Taking Meaningful Travel Photos

October 23, 2018

Taking Meaningful Travel Photos

This is a guest post written by Max Terry (from Photo Geeky)

Ever have an amazing experience on a trip but find that the photos you took just don’t quite capture the feeling? That something about the magic you experienced didn’t quite make it through the camera’s lens? Taking photos that have emotional impact and meaning is definitely an art, one which has at least two aspects: finding the story in whatever scene you’re shooting and learning how to compose your shot in a way that best brings it out.

Learning to See the Story

In travel photography, the primary factor that will make people come back to an image over and over again is whether they can sense the story in it. Sure, capturing a beautiful sunset or a selfie in front of a famous monument can make for some nice nostalgia, but the photos with true impact have some sort of story in them, whether implicit or explicit. In fact, we’re so hard-wired to respond to story that a good photographer (like a good writer) can transform even the most ordinary of scenarios into one with impact just by finding or creating the story in it.

How to take meaningful travel photos - travel photographyPhoto by Ahmad A. Atwah

You don’t have to be a journalist to find story in the world. You just need to stop and take a look around. It’s a training of the eye and mind. It’s something that takes intention and can’t be done in a hurry. At least, not usually. Once you learn to recognize them, there will be story-filled moments that seem to drop right in front of you, but most other times you’ll need to cultivate an awareness for seeing narrative possibilities in the everyday life around you.

Tips for Finding the Story

  1. Make a connection with both your subject and with the emotional impact of the scene before you. While schools of thought regarding candid photography encourage you to “shoot from the hip” and be surreptitious, this isn’t really the best way to either respect your subjects or necessarily get the best shot. Take some time to connect with your subjects, even if it’s only a few minutes. It doesn’t matter if you don’t speak the same language—most people can find a way to connect without words. Once you have a connection, you’ll often fine that a world of opportunity opens up before you. And as far as candid photography goes, it’s just as simple to ask for permission and then take a candid later. Also, the more time you spend connecting with people, the more they’ll trust and accept you, making it easier to get compelling shots of their life.
  1. Dive into the Culture. Many travelers don’t really take the time to truly get to know the places they’re visiting, but if you really want to get unique and powerful photos, you’ll need to really be there. And that takes time. In fact, most pros visit a place many times before they end up with a shot they’re proud of. So make sure you schedule enough time in the places you visit to get beneath the surface.
Watch Out for Cultural Stereotypes
Oftentimes tourists from Western countries are content with photographing the “exotic” things they’ve been taught to expect, but the more compelling, true-to-life stories probably won’t be the ideas you come to the country with. They often lie deeper, in the day-to-day happenings. Beyond this, if we’re only looking for cultural stereotypes, that’s what we’ll see. But if we look deeper, we’re more likely to land the truly compelling shot.

It’s also important to remember that people aren’t tourist attractions, no matter how “exotic” they may look. It’s important to get consent—not just for photographing but also before posting on social media. Performances are an exception, as the performers are expecting to be photographed. Still, it’s best to give context so as not to perpetuate more stereotypes.

Composing Like a Pro

There are a number of composition elements that make up a great photo, and though it’s helpful to learn all of them, I’m going to touch on two that really help create emotional impact.


Photo by Max Therry (screenshot Luminar

The Rule of Thirds

The rule thirds is one of the easiest composition guidelines to learn. It basically says that the human brain finds an image generally more pleasing when the main subject(s) lies off-center on one of the “thirds.” (Thirds are created by splitting the image into three parts, both vertically and horizontally.) If you’re shooting a landscape, for example, it’s usually more pleasing to the eye to place the horizon on either the top third (if the foreground is more interesting) or the bottom third (if the sky is more interesting).

Travel photography - leading lines

Photo by Max Therry

Of course, like all guidelines there are plenty of exceptions—sometimes placing your subject dead center really works. But in general it’s best to at least consider using the rule of thirds in your shots.

Taking Meaningful Photos - Follow the Gaze

Photo by Martin Jernberg

Follow the Gaze

A strong image will often have a number of different elements in it, some more important than others. Where people are concerned, eyes (and faces in general) carry a lot of visual weight—they’re where our eyes go first in an image. That means that they’re a key element in capturing story in a photo. So while having the subject looking directly into the lens can have a lot of impact, capturing their gaze looking elsewhere will create often create a much stronger story element.

Obviously there are many more compositional guidelines and if you really want to be a great travel photographer it would serve you well to learn them. In the end, though, beyond story and composition, what will really help you to take travel photos with meaning is your own sense of connection and empathy. When you yourself find meaning in what’s happening around you, when you feel “plugged in” to the people and land you’re visiting—that’s when you’ll really have the chance to find meaning in what you see around you. So take the time to truly connect in, compose carefully, keep your camera on you (so you don’t miss those shots that land in your lap), and practice, practice, practice.

Max Terry - Photo Geeky

About the Author

Max Therry is an amateur photographer and blogger who likes to write about photo editing, modern photo trends, and inspiration. You can find out more at www.photogeeky.com or reach him by email


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