Raise your hand if you've gone on a few vacations during which you took only a handful of haphazard iPhone photos of some vistas, or buildings or maybe the classic stand-next-to-the-sign-and-point poses. And when you got home, you were disappointed at how little there was to look back on.
Or raise your hand if on your last vacation you brought home a bunch of photos from your good camera, but they all felt like a jumble of snapshots and didn't really represent what the vacation was like. Perhaps that photo of the cup of coffee sparks a great memory in your mind, but it doesn’t let any other viewer in on the fact that that cup of coffee was one you enjoyed sipping one sunny afternoon at that tiny patisserie in Paris just a few blocks off the Seine.
You’re probably thinking there’s a better way to capture the wonder of your last vacation — and there is.
Photos can provide the most lasting memories from a trip and also show others what a phenomenal journey you had. But only if you consciously take photos with an aim for telling the whole story of your adventure. By planning out and creating a travel photo journal, you’ll bring home a beautiful record of your trip that not only sends you back to various moments, but can take your viewers there with you.
Here are seven things to keep in mind during your next vacation so you can bring home the whole, beautiful story of your travels.
Capture a sense of place
Recently I traveled to Nome, Alaska. The purpose of the trip was to photograph wildlife but of course, there's also the personal experience of traveling for the first time to this tiny town in the northern reaches of Alaska. I wanted to bring home more than just shots of animals. One of the first things I needed to accomplish was to create a sense of place, an idea of where I was in the world.
I wanted to capture the vast expanse of the tundra and the distance that could separate one bit of civilization from another, an important part of Nome and the tiny towns at the end of each long stretch of road. So I couldn't just take a photo of a hunting cabin, since that wouldn't provide a sense of place. Instead, I photographed the cabin with the broad stretch of tundra all around it and the mountain range in the background.
A photograph that provides a sense of place not only captures the personality of a location but also what makes it unique. You want to photograph something that isn't just "a picture of" but "a photograph that shows." For example, don't just take a photo of a building. Instead, ask yourself, "How will I show that this is not just any building of indeterminate location, but a building that is in this particular unique area?"
In Nome, I wanted to photograph the things that make it Nome — the lonely hunting cabins spread out on the tundra along lonely gravel roads, the abundance of equipment brought in for the mining industry, the tundra flowers that bloom only in the short spring and summer months, the creeks filled with the clearest water I've ever seen. These images help tell the whole story of this beautiful, quirky place.
And what about this location do you want to remember for decades to come? Do you want to remember a certain mood, say the pace of the place or the solitude? Do you want to remember a certain part of the day like the quiet sunrises or the bustling nightlife? Think about how you feel about the location and capture not just the location, but the sense of place.
There may be a lot of wild nature surrounding Nome but at its heart, this is a mining town. I couldn't capture the sense of where I was without photographing this more industrial, gritty aspect of the town.
Nome is beautiful in its grungy quirkiness. There are houses in various states of repair and disrepair, rows of snowmobiles and half-stripped cars and piles of random pieces of maybe-we'll-need-that-later materials. It's also a place where the sun shines most of the time in summer and not at all in winter. I wanted to capture all of the material chaos and the relationship with the seasons in one image. These are things to consider when making photographs that capture a sense of place.
Flowers covered the tundra, creating a carpet of color across what is normally a white or brown landscape.
The water flowing through the creeks and rivers was the clearest I have ever seen. The purity of the landscape — the feeling of untouched nature — was definitely a part of the sense of place for Nome.
Capture the characters
Your photo journal is a story, and a story cannot exist without characters.
My trip was a wildlife excursion and thus my characters were the wildlife. But for your adventure, it may be the local people, or the people with whom you're on vacation. Depending on where you're going and why, your characters may be the local flowers, or rock formations or waterfalls. Whatever plays a significant role in why you're at a particular travel destination and how the place feels counts as a character.
Capture your characters both in portraits and within the environment of the area. Show a sense of who they are as well as where they are and how they fit into the landscape. The combination of images will provide much more personality and diversity to your photo travel journal once you get home.
It's common to see red foxes near homes in town. Photographing the fox with buildings in the background was a way to capture this part of the species' story.
A couple of short-eared owls hunted along a stretch of tundra near the road. Birds, including raptors, are definitely a big part of the story of Nome and thus are leading characters in my photo journal.
Musk oxen are found in town as well as on the hillsides. They can sometimes even cause trouble in town by hanging out on runways or in parking lots. If you're in Nome, you're sure to spot one.
Capture the details
The musk oxen in the image above may be one of my characters, but could I tell parts of their story outside of a portrait? Yes, and that's where details come in.
Just as a story needs characters, a story needs details to help the audience fully understand and appreciate what's happening. Fill in the gaps of your photo travel journal with details.
