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7 Tips for Documentary Travel Photography

Updated: Oct 3, 2023

Town from above

Vila Real de San Antonio, Portugal


When I am travelling, one of the most interesting things to do in photography is to capture some documentary style images of my travels.


The name suggests that in this type of photography we are documenting or telling a story, of a place and its people, with our images.


We want to tell a story to the viewer. Storytelling will help to engage the viewer.


To be effective, this type of photography has a few basic requirements.


We must look for interesting subjects, frame these in such a way that they draw the viewer’s eye, and use our photographic skills to present the image in the most compelling way.


With each image, ask yourself,


‘What story do I want to tell with this image?’

and

'How can I best tell that story?'


Here are 7 tips that will hopefully help you to create great documentary photographs of the places you visit.


1. Do your research. Before you travel, check out the area, its main characteristics, recommendations for places to visit. The more research you do before you go, the less you will miss when you get there.


2. Plan the type of images you want to include. For example, you will probably want to include images of people, buildings, markets, and so on. You might like to capture local artists at work, shoppers in the market, street vendors, people having coffee. You might want to find interesting bus or train stations, cafes or street signs that tell the story of the place.



typical street cafe

A typical street cafe in Vila Real


3. Tell the story of the place by including people, their interactions, their expressions and emotions. You might get close to capture an old person’s face or capture an animated gesture.


Having a chat

Having a morning chat


4. Include images that are characteristic of the place. This might be seen in the design of the buildings, the layout of streets, the places where people congregate. You might juxtapose the old with the new, shadow areas with light.


looking up

Photographing in Verona

Sometimes the addition of a travelling companion can add to the story of your visit to a place


5. Include people in their natural environment. It is good to be an observer. Watch what people do, where they go, who they meet. Show them in these places.


6. Make at least 3 types of images of each scene

It is suggested that to tell our story more effectively in documentary photography we should use three distinct types of shot. The first is to set the scene with a wide-angle shot, often called an establishing shot, then choose medium focal length to give a closer, more detailed perspective and finally a close-up angle of each scene which will convey a more intimate picture.


A series of images will show the essence of the places you visit. For example, in a street market we could have a wide angle shot of the entire scene, a medium angle shot showing details of items on an individual stall, and a close-up image to show individual shoppers, interactions between people, and so on.


market stall

hat stall

Ayamonte market

Street markets are common in this region of Portugal and Spain so a series of images can be used to tell a story


7. Use different perspectives. You might find a high building and shoot down to the street below or look up and capture something interesting from ground level. You might shoot from waist level rather than eye level.


If you can avoid taking all your shots from the perspective of a standing adult your images will be more interesting and this will help to make your story more compelling for the viewer.


The street below

VIla Real from 9th storey apartment

marina at sunset

Vila Real marina at sunset


Some final thoughts


It is important to set yourself time each day for photography rather than taking pictures on the run and feeling rushed. An important part of your photographs will be your composition. Take your time to compose properly.


Plan where to go and what you would like to shoot there but be spontaneous too. After all, you are away from home – make the most of your time and enjoy everything.


Whether you are using your camera for your documentary travel photography, or your phone, try to get the best images that you can get.


Experiment with different perspectives and various focal lengths, or try out different apertures and shutter speeds.


Think about what you will do with your photographs afterwards. Will you put together a slideshow, use the photos to tell the story of your travels in a blog or compile your images in a book?


Whatever you will eventually do with the images, you will need to have a good variety of different types of images to choose from. You won’t show all your images; some will suit your purposes better than others. You will want to create a compelling series from your photographs, and you won’t be able to do this unless you have plenty of images to choose from.


Most documentary photographers will say that captions are necessary in this genre of photography. Captions add a narrative to the story and help the viewer to understand your intention. A caption will not describe literally what can be seen; it will give some additional information that will enhance the photo and enrich the viewer’s experience. Captions need to be relevant; words chosen to support the story you are trying to convey.


You may enjoy the location you are visiting, after all you chose to go there, but not everyone will share your enthusiasm, especially as they are not sharing your experience first-hand.


For that reason, it is important to present your documentary travel story in an interesting and engaging way.


You will do this by choosing carefully which images to share so that you create a compelling series that will bring your travels alive to the viewer.


Do you have any more tips to help improve documentary travel photography? Why not share them?

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