Shooting the Journey: A Guide to Vacation Video

Traveling for pleasure ought to be an ideal subject for video: exotic locales, colorful people, exciting events, spectacular scenery–how can you lose? So you videotape with abandon, haul 40 hours of footage homeward, and spend days carving it into a carefully assembled program. The result? First we went here and then we went there and then we went to the next place….

Despite all your hard and intelligent effort, the finished program holds your audience for maybe ten minutes, tops, before they start glazing over. How come? Some people make travelogues so good that folks pay to get in and then spend two happy hours watching them. Why can’t you?

You can, of course, by working the way the pros do. And that’s what we’re here to discuss. So let’s take a look at the techniques you need to turn various kinds of trips into successful

But before getting into the specifics of touring or RV-cruising or backpacking, we need to cover the fundamentals of all travel videomaking, the things that help ensure successful programs, regardless of where you go or how you get there.

Plan for Success

Like every other video project, a travel program involves preproduction, production, and post production. The pre-production phase is critical because after you leave home you often can’t compensate for things you forgot to do. So one key to a successful travel video is planning and preparation.

Start by researching your destination(s) and discovering what’ll be worth taping when you arrive there. A surprising number of trippers omit this common-sense procedure. That might be okay if you’re going to spend a month in London, for example, but if your guided tour has allotted you two free days there, you’d better arrive knowing what you want to shoot and where to find it.

Anticipating your subject matter will also help you choose equipment for your journey. Going to a national park full of wildlife? Be sure to pack a telephoto lens extender and a tripod. Cruising the San Juan Islands in a 32-foot trawler? Better have a polarizer for all those sky-and-water shots.

In fact, putting your equipment kit together is the other half of video trip preparation, and the safe rule here is, pack as if you will find no video supplies on your trip. Sure, if you shoot full- size VHS and your destination’s New York, you don’t have to buy all your blank tapes at home. But in general, things in Mombassa, Madrid, and Mount Rushmore cost more than they do at home–if they’re available at all. (Try finding S-VHS compact cassettes in some places!) For a quick rundown of equipment you should consider packing, see the sidebar, “Video Equipment for Traveling.”

Big Production

The production phase of your travel video is of course the trip itself, and you’ll stay on the path to success here if you follow three guidelines: find an organizer, work like the pros, and shoot to edit.

Find an organizer. In every video genre, including travel, the difference between a program and mere footage is that the program is about something. To be effective, each sequence needs a simple idea to organize it and give it a point. It doesn’t have to be original or profound.

On a visit to Venice, for instance, your organizer might be pigeons, of which there are gazillions. Pigeons rising in flustered clouds from the Piazza San Marco, pigeons perched on every roof, cornice, ledge, and piling. Pigeon decorations on every statue.

Or how about modern traffic on ancient waters as your organizing theme? The vaporetto boats that provide rapid transit, the red Coca Cola delivery barge chugging past, the off-duty gondolier listening to a boom box in his 18th century boat, the auto traffic signs like senso unico (“one way”) adapted for water traffic.

In these examples, the true subject isn’t pigeons or aquatic adaptations but glorious Venice itself. You can use these simple topics to give coherence to what might otherwise be just a scenic grab-bag of disconnected shots.

Work like the pros. Regardless of content, a program can never be better than its individual shots, so here’s a reminder about several camcorder basics.

First, watch those “automatic” features. Make sure the white balance is correct for the light. Disable the autofocus and (if possible) the exposure control in situations where they tend to get confused. (Then remember to re-enable them before resuming quick-and-dirty shooting.)

Next, get a variety of angles. An entire program shot from standing shoulder height gets tedious mighty quick. In choosing camera heights and angles, look for compositions and always shoot to enhance the feeling of depth. Tape buildings from their corners to create strong diagonals and frame distant prospects with foreground objects like windows, trees or arches.

