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How to Avoid Cliché Shots in Travel Photography

INLE LAKE, MYANMAR - CIRCA DECEMBER 2013: Fisherman with typical net and boat in the Inle Lake, Myanmar

It's a small world; everything is closer nowadays. Photographically speaking, everybody is a photographer – even my auntie just bought a pretty darn good digital camera. She is now asking me how to post on Instagram.

The glamour of travel photography is not what it used to be.

Gone are the days where just jumping on a plane and going to far-flung places was all we needed to make real, authentic and original travel photos.

Sunrise in Bagan Myanmar
Sunrise over the famous temples and pagodas in Bagan in Myanmar.

It’s a cliché picture – so what?

Unless you really go off the beaten path, most places will already have been photographed and shared on social media a gazillion times.

So what do you do?

Personally, I stopped caring a long time ago.

For me, traveling is an experience. Photography is part of that and is the perfect companion, almost like a perfect marriage.

Traveling is an experience, and photography is the perfect companion.Click To Tweet

Photography is there to document that experience, to make it memorable.

When you get to a place for the first time, you want to see, sense, and feel it. Chances are, you'll commence the adventure by first visiting the iconic places, those which are likely the most photographed as well.

But why is it that I have stopped caring?

I think (you probably should too) that a photo is not mine if I didn’t make it.

It doesn't matter how many times that place or subject has been photographed, good or bad – I want my own photo too.

Tell a story

On the other hand, travel photography is also about storytelling.

Think of how travel magazines do it.

You want to convey a sense of place by showing a location from different perspectives, and frequently the opening photo of a travel story is from that beautiful, well-known place.

Then, of course, you want to get the rest of the images – the ones of locals, food, details, and things that are going to be part of that story or will make your memories as well.

Shoot details

Take, for instance, this example.

I was in Delhi for a couple of weeks on a scouting trip (for our upcoming photo tour to India).

Delhi is fantastic; there are so many things to do and see, among them the great Lotus temple. This is a Bahai house of worship, notable for its marble petals and flower-like shape. In the first photo I've photographed the whole temple; granted, I waited almost until closing time to avoid the crowds. But after I had finished with my photo, I stayed a bit longer and worked on some of the architectural details.

Lotus Temple in Delhi India
NEW DELHI, INDIA: The Lotus Temple in Delhi, also known as the Bahai House of Worship. This is a popular tourist attraction in Delhi. The building is composed of 27 free-standing marble-clad “petals” arranged in clusters of three to form nine sides, with nine doors opening.
Lotus Temple Delhi India
NEW DELHI, INDIA: Architectural detail of The Lotus Temple.

While visiting Yangon in Myanmar, one of the first things you get to see is the Shwedagon Pagoda. It is truly an incredible stupa, located on top of a hill that dominates the Yangon skyline.

The golden stupa is over 90 meters tall and surrounded by smaller structures, so I did the obvious; pulled out my great angular lens, found a beautiful spot, and shot it.

Then I wandered around and watched people, experienced the moment, went to a quiet corner, and photographed the worshipers from there.

Photograph people, not just the place

Shwedegon Padoga in Yangon Myanmar
YANGON, MYANMAR: Architectural detail of the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon
Lady lighitng incense in Shwedegon Padoga in Yangon Myanmar
YANGON, MYANMAR: Woman lighting incense in the Shwedagon Pagoda, a famous landmark in Yangon

Wait for unique moments

How about Inle Lake?

I am pretty sure that if you are more or less familiar with Burmese traditions you have seen some photographs of the skilled fishermen and their nets on Inle Lake.

They are great people and make excellent subjects. After the typical sunrise photo, our fisherman decided to relax and take a moment to rest. In turn, I continued photographing and got a not-so-conventional image, rather one of the subject in his environment.

Fisherman in Myanmar
INLE LAKE, MYANMAR: Fisherman with typical net and boat in the Inle Lake, Myanmar
Fisherman resting in Myanmar
INLE LAKE, MYANMAR: Fisherman taking a rest and smoking in his boat in Inle Lake, Myanmar

Note: I am going back to Myanmar in November to scout a brand new DPM photo tour. If you are interested in joining us on that tour, please add your name to the waiting list and we'll notify you early when it's available! 13 lucky people on the India waiting list got their spots and filled the tour (we had to make a second one which is available here now), so we can confirm that being on the list if you're interested is very important.

Time of day matters

Here is one more example from India.

While in Udaipur, the Lake Palace is a must-see attraction.

If you are close to Lake Pichola, you'll see it. So I took my first photo from somewhere around the jetty close to the City Palace. It was a warm and beautiful day, there is a little cafe nearby, and after I had taken the photo, I enjoyed a chai and the breeze from the lake. Later that night I found another spot from a rooftop and got a more compelling image of the Lake Palace during the blue hour.

Darlene did a lighting experiment to show the difference time of day matters when you're shooting a subject.

Lake Palace Hotel Udaipur India
UDAIPUR, INDIA: Lake Palace Hotel is formerly known as Jag Niwas in Lake Pichola in Udaipur
Lake Palace Hotel at blue hour Udaipur India
I still remember this night like it was yesterday. Shooting this magical view of the Lake Palace from the rooftop of my hotel in Udaipur. What a fantastic place, I’ll be back next year.

Enjoy the experience

Making a photo is not just clicking the release. It is also an experience on its own, something that you enjoy.

Waiting for the sunset or sunrise, watching life going by, feeling your surroundings.

What if, during that process, you've caught a picture of a place that’s so photographed to death, it's a cliché? So what? I personally don't care because now I’ve made it mine, and I have not only captured it but most importantly, I've been there and experienced the moment.

It may look like a cliche travel photo, but I was there to experience the place myselfClick To Tweet


I frequently find myself coming back to my computer. My screensaver plays photos of the places I've been, and in just a quick peek all those moments come back my mind, as if were there yesterday. Just by looking at a photo I can almost remember what I did that day.

So go ahead, get up early, skip dinner, and make a cliché photo. It's yours, after all. Then, look for something different, but most of all, enjoy the moment.

Do you have any photos like these that you can remember? Share your images and stories with us in the comments below, we'd love to see and hear them.

travel photography tour leaders Daniel KorzeniewskiDaniel Korzeniewski is a Miami-based travel photographer whose work has appeared in several publications. He contributes to various stock photography outlets and leads photo tours here at Digital Photo Mentor. Find more about his work, travel adventures at his website here. You can also follow him on Instagram.

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