You’ve already seen them — the sleek, polished, perfectly lit photos of exotic locations, captured for the whole internet to gawk and lust over. Somehow they are taken from the exact perfect angle — the impossible kind of angle that makes you think that surely a helicopter was involved, or an incredibly expensive zoom lens. Often they capture beaches at sunset or sunrise, or stately ancient buildings lit up and radiant during a dark night, or perhaps verdant wilderness that rolls away in the background until it hits the horizon and turns into impossibly perfect sky, complete with squishy cumulus clouds.

There they are, dozens of them in high-resolution glory, lined up one after another in Google Images search results, stacked all in line by a hip photo curator, arranged in a slideshow on a news site, handily put together on a ‘Bucket List Travel board’ via Pinterest or filtered sepia in Instagram by some cubicle dweller longing for an escape.

In other words, it’s travel pornography. And much like actual pornography, the real thing is nothing like what you see onscreen. It’s a carefully fabricated construction, exactly like the food advertisements splashed on billboards and trucks nationwide, with impossibly photogenic steak marked with perfectly parallel grill marks and a light drizzling of vibrant yellow sauce and green sprigs. Everyone knows that’s not real food — there’s a whole industry of food cosmeticians who spend hours fluffing up plastic mashed potatoes and spraying them with corn syrup to get that immaculate buttery sheen.

Except with travel porn, the unseen hours that go into the finished photos aren’t filled with makeup artists or personal assistants but with personal toil invested by the photographer. He / she probably spent a considerable amount of time and money getting to the perfect overlook for the shot, waiting for the perfect weather, using some esoteric DSLR setting tailored specifically to the conditions, at the best time of year. Certainly there are a few miracle photos snapped on a whim from the hip by an iPhone, but most of the good ones require many man-hours, along with dozens of not-quite-perfect shots doomed to sit on a hard disk forever.

It’s important to make these itineraries knowing that what you’re going to see out there is not going to be the same thing you saw online.

Like many others, I’m guilty of using these photos to help plan my travels. There’s a maze of sticky notes on my dashboard crammed full of national parks and forgotten monuments in faraway countries. I’ve been fortunate enough to knock off most of the European ones in the past year, but in doing so I noticed that the real place was never quite as perfect as the photos made it seem. The picturesque medieval castle was undergoing maintenance, its magnificence obscured by more scaffolding than I’d ever seen in my life. The line of oak trees in Northern Ireland looks like, well, a line of normal oak trees, until you find the perfect angle that the internet photographer found, where they all merge together into a tunnel that looks like it heads straight into Middle Earth. The adorably craggy rock jutting proudly into the Mediterranean turns out to be more or less the same as all the other rocks nearby, and the tiny cove nestled next to it is actually too small to even picnic on.

I wouldn’t say that any of my destinations culled from the web turned out to be ‘disappointments,’ per say, but there were a few that made me question whether all the hassle required to get there was truly worth it. It makes choosing which of the to-do’s still on the list to prioritize a good bit easier. Picturesque urban park tucked away in the suburbs of a major city? For sure, I can metro out to that in less than an hour. Picturesque hidden beach tucked away miles away from anything pretending to be a thoroughfare? I’ll just hit up its slightly less photogenic cousin that’s right alongside my travel route.

Therein lies the hack — except for the obviously unique structures / phenomena, you don’t need to go to the exact same place the photo was taken to evoke the same emotions it brought out in you when you encountered it online. These photos fall into two major categories: famous beautiful places, and simply exotic beautiful places. For the latter, all you have to do is get within grenade vicinity and you’ll get the same impression. One part of the forest is functionally the same as another part. One busy downtown intersection in a foreign metropolis is just as chic as another, if you catch them at comparable times of day. If it isn’t a landmark, the photo is imparting a travel archetype more than conveying a quality of the specific site.

Certainly travel porn remains a great way to discover ‘must-see’ places that you’ve never heard of before, but it’s important to make these itineraries knowing that what you’re going to see out there is not going to be the same thing you saw online, and chances are it’s not going to be as pretty. But hey, you’ll get the added value of a rollicking journey to an unknown place, replete with all of the smells, sensations, and experiences that come with the kingdom. Think about the feeling of a freshly minted North Sea wind gust in your face, the kind that makes your cheeks ruddy and invigorates you to dance around — you can’t Pin that on an imageboard.

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