Be a Better Travel Photographer
Yesterday marked the publication of Traveler managing editor Scott S. Stuckey’s book, Ultimate Field Guide to Travel Photography, for which he “picked the brains” of 15 full-time professional travel photographers, most of whom have shot for Traveler and other national consumer magazines. Here is an excerpt from Chapter 3, “Get the Story.”
Many photographers dream of getting published in one of the National Geographic Society’s magazines. A surprising number of photographers do get their foot in the door–the magazines are always looking for fresh talent–showing their portfolios to a Geographic picture editor. They hope that their superb images will win them an assignment. But the ability to take great photographs, though necessary, is not sufficient. That’s because our magazines, strictly speaking, aren’t photography publications. They’re journalistic endeavors. That means our pictures must go beyond being stunning. They must also tell a story.
At Traveler, we are showered with story proposals that offer no story at all. Most merely tout the virtues of a particular destination. But, as Editor-in-Chief Keith Bellows likes to tell freelancers, “We don’t need help finding places. We look for a strong story line that makes readers wonder what will happen next or that offers some drama, surprise, or revelation.” In our printed guidelines for photographers, you’ll read this: “A carefully considered proposal combines support for doing a particular destination with some premise or hook.” Paul Martin, Traveler’s former executive editor, adds, “Paris is not a story. Paris is a place.”
What Makes a Travel Story?
Every journey is, or should be, a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Furthermore, every journey is unique. Your itinerary may have been followed a hundred times before, but your experiences of the route will be fresh, and your pictures should be, too.
Your photos should evoke your particular trip, capturing your travel companions, the local people you interacted with, and the events and activities you engaged in while you were there. “The fundamental premise is that your pictures need to reflect something that you really experienced,” says Traveler photographer Jim Richardson.
Richardson compares the task of shooting a travel story to producing a play. “You have to build the scenery for your sets,” he says, “but also populate the production with characters and have a plot. Many people stop at shooting the scenery. But you need to have people on the stage, acting.”
…Travel stories get better when they go beyond the mere travelogue, offering a theme, conceit, or concept. “Born to Be Wild” was writer Pat Kelly’s tour of Mexico’s colonial cities, photographed by Justin Guariglia. The idea of the tour became far more interesting when we learned that the trip brought together three old college chums determined to relive their rowdy, motorcycling youth–30 years after graduation. One shot showed the three stopped by the side of the road, smoking cigars to celebrate a rider’s 50th birthday.
Likewise, Joyce Maynard’s bicycle trip through Tuscany and Umbria, titled “Shifting Gears” and shot by photographer Aaron Huey, went beyond travelogue with the theme of a mother and (grown) son reunion, happening after years of separation. Pictures of the two of them together–pedaling down a winding rural road; resting, sweaty and spent, on a sidewalk in the hill town of Castel Rigone–added poignancy to their tale.
Other Traveler features are also based on clever conceits. Tim Cahill’s “Dublin Without a Pint,” shot by Pete McBride, illustrated a novel way to explore an unfamiliar city–via a marathon race. In “Chasing Matisse,” shot by Michael Melford, the writer set out to visit all the places where the famous artist lived and painted in France. An exploration of the City of Brotherly Love, “Philly, Really,”
shot by Raymond Patrick, made a strong case that Philadelphia was destined to become America’s “next great city.” This illustrates trend as concept, as did “Trading Places,” shot by Peter Bendheim and Amy Toensing, a story in which two travelers swapped houses halfway around the world and walked in each other’s shoes.
Perhaps the most compelling travel story angle of all is the quest. Every journey is a quest, of sorts, even if all you’re seeking is rest and relaxation. But focusing on the quest brings a real narrative drive to your travel story. We sent writer P. F. Kluge and photographer John Kernick along the back roads of Idaho, from hot spring to hot spring, for an article titled, “In Search of the Perfect Soak.” With each discovery, they refined their vision of what soaking perfection would be. Seeking the superlative or the perfect example of something–even if it’s just a bowl of wonton soup–is a primal quest that can be applied to almost any trip….
- Nat Geo Expeditions
To find your own quest or conceit, research the destination to uncover its most distinguishing attributes. Examine your own reasons for wanting to go. Talk to your travel companions before the journey to discover their goals for the trip. Is someone hoping to buy a beautiful handmade weaving? To reunite with the family they stayed with during a semester abroad? To learn to cook authentic paella? Any of these could make a story angle with broad reader appeal.
Adding a story element, then, is the best way to make your travels compelling.
Contrast the focused ideas presented above with the generic, forgettable angles commonly pitched to travel magazines: “Enchanting Vienna,” “Idaho’s Bubbling Hot Springs,” “Surprising Philadelphia,”
“Historic York.” Should you ever want to pitch a destination idea to a magazine or Sunday newspaper travel section, having a strong story element will make your pitch stand out above 99 percent of all others.
Excerpted from The Ultimate Field Guide to Travel Photography, text copyright © Scott S. Stuckey; copyright © 2010, National Geographic Society. Click here to order.