A Storytelling Approach to Travel Photography

Many years ago, when I first started combining my love of photography with my love of travel, I focused heavily on shooting cityscapes and landscapes.  I would head out before sunrise, find the best shooting angle, set up my tripod and wait for the right light.  If people were in my composition I would wait for them to move before taking the shot (I may have even photoshopped one or two of them out over the years).  I was making “postcard images”, so heaven forbid somebody got in the way of the Louvre, the Manhattan skyline, or that beautiful meadow with the rolling hills that I was photographing.

The irony of this is that I have always loved people, from my former work as a paramedic and portrait photographer to my current work as an educator, presenter and street / wedding photographer.  People truly define a culture:  They make the buildings.  They create the art.  They make the food.  They breath life into cities and the countryside.  Honestly, it is impossible to tell the story of a place without also creating images of the people themselves.

Over time I also came to appreciate the importance of the detail shot.  When I thought of places I have travelled to, I realized that it was often the little details that I remembered the most.

When you think of Paris, the Eiffel Tower comes to mind, but so do the love locks.  When you think of Seattle, the Space Needle comes to mind, but so do the fish mongers and their seafood in the market.  When you think of New York, the Empire State building comes to mind, but so do the pigeons in the parks.  It is these little detail shots that round out our architectural images and people images.  It is the little details shots that fill the gaps in a story.

Coming home from a trip is really when the work begins for many of us.  Our minds are full of wonderful memories, our hard drives are full of new images that require editing and processing, and our brains are racing to decide how best to present our new work.

This should be a purposeful process, driven by the following question:

“What story do I want to tell?”

An image, just one singular image, can sometimes hold an entire story within its borders.  It is arguably easier though, and often more impactful, to tell a story through a series of images.  Visual storytelling of this nature is an art form unto itself, one understood by journalists the world over.

You might take the following into consideration when deciding which images to include in a visual story:

  • Do I have establishing shots that set the scene (often taken from a higher vantage point or with a wider lens)?
  • Do I have medium shots (images that are close enough to make out all of the details, but wide enough to show the relationship of the objects within the frame)?
  • Do I have close up and details shots (images that tend to focus on one element, such as a pianist’s hands)?
  • Do I have portraits (traditional mug shot or environmental portraits, candid or posed)?
  • Do I have action shots?
  • Do I have reaction shots (i.e.  people watching the action)?

Once you have selected and processed your final images it is important to play with the arrangement and sequencing to determine how to tell your story in the best way possible.  Maybe you should start with a wide establishing shot to set the scene, then take the viewer inside the place you are documenting with a series of medium shots.  Perhaps you are documenting an artist at work in his or her studio so you show an environmental portrait, several action shots of the artist at work and finally a detail shot or two of the art itself.  There are no hard rules to this of course, it is all in what you want to say and how you want to say it.

If you can, I find it helps to print your work while you are doing this.  There are few things more impactful in the visual arts than looking at a beautiful series of printed images.  Printing also allows you to view your story in a more physical manner, to hold the images in your hands, to spread them to out if need be and to make any changes as required.

If you don’t have the opportunity to print and hang your finished work at least make a book through one of the online services.  Our work is important, it deserves to be so much more than a series of digital ones and zeroes on our hard drives.

The wonderful thing about taking a storytelling approach to your photography is that it can be done anywhere.  Pick a spot in your home town and approach it like a journalist.  Perhaps it is a bakery, the local fair, or a nearby artist’s colony.  Perhaps it is a tattoo artist or a busy neighbourhood near the water.  Dedicate time to shooting there, but with the focused goal of telling a story about the place that you visited.  The lessons learned from doing this will translate directly into your next trip.

Another excellent way to improve your visual storytelling is to seek out critique, honest feedback, from somebody that you respect.  Be open, be receptive, take notes, and then internalize the parts of the feedback that resonate with you.  Getting fresh eyes on your work is a great way to make you better for the next story that you set out to tell.

All of the images in this post were made during a workshop I teach with fellow Official Fujifilm X Photographer Spencer Wynn, called “The Story of a City”.  This is a 5 day workshop, most recently held in Toronto, that is focused on creating storytelling travel photography.

During the workshop we shoot cityscapes and landscapes, we make portraits, we take detail shots, we shoot a little street photography… all of it done with the intention of telling a story.  Lecture and shooting assignments are combined with discussions over coffee about photojournalism and how to improve your vision.  At the end of the workshop each student presents their story from the week, both to celebrate success and to receive feedback on their work.  It is a wonderful workshop that we truly love teaching.

The Story of a City workshop series will be traveling to the following locations in 2019:

  • St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada:  May 6th – 10th (this trip will also include a special day spent photographing icebergs).
  • Paris, France:  June 3rd to 7th
  • Toronto, Canada:  July 15th to 19th
  • Winter location to be announced

If you are interested in any of these workshops please watch this site for more details coming very soon.  Early bird discounts will apply and enrolment is limited (5-10 students max depending on the location, but always with two instructors).

Until next time, here are a few more images from the Toronto workshop!



7 thoughts on “A Storytelling Approach to Travel Photography

  1. Rick Garvia says:

    My photography improved when I started including people (or animals of some kind) in what would otherwise be static images. I feel more connected to the scene this way.

  2. Jeff Bell says:

    I was the exact same way as you – always looking for the postcard shot while excluding the people. I have probably gone to the other extreme and only take photos of people now. I like your shot list of a variety of photos – I need to give this a try and get some wide, medium and detail shots. Great post.

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