Have we lost sight of what a travel photo truly is? Whether you belong to travel photo groups on social media communities or just simply search for travel photos, chances are you’ll come across a growing number of photos that focus on the travelers themselves. Somehow, this has become the norm in travel photography.

Defining a travel photo

The Photographic Society of America defines a travel photo as an image that expresses the feeling of a time and place, and portrays a land, its people, or a culture in its natural state.

To me, this means seeing cultural events, locals, architecture, natural wonders and landscapes as the focus of the photo, giving the viewer a look into the vibe and spirit of a location. It should make people want to travel to the location and feel the feelings that the photo evokes.

The human element

If a travel photo features you in a swimsuit taking up 90% of the photo, is it a travel photo? How will viewers appreciate the turquoise hues of the water, dream of the texture of the white sand beneath their feet or smell the tropical sea air? Is Half Dome in Yosemite not beautiful enough to be the subject of a photo? Why must people place themselves in the photo and block out most of what gives Half Dome its namesake?

I’m not saying you shouldn’t take fun photos, posed photos, braggadocious photos or photos that help you remember a trip of a lifetime. But to classify all these photos as true travel photos seems incorrect.

I understand the argument that placing yourself in the photo can help provide an expression of feeling for a certain location, but I also feel that a good photo can do that on its own without you plastered in the middle. It can do that with you off to the side, or not in the photo at all. Let’s unblur the lines between travel and lifestyle photography.

A good photo connects your audience to your scene and your composition. To engage someone looking for travel photos, the beautiful scenery and/or the wonderful culture you’re capturing will surely do the trick. Even if you made a conscious decision to add yourself to travel photos in an attempt to stand out online, now you’d actually stand out more by getting back to the heart of true travel photography.

Realism and travel

Let’s go even deeper. Should travel photos provide a realistic representation of the location or experience? Perhaps I’m a purist, but I would say yes. Sure, I heavily photoshopped landscape photos when I was a naive youth, but now I see beauty in presenting how things actually are.

If you are trying to win a photography contest, then by all means camp out at a site for several days until the weather and lighting are perfect for a stellar photo. But in reality, it does rain, it gets cloudy, not everything is vibrant and there are crowds. Embrace this perfect imperfection. Rain provides an opportunity to get a unique photo. You may actually stand out by showing photos that capture this, because not many people are.

Even on the cloudiest of days, you can still make someone want to visit a location.

What do we see?

Should we push this discussion even deeper? I also enjoy travel photos that represent what regular people can and will actually see. Rick Steves, the great travel guide and author, only puts experiences in his shows or books that regular people can do.

Likewise, I personally enjoy taking photos that provide views that future tourists could actually have on their own. To me, this means no aerial drone shots. Besides the fact that not everyone has a drone, it’s not an angle you’ll personally experience at most places. Or, you’ll see multitudes of aerial drone videos online from places that actually don’t allow drones (like national parks in Iceland, etc.).

While you can argue drone footage does capture a feeling of a place, I’d argue a secondary point of travel photography is to inspire people to go visit these places, see what you see, feel what you feel, and then make it their own. It’s a much more realistic aspiration if they can actually get that point of view when they’re there. Don’t get me wrong, drone footage is awesome! But, perhaps we should also unblur the lines between travel and aerial photography.

So, get out there and see what the world has to offer. Take photos of yourself, your loved ones, and use your drone. But, also remember to capture the realistic and natural beauty of the location. It’s fun to see what you can do with just an amazing site and your lens. Do your part to promote the true spirit of travel photography.

Note: While I photographed the top image, all other photos are stock to provide visual examples without using real travel photography.