Travel Photography Subjects: Modern Vs. Traditional

Travel Photography Subjects: Modern Vs. Traditional

Modern Vs. Traditional in Málaga, Spain

On a personal note, I am currently in a contrasts phase in my photography. This means I like to see how things butt against others different than them. Old and new, rich and poor, youth and the elderly. Those types of contrasts. I look for it when I travel and that contrast is the next topic in our Travel Photography Subjects series: Modern vs. Traditional.

Modern vs. Traditional, to me, means more than simply highlighting new and old things. While this is a large part of it, it winds through travel more than most of us realize. Often when we think of far off lands, the image that comes to mind is the last known reference to it. This can be something we saw on TV or something we learned in a history class, long ago in its own right.

That ideal in our mind is often based on the very human assumption that things don’t change. When we look at our lives from day to day, we don’t see a large change. But over the decades hair styles come and go, fashion changes and we look back on what we used to wear and often have a good laugh. So it is too with any given city or place. Many people heading to Venice in Italy expect to see the canals clogged with wooden boats and while they are prevalent, there are also a number of outboard motors and newer hulls in the canals. Sometimes this even disturbs travelers who are accustomed to thinking of a certain land in a certain way.

The key to travel is to keep an open mind. Look for the classic scenes you might be fantasizing in your head, but also look for the new. How do the two abut each other? How do they blend? Why have they evolved so differently?

I often feel a bit cheated when friends bring back pictures of a place like Peru and only show me what is ‘expected’. Llamas, Quechua ladies walking cobblestone streets, Machu Picchu. I like those shots, but what else can you tell me about a place? They do have modern life in Peru. There is a McDonlads in the Plaze de Armas at Cusco. Skyscrapers craft Lima’s skyline. And modern art has an influence.

Show me the contrast. Show me the traditional scenes but also dabble in the modern, together in the same shot. No, really, I mean show me in the comment section below.


Previous articles in the Travel Photography Subjects series include Water, Old People, Young People, Religion, Sports, Socializing, Icons, Rich, Poor, Transportation, Economy, Food, Food Preparation, Weather and Art.  These posts are not intent on telling you everything you need to do, step by step, to capture perfect, cookie-cutter pictures while traveling.  Instead, they are intent on pointing out some vital elements to capture when on the road and highlight thought provoking questions you may want to ask yourself.  My hope is they help guide you to find your own means to better expressing what your travels have meant to you and present that in the best light possible.  Be sure to subscribe to this site to receive the other nine subjects as they are posted!

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Zain Abdullah December 28, 2010 05:35 pm

    The 100-year-old Jamek Mosque of Kuala Lumpur located at the confluence of the Gombak River and Klang River against the modern skyscrapers at the background.

  • Amy November 15, 2010 01:37 pm

    Great article. It made me remember a picture I took in South Korea. This is of a Dunkin Donuts outside the entrance of Deoksugung Palace, during a re-enactment of the changing of the palace guard. One of the guards happened to be standing near the donut place.

    [eimg link='' title='A Dunkin Donuts near Deokgung Palace' url='']

  • Ayush November 12, 2010 12:07 pm

    Very true, I completely agree. We often get way too caught up in capturing the more well known highlights on brief trips of few days and end up missing the local flavour, what could be around the next corner. Liked the 2 wheeler image from Caroline and the mounted man in Korea from Tree Wolf.

  • Cathy Cawood November 12, 2010 11:38 am

    I live in Japan, a country rich in contrast, and what fascinates me is that it's all jumbled together. It's nothing unusual to see a rice field, an ancient temple, and an apartment building all in the same view. Two of my favorite traditional/modern contrast shots both include maiko-san
    [eimg link='' title='P1000834' url='']

  • Naomi November 12, 2010 07:51 am

    Dump truck and construction sign in front of St. Vit Cathedral in Prague.[eimg link='' title='dump truck in Prague' url='']

  • Matteo Valfrè November 12, 2010 02:47 am

    [eimg link='' title='Contemporary Jewish Museum' url='']

  • St Louis Wedding Photographer November 9, 2010 01:02 pm

    I think Tree Wolf's example of modern and ancient contrast is pretty obvious. This may be one of the harder contrasts to show in a picture because you're relying on the memories of the viewer to remember what time frames certain architecture is from. It has to be pretty blatant to really seem like a contrast from different eras.

  • Mr Jon November 8, 2010 05:11 pm

    Excellent post. I live in Hanoi, which is full of the kind of contradictions that you're talking about. There are plenty of iconic images for photographers here - conical hats, bicycles, pagodas and so on - but it's also an ever-expanding, modern city, where new apartment blocks tower over old colonial buildings, and where the young urban middle classes have grown up with laptops and mobile phones.

    This shot was taken during the recent celebrations to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hanoi. The guy is standing in front of a mural commemmorating the American War.

    [eimg link='' title='' url='']

  • HR November 7, 2010 07:22 pm

    Tokyo, old and new.

    [eimg link='' title='DSC3852' url='']

  • mohans November 7, 2010 02:07 pm

    Shot of "traditional.old" The twin chimneys at harbour with "modern/new" Samuel Beckett bridge in foreground in Dublin

  • Joshua November 7, 2010 02:34 am

    This was taken during a "Double Ninth" parade in Jhubei, Taiwan. Double Ninth is a celebration which wards off evil spirits - Taiwan is very much a mix of old and new.