Avoid zooming. It burns up battery power and on-screen it’s a waste of time that you should edit out. Also, avoid firehosing and snapshooting. Firehosing means sweeping your camcorder all over a scene without remaining on anything long enough to really look at it. Snapshooting is taping in two- or three-second bursts as if you were taking still pictures. The results are very tiring to watch.

Notice that most of these suggestions have consequences for editing, and indeed, the third important guideline is…

Shoot to edit. Perhaps you can edit some subjects in the camera, but trips are simply too long to yield good programs without later pruning and organizing. So as you shoot, remember that what you’re capturing is not the program but the raw materials for it. With that inmind,

  • Always start taping a few seconds before the important action begins and continue a bit after it ends, to give yourself room to choose edit points.
  • Get establishing shots–wide-angle views of the location, so that viewers can orient themselves. Pan (slowly and smoothly) if necessary, to encompass the whole scene.
  • From each shot to the next, change both the image size (long shot to closeup) and the camera angle (front view to three-quarter view) to create smoother cuts. It also helps if subjects begin out of view, move into the shot, then exit the frame. This makes closely-matched action unnecessary.
  • In addition to covering the main action, get insert shots to reveal small details (a stone cherub’s head, a flower in a Yosemite meadow) and color shots (billboards, swaying willows, reflections on water). These cutaways will help you condense and pace the sequences.
  • Look for natural titles in things like posters, street signs, or the covers of brochures.
  • Don’t forget sound. Tape several minutes of ambient sound to help smooth the audio differences among different shots. And if you’re in exotic places, pick up tapes or CDs of local music. This can lend a wonderfully authentic quality to your program.
  • Don’t use the whole tape. If you aren’t hurting for space and weight (or if you can mail cassettes home), put no more than about an hour’s footage on each tape. Why? Because unless you edit with time code, you have to rewind and zero the tape each time you put it in a source deck. Then you have to fast-forward to the
    shot you want. If half those shots are more than an hour in, you’re going to do a lot of waiting and put a lotof wear on your VCR.

And finally, you may want to extend and enhance your own taping from other resources. Quality postcard views tape remarkably well and nowadays, many famous places offer high quality professional videos at nominal prices. There’s nothing illegal or unethical about utilizing these visual sources, as long as your program is exclusively for private, personal, non-commercial use. But remember: even so innocent a use as a screening at a church or retirement home could be construed as a violation of copyright. So if there’s any chance of a public showing, don’t use the work of others in your program.

Getting It Together

The post production phase can be the most fun of all. That’s when you take all your raw footage and use your video/audio artistry to turn it into a dynamite program.

To get off to a good start, begin by deciding how long to make your program. “That’s backwards,” you say; “I won’t know how long my video should be until I see how much good stuff I have to include.”

Wrong. It doesn’t matter whether you spent three days in New York or three months touring the country in your recreational vehicle. Maximum length is not dependent on amount of content. It’s determined by a combination of your talent as a videomaker and your audience’s patience.

Unless you’re a real duffer, fifteen minutes is always safe and 20 to 30 minutes is usually a good length. But if you plan to hold your viewers for 45 minutes or more, you’d better be a crack director/editor who’s also got truly spectacular footage.

If you do have a lot of really good material, consider organizing your program into two or three self-contained half-hour acts. Show one act, take a break, then show another. Your audience will thank you. (Well, they’d thank you for the single 90-minute version too but, trust me, they wouldn’t mean it.)

When you’ve decided on a running time, develop an organization. Most people just work chronologically, but do you always need to? If you took a three-week tour of Europe, would your audience care that you saw London first, Paris second, Geneva third, and Rome last?

You might call an alternate organization scheme “building toward the best.” Identify the most inherently vivid, interesting material and save it for last. If, for instance, you were in Paris on Bastille day and taped a spectacular parade and a jaw-dropping orgy of fireworks, you might use that, out of chronological order, as your finale. How do you explain why you suddenly backtracked to Paris? That’s what narration’s for: But no matter how much we loved the sights of Rome, the high point of our trip happened back in Paris, on July 14: Bastille Day!

