5 Humble Tips for Capturing Photo Stories while Abroad

When I first started photography, I often read cliché lines like: an image is worth a thousand words, or what is the story your photo is trying to tell. I first tried telling stories with a single photo, which worked from time to time for someone first starting out. Over the years however, I’ve realized that a single photograph or a series of unrelated shots from a trip doesn’t do the place you visited justice.

There is no context, no beginning or end, no real emotions between you and the place you just spent quality time seeing and experiencing. What really needs to be created is a photo story. A collection of images that convey your thoughts about a place while simultaneously inviting the audience to also imagine themselves there.

To that end, I have 5 humble tips for capturing photo stories while abroad.

1. Travel Light

Geneva Crosswalk

We sometimes have a tendency to bring every piece of kit we have, just in case. Please don’t. Not only will it be heavy, you will waste a lot of time switching lenses, worrying about losing something, and most importantly expending needless energy. In all likelihood you will be using one or two lenses, your favourite and another one that you are keen on trying out, the rest can stay at home.

As an example along with my trusty Nikon D7000 I tend to take one wide-angle zoom, such as the Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 ( 16 – 24mm equivalent on 35mm) and a prime, like the 35mm f/1.8. One for daylight shots and one for low-light situations or portraits. Despite having just two lenses, one being very pocket-able, I tended to stick with the Tokina as the hassle of switching lenses while walking around is a cumbersome process. I often also bring a travel tripod like the Gorillapod and a variable ND filter as I have a tendency to shoot long-exposures.

Beyond your camera kit, prepare for what you expect you will face during your day away from your travel home base. Leading us to my next point, do your research, but also wander.

2. Do your research, but also wander

Circus Knie

Telling a photo story while you are traveling is not an easy task as the very nature of travel photography often finds you photographing multiple genres, from sport, to landscape, to street, all in one day. An easy way of wrangling everything in is by continuously doing research. For example:

What are the most popular spots to see?
When are they busy?
What is the weather going to be like?
How do I layout my travel route to hit all the spots at the best times?
What is the history of the place I am visiting?
How best can I capture and portray the cultural significance of the scene?

Once you have a solid idea of where you are heading and the priority spots you are going to be visiting and capturing you won’t be scrabbling. I’ve had too many experiences where I wasted precious time by trying to figure out where I am, and how to get to the next destination. So do your research and make sure you understand what it is you are trying to do each step of the way. It goes without saying that Google Maps will be your friend as you plan your day trips.

Like many things in life, having a plan doesn’t mean you have to stick to it 100%, in fact I encourage you to stray off the plan. Some of my most memorable moments have been because I began to wander beyond the route I had planned. You invariably find hidden gems, and moments in time that you otherwise may never see if you followed the typical tourist routes.

3. Make repeat visits, if possible

Obviously repeat visits is not a luxury we all have when traveling abroad. In fact, I often have the mindset that the very place I am seeing will only be seen once in my lifetime. Talk about massive pressure to capture photos!

However, if you do have the chance, revisiting the same location can produce some wonderful results for your photo story. First different lighting conditions produce different moods and elements for a story. Second, different times of the day yield different environmental and social changes to the scene. Lastly, revisiting the same location can allows you to develop a new perspective (figuratively and literally), which ultimately helps you get better photos.

Note: You don’t have to revisit the same location from the same spot, I’d advise literally trying multiple vantage points.

4. Stories evolve

Converging Rivers

As with regular stories, they are not completed in the first pass, or even the second one, the same is true with photo stories. Don’t expect to get your story created in one shot, as you will be iterating on it constantly and laying out in different manners to test how it flows. You will also find that as you edit, a style will emerge further influencing the story.

An important step you can take to is quickly sketch out what you believe your story is going to be before, during and after you capture and edit your photos. This will help you hone in on a message or messages you want to convey to the audience. Much like storyboarding is done for films, a sketch or outline of your photo story helps you from getting too lost in the weeds.

Lastly, it can be helpful to let your photos and story breathe a bit after you’ve gone through with your initial edits. I often find that a few days away from your photos can bring fresh perspectives that may help finesse your story even more.

5. Look for contrasts

Look for dichotomies, or rather contrasting elements either thematically, physically, emotionally etc. Like a good story there is conflict, climax and resolutions. Putting these elements into your photos can better portray what you are experiencing.

Views of Tokyo, A Guide to Photographing a Metropolis

If you are at a loss for where to start especially when you first arrive at your destination (and you haven’t done the research – see step 2) it’s good look for contrast. Whether it be old versus new, fresh versus stale and so forth. The natural clash between two opposites brings added energy to your story that may be otherwise flat.

Waiting out the Storm

Final Thoughts

There is no “right” way of piecing together a photo story(ies) but the tips I’ve provided are ways in which be found I can consistently create stories of my own. It is definitely work to be thinking about storytelling while you are on an adventure, doubly so when you are with others that are just there to enjoy and relax. The fun in it all is how you can adapt to your situation and get shots you need.

Thank you for reading all the way to the end. If you have your own tips on creating photo stories or travel photography don’t hesitate to comment below.

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