When I first started creating travel photos, I often aimed to capture a scene containing as few people as possible, or ideally none. I thought it made for a cleaner “prettier” shot without all the clutter of people. I would capture a beautiful scene, a lovely monument, an ancient building…Now when I am in a small French village, or a local farmers market, I want to capture the people in my photographs. Why? Because they are part of the story.
When we travel with cameras in hand, I think it’s important to ask why. Why we are there. Why we are making photos. And also what are we trying to achieve with our travels…with our photos…?
For me, it has become more than just creating a beautiful photograph to print and hang on my wall. Oh sure, I still strive for those, don’t get me wrong. But my main objective? To tell the story of my adventure. So that when I look back, or when I show the photos to someone else, they tell a story, evoke emotion, even motivate action.
The first powerful effect I saw in my photographic storytelling was after a trip to Peru. I tried to capture the beauty of the landscape, but I also wanted the details, the faces, the culture. A friend of mine looked at my photos from the trip, and had an incredibly strong reaction. Not just “those are beautiful photos”. She actually said that she was moved by the photos. Even driven to go see this place. The following year she booked a trip to Peru. Now THAT was the reaction I wanted from my photos!
Peru village – an overall view
A more detailed shot of a home in the village
A close-up image of one of the residents of the village
Telling a story with our photos allows us to bring others along. Allows us to share the cultures, feelings, people, with other cultures and people. It allows us to bring worlds together that are otherwise apart. And I think that most of us travel to open our own minds. How amazing to have the opportunity to open many minds!
Now what exactly is storytelling with your photos rather than just making photos? I think of it this way…storytelling is a more thoughtful approach. Something that we plan a bit, and are mindful of during our travel. Not enough that we are distracting ourselves from being in the moment of our travel. That is a key point in this whole process. Planning our photos, being mindful of telling the story, should never consume us so much that we aren’t actually experiencing the culture, the meal, the energy of the actual place we are in. It’s a compliment to, not a distraction from, our experience.
There are a couple of different approaches to storytelling. A single photo can definitely tell a story. We’ve all seen the photo that we look at, and keep looking at, with questions coming to mind like “I wonder where she is going” or “I wonder what is behind that door”. And then there is the series of photos that collectively tell the viewer what is going on. I think of a single photo as a short story, and a series as a novel.
When traveling, we have the perfect opportunity to create our photographic novel. To do this, we go back to the mindfulness part. Let’s say we are walking into a French market (that is definitely my go-to example), the first step is to set the scene, like a writer describes the setting. What better way to do that, than a wide, get-it-all-in kind of shot. Capturing the vendors, the shoppers, the buildings that form the boundary of the market. From there, we want to narrow our focus down to a more detailed, but still giving context, shot. This image might show a specific shopper making her selection of the perfect fruit or tomato. And finally the detail shot. Staying with our French market example, the detail shot might be of the gorgeous produce, or a close-up of a hand selecting just the right piece of fruit. Or even a photo where the frame is filled by a particularly joyful man selling roasted chickens (yes he was real – he even sang while selling his chickens).
An overall view of the market in Toulouse, France
A narrower focus but still providing context
After making a series of photos from a particular scene, or event, it is time to let that mindfulness kick in again. I say that based on my own experience. I tend to get SO excited when I’m traveling that I find myself running around snapping away frantically trying to capture everything. And then later that evening when I review my photos, that is when I realize I’ve missed something, or that my settings weren’t exactly where they needed to be. So, if we can periodically take a breathe. Think about what we want our story to tell. And yes even occasionally check the back of your camera quickly to see what you have captured and what pieces of the story might be missing. Then you will more likely capture all the components of your story, weaving the tale as you intended.
Here’s my advice. Don’t get too bogged down in the concept of storytelling, but rather just give it a try. Next time you venture out, even locally, bring your camera with storytelling in mind. Think about the scene, the context, the detail. And when you get home, choose the 5 or 10 images that tell the story. Critically think about what is missing – what components, or angle, or emotion would have helped. What pieces of the puzzle would be helpful to fill in the whole picture. Heck, you might even find that you like this aspect of photography. You might even have a storyteller buried deep down in there, just waiting to come out. So let her out, go play with your camera, and see what stories you tell!
Diane is a photographer and a traveler who left her corporate healthcare job to start her own business, PhotoFluent™, where she teaches other travelers how to create amazing photos.
She and her husband, Neal, lived in France for a year, where she honed her photographic storytelling skills. Now they live in Sacramento, California with their sweet but slightly crazy dog, Maggie. When not creating travel photos, she is photographing local pets for clients and for the Sacramento SPCA, where she volunteers.
She shares her experiences, tips, and humor on her blog PhotoFluent.