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    How to Embrace the Unknown in Travel Photography

    By June 17, 2019 April 21st, 2020 Landscape and Travel Photography, Photography

    Girl walking among huge grass in mountains with backpack

    When traveling, many of us set watertight schedules and create detailed itineraries for ourselves. But, in the world of travel photography, embracing the unknown is often what leads to the greatest successes.

    Versatility when traveling can open up new worlds, acting as an incubator for creativity and innovation. The thrilling shots that you’re seeking as a photographer could very well result from exploration and new experiences.

    In this article, we’ll dive into how you can gain success in travel photography by adopting a spontaneous, open-minded, and curious approach. Exploration can provide countless benefits for your craft, so long as you’re willing to let go of preconceptions and try something new.

    1. Remember Your Why.

    Every passion is driven by a “why” – a clear, definite vision behind the goals that inspire you, day after day.

    Knowing your why is crucial to overcoming challenges, self-doubt, and burnout. In the case of travel photography, these feelings are all too familiar.

    When traveling, you might feel like you’re wasting your time exploring new locations and seeking out fresh compositions. This is especially so if you know you can reliably capture gorgeous images in familiar places.

    For instance, exploring unique compositions in the streets of Paris might feel like a fool’s errand, when you know you can depend on the Eiffel Tower to give you a great image.

    Your sense of purpose, your “why,” is your most effective weapon against the barriers of doubt that can stand in your way. By keeping your purpose in mind at every step along the way, you’ll be unstoppable.

    Your “why” will help you navigate decisions with less anxiety and uncertainty. It will anchor you in your passions and replenish your sense of optimism and inspiration. With a definite grasp on your goal, even tough challenges will be surmountable.

    Your connection to your purpose will be the difference between average and exceptional. Combined, internal motivators and external action are a one-way ticket to inspiration and boundless potential.

    Just by reading this blog post, you’re likely in touch with your passion and have an idea of the goal behind your desire to adventure, explore, and discover.

    2. Make a Shot List At Home.

    Blank notebook, earphones and hat on wooden table

    I know, this post is about uncertainty and exploring the unknown, but becoming familiar with your foreign location can always benefit you.

    When you’re just getting a feel for the area, a shot list can provide some much-needed structure. It will help keep your day moving and your time organized.

    It also provides you with a safety net in times when you are unable to find a unique composition you like.

    That being said, never hesitate to experiment beyond the items on your list. The list should never restrain you. Go with your instincts, first and foremost, even if they’re contrary to the list.

    Be flexible, fluid in your approach to photography. This undoubtedly requires confidence, but in my experience, it’s the only way to open up to every possibility. In time, this open-minded approach always translates into amazing images.

    Resource: 15 Tips for Planning Your Next Photography Trip

    3. Rent a Car to Reach Your Destination.

    Instead of hopping on a plane, train, or bus to travel from home to your travel destination, drive yourself there. This may go against what you initially planned, but it can provide significant benefits that travel photographers should take advantage of.

    Driving to your location is far from a waste of time when it comes to travel photography. It opens up the opportunity to check out spots along the way to photograph; places that you may have overlooked when you are planning your trip.

    Trains indeed stop along the way toward your destination. However, trains only make stops at designated terminals. You don’t have the freedom to hop out and take a picture whenever you see something interesting. Driving, on the other hand, offers this advantage.

    Consider taking the back way instead of the monotonous highway, or even take a risk and go down roads at random. Nowadays, we all have the luxury of GPS to get us back on track when we’re lost, so what’s the harm in taking an alternate route?

    While it’s unlikely that you’ll stumble upon a major landmark, you might find scenes and shots that few other photographers have.

    I can speak from experience: some of my best shots were taken when I simply pulled over on the way to my final destination.

    The best photography is often wholly unpredictable and far from what you expected. Driving gives you the freedom to seek out those amazing, little-known areas and take entirely original images.

    Sure, taking a plane, train or bus could save you some time and give you the chance to work, read a great book, or take a nap. But when the purpose of your trip is to experience new places and photograph fresh locations, driving has a leg up.

    4. Stay in the Heart of Your Location

    Staying in the heart of your location will help you get the most out of your trip. Doing so will enable you to get around primarily on foot when traveling and scouting for potential subjects.

    Walking to your destination not only helps increase your chances in finding an interesting composition but also saves you time and money.

    Commuting via car or public transit eats up time that could be spent exploring and shooting. A long commute to your desired locations can quickly become inconvenient, especially when you factor traffic into the mix.

    Plus, walking is the mode of transit that you have the most control over. Relying on trains, buses, and cars leave many factors out of your hands, from delays to traffic accidents and more.

    By taking those forms of transit, you’ll risk missing out on fleeting sunrises and sunsets that will make all the difference in your shots.

    Walking is also by far the most affordable mode of transit. Save yourself money on gas, bus tickets, and subway passes by staying in a hotel as close to your subjects as possible.

