Ambitious Travel Photography

Travel photography is sometimes a topic of controversy. On the one hand there is a growing interest in travel and street photography. However, images of people from poor developing countries are from time to time being discredited. Sometimes people even use the term "voyeurism" in this context. There is also a debate whether families of western industrialized countries would like being photographed in their own front yards by African or Asian people.

Myanmar (Burma), U-Bein Bridge...

Typically, travel photography is a mixture of landscape photography, cultural photography, street photography and travel portraits. The group of tourists who capture cultural events or famous buildings mostly via the smartphone while shooting countless photos will certainly not count to the group of ambitious travel photographers. Travel photographers are usually more amateurs than professionals. The professionals in this field are often specialized as landscape photographers, wildlife photographers or photojournalists. Of course it might be a good idea that travel photographers sell their images via Getty Images or comparable online stock platforms. But nevertheless travel photographers who live exclusively from their photographic work are rather more the exception.

Street photography and travel portraits

The most sensitive areas of travel photography are street photography and travel portraits, especially when children are involved. But the question mentioned at the beginning, who likes to be photographed in his own front yard, is actually not correct. The better question would be why do travel photographers prefer to take pictures of people in foreign developing countries rather than in cities or villages of their own industrialized countries. There are basically two reasons for this. In many densely populated countries, such as India, Bangladesh, or in countries of South-East Asia, privacy is perceived completely differently compared to highly developed countries. In addition, it is much easier to photograph people in developing countries because the “right in one’s own image” has almost no relevance. In these countries, it is quite normal when locals publish “selfies” with tourists on Facebook without permission. Of course there are also more conservative countries, especially in Africa, who deal with travel portraits less openly. But this has either religious reasons (Arabic states) or they are afraid that the tourists might make a lot of money with the pictures of local children by selling them to glossy magazines.


Earning money with travel photos

The idea of making a lot of money with travel portraits in glossy magazines may be the dream of many travel photographers, but it has little to do with reality. Magazines only pay a lot of money when the photos are published in commercial context. For that, a written release, also called “Model Release”, of each person in the picture is needed. In order to prevent misuse, the requirements for these releases are very high. That is one major reason why many travel photographers would rather renounce the model releases and publish images with people only in editorial context. However, in this context only little money is paid. The problem of the model release doesn’t exist in landscape photography, but it is also very difficult to earn much money in this area. There are already too many excellent landscape photos on the market.


Fair handling of travel portraits

There is no simple answer to the question of whether people should always be asked for permission in advance to take photos of them. Street photographers will argue that people would artificially pose for the photo when they are asked in advance, and that would destroy the actual idea of natural street photography. Ambitious travel photographers should always be very sensitive about this topic, especially in connection with travel portraits. In more conservative countries such as Tanzania or Senegal, asking in advance for photo permission is mandatory. However, in countries like India or Bangladesh, it is certainly much more flexible. Very often the best travel portraits are a result of a personal connection to the photographed person, and for that time and patience is needed. Street photographers should show the pictures to the people after shooting to get at least a feeling if the people agree with the photos. A good idea is handing out small presents, children are always happy about bananas or mangoes, the elderly appreciate an invitation for a cup of tea. If the travel photographer intends to use portraits commercially, the written approval should always be obtained and the photographed person should also be paid a fair price for the shooting.

Let yourself drift...

Many travel photographers may not admit it, but the best photos are often more or less purely coincidental. For that you need a lot of time and you have to travel a lot. This is exactly what distinguishes the ambitious travel photographer from the normal tourist. The travel photographer prefers to reach the famous temple by many long detours and always accepts the risk of getting lost in the alleys. Of course it can happen that the photographer returns in the evening without any good shots despite the long walks. However, for a professional travel photographer this would be the worst case. This is one major reason why most professional photographers are specialized in their respective fields of activity. Professionals tend to prepare the photo trips very carefully. Of course, ambitious amateur travel photographers can also hire local guides if necessary, and a good travel preparation always pays off. In some areas, for example in the villages of tribal people in Africa, guides are even compulsory. However, the guide should be selected very carefully because he should be familiar with the special requirements of photographers. If not, there is a high risk that you might reach the temple using the shortcut, then the museum and finally the restaurant or the shop of the guide's best friend.


Traveling with focus on photography can be a very intense and adventurous experience. When pictures are taken of people in developing countries, small gifts are ideal. A good preparation for the photo trip makes sense, but off the beaten tracks often leads to pleasant surprises and sometimes to the best photos. It is a good idea to sell the best images on online stock platforms, but travel portraits cannot be used commercially without written permission. If all these points are taken seriously, a controversial discussion on street photography and travel portraits in poor developing countries is no longer necessary. 

Article originally published on Spyderblog, Datacolor, 04/2017

Article published on ProfiFoto, 04/2018