Thanks to photographer Josh S. Rose for these super-helpful tips for telling the story of your vacation!
So you’re going on vacation. You don’t need to let the desire to document it get in the way of enjoying it — the key is a shooting strategy that tells the story while not holding a phone or camera up to your face all the time.
- Set the context with an Establishing Shot
- Find the Essential
- Try for Unique Shots
- Take a Photo Day
- Remember the Family Candid
- Aim for Six Key Images
Set the context: Take an Establishing Shot
It’s the oldest trick in storytelling — establish where you are by setting the mood, describing the scene and painting a picture of this new place. An establishing shot does not need to be an extremely wide angle landscape shot— that’s a movie-making trick. All you need to do to establish that you are on vacation is get something in your new environment that catches your eye and looks different than where you’re from.
In the image above with the girls eating ice cream, the entire family had just landed in London. My son and I were walking to the rental house, dragging our suitcases, as a grade school let out. The girls were engaging in an age-old post-school activity, but their fancier and more classic school clothing gave the scene a distinctly London flair. Grabbing it immediately set the tone of where we were.
Likewise, on a recent trip to Hawaii during rainy season, it was impossible not to notice the abundance of rainbows in the sky. That’s just not something you see where I live, so it was a natural to get a shot with a rainbow that immediately established that we’re in Hawaii. I’ll always have this shot as part of my memory of our trip.
Find the Essential
As is common with vacations, you’re on the street a lot. Though I’m tempted, I try not to shoot every single person I see. I really pick my moments and try to make sure that what I’m shooting is always iconically representative of where I am.
I call this Essentialism. Essentialism is the practice of having everything you need and nothing you don’t. It’s my philosophy of photography, in general, but it really comes into play when I’m out of town. I want to capture people as they are in that environment, but I want them isolated somehow, so that you really feel that person/people and what they are doing. Just that and nothing else. You’ll capture more of the essence of where you are through that one image than you will with a hundred random shots of strangers.
Isolating people often means changing your view. Usually, there is a crowded angle and a less-crowded angle. I always choose the less-crowded one, limiting the amount of visual noise and giving the shot a calm understatedness. This allows the people I shoot and their activities to stand out.
However, I do look for activities that are interesting. I rarely shoot people sitting and doing nothing. I look for stuff going on. People in the midst of playing or going somewhere. It’s normal life, but it’s life. This creates more interest in the image and captures a place in motion.
Try For Unique Shots
When you’re traveling, you’re shooting a lot of sites that people shoot all the time. If you’re going to popular places, you’re also shooting in places where it’s crowded. I have a few techniques that help me get images that don’t look like the usual tourist shots.
Because I like movement and the sense of a city in motion, I’ll steady the camera and do a longer exposure shot: anywhere from a half second to one and a half to three seconds. For long exposures at night with moving cars, I’ll go as long as 6 seconds. Long exposure images add dynamic movement and eliminate distractions — even sometimes removing crowds — to artistically express a vibe of a city in motion.
Isolate By Tilting Up
Often, everything you need to convey about a city can be understood by showing less. As a matter of habit, I will always try a shot of a city where I tilt up slightly to minimize the foreground elements that might be distracting.
Find Details By Looking Down
The old adage is to keep your head up if you want to know what’s going on, but I’ve made a lot of great discoveries by staring down while I walk. Details are down there. Discarded things. Things that have withstood weather and trampling. These details tell great stories.
Take a Photo Day
I realize this contradicts the earlier decree to simply enjoy your vacation and not think too hard about photography. However, for some of us, doing photography to document your vacation is part of enjoying being in a foreign land, so you might take a day where photography actually is your purpose.
If you embark on that solo journey, try to do something out of your comfort zone. Once in Romania, I stopped the car I was in and rushed up a hill after a young shepherd who I had no ability to speak to. I think it’s among the best shots I’ve taken.
Remember the Family Candid
It’s your vacation. So, a good amount of your images should star you and your family. As much as possible, get people during the little moments.
The image at the top of this article is an example of my favorite kind of family shot on vacation. I’m catching my wife and son in the midst of interacting. It’s a special moment. Here’s another:
Not all shots need to be epic and perfect. Though the social media feed and family vacation slide show is fun, these images are 99% for your own memory of your trip. That moment outside the restaurant, waiting for a picnic basket of fried chicken to take to a park in Montreal … that memory fades completely without the shot to remember it by. The “who was there” and “how old were you when” and “how were people feeling” is all wrapped up in your image. So remember to tell the story of the little moments you shared with your family, for posterity. Because that’s really what photos to document your vacation are all about.
Aim for Six Key Images
You’ll take hundreds (if not thousands) of photos — it always happens. But in the long run, your trip is going to come down to about 6 key images. Why 6? Because our time is limited and we rarely spend more than two minutes reminiscing on anything. And we don’t often look at any given image for more than twenty seconds. Twenty seconds times 6 is two minutes.
While you can’t predict what your images will be , you can keep a bit of a running tally in your head. Six is a manageable number, so while you are shooting away, be thinking of whether you feel you’ve got your six.
I have an entire Instagram feed dedicated to culling down to 6 images of anything I shoot. I find it to be good practice for traveling with the intention of capturing it in six images.
Final Thoughts about Photographing Your Vacation
As I looked back over my photos from various trips to write this article, I was struck by something. While the family and I are really good about getting to the destinations that matter in any location we visit, those attractions only seem to make up about 1/3 of my top six. By and large, it’s the moments and things discovered along the way to and from the big attractions that seem to stick out. Something to think about — you’re capturing your life abroad. Things pop up. As a photographer, your ability to be attuned to those things as they happen and think to capture them are what will make your particular set of photos special.
I hope you enjoyed these tips for using photography to document your vacation. But even more, I wish safe and beautiful travels for you and your family, wherever life takes you.
Are you a frequent traveler? How do you use photography to create memories of your trips? Please tell us in the Comments below or on our Facebook page.
See our post, “Take Great Photos to Make Your Home Stand Out,” for tips on photographing your home when you list it for exchange or short-term rental.