Or if you’d planned your program in advance (and you did, didn’t you?), you could organize your video around topics. To stay with our Europe example, suppose that in each country you taped things like tourist attractions, cityscapes, the passing countryside, human interest, and shopping. Instead of covering every topic once for each country, compare, say, shopping in London, Paris, Geneva, and Rome in one major sequence; then present another topic as taped in all four cities, and so on.

About narration: determine what to say for each sequence, and then make it short and snappy. Too many videomakers depend on their edited footage for inspiration, ad-libbing voice overs as they watch. The result: “This is out our hotel window, looking down the Avenue Choufleur. Um, there’s a neat martial arts museum on that side street you see there about half-way along and…” Well, you get the idea (if you’re still awake). The moral: plan and write narration in advance, and then stick to the script.

Also, sounding interesting for 30 minutes at a time requires a very special skill, which is why a professional narrator may charge $600 for an hour’s work on a ten-minute program. Since you’re probably not a pro, keep narration to a minimum.

Ways to Go

Now that we’ve covered some general ideas for travel videos, let’s look at a few particulars. Purely for convenience, we’ll organize different kinds of travel into several categories: touring, camping, and floating.

Touring, of course, means traveling through an itinerary of destinations and sightseeing in each one. Since we’ve already served up several touring tips, we’ll add just a few more here.

First, since you’re often on the move, consider making transportation part of your story. This is an obvious choice if you’re seeing Europe by Eurail Pass, but other vehicles can also play a part. In one video I know of, transportation is a running gag. The show starts with the eager tour participants on the plane to their starting point. Then each sightseeing sequence opens with the troops thundering off the tour bus and closes with them climbing wearily aboard again. We get to know people on the tour and by the time we leave them snoozing their way home again on the plane, they’re old friends.

Second, consider designating certain days as video project days. The sad fact is that you can’t pay close attention to sightseeing and videomaking simultaneously. If you walk around every day with your eye stuck to a viewfinder, you’ll miss much of what you came to see. On video days I top off my batteries, buckle on the fanny pack, and make serious video. But often I leave my kit behind and focus on enjoying the journey.

The Open Road

Millions of Americans are taking to the road, riding everything from bicycles to motor homes costing more than many houses. “RV” stands for recreational vehicle and RVing combines touring with camping. Since we’ve covered the touring aspect, let’s look at the
camping side.

Camp grounds are so wonderfully various that you could make a whole program about just that part of your trip. In fact, my wife begins every campground sequence with an establishing shot of our 5th-wheel trailer set up in its assigned space.

Speaking of setup, we pulled a pop-up tent trailer until our slave labor–er, our children– departed for college, and erecting or stowing that contraption was a major production that I’d love to have on tape. (The idea works equally well with any kind of tent setup.)

To make the edited result faster and funnier, try a trick my video students invented. Using the shuttle-jog control, they run the source tape in moderate (and hence good quality) fast-forward visual scan. At the same time, they enable the strobe effect on the editing mixer. On the assembly tape, the result is what film makers call pixillation: the action jerks along in an approximation of silent movie style.

Finally, RVers know that camping is about people: the astonishing range of humanity you encounter along the way. Since RVers tend to be friendly and easy to talk to, you could build a fine interview program around the many interesting friends you make in an hour, keep for three days, and then never see again.

Some outdoor types disdain RVs and even cars, preferring to travel by bicycle or backpack into the wilds on foot. For these people, the key considerations are size and weight. If you’re a less-is-best outdoors person, you should, of course use an 8mm or VHS-C format camera. That’ll save bulk and ounces in tapes as well as in the camcorder. Use only a small padded case, or consider one of the belt holsters designed for still cameras with long lenses. Many compact camcorders will fit quite nicely in them.