    Plan out your trip by mapping out your key shots and finding accommodations that are nearby or within walking distance. You may even be able to capture the shots that you’re seeking from the comfort of your hotel window!

    5. Get Off the Beaten Path

    The only way to discover something unique and thrilling is to take a turn from the known road. This may seem obvious, but it’s translating this advice into action is more difficult than you may think.

    Surprising perspectives often lead to the best photography. The spectacular shots that you’re seeking out are usually found outside of your comfort zone, whether you’re at home or on the road.

    When you’re traveling, consider trying to look past what comes naturally to you and find new viewpoints. Explore the places that people rarely choose to go, whether it be a rooftop, back alley, or rocky hill.

    When you push away any reservations that you have and trek to little-known places, you’ll get wholly exclusive shots.

    With all that said, you need to maintain a touch of practicality to stay safe in alien regions. Keep your hotel’s business card in your back pocket so that you’ll always find your way back from the unbeaten path.

    6. Take a Stab at the Local Language

    You don’t have to become fluent in a language in just a few days. However, learning a few key phrases will boost the overall quality of your trip.

    Knowing some basic terms and phrases in the local language will give you the confidence that you need to explore and interact with people. Just think of how much more smoothly your day will go if you can read menus, signs, and other important literature in the local language.

    Learning some of the local languages will also open up opportunities that you wouldn’t get otherwise. For instance, if people hear that you’ve made an effort to learn phrases in their language, they’ll most likely be inclined to help you with directions, guide you, and provide insight into potential shooting locations.

    In the process of learning the language, you’ll gain a better awareness of aspects of the culture, including their underlying values. With this knowledge, you’ll be an informed traveler and can show the locals greater respect.

    7. Enlist the Help of a Local Guide

    Friends hiking in nature on a sunny day.

    There’s a certain anxiety that comes along with exploring foreign places that can be eased with the help of a local guide. This is especially true when you’re wandering around far-flung areas that aren’t mapped out in detail.

    Getting the help of a guide doesn’t have to come along with a strict schedule or set list of places to go.

    You can get assistance in only the areas that you need it, such as communicating in a foreign language. In this case, a guide can help you communicate with locals and gain a better understanding of what’s happening around you.

    A human guide is also an invaluable tool when you’re in areas with limited Internet access. When you get to use Google Maps to find your way around, the guide can provide help with directions and transportation.

    A local guide who knows the area well may even help you come up with exclusive ideas for photos. A guide can help you can make the most of your time by providing insightful advice on the best areas to explore, even if few people know about them.

    With that said, a private guide may not be financially feasible if you’re on a budget. For a more affordable option, consider staying with locals instead of at a hotel. Doing also gives you the benefit of building a network around the world.

    8. Slow Down

    Let go of the feeling that you have to accomplish everything quickly while you’re on your trip.

    On your trip, you’ll likely have a near endless list of subjects to shoot and places to go. But, rushing through your list will only keep you from venturing into the unknown.

    You can not see and photograph everything at once. Attempting to do so will only lead to frustration and burnout.

    When you’re frantically trying to get things done, you can’t allow yourself to be relaxed and open to new experiences. Instead of feeling productive, you’ll find yourself missing out on photo opportunities.

    To get the results you want, you need to take a deep breath, slow down, and stay open to detours. The success of your trip isn’t in the volume of images or the number of places that you saw. The real value of a photography trip is in the quality of the experience.

    Along those lines, I’d advise you to focus on quality over quality when it comes to the locations that you visit on a trip. You’ll find that the more places you go, the less that you get to see at each location.

    So, allow yourself to stay put for a few days and spend time wandering around a single region.

    You’ll not only see and experience a great deal but also gain a deeper understanding of the area’s culture, which will translate into better, more meaningful images.

    9. Make Time to Scout the Location

    Trek Hiking Destination Experience

    Taking the time to familiarize yourself with a new location is the best way to start a trip.

    More times than not, you’ll be photographing an area that many photographers before you have already worked at. Scouting the location gives you the time to thoughtfully seek out unique angles and subjects so that your images stand alone.

    I recommend setting aside extra time in your trip for scouting the location. This way, you won’t feel like you’re missing out on precious time for shooting.

    The middle of the day is generally the best time to investigate an area; natural lighting is often severe at this time of day and isn’t optimal for getting great shots.

    Scouting out a location is especially helpful if you’re planning to photograph local events.

    For example, if you plan to photograph a local market, you can observe the times of day that are the most visually interesting. When you consider this in combination with the quality of light, the result is often stunning.

    10. Take Time to Survey Angles

    When exploring new subjects and compositions, take some time to thoroughly study them. Learn the different angles available to you to develop a unique composition.

    A single-subject can appear dramatically different when photographed from different angles.

    So, it’s important to spend some time viewing your subjects from different perspectives.

    Get on the ground, climb a hill or clamber up a tree. Do what it takes to ensure that you’ve exhausted all possible viewpoints available for your subject. 

