The Travelling Photographer

In Books, Craft & Vision, e-books, SEE THE WORLD, Travel by David12 Comments


“Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” ~ Neil Gaiman

In Hokkaido last month one of the guys I was traveling with made an astute observation, that no matter where we travel as photographers, we will always have the same creative struggles as we do at home because “we take that same photographer with us wherever we go.” Indeed. As I gear up to launch SEE THE WORLD on Wednesday, and to head to Kenya on assignment later this same week, I’m turning my own thoughts to one of the things I love most in this world: traveling the world with my cameras.

The camera, for me is only an excuse to travel. It’s a thing I bring with me to help me see the world and life as it passes, with greater attention and intimacy. If I make a photograph that’s significant for myself or others, then that’s a bonus. Every year people criss-cross the globe, strapped to their cameras, in search of amazing photographs; often those photographs are of exotic things, like camels, men with turbans, or Eiffel Towers. Often those photographs are little more than a poor copy of one or another of the hundreds of photographs of the same things that others before them have made.

It is worth remembering two things. First, it is very easy to get seduced by what is novel or exotic, and easier still to allow ourselves to believe that that is enough to make a good photograph. It is not. The things that make a good photograph are the same in Venice or Timbuktu as they are at home. The second is that while traveling can open our eyes to things we’ve not seen before and might therefore see them more clearly than we would at home, the photographer we bring with us is the same one we are at home. Don’t kid yourself: going somewhere else won’t make you a better photographer than you are at home.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said it well when he said, “Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us, or we find it not.” If you don’t see beautifully at home, you will not see beautifully in someone else’s home. The airplane transports us, it does not transform us.

If you want better photographs, no matter where you are, it comes down to that intoxicating mix of light and moments and lines and the choices you make about how you place those things in the frame. It is not good merely because you are in Paris. Over a hundred years of photographs made in Paris, and there are at least as many lousy ones as there are beautiful, compelling ones. You will still have to rely on having open eyes and on understanding composition. There is no such thing as “composition for travel photography.” I’m not even sure there’s such a thing as travel photography, per se. And there isn’t really, though I’ve used the words myself, such thing as a Travel Photographer. There are photographers who travel, but their work doesn’t move us emotionally just because they themselves are in constant motion. So what makes for stronger travel photographs? That’s the subject of the 20 lessons in SEE THE WORLD, but in short, this: that you deeply experience a place, that you learn to see, that you connect with people and spend time and abandon your expectations. And yes, that you make photographs that express those experiences, tell stories, communicate mood. It’s not about the camera, or your choice of luggage or tripod. How you do those things is the subject of the book and I can’t wait to share it with you.

The photographer you take with you will be the one making the photographs, so if you want stronger travel photographs, now’s the time to work on that photographer.

SEE THE WORLD is a downloadable PDF eBook. It launches on Wednesday, February 11. For the first week it’ll be on sale for $15 (regularly $20), and every one that picks it up during that first week will be entered to win a Fuji X-E2 and 18-55mm lens.


  1. Pingback: The Travelling Photographer – news.iNthacity

  2. Wow, I love going through this blog! I’m always in awe at the beautiful images of the world. This place combined with some of the amazing photos and descriptions I saw here at made me want to pack up my bag and just head out to see the world!

  3. When I was much younger, I searched for “magic” and wanted to see a “miracle.” Now everything I see on this wondrous planet is a miracle, full of magic. The best images are to be found everywhere, even right out your door, you just have to see it.

    That image of you is wonderful and what a great smile!

    Have a great trip, David, and yes, be careful and safe.

  4. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you

    Great words, but much older than Neil Gaiman (I too love his novel). You cited Thomas a Kempis.

    1. Well, the full sentence from Thomas a Kempis “De imitatione Christi” wold fit your though even better:

      Wherever you go you take yourself with you and shall always find yourself.

  5. Hi David!! Thanks for all you do with C&V – I am learning so much from all your material.

    One question/observation: In your second paragraph, you start out by saying:

    “If I make a photograph that’s significant for myself or others, then that’s a bonus”

    Then you state:

    “Often those photographs are little more than a poor copy of one or another of the hundreds of photographs of the same things that others before them have made.”

    My question is – as you have developed as a photographer, do you still make the “expected” or postcard-type image to get warmed-up and to get the creative juices flowing? Kind of like running through some scales before playing the actual piece of music?

    Sometimes I’ll find that the typical photographs that I create (along with the more intimate and personal images), are indeed significant to myself and others and really help bring back the memories of the place, people, and experiences.

    Again, thank you so much for sharing all of your insights with all of us.

    Very respectfully,
    Dan Kehlenbach

    1. Author

      Hey Dan – First, thank you for the kind words here. In answer to your question, yes. I’ll start anywhere I can because even that postcard shot is a starting point. Shoot the cliche, the obvious and the low-hanging if it gets it out of your system and in so doing helps you to begin seeing more obliquely. I call them sketch images and they are critical to my own creative process.

  6. Great words David. Can’t wait to grab my copy this week. All of what you said is so true. Keep on inspiring

  7. Why do you have to tell it like it is? 🙂

    The one advantage I’ve noticed while traveling is that I, as a novice amateur photographer, am able to find the courage to get closer to my subjects and take better photos. I am timid in my own city.
    But again, this only speaks of the need to work on the photographer here at home.

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