    [eimg link='' title='Contrasts, Jhubei Double Ninth Parade' url='']

  • jeff November 6, 2010 02:00 pm

    Beautiful post (and sweet comments). My wife loves to take pictures of the ordinary as it's something that a lot of people fail to see. For example, one of her fascinations is doors and she loves to take pictures of all different kinds of doors and see the differences in the commonality.

  • Anna November 6, 2010 12:55 am

    How funny you mentioned Peru....

    These are the lights of Northern Lima
    [eimg link='' title='Peruvian Lights' url='']

    This is a student hiding from the camera at the San Pedro School
    [eimg link='' title='a smile' url='']

    This is a street shot of a pedestrian on La Paz in Mira Flores
    [eimg link='' title='Street walker' url='']

    I have a small set of photos on Flickr. =)

    And another street vendor just a block up.

    The street vendor where I had my first Chirimoya.
    [eimg link='' title='Vendor' url=''][eimg link='' title='Fruit' url='']

  • terry November 5, 2010 11:23 pm

    [eimg link='' title='Paris - The Louve2' url='']

  • Keith November 5, 2010 10:58 pm

    Quarry Bay Hong Kong

    [eimg url='' title='HDR%20Quarry%20Bay.jpg']

  • Maik-T. Šebenik November 5, 2010 07:07 pm

    Here's my contribution to "Modern Vs. Traditional" or "Cranes Vs. Sagrada Familia" in Barcelona:

  • Luis Garcia November 5, 2010 05:50 pm

    A lot of people think contrast is just about light and dark, or different colors, but that's just looking at it from the camera or lens' point of view - i.e. the technical side of it. When you start looking at the creative aspect, when you look through your own eyes as opposed to just the viewfinder, then you can find what you're talking about - the contrast between modern and traditional, new and old, rich and poor...

    Great post!

  • jeshudas November 5, 2010 05:43 pm

    best poin of view between the modern Vs traditional scheme. by the way, is it a real picture or just a camera trick as usual? :)

  • Scott November 5, 2010 02:33 pm

    Interesting point, and I guess that's I take photos of the McDonalds and Hard Rock Cafes everywhere we go (but I never post them on-line). When I saw this building in Luxembourg, I thought I must've missed a Castle on my "things to see" list and photographed it. Turns out it's museum in a recently built (by European standards) Bank.

  • Charles J Dukes November 5, 2010 01:06 pm

    Good points well made.

    I first lived in China from 1998 to late 2000 and traveled a lot, taking photos of temples, mountains and the like, but when I got back to Texas, I found that people much more interested in what modern China was like and that I had precious few pictures to illustrate what I had to say about it.

    Recently, the German photographer Frank P. Palmer walked the entire east-west length of Chang'an Jie in Central Beijing, across Tian'anmen Square. He photographed every building, new or old, facing one of China's most important boulevards. As Palmer said, "Photographers who just show the Square or the Forbidden City are missing out on what this important street is all about."

    Shoot the modern as with Palmer or Trey Ratcliff (; you won't regret it.

  • JesseAdams November 5, 2010 01:02 pm

    This very modern advertisement in Vienna right beside St. Stephen's Cathedral.

    Modern superfast ferries against the ancient volcanic island of Santorini.

  • Mike Siesel November 5, 2010 12:31 pm

    God & Oil shot downtown St Louis with my then new Canon G1 using a parking meter as a bench rest.

    [eimg url='' title='God-%26-Oil.jpg']

  • Christine Giglio November 5, 2010 08:58 am

    How about this for a mix. This was taken outside Caesar's Palace, Las Vegas.
    [eimg url='' title='vaegas+%2834%29.JPG']

  • Allison Lange November 5, 2010 07:26 am

    i think this pic of an embedded speaker on a church facade taken in drogheda, ireland fits the bill:

  • Tree Wolf November 5, 2010 06:17 am

    I liked reading this article because at one point I too was fascinated with capturing the dichotomy within cities. I had just arrived to teach in South Korea and was flown to Japan to do some Visa Paperwork. There I noticed many temples squished in with large buildings all around them, or very old rock dwellings and shrines covered with plastic tarp for repairs. The second photograph is from a Korean Castle Guard Re-enactment and I thought the uniformed man and horse in the middle of the busy street was hilarious. :-)
    [eimg link='' title='DSC_0148.jpg' url='']

  • Tree Wolf November 5, 2010 06:16 am

    I liked reading this article because at one point I too was fascinated with capturing the dichotomy within cities. I had just arrived to teach in South Korea and was flown to Japan to do some Visa Paperwork. There I noticed many temples squished in with large buildings all around them, or very old rock dwellings and shrines covered with plastic tarp for repairs. The second photograph is from a Korean Castle Guard Re-enactment and I thought the uniformed man and horse in the middle of the busy street was hilarious. :-)
    [eimg link='' title='DSC_0148.jpg' url='']

    [eimg link='' title='Hey, what century am I in?' url='']

  • Caroline November 5, 2010 05:50 am

    [eimg link='' title='Deities in the Alley, Chandi Chowk, Delhi, India' url='']

  • Caroline November 5, 2010 05:45 am

    There's a picture I took in Delhi that I particularly like (even though my host described it as "meaningless"), of a motorbike parked alongside a makeshift shrine to some of the Hindu gods. You see the modern alongside the traditional everywhere you look in India!

  • @_thetraveller_ November 5, 2010 05:31 am

    Good point, I wish I had made more of an effort to photograph modern life in places while on the road.