Today, the surest way to become a star travel photographer—like the eight featured here—is by using Instagram and other social media to make it look as if you’re always somewhere amazing.

By Noreen Malone
October 27, 2016
Instagram Stars
Credit: Dirk Dallas/ @dirka

When it comes to vacation photography, we’re a long way from the living-room slideshows of a generation ago, when a host would project not a single view of the Taj Mahal, but a dozen—one, inevitably, with a stranger’s bald pate as an accidental counterpoint to the majestic white dome. We’re even beyond where we were a decade ago, when a traveler would return from Paris and deluge her Flickr followers with every imaginable perspective of Notre Dame. It’s not that people have stopped sharing. Anyone who’s lately been on Facebook or Instagram, in fact, might credibly argue that we’re at a world-historical peak for seeing photographs of our acquaintances’ vacations. But in the social media era, the aesthetic bar for our snaps has been raised, rather dramatically. These days, it’s not just that everyone’s a photographer—everyone’s a curator, too.

And so you’d probably post only your single most sublime photograph from Notre Dame—in part because inundating others’ feeds with too much of your vacation is a faux pas, but more crucially because you understand the way that social media has become a remarkable, crowd sourced, virtually professional quality photo album of the world. Not very long ago, publications like this one were the ultimate authority on (and repository of) the world’s finest travel photography. Now, magazines, just like everyone else, are drawing inspiration from Instagram. There are, in any given feed at any given moment, images of majestic wild mountainscapes in Denali, Alaska, or the intergalactic-seeming pools of Iceland, or an utterly empty beach in Spetses, Greece, or the craggy, sunbaked face of an Andean farmer. They pull the viewer instantly into a world where vacation is infinite and omnipresent.

They also offer an additional dream: take enough beautiful photos of your travels, and you might even be able to live full-time inside the fantasy you’re projecting. Corey Arnold, a former commercial fisherman, started by documenting his life in Alaska, and now his photos, popularized by his social feeds, show up in Time and National Geographic. Alice Gao, a young New Yorker with 990,000 Instagram followers, got hired by Madewell and Kinfolk magazine after her feed—full of breakfast still lifes and Richard Serra sculptures—went big. Foster Huntington quit his New York design job to drive a van all over the country and take photographs. “Home” is now an actual tree house amid the Douglas firs of Washington. Brands like Bonobos and U.S. Cellular pay to be mentioned and hashtagged in his captions, hoping to reach the 1 million people who check his Instagram feed to get their fix of seeing someone a lot like them living a life totally unlike their own.

Chris Burkard was a surfer kid who began making art about the California waves he loved. Now he has 1.9 million Instagram followers who watch him jet from Arnarstapi, Iceland, to the Hall of the Gods on Maligne Lake in Alberta—a lifestyle made possible by commercial work for brands like the North Face and Land Rover. Everything in his photographs seems to sweep upward, gloriously, whether mountains or waves or swirling clouds of stars. His is a life marked (at least on Instagram) by consistently extraordinary moments. Whatever happens in between the photographs is, for us, beside the point. We get to click and scroll, imagining ourselves, someday, in that picture, or the next one.

The photographers behind the best travel accounts on Instagram understand this. Their talent is in bringing you along for the ride. Take Murad Osmann, a Russian photographer whose pictures have a strict, cheesecake-y format: each features his attractive wife, her back to the camera, often dressed in local garb (in India, a sari and henna; in Spain, a red flamenco-ish dress bearing a striking resemblance to the dancing-lady emoji). She’s always facing a landscape so twinkling and postcard-perfect it looks like one of those late-90s screen savers—a rainbow over a castle in a verdant valley, a camel in a Technicolor, Lawrence of Arabia version of Jordan. The sky is always blue in @muradosmann’s world. But his particular genius lies in his art direction of his wife’s hand. It’s always stretched behind her, holding his left hand, the one not snapping the picture—a visual trick that’s meant to pull the viewer, as much as possible, into the frame, into the fantasy. Like it or not, the approach works: Osmann’s Instagram account went viral in 2012, and he now has 4.4 million followers. He and his wife also became brand ambassadors for Inc., a Macy’s clothing brand.

In their own way, Osmann and his cohort are doing something with their pictures that travel photography has always done: stoke desire, elicit wanderlust. It prepackages your vacation emotions for you, makes tantalizing promises about feel and atmosphere and even, perhaps, transformation—not unlike the way your own photos, eventually, will funnel the days and weeks of road ups-and-downs into a highlight reel. See this exquisitely lit mist over the mountain? You won’t remember the biting cold, or how you fought with your husband about which exit to take. This trip will be romantically misty! YOU will become romantically misty! We take pictures to stake out our own memoryscape. We look longingly at the photographs of others to borrow a little of theirs.