Travel Photography that Tells a Story

Dot's, Wilmington, VT

How can you improve your own travel photography?

We all have collections of odd photos taken in the strange places we’ve been. A good way to depart from simply accumulating a batch of unrelated photos is to try and tell a story when you take your next trip. Travel with a specific intention.

It can be as simple as just bringing your camera and the lenses you think you’ll need on your next trip, and having the right mindset. Get it in your mind that you are telling a story. Below are some ideas from my trip to Vermont.

I took a drive up to Vermont to capture Fall colors. Could I also tell a story in photographs?

While one of my goals on this trip to Vermont was to capture some great Fall colors, but I was open to everything that might help me tell the story of my journey. So, I began telling my story on the drive up, before I even entered Vermont.

First, I stopped along the way at Omega, in Rheinbeck New York. This is a spiritual retreat center. What would capture the beauty and simplicity? I walked through the garden. After taking some medium shots in the garden, I found this Buddha planter, and loved the single red flower next to it. this gave me a chance to frame the planter off center.

Buddha Planter
Buddha Planter

Next, I thought, why not try out my new macro lens? I used a Nikon 40mm macro lens. On a DX camera it’s like a 50mm prime lens (at 46mm), but has the macro functionality. I experimented with some flower close-ups. It was a perfect exercise in creating a shallow focus range (depth of field) and the out of focus background was used to create a strong composition with a lot of intention.

Flowers at Omega
Flowers at Omega
Flower at Omega, Rheinbeck, NY
Flower at Omega, Rheinbeck, NY

(By the way – if you would like a great FREE primer on flower photography?  Anne McKinnell has a blog post you will really appreciate. https://digital-photography-school.com/8-ways-create-more-dramatic-flower-photos/)

Onward into Vermont. It was getting late, and I pulled over when I saw this still lake. With dark fast approaching, I just had enough light to get my tripod set up and take some photos. I liked the stillness of the lake and tiny red house in the background. I took a few different shots, one of those with a graduated, colored Neutral Density filter and long exposure to get this shot. (A neutral density filter helps the water look still during a long exposure.) Early the next morning, I drove back to the same spot to get another shot with morning fog.

Vermont Evening
Vermont Evening, using graduated ND filter
Vermont lake early morning fog
Vermont lake early morning fog

As I headed into central Vermont, I had to stop again at another fog laden lake, this time with the sun higher, I decided to shoot straight into the sun. I got quite a few dramatic shots. to keep the shot from being too boring, I made sure there was something of interest in the foreground, a stone, making the scene reminiscent of a Zen garden, which imitates this using large black stone and sand.

Into the sun
Into the sun, Zen garden

This covered bridge is an important element that speaks both of the place and the journey itself. I made sure to get lots of covered bridge photos. How many ways can you photograph a covered bridge? Well, I found out you can shoot about five ways from the inside and about three ways from the outside. I won’t bore you, so here are two outside views of different bridges.

Natural Covered Bridge
Natural wood covered bridge. Light streaming in from the rear is important to show definition and create interest and time stamp
Papermill Bridge, Vermont
Papermill Bridge, Vermont. Typical 3/4 view, important to show light through the small windows lighting the interior for definition. Vertical railing echoes the light pattern

You won’t find many fast food chain restaurants in Vermont. Places to eat are mom and pop small restaurants whose patrons are the regulars in the town. So this is an important element in the travel photo-story. I stopped for lunch at a little diner just before the lunch hour so the place was empty. I ordered lunch, then I asked the waitress if I could take some photos. I took a shot of the empty diner to catch the classic ambience.

Empty diner
Empty diner – wide angle lens
Diner Bar Stools, Vermont
Diner Bar Stools, Vermont – telephoto lens

As the only customer, I found a perfect opportunity for some photography of this classic style diner without people in the way, and without the concern for making customers and management uncomfortable. I came up with these two photos to tell this part of the story. First, a wide shot with my 18 to 55mm zoom. Then, I used the selective focus on my telephoto and a wide f-stop to get the bar stools.

After the waitress was used to me shooting pictures while waiting for my lunch to come out of the kitchen, I asked if I could take a photo of her. She said yes, and I got this photo which I think captures a moment.

Diner waitress
Diner waitress preparing for the lunch crowd

Normally, I’d take a food shot when my meal was served, but there was nothing especially photogenic about my burger and fries plate. So I opted for a bit of the table setting that said “classic American diner.” I made sure to include in the picture the flag which was outside.

Tableware
The American Diner Tableware

After checking into my hotel, I had dinner at a local place called “Dot’s,” but not before taking a picture outside at nightfall. Nightfall is not a time to be wasted, and after dinner I roamed the town with my camera and tripod out.

