Off on a travel adventure with your video camera in hand? Follow our guide to get the best results from your holiday footage, regardless of your video skills. Here are our top 10 tips for shooting documentary-style travel videos.

Our Top 10 Tips for Shooting Awesome Travel Holiday Videos – Documentary Style

Travelling is an amazing experience, especially if you’re going to somewhere off the beaten track, or a completely different country to what you’re used to. Capturing photos and videos of your experience can be a great way of keeping the memories of your travels intact, but it can equally become a mess of video cluttering up your hard-drive, never watched or enjoyed. So how to capture the experience, without missing the best bits or getting generic video content?

Key elements of shooting documentary-style travel videos

1. Start at departure

Start building your travel story right at the start, at the airport/departure on your trip. These shots, even if you  have to capture them later, will give a nice context to your video rather than BANG! now we’re in Africa! This technique is often used in TV documentaries and travel movies. If you fly somewhere, for example, try to get footage on the plane and landing, and film another plane as it takes off if you can (especially if the airstrip is somewhere remote or out of the ordinary).

2. Focus on people

Your fellow travellers, family and friends are the most important part of your video, not the scenery! Go through your photo album and see which photos engage you the most, and which are just ‘same-same’. I’ll be the best ones are those where you or your friends, kids, the girl you just met on the tour bus are standing in front of the landmarks, not the landmark itself. Get people in there! Capture conversations if you can, kids jumping in front of the camera while you try to get that shot, all the mayhem of real life. Trust us, in a few years when those kids are surly teens, you’ll wish you had footage of just those moments on your trip when they were so amazed by that sea lion/waterfall/butterfly.

3. One establishing shot

One opening wide shot is ideal, and maybe a pan if you’re steady with the camera, or you have a gimbal. One sweep in one direction, please. At the end of this, hold while you count to 10, and if you like, sweep back in the opposite direction – just don’t ‘meander’ back and forth. This is almost unuseable in your edit, and also super-hard to stabilize (see point 6). If you’re not sure if you nailed that shot, go back to where you started and shoot again. No reason not to take multiple shots when using a digital camera.

4. Point, shoot, stop

Point, shoot, stop shooting, then point at something else and repeat. Leave about 3 seconds at the start and end of each shot (and hold any long shots for a count of 10 more seconds than you think you need). Don’t forget to experiment though, put your camera down on the ground for a while and leave it rolling. Lag behind your companions to shoot them walking, climbing, whatever. Race in front to get some footage of them walking towards you. Shoot down from a high point, not just at the horizon. Don’t go nuts, but if it’s possible, try to keep the motion of the camera/movement heading in the same direction. Remember too, you can always flip the footage in your edit so it runs the same direction as everything else (unless there’s writing somewhere in the shot).

5. Sound recording

Only talk while shooting if you plan to keep this as a voiceover. Otherwise, try your best to say nothing while shooting, or as little as you can. Let the people around you do the talking. Ideally, if you want the full ‘movie effect’ in your video, set the camera down somewhere and just record the sounds of the place for a while (ask your friends to keep quiet for a moment). That’s all you need to create an ‘atmos’ track (short for ‘atmosphere’ because it creates exactly that). This will give your finished videos a really professional look (and sound) and also gives you a handy backup if you’re filming a great bit of video, but a noisy truck rumbles past in the best bit. We talk about sound recording a lot – if you want energy in your videos, you need sound. Silent footage is always lacking in energy, even with a great music soundtrack.

6. Keep it still

Remember our tip (we can’t say this enough) – it’s the action in-camera that moves, NOT the camera itself! Keep that sucker still, your stomach will thank you. Trust us, nothing creates that ‘seasick’ feeling more than a camera that’s waving around all over the place (luckily, we have strong stomachs at Sonic Eye!)

7. Location, location

Don’t forget to shoot things like your hotel room, place names, street signs, local characters, shops and houses. Capture a bit of ‘in-between’ footage when travelling to a new location. Unlike photos, video is all about the journey. If you’re travelling to a different country, especially one that’s a bit off the beaten track, things will be very different – even the locals shopping can be an experience for you (check out our Myanmar Markets video to see what we mean). To the locals, this is just a daily shop, but for you, it’s a whole new experience!

8. Voiceovers

If you want the full David Attenborough experience, find out a bit about the places you visit and do a voiceover back at your hotel or backpackers. Break out the travel guide and read it if you can’t think of what to say. Just narrating a short description of what you’ve just seen in a quiet space, can be added later on as a narrative giving your video a whole new level of professionalism. Don’t try to narrate as you shoot unless you have a really good mic (preferably not the one on the camera), a nice clear voice and a good idea of what you want to say.

9. Tour guide narrator

Got a personal travel guide or a tour guide? Ask them questions, interview them on camera and try to get as much of what they’re saying into your footage as possible. They’ll do the narration for you! Don’t try to film the location at the same time (back to point 6), just film the guide while they are talking, then shoot the location afterwards. If you didn’t get the start of what they said, keep on filming until you know you’ve got a ‘start and end’ of something worth using. Only then, turn to shoot the scene they’re talking about and film that separately. Don’t worry about what they’re saying at that point, you can wipe it out and replace it with their narrative in the edit, and switch between the guide and the scenery.

10. Be there!

This last tip is probably the hardest for keen videographers, but it’s also hugely important. Don’t video all the time! Put the camera down, look around at where you are, drink it in and really experience it. Travel is an amazing, immersive experience. Watching your entire trip through a camera lens can be a bit like watching a movie – you’re not really THERE. So put the camera aside for a moment and experience your trip in the real world. Now, try to capture what grabs your attention. What’s most worthy of pointing that camera at and shooting? If you do this we promise you’ll get a better final movie, because at that moment – while everyone else takes video of the Eiffel Tower, you will have spotted the Nigerian guy selling plastic Eiffel Towers talking to a little kid, the group of Parisienne women commenting on the tourists, or the two lovers holding hands while gazing up at the monument. Any number of other things that will say more about the place, its flavour and atmosphere than the ‘postcard shot’. Besides, everyone else will have captured that for you, so if you’re in a group you can swap footage – you won’t miss a thing! Look around for the real starring shot to capture that ‘sense of place’. It may not be what you think.

In summary, keep these ten tips in mind:

  • 1 – Start at departure
  • 2 – Focus on people
  • 3 – One establishing shot
  • 4 – Point, shoot, stop
  • 5 – Sound recording
  • 6 – Keep it still
  • 7 – Location, location
  • 8 – Voiceovers
  • 9 – Tour-guide narrator
  • 10 – Be There!

If you want a great, easy read on how to shoot good videos, we recommend Steve Stockman’s book How to Shoot Video That Doesn’t Suck. If you’d like your videos professionally edited, check out Our Work and if you like what you see, Get In Touch.

The video example in our post was shot by Laura from Brisbane, Australia using an iPhone.

We’d love to hear your cool travel video ideas, or tips on making travel documentary videos. How do you shoot your travel videos? Do you shoot with a phone, GoPro or video camera? What are your best cinematic travel video tips?