As musk oxen walk through bushes, their soft coats get snagged on branches. This fiber is called quivit and it can be collected to be spun into yarn and woven into incredibly warm scarves, mittens, hats and other wearables. Quivit is one of the softest, warmest fibers on Earth and access to it is certainly a benefit of living around musk oxen. At one point, I grabbed a couple large clumps off of a branch and kept it in my pockets to help keep my hands warm while walking around. Taking a photo of this detail about musk oxen will help me remember that tiny detail in my travel story. Look for opportunities such as this for your own photo journal.
Quivit, the soft fiber from musk ox, blows in the breeze after being snagged on branches in a grazing area.
Details can be subtle or obvious; they can be a close-up of an object or a portion of a scene that isn't obvious at first glance, or maybe even a candid moment among your characters that you managed to capture. If it's something that captures your notice and interest, it's probably a detail of your trip that's worth photographing. The combination of these little detail photographs will work wonders in filling in the gaps and creating a cohesive story of your adventure.
Little details that tell the story of a place are key to a complete travel journal. Reindeer herding is a big part of Alaskan culture. A detail shot like a skull left near the side of the road with the snow-capped mountains in the background brings this into the story.
Leave room for the unexpected and the ugly
You never know what's going to happen on your journey. Even if you have every aspect of your trip planned down to the minute, something strange is going to pop up. Leave yourself open to photograph those random things, and also those things that might not be the most scenic but are still part of your story.
Though I went to Nome for birds and land mammals, there was a part of the story of the area that I didn't expect to photograph and yet it became a big component of my trip there. Late one evening, a walrus started to come to shore. A small group of people gathered around to watch her. We weren't sure whether she was sick or old but it was clear she wasn't doing well and was coming ashore to die. Native Alaskans are allowed to hunt walrus, and their ivory is of particular interest. Down the beach a little way were a couple headless carcasses of walruses that had either washed up whole and had the ivory taken, or were killed farther out at sea and the body washed up later.
This is not the most beautiful aspect of my trip to Nome, but it's an important part of the journey and something I learned about while I was there. Photographing the surprising, the sad and the not-so-pretty is just as important as photographing the joyful moments or the gorgeous scenes. Keep room in your creative mind for things like this and have your camera ready. It may be tough to watch, but it could be something you'll be happy you captured later.
A female walrus tentatively comes ashore in Nome, Alaska.
A decapitated walrus carcass left on the beach. The head was taken to harvest the ivory tusks.
It's okay to take photos of signs
You might be thinking that to take more authentic photos on your trip, you should avoid touristy things like photos of (or with) signs. But signs are most definitely not off limits. These are great to look back on later when you want to remember just what was so cool about that particular place.
The Last Train to Nowhere is an abandoned steam locomotive that sits a few miles outside of Nome and is one of the "must-see" tourist attractions found here.
But after you get your photos of the signs, don't forget to take photos from more interesting angles or perspectives. Shifting your picture of a statue to a photograph of an interesting piece of art will make a difference in keeping your photo journal inspiring. Plus you'll see these iconic structures or places in a whole new light when you're looking at it from a photographer's perspective rather than a tourist's perspective.
One upside of working on a photo journal during your trip is that you'll have more awareness of what’s around you and how to frame it. As you work to create more purposeful photos, you’ll also become more mindful of your settings and what might make a great photo, even around something that has been photographed countless times. As a result, you'll have more solid memories about the places you visited in addition to your fantastic photos.
For the photo below, it was only by looking around for a different angle that I realized I could line up a few scattered clouds with the smoke stack to make it look like the steam engine was still puffing away. Meanwhile, I have a solid memory of joyfully slogging boot-deep in soggy, somewhat smelly tundra to get a shot I wanted. Now I have more than just a vague memory of walking up to a tourist spot and snapping a photo. I have the memory of really considering the place, and creating a photograph I like.
Include yourself, or at least a reflection of yourself
Just as you should indulge in signs for your photo journal, you should indulge in selfies. Just make them a little more ... elevated.
Rather than the standard hold-out-your-phone selfie, get a little more creative with how you add yourself to the journal. You are part of the story, but think about how you want to write yourself into it. Think instead about how you feel at that moment, or what you're doing, or how you're taking in a moment, and then create a photograph that encompasses all those factors in the composition.
An important part of my trip was the equipment we used to get around and photograph hundreds of miles of tundra and the animals living on it. The jeep we used every day for 15 or 18 hours a day, positioned on one of the long, lonely roads we traveled was a great way to show a bit of myself and what I saw every day without even leaving my side of the camera.
There are countless ways to include yourself in your travel photo journal. Take up the opportunity — but remember to be thoughtful and creative about it so your selfie is not just another selfie.
By bringing in the different aspects of a story into your travel photo journal — the sense of place, the characters, the details, the surprises or gritty realities of a place, fresh takes on tourist icons and of course, yourself — you'll come home with a more complete story of your trip, and one that will help you remember all the little moments in your adventure worth savoring for years to come.
You can hone your skill of storytelling by practicing photo essays in your favorite local places or even around home. Here’s a tutorial on how to get creative with photo essays, including the types of photos that, together, tell a whole story.