How Far Do You Need To Travel To Become A Travel Photographer?
I have been very fortunate, even blessed, to have received a lot of GREAT advice throughout my life. But very little has been as life-changing and eye-opening as the advice I received from my good friend and mentor, photographer Gary S. Chapman, over a breakfast in Panama City, Panama. 

I don’t think he knew it at the time, but I was in one of many “professional soul searching” moments of my life. I had recently, within the last two years, decided to become a full-time photographer, and to make my living out of this trade. However, I faced several perceived problems: No formal education in photography; No real connections in the field other than a few photographers who, like Gary, had showed mercy on me and befriended me; No editors or steady clients; Little equipment; Based out of Panama City, Panama, a small Central American country with a very small and traditional photographic scene at that time. 

And as if all of that wasn’t enough, I didn’t want to just be a photographer and make my living with a camera. I could have easily chosen to specialize as a portrait or wedding photographer and gotten jobs right away, but that seemed too easy for my stubborn self. I wanted to become a travel/documentary photographer just like the ones that I saw and read about in Nat Geo, Life, Time Magazine, etc.  I wanted to see interesting people, explore the world, and tell stories. How was I going to do that? Where would I start? Who was I to even think I could? That’s where Gary’s words came in to change my perspective. 

As I expressed to Gary, my desire was to travel the world, maybe move to Asia, or at least see how often could I visit in search of good and interesting pictures. Gary looked at me and in his calm, soft way of speaking he said, “Why? Why would you want to go there if there are hundreds of thousands of photos coming out of those places every day?” He continued, “How many stories coming out of Asia or Africa do you see in the big magazines a year? Lots, right? But how many stories do you see coming out of Panama? Not me, or anyone that comes in can or will know Panama, its people or culture better than you or any local. Who can tell these stories better than one of her own? There are lots of stories to tell that you are already here with all the time to tell them the right way.” 

A man rides his bicycle early in the morning at the Cinta Costera in Panama City, Panama.

It sounded so basic, so simple, yet it blew my mind. I had been so caught up in and inspired by all the stories I saw from around the world that I never even considered the stories from home could compete. I was wrong. I began to focus my efforts on three things: 

1) Trying to find interesting stories, people, and places  

2) Using the internet for exposure so that the world could see my work. 

3) I also applied and got a job at a local newspaper to gain experience as a storyteller since I was completely self-taught. I had done my research and figured at least 8 out of my top 10 favorite travel photographers had one thing in common: they all started at a newspaper, I didn’t have that. I put all my energy into that job and considered it my schooling. It paid off.  

It wasn’t much later, after only 2 years at the newspaper, I received an offer to work as a “stringer,” or freelance local photo correspondent, for the Associated Press (AP). Soon after, a fellow AP photographer recommended me for a story in the Travel section of The New York Times. From then on, editors, local and international, began to discover my work via recommendations, my website, and professional accounts like Flickr, and offer me assignments in Panama. 

With time, those same editors would gain more trust in me and give me international assignments in the neighboring countries of Costa Rica or Colombia, later the Caribbean and eventually they would send me around the world. By no means was this a fast or painless learning process, but it is one I think all photographers should go through in order to understand the trade. It helps those of us who have been through it to push ourselves, to think outside the box. It’s a process that makes us humble and value our jobs.

One of the most common mistakes beginners make in photography, myself included, is thinking we need to travel to remote locations to find an interesting subject or moment. But the whole world, regardless of where you are, is filled with interesting people, subject, light, moments, and stories to tell.

Over the last almost two decades, I have worked hard to remind myself and to teach others the concept of “from ordinary to extraordinary.” Regardless of where you are in the world and whatever you are looking at, that one person, place, activity, time of year or day that may seem boring and “normal” to you may blow the mind of someone on the other side of the world who had no idea that place existed or that unique moment happened. To people in Nura, Kazakhstan, looking at traditional eagle hunters may be an everyday “ordinary” thing, just as it is for me to see the Panama Canal, one of the eight wonders of the world. My failure to take notice of a place I see daily doesn’t make the Panama Canal any less photogenic or impressive. And although they may bore the people in Central Asia, I still love a good picture of a traditional eagle hunters.

Traditional Eagle hunter. Nura, Kazakhstan.
Aerial view of the Panama Canal and Panama City in the far back.

The biggest challenges for a good photographer are not about having all the right gear, travel arrangements or even money… It’s trying to always be creative, to keep your eyes, emotions, and senses aware enough to capitalize on the good subjects and moments. 

Casco Viejo, in Panama City is probably the second most photographed part of the country, competing with the Panama Canal. It’s a place I frequent for many reasons, professionally and personally. Magazines, both local and international, are always looking for “Casco” photos It’s challenging to continue photographing this familiar place in a way that is interesting to me. 

