the story through the theme, throughout the day.

In Vietnam, I spent the better part of a day photographing how Vietnamese transport things from one place to another. It can be amazing how much people can pile on a mode of transport.

In Vietnam, a woman on motorbike carries hundreds of kilos of vegetables to sell in the market.
How many bags of vegetables can you carry on motorbike in Vietnam? Lots.

In Myanmar (Burma), I looked at how the Burmese work.

And in Bali, it was a natural choice to look for the Balinese sense of balance.

Get creative with themes

Ready to get creative? Here are some themes to get you started.

Emotion

Capturing emotion requires patience. One of my personal rules for when I am photographing people is to blend in first, without taking out my camera and pointing it to people right away to get portraits. Because we don’t always have the luxury of speaking in the local language, I find opportunities to engage in everyday activities with the locals where I am.

In Vietnam, eating on the street in the child-size seats that are so common, and eating a banh my, the wonderful baguette sandwich with all kinds of super stuffing, and drinking drip coffee or sugar cane juice, helped me to interact with the people and helped them to build rapport with me. When I see that we have relaxed with one another is when I ask if I can take their photograph.

Vietnamese farmer smiling with delight

Worship

You will invariably visit places of worship, and from a respectful distance, you can capture the wholehearted prayer of people. It may seem like when you’ve been to a temple, you’ve been to them all. You can find that people are in an intimate bubble when they worship, and if you can capture the yearning, supplication, and hope that people bring to the temple when they converse with their chosen cosmic caregiver(s), you bring to the image a story that is very much a part of being human. (We’ve got a FREE shot list for Asian Temples, if you’re interested.)

Monk praying in Yangoon, Burma (Myanmar)
Monk praying, Yangoon Myanmar (Burma).

Eating

Eating is a huge part of traveling. Wherever you go, local places where people meet and enjoy eating together can make for interesting scenes. Like worship, eating at local bistros and food stalls present situations where people are relaxed and being themselves. You can capture that spontaneity and local flavor in your shots of people eating.

Men eating dosas in Bikaner, India
Local cafe, Bikaner India.

Play

The word play might bring to mind the things travelers do to play, such as wind paragliding on beaches.

Wind paragliding on beach in Phuket, Thailand
Man playing with the wind, Phuket, Thailand.

It might even be ways that local children play.

Boys pose for a group photo with cricket bat, Bikaner India
Cricket boys in Bikaner, India.

Reflections

Has it been raining where you are? Puddles on the ground make for some great photos. Reflections are a way to change vantage point for a story.

Walking home from school, Bali.

Work

How do people make a living? In Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma) I chanced upon a woman with a cheroot and a coconut bowl ashtray. She was selling vegetables at a local market, and rather than photographing her surrounded by her vegetables, I chose a portrait that isolated her with her cheroot. The decision allowed for an image that held mystery and a way to capture some of the local lifestyle.

Woman with cheroot, Mandalay Burma (Myanmar) in sepia tones
Woman with cheroot, Mandalay, Myanmar (Burma).

Cultural shows

Sometimes, you’ll find a cultural show as part of your travel itinerary. These shows are wonderful opportunities to practice low-light photography as well as learn about beauty from a local point of view.

Burmese dance show, Yangon, Myanmar (Burma).

Looking for images that follow a theme can be a creative way to look at cultures from a novel perspective. With a bit of planning around your travel itinerary, you can spice up your travel photography and understand a little more about the place and people you’re privileged to visit.

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