Why It Doesn’t Make Sense to Travel Abroad to Take Photos

Here’s a question that I’ve asked myself many times over the past few years: does it make sense to travel abroad to take photos?

I was astonished when the first time that this question came up, it was an affirmative: yes! I have traveled abroad extensively in my quest to take pretty pictures. Being a passionate landscape photographer, it has been a passion of mine to find and photograph the most beautiful locations around the globe. Every time I saw a photo of another amazing location, I would add that location to my bucket list of places to visit and photograph before I die.

Many of the locations on my bucket list were in neighboring countries, but most of them were on the other side of the globe. I decided to pick all the low-hanging fruit first, visiting all the best locations that were closest to home. Although it was difficult to find new compositions at these locations, I had lots of fun trying to create something original.

My next few trips abroad were as a paying client on photographic tours. These tours include transport, accommodations, meals and all other aspects. You’ll be taken to the most famous locations in the best time of the day, and everything is organized for you. You might not have many opportunities to explore any new locations on these tours, but you will almost certainly return home with some beautiful photographs.

Next, I planned a couple of solo trips a bit further from home, and later I started organizing my own photo tours to the countries and locations that I’d previously explored. These trips were the source of many of my favourite photos, which are still featured in my portfolio.

I’ve decided not to include any captions with any of the photos in this article. You are most likely an avid landscape photographer and know exactly where these photos were taken.

But let’s start with the most common and widely accepted definition of “abroad”, which means “beyond one’s borders”. Some people might travel abroad by boat, train, or car, but I have always done so by plane.

As its name would suggest, South Africa can be found at the lower end of the African continent. I might live in a beautiful country full of photographic opportunities, but most of the locations that were at the upper end of my bucket list required many hours of flying to reach.

Here are ten good reasons (in no particular order) why anyone might want to travel to another country;

  • To visit distant family and/or friends.
  • To participate in an international sporting event.
  • For business purposes (meetings with important clients).
  • For medical purposes (best treatment may be only available abroad).
  • Scientific research into some previously unstudied foreign phenomenon.
  • Doing something that nobody has done before (exploration/adventure).
  • As a refugee when conditions in your own country become unbearable.
  • As a famous musician (rock-star) touring the world with your band.
  • To experience cultures, history, and foods different from your own.
  • To take photos of something.

There may be a few other valid reasons for voluntarily enclosing yourself in a pressurized capsule hurtling along at great speed across long distances several thousand meters up in the sky, but I can’t think of any more right now.

But, there’s a huge difference between traveling abroad and taking photographs and travelling abroad to take pictures. Everyone has a camera in their pocket these days (their mobile phone), so it wouldn’t make sense to travel somewhere and not take any photos while you’re there. After much thought, however, I have come to the conclusion it is not a good idea to go abroad solely to take photos. Let me explain.

Here are a few things to consider if you’re thinking about traveling abroad somewhere to take photos of something (in no particular order);

Consider Your Carbon Footprint

Should we give up flying for the sake of our planet? Everything we do releases some greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, all of which have a direct impact on the climate of the planet. Nearly 2. 5% of all global CO2 emissions are from the aviation industry.

MyClimate.org calculates that the carbon footprint for a single person on a return flight from Cape Town (South Africa) to London’s Heathrow airport would be 3. 2 tonnes of CO2. This is a lot carbon.

Weight and Contents of Hand-luggage

Most airlines impose restrictions on the weight of your check-in and hand luggage. All the airlines that I’ve ever flown with have limited my hand luggage to 15 kilograms. I might decide to pack my travel tripod into my check-in luggage, but as a rule, I will always pack all my camera gear into my hand luggage.

But all my camera gear has always weighed much more than 15 kg. Now I need to choose what gear to take with me and which gear to keep at home. A second camera body is also recommended in the event of a malfunction with your primary one. We’ve made a lot of effort (and paid a lot of money) to visit these distant locations, so it would be a complete disaster if the technology failed us and we couldn’t get any photos!

Only Enough Time to Visit the Most Iconic Locations

Before we travel anywhere to take a photo of anything, we usually already have a pretty good mental image of some of the things that we want to take photos of. Of course, there will always be some unplanned moments with surprising results, but if we only have a limited time to take beautiful photos in a foreign country, then it would seem silly to ignore the most iconic locations and compositions on offer. We still have plenty of time to see the other attractions in the region and capture more interesting, unique compositions.

Many Other Photographers Shooting Exactly the Same Thing

The most iconic locations on our planet are usually also the most popular locations on the planet. They’re iconic for a very good reason. Most people visiting these locations are taking photos and sharing them on social media. People will want to go back to these locations if they are amazing. I once enjoyed (not) a beautiful sunrise at an extremely popular location with more than 300 other photographers.

Shooting Sunrise and Sunset Every Day in a Different Location

As landscape photographers, our busiest times are usually at sunrise and sunset. I always try to arrive at my morning locations at least an hour before sunrise and remain at my sunset locations until the last light has faded from the sky. I might decide to take a short nap back at my hotel during the harsh light of midday hours, but for me, photography will always take precedence over sleep.

I try to squeeze the most out of every minute when I’m visiting any foreign country. I always plan to visit a new location each time there is a sunrise or sunset, no matter what the weather.

