How to Take Travel Photos While Living in the Moment

People travel for different reasons and in different ways. But there is one thing we all struggle with: taking pictures of every waking moment of our journey while still appreciating the beauty of our surroundings.

In other words: living in the moment while capturing the moment.

Here are a few steps to help you maximize the impact of your international experience while taking photos.

Step 1: Be Here Now.

One way to step out of this safety net is to step back to some wisdom imparted nearly 50 years ago.

In 1967, Bhagavan Das guided a Harvard professor Dr. Richard Alpert through India. By the end of their journey Alpert had converted to Hinduism and changed his name to Ram Das. In 1971, he wrote a book of spirituality under the title of Be Here Now, which was Bhagavan Das’ mantra for their journey.

Be Here Now focuses on experiencing where you are in its fullest while allowing distractions to wait. This becomes harder and harder with all of the new distractions of the digital age.

Feeding an elephant in Malaysia on the American Youth Leadership Program (AYLP).

Step 2: Maintain a 2-day-on, 1-day-off schedule.

One thing that I do to make sure I’m experiencing my travels, not just documenting, is maintaining a 2-day-on, 1-day-off schedule for my camera. By following this rule, I have the freedom to interact with my surroundings in different ways. It also helps maintain respect for cultures that may not welcome unsolicited photographs. Especially in the developing world, taking photos of locals without prior approval or requisite cultural understanding can cause cultural voyeurism: observing and photographing cultures without any truly engaging with one’s surroundings. Remember: you are a visitor in their space.

Trekking through Tre Cilmi in the Italian Dolomites.

Step 3: Start with a notepad.

One way to document your trip without a camera is to take notes on a notepad. Jotting notes doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s space. While a camera can at times be a divider, a notepad and pen can be a bridge that starts a conversation.

Once while wandering through Farash Khana, a neighborhood of Old Delhi, India, something surprised me. The locals were only used to foreigners coming in with a camera, taking photos without permission, invading their space, and then leaving. Once I realized my camera wasn’t welcome, I put it away, walked around with only a pad and paper, and experienced the neighborhood. Like a 180-degree shift, all of a sudden I had people approaching me, asking me what I was writing about, and inviting me to come to their shops. It ended with them asking me to take their portraits.

Portrait of shop owners who invited me in Farash Khana.


Step 4: Be intentional.

In order to truly “be here now” while traveling, we need to ask ourselves tough questions: Are we are in this museum or temple to observe and appreciate the art and architecture? Or are we in this museum or temple to take a photo of ourselves to show other people that we are in this space? Being intentional and authentic about the photos you take will naturally limit the amount you’re attached to your camera.

Young Aaron showing what not to do at Alhambra in Spain.

Step 5: Take the photo, put down the camera.

With a camera in hand, we end up spending most of our time missing what we are intending to see by trying to capture that perfect photo. Some famous photographers have made careers off of this. Martin Parr’s photos of people trying to frame the perfect shot at the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Penelope Umbrico “Suns from Flickr” projects immediately come to mind. This is also why museums and cultural spaces have begun banning selfie sticks (the ultimate validation of Christopher Lasch’s 1979 breakthrough The Culture of Narcissism). When we travel, the desire to record naturally increases, adding a host of distractions.

Does this mean that I am telling you not to take photos at the Taj Mahal or Leaning Tower of Pisa? OF COURSE NOT.

See even I am not immune.

What I am advocating for is trying to keep Das’ mantra with you as you go. As beautiful as the site or world is behind a lens, that same world is much more majestic when you aren’t squinting the other through a viewfinder or looking at it on a screen. After you’ve taken your photos, don’t spend the rest of the visit looking at your photos and seeing if you got that perfect one. Take in the wonder of where you are. You have the entire rest of your life to review these photos.

Step 6: Ignore the likes and log out.

Social media can be an extremely powerful tool for travelers making, maintaining and seeking advice from new friends while traveling, but it can also be a major hindrance to stepping out of your comfort zone. It can be all too easy to forgo an evening out in a new place to catch up with friends across the world on social media.

We are all also guilty of seeking validation for our life decisions through “likes” “faves” and “retweets” online, especially while traveling. If you focus less on the number of likes on your instagram, and more on capturing an authentic experience, you will be able to focus on your travels.

And if you don’t post that photo instantly online, your life will go on. You will still get your likes, retweets, and faves later. Now enjoy where you are.

Foot paddling on Inle Lake in Myanmar.

Step 7: Remember the memories.

In the end, it is memories and experiences that make your life meaningful. When you travel, you inherently gain new memories. By living through “be here now” you will be able not only to document your journey, but appreciate living in the moment.

Family who invited me into their home in Cambodia.


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