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7 Tips for Amazing Documentary Travel Photography

Tips for documentary travel photography

Looking to improve your documentary travel shots? While it can be tough to capture top-notch documentary-style images of your travels – the kind that include interesting subjects, compelling narratives, and flawless compositions – with a bit of knowledge (and a healthy dose of perseverance), literally anyone can create amazing results.

I’m a longtime documentary travel photographer, and in this article, I share my seven best tips to achieve gorgeous shots. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll be ready to bring out that camera and document your travels all around the world!

1. Tell a story with your photographs

Documentary travel photography
I had a lovely conversation with this man. He and his wife come to sell vegetables at their market stall each day.

Storytelling is an essential part of many genres of photography, especially travel documentary shooting. If you can tell stories through your images, you have a far better chance of engaging the viewer (and retaining their attention across multiple photos).

But how can you ensure that your images include narratives? First, spend some time considering potential stories during the planning stage. Think about why you’re going and what you’ll be doing. Ask yourself: How can I turn this into a story? Consider what interests and attracts you most to each location, and see whether you can identify key relationships or meanings for different people and objects.

Remember that photographic stories, unlike written stories, tend to be very sparse on details and rather suggestive (rather than explicit). A person staring out through a shop window often implies a sense of longing or loneliness, but it doesn’t actually tell the viewer a whole lot about the person’s life, and that’s okay. In other words, don’t get caught up in the desire to create complex, sophisticated narratives, because you’ll often fail!

Write down potential themes you might pursue, and each day as you travel, check your list and make sure to include a few of the ideas in your photos. For instance, you might aim to capture:

  • Specific buildings
  • Local artists working
  • Old people’s faces
  • Coffee shops
  • Street signs
  • Bus stations

Consider what’s most relevant to the places you’ll go, and when you identify an area with plenty of storytelling opportunities, plan to spend more time at that location.

Documentary travel photography
Many tourists choose to rent bicycles for sightseeing in Chiang Mai because the city is mostly flat.

2. Get the whole picture

When I was starting out in video production, one trick I learned was to always capture wide, medium, and close-up angles of each scene. It allows for more flexibility when editing a video, and the same approach works when creating documentary travel photography.

I often encourage our travel photography workshop participants to imagine they’re working for a magazine. Don’t just take a couple of shots and move on, I explain. Instead, try to produce a series of images for your “editor” that show the essence of each place you visit. This will often involve capturing a variety of shots: detailed close-up shots, scene-setting wide-angle shots, and everything in between.

For instance, when photographing a street market, you might shoot the individual food or wares:

Documentary travel photography
The larger the chili, the milder it is!

But then you’ll also want to use a wide-angle lens to create a broader image of the entire scene:

Documentary travel photography
Muang Mai Market in Chiang Mai is the biggest and busiest food market in northern Thailand.

Finally, you might create an image with a 50mm lens that shows individual shoppers and vendors:

Documentary travel photography
Owners of small shops, restaurants, and household shoppers all come to buy produce at Muang Mai market.

That way, you leave with an array of images that fully encapsulate the location!

3. Photograph your travel companions

Traveling with other photographers – as opposed to standard tourists – usually makes life a lot easier. Rather than being hurried along by someone taking snapshots with their phone, you can take your time shooting.

That said, if you do end up on a trip with non-photographers, one way to keep them engaged is by using them as a subject. Make them part of your story!

I don’t mean for you to just take cheesy, social-media-styled pictures of your partner. Photograph them within the larger scene. Show what you’re doing and the interesting places you visit. If you include your travel companions in the shots, the results will seem far more personal.

So tell the story of your trip! Photograph your family and friends ordering meals or coffee. Take pictures as they board the boat or rickshaw. Make photos that share your adventures, not merely what you’re viewing.

Documentary travel photography
My wife and I enjoyed meeting the locals at Pompee village when we traveled to Myanmar.

