What is Travel Photography?

The genres of photography are so often mischaracterized. But, most of these genres are at least pretty obvious. In street photography, you’re photographing the street life. In landscape photography, you’re photographing the landscapes. And of course in wildlife photography you’re photographing the, well, you get the idea. So what is travel photography?

What makes travel photography so interesting is that it isn’t a subject that you’re photographing: it’s an activity. But also, it is a subject…? Wait… let me explain.

What Makes a Photo a Travel Photo?

Ok, so here’s the thing that identifies a travel photo. A travel photo is an image that doesn’t just represent a subject, but a location itself. Travel photography is the art of capturing the event of travel while simultaneously given recognition to the physical location where a photo was taken.

Does that word salad make sense? Maybe, maybe not.

Let me try to explain this a little bit better using some examples.

Is Travel Photography just Generalist Photography While Travelling?

When I was young and just starting my travel photography career, I used to tell people that I loved travel photography because it meant I didn’t have to focus on one genre of photography. The advice almost everyone gives photographers is that they need to specialize.

However, through travel photography I was able to be a bit of a generalist. One day I was photographing wildlife. The next day I had my macro gear on and was taking photos of flowers and plants. Then, I’d be photographing architecture or people.

I loved it.

Travel photography was a way for me to not need to specialize.

Or, so I thought.

After a while, I came to the realization that I wasn’t really doing travel photography, I was just doing photography while travelling, and there’s a difference. In fact, there’s a financial flaw. I mean, why would someone hire a someone from outside the region to come photograph things that a local could photograph?

Travel photography is not generalist photography. In fact, it is a niche.

Landscape Photography vs. Travel Photography

I like to use these examples because I think it really helps to properly explain what travel photography is.

In landscape photography, for example, there doesn’t need to be a recognizable place in the photograph. The image could be of a plopping of rocks out at sea with whitewash waves crashing against them. A landscape photo could be a rolling hill that could be anywhere in the world.

The goal of landscape photography is to make art. And to make the viewer look at an image and think: “wow, what a beautiful place (or image).”

The biggest difference with travel photography is that the location should be recognizable – at least to some degree. Or, with travel photography the spirit of travel has to be projected in the image.

The goal of travel photography is to make someone look at an image and think: “wow, I want to go there (or do that).”

Does that make sense?

Wildlife Photography vs. Travel Photography

To apply this example to wildlife photography it might be a little more clear.

With wildlife photography, you’re simply taking photos of wildlife. The goal of the photo is to make the viewer think, “that’s a beautiful animal or image”. The goal might even be to make the viewer want to see that in person, it doesn’t make it a travel photo.

What makes a travel photo in wildlife is, actually, most likely the human element. Instead of just an elephant, it’s an elephant standing in front of a safari vehicle, or a lodge, or a camper van. The goal of the travel version of wildlife photography is to make the viewer want to have that experience.

So, What is Travel Photography?

Here’s the thing I love about my job and about being a travel photographer: not everything has to be a travel photo.

When I’m out on assignment, I’m not just photographing things specifically for my genre, I get to photograph everything. Being a travel photographer means that you get to experience all these incredible things that you’re trying to convince others to do. But beyond the type of images I mentioned before, you can also do the more classic photography. It’s not all about setting up an image or staging a photo to make people want to travel.

Different Types of Travel Photography

As is the case of any genre of photography, there are also sub-genres of travel photography. And there are people specialize in very specific forms of these sub-genres. I’m going to cover a very small number of these below.

Big Landscape, Little Person

This is a type of photograph that really started to take off with the onset of Instagram.

Basically, it’s done by placing a person within a landscape, cityscape, or otherwise. However, they are a really small subject in the image and they’re mostly just used for scale. You might see a person standing on a cliff in Iceland surrounded by epic landscapes. Or, you might see a person standing on a ledge in a wild cityscape somewhere like Tokyo or New York.

It’s the type of photo that makes someone look small in a big world, and really creates a mood of awe. It makes the viewer look the surroundings, and feel a sense of scale and wonder. It’s a very effective type of image.


Using POV (Point of View) imagery has always been an effective way of making a person feel like they’re in the world they see in the photograph.

This type of photograph is done by trying to include some of the photographer’s own body or clothing in the frame. It’s done to make you feel like you are the photographer, standing in their shoes.

Imagine a photograph where you see the skis and one arm pointing down a mountain. You’ll feel like the skier, for example. Or, one of the more famous examples is holding the hand of another person who is leading you through the scene.


Traditionally, travel photography was always a little bit editorial. Rather than staging scenes to make people feel like they were in the images, photographers would simply photograph other travellers, travelling.

The best example of this is perhaps a safari. Rather than documenting the wildlife, you’re documenting the other tourists and how they’re interacting with the wildlife. You’re not just photographing a cheetah, you’re photographing people observing, or even photographing, the cheetah.


I once heard someone way that travel photography started to die when people started to hire models in to pose in their photographs. Lots of people felt like this was a new thing, but for decades people have been hiring local models to pose for them.

The idea of this form of photography is to make someone feel like they want that experience by showing the glamourous side of the experience. In this style photo, you’re showing a person experiencing the wonder of the world. But, that person is obviously posing. The goal is to make the viewer feel like the person in the photo is special, and having a special experience – and then, of course, wanting that experience themselves.

Who Hires Travel Photographers?

The goal of travel photography is to make people want to travel. But who is going to hire a travel photographer? Actually, the answer is: a lot of people.

The most obvious client for travel photographers is tour companies and travel brands. Companies that want you to create images that promote their brand or their experiences. For example, a tour company like Intrepid will hire a travel photographer to cover their tours and create images that make people want to join their trips. An airline like KLM might hire a travel photographer to not only photograph their experience in the air, but the destinations they fly to.

2014 Volkswagen Touareg

Tourism boards are also a big client of travel photographers. These boards have a duty to their members to promote their destination and drive as much tourism as possible. So, obviously, they’re going to need to hire someone who can create some visual media to promote them.

But the list goes beyond the obvious. As a professional travel photographer, I’ve been hired by brands like AMEX, who wanted me to promote their travel rewards program. I’ve been hired by Volkswagen, who wanted me to promote their vehicle as a vessel for travel adventures. I’ve been hired by Clif Bar who wanted me to promote them as a product to take along with you on their adventures. I’ve been hired by all sorts of clients in all sorts of departments.

Is a Career as a Travel Photographer Realistic?

Here’s where I’m going to get tough with you.

I hear people all the time promoting the life of a travel photographer as something that anyone can do. Honestly, they can’t. It’s something that you either have to build locally and then expand, or have the finances to be able to fund it at first. Even then, it’s a risk.

That said, there are plenty of travel photographers out in the world and it is a viable career – for anyone, not just the rich.

My story on how I became a travel photographer is a bit random. But basically, I worked tourism jobs while doing the photography on the side until I build a big enough client list to make it on my own.

My advice if you want a travel photography career is to start locally, build a name for yourself and let it expand. Start by creating beautiful travel images in your own home town. Then, hopefully you start getting requested farther away in your state or province. Then, you might start getting assignments nationally, and finally internationally.

Remember, you don’t need to travel the world to be a travel photographer. A travel photographer isn’t a photographer who travels, it’s a photographer who captures the sensation of travel.