Exploring the Elements via Travel Photography // Earth, Water, Fire, Air

This post was last updated on 2019 November 8

I’m normally extremely skeptical of photography contests, and for several reasons. For one, my rational black-and-white thinking brain doesn’t know how to handle the subjective world so well. It always goes bonkers whenever people make a fuss over photos I’ve taken that I felt were mediocre. I know what MY favorite images are, but clearly I have no insight into how others will interpret my work.

But mostly, do I really need to pay a contest entry fee just for the chance of winning and the validation that would come with it? (Answer: No, no I don’t).

Recently I noticed an influx of blog posts from some of my favorite travel bloggers citing some Explore the Elements travel photography contest. Shit got real when a few of them nominated me to take part in it. And, you know, ignoring their tags would be like wussing out on a dare – so I figured I’d at least look into it.

The objective of the Thomas Cook Explore The Elements – Travel Photoblogging Challenge is delightfully simple: capturing and expressing the 4 elements through travel photography. This contest ticks all the right boxes: it’s creative, it involves blogging, it’s fun, and best of all it’s FREE to enter.

So here I am, willingly participating in a contest. And you know what, it was actually super fun to reminisce through old travel photos and relive the moments that surrounded each potential contest image. I hope you’ll find it fun to journey through earth, water, fire, and air with me here as well!


Represents the hard, solid objects of the earth. Associated with stubbornness, collectiveness, physicality and gravity.

Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal – February 2013

nepal travel photography

Earth was the most difficult category for me to select an image for. Most any pretty landscape photo could qualify, and lord knows the judges are going to be inundated with countless such images. I knew I wanted to use a landscape photo that incorporated some human element.

When I mulled over the category description, one travel destination immediately jumped to mind. The Himalayas completely embody the concept of earth, and I chose an image of them that also included sherpas determinedly trekking through this region of Nepal. Stubborn, physical, and grave? You bet!


Represents the fluid, flowing, formless things in the world. Associated with emotion, defensiveness, adaptability, flexibility, suppleness, and magnetism.

Royal National Park, Australia – March 2015

Royal National Park

I was quick to pick an Iceland waterfall for my water image, but a couple days ago I was confronted with a scene that just SCREAMED water and knew it would be a more unique take on the element.

As we were rounding a bend on the Royal National Park Coastal Track (a 31km trek just south of Sydney), we noticed a light stream of water being blown over the path from the ocean. As we approached, we realized the mist was being blown back upwards from a waterfall that went over the cliff edge. A rainbow flickered in and out of view as we continued to circle it counterclockwise. Upon reaching the edge, we could see the massive waves below churning and crashing into the rock just beneath the waterfall, whose water both thundered down into the sea and got swept back up onto the land.

We sat in near-silence right here, marveling at all the things the water was doing on the natural stage before us: waves forming and breaking, water falling and blowing, a rainbow appearing and disappearing. It was completely incredible.


Represents the energetic, forceful, moving things in the world. Associated with security, motivation, desire, intention, and an outgoing spirit.

Luang Namtha, Laos – May 2013

Laos village ceremony

Fire’s a tricky element to convey in a non-literal way, but when I thought about the description given by the contest judges, it was clear to me which image to use for this category.

One of the highlights of my time in Asia in 2013 was being invited to a baci ceremony in a village in Luang Namtha, Laos. One of the older villagers had dreamt of snakes in his home the previous night, so the community banded together to help ward off evil spirits. At a baci ceremony like this one, villagers take turns tying strings around a person’s wrist, signifying that their spirit is helping to protect and give the person good luck.

While this travel photo isn’t literally fire, I find it to be quite symbolic of fire. This Laotian ceremony was all about security and intention; the spiritual energy in that hut was palpable.


Represents things that grow, expand, and enjoy freedom of movement. Associated with will, elusiveness, evasiveness, benevolence, compassion, and wisdom.

Washington DC, USA – April 2014

DC sunset

Ever get smacked with a glorious sunset when not at all expecting it? I was more in Fat Ass Central mode than Sunset Chasing mode when I sat down to order the delectable sweet potato fries at Busboys & Poets in Washington DC, but as I was settling into my window seat and about to pull out my laptop, I noticed the light to my side coming in through the floor-to-ceiling window. The sky was on FIRE. I dropped what I was doing, grabbed my camera, and ran out onto the street to catch it in action.

At first I lamented not being in a better spot for this spectacular sunset. Surely it would have been a more beautiful scene with the DC cherry blossoms or monuments backlit by a bright pink sky – or hell, if we’re really being picky, a vibrant sunset over a beach or mountain would have been the ultimate scenario.

But man, just look at this. I think the boring street silhouette makes for the perfect contrast against the dramatic sky. The buildings don’t change, while the sky can’t stop changing. The clouds form, grow, and move; the color darkens, lightens, and eventually fades into darkness.

Which photo of the elements is your favorite?


If you’ve entered the contest as well, share a link to your entry in the comments below – I’d love to see!