4. Block out time for photography

If your trip is purely photographic, then this probably isn’t necessary – but if you plan to travel with non-photographers or you’ll be doing a mix of photography and sightseeing, I encourage you to deliberately set aside time for photography.

In other words, schedule time each day to head out with your camera and shoot, with nothing else on the agenda.

If you simply rush from place to place without taking the time to engage with your camera, you’ll end up very frustrated. Give yourself permission to enjoy taking photos!

Of course, traveling can be busy, and setting aside time for photos may mean waking up earlier than the folks you’re traveling with. It might also mean ducking out of a restaurant while you’re waiting for your lunch or dinner to be prepared.

Sure, it might be inconvenient – but you’ll find that it’s more than worth it! When you can take your time, your photos will look so much better.

Documentary travel photography
This ornate temple complex on the outskirts of Chiang Mai includes examples of Lanna and Shan temple architecture.

5. Book a photography workshop

Many popular travel destinations offer amazing opportunities for travel photography workshops or photo tours. And while you might pay a significant sum for a high-quality workshop, the investment will practically guarantee that you’ll come away with better photos.

Why? For one, you’ll be experiencing the location with the help of a photographer who knows it better than you do. They’ll be able to take you to the most interesting places at the best times for photos, and they’ll be able to offer plenty of tips and tricks to improve your shots of specific subjects.

Plus, during a workshop, you’ll feel inspired by the folks around you, and you’ll be focused purely on photography, not sightseeing (see the previous tip!).

Note that photo workshops will also ensure you learn new skills that can improve your photos more broadly. And in my experience, learning on vacation is great because you can immediately test out the techniques!

Documentary travel photography
Kevin Landwer-Johan teaching a photography workshop in Chiang Mai, Thailand. © Pansa Landwer-Johan

6. Take lots of photos (but edit them down)

Some photographers prefer to capture only a few shots of each scene before moving on, but I’d really encourage you to use a different approach:

Take more photos than you think you need. Then choose the best and eliminate the others.

Don’t go crazy and take snapshots of everything you see. A good subject doesn’t make a good photograph, after all. You don’t want to return home with hundreds of photos you could have made with your phone.

But do experiment with different perspectives, test out different compositions, consider different camera settings, and more. Whenever you find something interesting to photograph, look at it from different angles. Walk around and make a series of photos (wide, medium, and close-up shots are good starting points, but you can also be even more thorough).

If you take the time to capture all sorts of images – some that work and some that don’t – you’ll end up with a richer variety of shots, and you’ll have far more material to work with if you hope to put together a slideshow, a blog post, or even a book telling the story of your travels. If you don’t take enough photos, you may regret it later when you realize that there are significant gaps in your narrative.

Remember: Weeding out the bad photos so that you only show the best shots is extremely important. No one will want to look through every photo you take. If you’re discerning and selective about the photos you choose to share, you’ll create a far more compelling series!

Documentary travel photography
Tuk-tuks are an iconic part of Chiang Mai’s public transportation.

7. Caption your photographs

Captioning your photographs is like adding a narrative to your story. And for a travel documentary photographer, this is key!

At the very least, indicate the location (and, when it’s relevant, the time of day). But also think about how you can add information that will enhance the photo. Don’t always include the obvious. You don’t need to describe what can already be seen. Instead, enrich the viewer’s experience with additional context.

A caption may be a few words or several sentences. Your caption should be succinct and informative. Don’t waffle or include irrelevant information. Use your captions to support your photos and enhance your story.

Documentary travel photography
I found an alternative point of view to take this photo of a tuk-tuk.

Documentary travel photography: final words

Traveling is generally very exciting; you get to see and experience all sorts of new and interesting things, which generally results in far more interesting photographs.

But remember: If you want great photos, make sure you follow the tips I’ve shared above. You don’t want to put together a documentary travel story that will put your family and friends to sleep. Instead, you want to create a compelling series of images. Tell your story well, and you may even inspire your viewers to travel!

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his website and his Buy Me a Coffee page.

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