Dot's, Wilmington, VT
Dot’s, Wilmington, VT

I lucked out in finding a different restaurant (more upscale than Dot’s) which not only had the dining room elegantly shown through three beautiful arched windows, but also had a large window on the side of the building revealing the restaurant kitchen. I set up across the street and waited for a passerby to take my dining room shot because I wanted to ensure that the viewer knows we are looking in from the street. For the kitchen shot, there really were two kitchen knives on the inside window sill, which metaphorically underlined this picture.

Restaurant at night
Restaurant at night
Though the kitchen window
Though the kitchen window

The next day, I went in search of Fall foliage. It wasn’t brilliant, maybe because of a dry summer the locals told me, so I had to drive up to two separate ski resorts to get any color at all. I rode the lift up and down, and I stayed overnight at one resort, hoping to get some good sunset photos. There wasn’t much to capture foliage-wise except the shot below, taken at in a parking lot.

Fall Foliage Vermont
Fall Foliage Vermont

Ski lifts are a big part of Vermont story telling, and I did get one dramatic shot of the ski-lift at sunset, but even this had to be enhanced by using an orange filter to make the shot look half-way decent. After dark, I went out and tried to get some star photos with the ski lift in the foreground. Boring. Looks like I may have to return to Vermont during ski season.

Ski lift at sunset, Jay Peak, Vermont
Ski lift at sunset, Jay Peak, Vermont
Ski lift at night, Jay Peak, Vermont
Ski lift at night, Jay Peak, Vermont

I was up the next morning bright an early. Sunrise is a good time to capture horses, farms, and fields because of the low light and chance for morning frost or fog. Sure enough, I stopped at a horse farm and got some pictures which showed the time of day in great light, frost on the ground, and the breath of one of the horses.

Horse farm at sunrise
Horse farm at sunrise with morning frost
Horse farm in the morning
Horse farm in the morning

I now had plenty of time to explore the towns. I stopped at one of the famous Vermont flea markets because I knew I’d get some cool pictures there. Authentic small town flea markets are part of Vermont’s culture. I chose a vertical shot of one of the tables. the colored glass bottles were not really set up in an appealing way, and there was a lot of distraction in the background. So I went with close up compression with a tele and shallow depth of field, shooting into the light to get some color.

Memorabilia, Vermont Flea Market
Memorabilia, Vermont Flea Market
Glass bottles, Vermont flea market
Glass bottles, Vermont flea market

And then there was this. A table with some kitsch statuary depicting what I consider to be three diverse forms of culture. Can you guess what these represent? This photo won’t win any awards, but it does make a statement and add to the story.

Three forms of culture
Three forms of culture

I pulled into a local mini-mart and gas station to find a beautiful red classic truck, waxed to perfection, parked next to the front door of the store. Two guys were hanging out near the door drinking coffee, and I asked them where the owner was? They said inside the store. I snapped a few pictures of the vehicle and expressed my admiration, then went inside the store to find the owner to ask for details about the truck. The man behind the register pointed to the door, and I heard the low rumble of an engine as it roared away. I went outside, and the truck was gone, along with the driver and his buddy who had been outside the whole time.

Red classic Mercury truck
Red classic Mercury truck

My last stop in Vermont was at the Lincoln Family Home, Hidene, in Manchester Vermont. This was the home of Mary Todd Lincoln and Robert Lincoln, the son of the president and Mary Todd. Besides the memorabilia of Abraham Lincoln, there were some other good subjects to photograph. My favorite photos were of the 1903 Pullman railcar and the antique auto in front of the estate. I used my super wide angle for these shots, zooming between 8 and 16 mm (Sigma lens on my Nikon DX format camera).

Rumble Seat
Rumble Seat
Hildene Estate
Hildene Estate
Antique car, Hildene
Antique car, Hildene
1903 Pullman Car
1903 Pullman Car
Sunbeam Pullman Car
Sunbeam Pullman Car

I hope you liked the idea of telling a story through travel photography. Did you notice that each photo also tells a story on its own? That’s an important component of a good photograph. Would you like a more in depth look at how to tell a story with your travel photography?

If you are into travel photography like I am, here are a couple of good courses which teach you all the basics. I have taken lots of online courses covering many areas of photography. What I discovered is that reasonably-priced online courses are a time-saver because they present rich high-quality content in an organized way.  It is especially appealing in instances when you can try before you buy. 

Thanks for reading the post on my blog. And as always, I welcome your comments and critiques of my photos!

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