Do you ever read through some popular travel blogs and think to yourself, “Hey, I could do this!” Traveling around the world and sharing your stories on a blog seems like a pretty desirable job description if you ask me. While it may not always be as glorious as it seems on the surface, travel blogging is certainly lucrative. In this article, I’m going to share some advice and tips you can use to improve your storytelling skills.
In travel blogging, the photography is just as important as the written aspect of the story. But, don’t worry, I’m going to explain how you can improve both your photography and written storytelling.
Let’s get started.
Travel Blogging Is Storytelling
First and foremost, why do we take a camera with us when we travel? Why do we feel compelled later to share what happened? Why do we always seek to improve our skills?
For me, it’s an instinctive desire to share tales of what I see, so others might experience them too. You’re here because you feel this too. I’ve personally enjoyed storyteling since an early age. Perhaps you have too. After all, it’s human nature to tell stories in one form or another.
For me, it started with an inexplicable urge. At age 7 (and completely unsolicited) I wrote a poem about a tree I’d seen. Its bark was “a jigsaw puzzle that would take a thousand years to put together”. I think my mom still regards it as one of my best works to date. Seriously though, it was a pinpoint that marked the start of my journey as a storyteller.
For us travel photographers, we’re not satisfied by mere observation. We’re compelled to capture what we see, and later share it with an audience.
I am often moved deeply when witnessing the ebb and flow of daily life around the world and strive to reflect this in my work.
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I want my readers to feel connected to my story. When writing your blog post, ask yourself, how do you want your readers to feel?
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What Makes A Great Travel Story?
Travel blogging is beyond selfies. They’re for Facebook and Instagram. An image of you with the caption ‘Me on the Great Wall of China!’ isn’t necessarily a story. In its essence, storytelling is about the world around us, and the lives of the people we meet.
A selfie on the Great Wall is not a story. Twenty pictures of the Great Wall itself is still not a story. The journey from the smog of Beijing to the clean air of the Great Wall, the bus, the shared taxi, your fellow passengers, your guide, the farmer riding a donkey on the way up, the sunrise, the sunset, the flora and fauna, the colors and textures, the history, the emotions you felt – that’s where the story is.
Putting It All Together
We’ve established why we tell stories and what a travel story is. Now, let’s focus on how to turn your images and ideas into a compelling visual travel story for the web.
What do photo stories have in common with novels and movies? The answer is a lot. We should follow similar rules to any other kind of storytelling.
Our travel photo story needs a setting, some characters, and some kind of plot line. Let’s start with a simple plot line that’s either a journey, a goal, or an issue.
1. Pick at least 10 photos
First though, pick a lot more. Then cut your selection. Train yourself to see your best storytelling images. You are looking for strong pictures, but also a variety of shots. Don’t be sentimental, sometimes an image you love just doesn’t fit a certain story.
2. Follow a narrative arc
A simple story arc might appear like this: setting the stage, conflict, climax, followed by resolution. In the simplest terms, your story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end! Selecting 10-20 images allows space for a natural narrative arc to occur.
3. Answer the five Ws
And answer them for your readers early on. What happened? Who did you meet? When did it happen? Where did it take place? Why did it happen?
4. Start with a wide opening shot
How about a beautiful landscape? Or a shot of a market square taken from the top of a church? Start as wide as possible to set the stage.
5. Zoom in on the detail
From your wide opening shot, get closer and zoom into portraits and other scenes.
6. Go even deeper
An example of going deeper than a portrait, might be an isolated shot of a person’s hands. Perhaps their hands are cut and bruised. Maybe they’re covered in mud from their work. Whatever the detail, highlighting it brings it into the story.
7. Remember that nothing stands still in a travel story
There’s always movement. The simplest kind to express is physical. Think the ascent of a mountain; the tracing of a river by canoe; a descent into a cave system. However, emotional movement is harder to convey. For example, one way a travel blogger can show emotional movement is by capturing two or three images showing a subject’s emotions change as they react to an event.
8. Introduce your characters and give plenty of detail
I recommend carrying a notebook with you when you travel. Write down the names and ages of the people you meet, towns you visit, etc. It will be helpful later on when you are developing your image captions.
9. Forget going chronologically all the time
This isn’t how many stories are best told. In a photo story I wrote about Vietnam, I presented a snapshot of life in the Mekong Delta. The fact all the images used were taken on the same day wasn’t crucial to the story. It wasn’t the story of my day out. It was about the people and their resilience in the face of certain problems. I put the images in the order I felt worked best to tell the story. Experimenting with image order often brings rewards.
10. Bring to a conclusion
Our last images provide the narrative arc with its resolution. This is a good time to zoom back out from the close-up details you’ve focused in on. It’s difficult to ‘end’ the story, because life in the place you’re writing about still goes on. The final caption should resonate with the reader.
11. Look at many examples
Check out this one: I spent my 20s in South Korea and this is what I learned.
I decided my story was going to be what I learned during 8 years in South Korea. I began each caption with ‘I learned…’ in order to cater to people scanning the article. This way, they get what the caption is about without having to dig.
Notice how I start wider with an architecture shot, then zoom in on people and details, zoom back out again for a change of pace/direction, back in one more time, before finishing on a landscape.
Now, let’s move onto the most crucial element of your compelling visual travel story: image captions.
Captioning Your Images
To build a cohesive travel story, there is no more essential skill for travel photographers than learning how to write good captions. I regularly see photos all over the internet with poor captions that merely describe what the viewer can already see. This is a wasted opportunity to dig deeper and provide details the viewer can’t see.
I believe the best way to teach this is by showing you exactly what I’m talking about. Below are some of my images with examples of effective and ineffective captions.