But this can prove exhausting especially in the summer when the sun sets early and rises late. Two weeks spent in Canada’s Banff National Park, with an average sleep time of three hours per night. I spent the rest of my time traveling around taking photos and trying to capture as many locations as possible. I looked like a zombie when I returned home from that trip.

Hoping That Everything Will Look Amazing on Your Visit

So you’ve traveled halfway around the globe with only one opportunity to visit and shoot an iconic location, and then you wake up before sunrise and it’s pissing down with rain. You can either go to sleep hoping that the sunset will turn out better or you could stay in bed. Or do you go out and shoot regardless of the weather?

We can plan most aspects of our international landscape photography trip (locations and flights, hotels, restaurants etc.). ), the one element that we will never have any control over is the weather. One thing’s for sure though, we always have a much greater chance of capturing a nice photo when it’s raining than we do if we stayed in bed. A photo of an incredible location in terrible light will always be better than no photos of that location (in any light).

Missed Flights, Expensive Hotels, Unfriendly Service, and Bad Food

Although the weather will always be unpredictable, there are many other aspects of international travel that are beyond our control. One incompetent individual can set off an entire chain of events which could lead to missed flights or lost luggage and unwelcome stress.

I’ve experienced some crazy things in my years of international travel, both good and bad. Although I managed to take some nice pictures on these trips, everything has failed at one point. One thing I am certain about is the fact that nothing is certain. It’s not always easy to take beautiful photos in a world that is crumbling around you.

Justifying the Financial Expense

At some point I forced myself to face reality and answer a few pertinent questions about my motivations for traveling abroad to take photos;

  • Could my photos of these locations ever be better than everyone else’s photos?
  • Would I be able ever to justify my trip’s cost based upon total image sales
  • Will I be able to travel all of the places on my ever-expanding bucket list?
  • Could I find other interesting locations or compositions near me?

These were not difficult questions to answer.

I might have managed to take a few beautiful photos on my trips abroad, but with only a couple of opportunities to capture the most iconic locations, I’m almost certain that somebody else will already have captured much better compositions than mine, with much better light. I would consider myself extremely lucky to capture the best-ever photo of an iconic location on my first attempt.

Some fortunate people have more than enough disposable income to travel at their leisure without feeling any need to justify the expense. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I was only able to afford one or two trips abroad per year, and only because I was able to earn some money from the images that I captured on those trips. My expenses were mostly covered by hosting workshops in other countries later on. However, I stayed focused on my clients’ photos at the locations and not my own.

I have always believed that my love for landscape photography is what inspired me to explore and travel the natural world. I would never have visited the countries and locations that I did if I wasn’t hoping to take beautiful photos there. But my bucket list was growing much faster than I could tick off the locations on it. Only one trip per year was never going to be enough to make a dent in my list.

Then in October 2017, I experienced a sudden medical emergency that nearly ended my life. I was forced to rethink everything. For six months I was close to my family and the local hospital. It was too scary to go anywhere. But since I was lucky enough to be living close to one of the most iconic landscape locations in the world, I decided to focus all my creative attention on capturing the best-ever photos of that subject – Table Mountain as seen from Blaauwberg beach.

When you live as close to an iconic location as I was living then you can afford to be much more selective about when to shoot there. You will have lots of time to explore and find new and interesting compositions during the daylight hours, and you only have to look out of your window shortly before sunset before deciding whether the weather conditions might be suitable to capture any of those compositions.

With enough passion and time, it’s possible to hit the jackpot at one point. There will always be some days when you return home with no photos worth editing, but with enough perseverance you may occasionally experience a few brief moments when everything that you could ever wish for unfolds right before your eyes.

My primary motivation for taking landscape photos has always been to inspire other people (mostly other photographers) to visit the locations shown in my photos. But before we can inspire others we first have to catch their attention. What should we do when we can’t afford to travel abroad and we don’t live close to any iconic locations?

I believe that a photo with average subjects will have a better chance to catch someone’s eye than if it is an extraordinary photo. I’ve now seen enough photos of all the most iconic locations in Iceland, Patagonia, Lofoten, Namibia, etc. to last me a lifetime.

I believe that photographers should be able to see the things that really matter to them, and those that are close to their hearts. We should never forget that everyone who looks at our photos will always interpret them differently. A boring landscape can still be interesting.

These days I am much more interested to see how you capture the stuff around you than I am in the actual stuff that you’re capturing. It doesn’t matter how much time, money, or effort it took for you to be able to stand where you took your photos, if your photos don’t tell interesting stories which touch me on an emotional level, then your photos will probably go completely unnoticed by me.

But these are only my opinions and I realize that they will be rejected by many people reading this article. It would be a disservice to discourage anyone from booking their next photo trip overseas. I merely wanted to mention that you don’t have to travel too far if you want to take photos that will catch my attention.

About the author: Paul Bruins is a semi-retired South Africa-based professional landscape photographer. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author. For the past 20 years, Bruins has worked to explore and photograph every corner of his hometown and country. He has organized and hosted a number of photographic exhibitions, workshops, and tours around the world. His photos have also won numerous competitions and awards and have been published in calendars, magazines, and books. You can find more of his work on his Flickr and Facebook.

Image credits: All photographs by Paul Bruins.