    Resource: 23 Composition Techniques for Travel Photography

    11. Be Curious with Lighting

    After spending some time studying your subject, consider coming back another day at a different time.

    Study your subject under different lighting throughout the day. Doing so will reveal to you all of your subjects photographic potential.

    Take note of the light’s tone, whether it be cool, warm, hard, or soft. The tone of light impacts the story of your image and how the viewer will feel when they look at the photo.

    For instance, warmth from sunshine in an image may create a joyful, bright mood. Overcast skies with minimal sunlight can make for a mysterious, lonely mood. Honing in on the tone of light will enable you to get precisely the mood that you’re going for.

    I experienced this personally on the streets of Cinque Terre, Italy. While the daytime light in the streets of this area is lovely, I greatly prefer the quality of light that nighttime brings. The street lights have a romantic air about them as if the setting could be home to a beautiful love story.

    The tone isn’t the only aspect of light that matters here, though. Light angling can have a significant impact on your image as well. Try out different positions for your subject; by experimenting with positioning, you can discover the best angle of light to capture your target mood.

    Have a definite vision of the lighting that you need to tell your story. It might take time for that lighting to become possible, and for you to capture it in exactly the right way. Careful light positioning, tone, and angling will have a significant positive impact on your photography.

    On your trip, take notes on lighting from day today. Reflect on what you learned each day and bring that new knowledge into the next day’s shoot.

    Resource: A Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Color Theory

    12. Don’t Put Too Much Pressure on Yourself

    Photo: Enjoying sunset and landscape.

    When you’re on the road, you may feel extra pressure to perform and get the “perfect shot”. But, that pressure isn’t productive. It may even hinder you from doing your best as a photographer.

    Overthinking aspects of your images, whether it be the subject of the image, the lighting of the shot, or the tools you use, will only put a damper on your creativity.

    Go with your gut and keep it simple. It may be hard to believe, but great images don’t have to be premeditated – preparation isn’t everything in photography. In fact, the most successful photos are usually spontaneous.

    Go into photography excursions with an open mind. Try not to compare your work with images from past shoots or with other photographers’ work. Doing so can throw you off and give you a false sense of inferiority.

    Don’t judge the image before it’s even had a chance to be something great. Push away thoughts from social media. Measuring your success based on social media metrics can take a lot of the fun and freedom from your photographic experiences.

    The subjects that you choose to spend time on should coincide with your interests. If you love the aesthetic of windows, enjoy how much the aesthetic a window can vary from home to home. Don’t shy away from the scenes that fuel your photography passion.

    13. Go With Your Gut

    We’ve said it before: photography doesn’t need to be planned to be successful. The best travel photography is a result of exploration and creativity.

    At one time or another, we’ll all had a sinking feeling when shooting, the feeling that something isn’t quite right. When you start to sense this feeling, and when it becomes too strong to ignore, shift your strategy.

    This is what it means to listen to your gut, and it’s an integral part of being a photographer.

    Millions of nerve cells that dictate our emotions are found in the lining of our gut. Psychological stress signals trigger these neurons and tell the brain that something is wrong.

    So, that gut feeling is often completely right. If you choose to ignore the gut feeling, it could make you harbor that feeling of doubt as you follow the path that you’re uncertain about.

    Photography is complex and relies on many factors. In a single shot, you have to consider angle, lighting, composition, and camera settings – and that’s just the beginning. Any small shift in one factor could completely change the image.

    There’s no recipe for the perfect shot, so you have to rely on your gut feelings. By doing so, the shot will be driven by your instincts, and you’ll be able to stay mindful as a photographer. This is the most effective way to grow and develop as an artist.

    14. Buy Gear Insurance

    Purchasing insurance for your photography gear will provide you peace of mind you need to go out and explore.

    Venturing into the unknown will be much easier knowing that you’re protected should the gear get lost, damaged, or stolen.

    Be sure to thoroughly research gear insurance so that you select the right option for your needs. You never know what could happen on a trip, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

    15. Adopt a Traveler’s Mindset

    In your mind, you’re a photographer first. But, when you travel, other people are going to see you as just that: a traveler.

    So, it would help if you were conscientious of the people and culture of the region. Be as modest and considerate as possible while shooting – this is key in having a positive travel experience.

    Making friends and connections away from home is an invaluable experience, so make an effort to do so. Even just saying hello in the native language can make all the difference.

    While you’re in the area, enjoy all that it has to offer, as any traveler would. Taste the native food, give the traditional dance a shot, and learn about the area’s history.

    It’s not the photos themselves that make travel photography so special; it’s the people, the culture, and the memories.

    When you have genuine experience in a distant place, you’ll have a vibrant story to tell through photography.


    On the surface, travel photography may seem as simple as a plane ticket and images of famous landmarks. But, it’s far more powerful and meaningful than that.

    Travel photography roots its value in exploring unknown places, experiencing foreign cultures, and connecting with people. With an open mind and the courage to delve into the unknown, a photography trip will leave you with a gripping tale to be told through images.

    About The Author

    Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.