The first time I was contacted directly by TIME magazine was for a story about Casco Viejo focusing mainly in that little area rather than on Panama City as a whole. I have to always, regardless of how often I see something, try to think of places as if it were the first time or the complete opposite. Because I know it so well, I find that one spot of light in a particular corner that only happens once a day for a few minutes that most people don’t notice. That’s what I did for TIME and it got me a double truck in the magazine. 

Layout of how this Casco Viejo photo of an everyday moment ended up in TIME Magazine.

By now I have been blessed with the opportunity to travel a lot for work, mainly throughout my region of the world, but also in Asia and Europe. I can tell you, based on my experiences, whether you are in Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Manhattan or Brazil, teenagers are teenagers, people love their pets, the old ladies at the local market will act pretty much the same (either loving to have their picture taken or hating it and sending you to hell), and moments of good light happen everywhere.  

A teenager jumps from the water on the island of Old Providence in Colombia.
Left: A friendy lady at a market in Belem, Brazl. Right: A not so friendly old couple at a market in Ho Chi Ming, Vietnam.
Left: A woman and her pet Llama in Cusco, Peru. Right: A teenager and his pet sheep in Kazakhstan.

I have found the same purple / orange afternoon “magic hour” light in Peru, Panama, Puerto Rico, Havana and Ho Chi Ming. I have found as many interesting subjects inside the kitchens of the Guna Yala (San Blas Islands) of Panama as I have inside the rural kitchens of Trinidad and Tobago. 

Same afternoons. From left to right, clockwise: Guna Yala – Panama, Mancora – Peru, The Pitons – St. Lucia Island and Crash Boat beach – Puerto Rico.

If you can’t find inspiration in the familiar; If you can’t identify a good location, good light, an interesting subject or a good moment in your own town: If you don’t have the drive, the curiosity, chances are you won’t find any of it anywhere else in the world either.

Travel photography is not so much about getting to a place as it is knowing when to go and when to wait. Sometimes all you need to do to find a great story is go to the next town over.

I have had the chance to work with many editors and one thing I have learned is this: exotic locations don’t “wow” editors as much as intimate, personal, close-to-home stories. It’s easier to get a good picture of a native in most parts of the world. Usually they even pose for cameras. But a good inside story of a person or a place with intimate, non-traditional points of view, draws attention to special moments and says a lot about you as a photographer and your ability to connect and gain access. 

When I have the opportunity to shoot one of the many festivals in my country, as I often do, I am usually able to identify the experienced shooters quickly. Instead of fighting for a spot on the road where the parade is sure to pass, we are moving all around the town, behind the scenes in search of a unique or interesting subject.  Everyone will see that parade on the news, in local newspapers, and on social media. How can I, as a photographer, make this “ordinary” event into something interesting to you? What can I show them that will help them notice something new about this event they have being looking at for years? Those are the types of photos that will make you stand out.

The “Congos” are a century old traditional form of dance from the province of Colon in Panama. Every Ash Wednesday they come out to parade and dance all over the streets of their respective town.
Traditional Cuban dancers take a break and talk away from the eyes of tourist in central Havana city, in Cuba.

You can do much more with one camera, one lens and an open mind, than you can with a backpack full  of the latest gear and no idea what to shoot or where to start.

Be yourself and shoot what you love. It sounds incredibly cliché, but it’s so true. If people really move you, people will move you regardless of where in the world you are. If you are not a people person, forget about it.

There are a lot more things that I could tell you, based on my experience, but let me end with this:

Travel photography is not so much about the subject itself (place or person) as it about how that subject is presented. Anything can be interesting and anything can be boring. It’s up to you, your creativity, and your determination to try and make, for your self, something that is ordinary into something extraordinary by the way you present it in your images. 

A man and his bicycle cross from Guatemala to Mexico. This form of illegal international crossing in this makeshift raft is a normal sight at this particular border point.

If you can see a photo of a place you see everyday and think, “Wow, I have never seen this like this,” you may be off to a good start. That’s what the viewers of your images, be they clients, editors, family or friends, expect to be shown. They want to see the world in a way they have never seen it before or at a moment of light they never expected.

Travel photography is not about going to exotic places, but about captivating viewers with the places you are, regardless of where in the world that is.

St. Thomas Island in the US Virgin Islands.

There is a world waiting to be documented. Go out and find it. It is not about “being big” or “making it big…” it’s about loving what you do and doing it with passion. Eventually that passion will reflect in your work and people will notice. I have done so many things I never believed I could, and worked for clients I used to only dream of, and now I’m a guest writer here… imagine that.

You can see more of Tito’s work at TitoHerrera.com, and connect with him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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