Bad: Hill tribe woman with lovely gold teeth.
Good: The beads of sweat on this woman’s brow are from working the steep terraced mountainsides that make up the topography of Vietnam’s Ha Giang province. Women are responsible for the crops while the men raise pigs, goats and chickens. For now, life is as it must have been for centuries. Increased tourism is a double-edged sword: does improved infrastructure, new job options, and a steadier flow of money into the area outweigh the risk of erosion of local culture, increased prices, and pollution? Only time will tell.
Note: When I was unable to get my subject’s name, it didn’t stop me from digging deeper into her life and the lives of others in the region.
Bad: Statue of a man on a horse in front of Hotel Uzbekistan.
Good: On my first day in Tashkent, I came across this statue of Amir Timur — better known to the west as Tamerlane, the ruler of the Timurid Empire. Behind him stood Hotel Uzbekistan — a giant concrete block of Stalinist architecture. Two symbols of this region — ancient and recent, Islamic and secular, Middle-Eastern and Russian — coming together to represent the biggest influences on the Uzbekistan of today.
Note: This was the first image in my story about Uzbekistan. The juxtaposition of what the building and the statue represent allowed me to make a wide-open comparison between ancient and modern Uzbekistan. I later got closer to the details. Juxtaposition is a great way to make photographs interesting.
Bad: Local lady staring out of a train window in Northern Myanmar.
Good: Nyein, 48, was one of a friendly foursome of ladies, wearing beautifully colored clothing. Over the course of 11 hours (it wasn’t called the slow train for nothing) we shared the view, and they kept me well fed with dried beef, pickled fruit and soft drinks. She was a fan of this image. I only wish I could have asked her what she had been thinking about in that moment.
Bad: Smiling for the camera.
Good: From north to south, I noticed a recurring sight in rural Vietnam; a grandparent cradles a young child while the parents are away working in markets or fields. Little Hao (4) buried her head into her grandma’s shoulder, then turned around and burst out with a huge smile, just as I was beginning to lower my camera.
You’ll see that detailed captions provide context to your reader, giving them a palpable sense of depth and involving them more fully in the world of your story. I hope you’re excited by the storytelling possibilities created by deep and effective captioning. Time to get practicing.
Packaging Your Travel Stories For The Web
Writing travel stories for the web has some unique challenges. This starts with naming your travel blog. It may seem like a relatively simple task, but you should really be giving it a lot of attention.
For example, Matthew Karsten runs a great travel blog called ExpertVagabond. He recently wrote a post over on his blog that explains the process of actually getting a blog started. The first thing he brings up is the name. He makes a lot of great points in that article, so be sure to check it out. But one tip that really sticks out is writing a short and memorable name. This is advice you should be using in other areas of your writing as well. Such as when writing blog post titles.
By having a catchy name for your blog and using short, catchy post titles, people will be more naturally drawn to clicking through to your article and actually reading it. It’s all about building interest so you can hook your audience.
Hooking a Reader
With a travel blog, your readers are investing their time. Based on a single image and sentence, they make a quick decision whether to give you 5 minutes or not.
We must hook them in, preferably without sounding desperate. Put yourself in a reader’s shoes. Why should they read you over another travel blogger they read regularly? Why should they click on your story?
Pay particular attention to the title, tagline, and cover image you select for your story. Study how travel magazines package and share articles on their Facebook pages. Everything there is chosen by editors with click-through conversions in mind.
Let’s compare the cover images and taglines chosen by two different magazines when sharing the same article on Facebook. The piece in question is my article titled I Can Feel Japan Calling Me Back.
The tagline is a sentence taken from the article. Not much about the story is given away. The editor instead hopes readers will be tempted by the allure of Japan.
Later, BBC Travel repackaged the article to share with their own audience.
BBC wrote their own tagline using less conversational language. They see their audience as more mature and discerning, so speak to them more formally. Matador chose a bold image with strong colors, whereas BBC chose a softly lit image.
From this example, I hope you’ll see that different cover images and taglines can be used to attract different readers to the same piece. Think about who you want to read your story. Select your story title, tagline and cover image appropriately.
Now, Keep Them Hooked
Did you know, less than a fifth of people read every word of a paragraph online? They scan to seek out the crux of the paragraph. So, why allow your readers’ eyes to wander in the first place? As online attention spans continue to decrease, it’s necessary to bring in counteractive measures. We need to adapt our writing skills over time, as the way people consume media changes.
Now, I practice using shorter sentences and a more conversational voice. Breaking longer paragraphs into smaller ones makes a long-form article appear less time-consuming.
Ethics and Travel Blogging
There’s one last thing I want to mention. If you’re really starting to take travel blogging seriously and have been doing some research, you may have come across an organization called the Professional Travel Bloggers Association–PTBA for short. They’re a non-profit organization run by the members themselves. On the “About Me” page of their website, they share a list of the ethics they adhere to.
“We Strive for Accuracy. We strive to convey accurate, fair and honest information, making the difference between fact and opinion, and editorial and advertorial, clear across all social media channels.” –PTBA
While the ethics they are discussing are in relation to how they operate as an organization, they’re still really good points to take into consideration for travel blogging in general. Especially the quote above about providing readers with accurate information.
Another notable topic is respecting intellectual property. In other words, don’t use someone else’s photos, writing, graphics, etc without their permission. All of these ethics will help you build trust between your readers and yourself.
If travel blogging seems daunting, just remember even the most seasoned photographers need some serious thinking time to plan a great story. It’s actually possible to revel in the challenge of distilling your writing down to its purest, most effective form. After all, your journey as a storyteller should be one you enjoy!
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