You can make a monopod double as a hiking staff, though the light-duty model that results is probably unsuitable for major safaris. My monopod has a palm-size knob fitted with a tripod socket so you can screw it on to the top of the unit.

The other big problem for back country enthusiasts is power. Batteries are heavy so you can’t lug too many of them, but where do you charge the ones you do take? Try experimenting with one of the small, light solar panels used to trickle-charge automotive batteries. Lashed up to a 12-volt adapter, one could sit in camp, charging your spare battery while you’re off hiking for the day.

Video Afloat

There may be as many sail- and power-boaters as there are RVers, and rivers, lakes, and oceans are very videogenic.

The problem is that water and video hardware are sworn enemies. If you understand what your dew meter does, you know that in excessively damp conditions, your camcorder won’t even function. Corrosion is another problem around water–especially sea water.

To combat these problems, house your equipment in a sturdy, well-sealed case, and keep it there except when you’re actually taping. Always cover the front element of your lens with a clear or neutral density filter. In very damp situations, consider using desiccants. You can pack these chemicals, available at RV and marine supply stores, with your camcorder, where they soak up excess moisture. You can recycle some desiccants by baking them in an oven and then returning them to duty.

Because even large cruising sail and power boats are subject to unexpected lurches, secure your camera with a neck strap at all times. Camcorders are notoriously poor swimmers and even a brief immersion will bring hundreds of dollars in repair bills. If your camera lacks lugs for a full-length strap, screw a tripod-threaded bolt with a ring attached into your tripod socket and snap both ends of a neck strap onto it. These accessories are sold in many larger camera stores.

Of course, the ultimate in boating travel is a cruise, combining touring, sightseeing, and shopping. And as you videotape your voyage to Alaska or the Caribbean, don’t forget to
include shipboard life.

Shoot things like dinner menus, shipboard newspapers and announcements of daily activities. These make great titles or inserts.

Try a program about the cruise ship itself. These elegant monsters are amazingly complex, both as architecture and as working systems. If your cruise offers a tour of the working ship, by all means tape it thoroughly. It could be the most interesting material you bring back.


And so, as the sun sinks slowly into the silver sea, we say farewell to this grab bag of travel tips and techniques. All of these ideas might come in handy now and then, but if you keep only a few of them, choose these three: find an organizer, work like the pros, shoot to edit.

Then have yourself a terrific trip!

Video Equipment for Traveling

What equipment you choose to transport depends on your personal shooting methods and, of course, your means of transportation. Tooling along in a 34-foot motor home, you have a lot more leeway than when you’re backpacking in Yosemite. If you have a moderate amount of room, consider these basic items:

  • Batteries: Two is the absolute minimum and three is better: one in the camcorder, one spare, and one back in the car or hotel, charging. (Don’t forget the external charger and power conversion equipment for 240-volt countries or 12-volt car cigarette lighters.) Also, if a battery is at least a year old, consider replacing it with a brand new one that will deliver many more minutes per charge.
  • Lighting: A small, camera-mounted fill-in light is a good idea. Look for the type that has its own battery, to avoid drain on the camcorder’s power supply. If you’re rambling with a partner who can help you, take a reflector for outdoor fill. The wire-frame-and-silver-Mylar-type folds into the size and shape of a pancake and weighs almost nothing. Get them at bigger photo supply stores. Or, for under $10 you can buy a pair of them sold as car window sun shades. If you’re auto touring, you can use them for both purposes.
  • Camera support: You really should pack a tripod or at least a good monopod. If you’re traveling ultra-light, use one of these substitutes: buy a ten inch-high tabletop tripod whose legs collapse into its central column. When not in use as a tripod, it makes a solid grip for your left hand.
  • Keep it stable: You can also make a camera stabilizer that fits in a pocket. Just attach a tripod-threaded bolt (obtainable at camera stores) to a six-foot length of braided nylon cord. When you videotape, screw the bolt into the camcorder tripod socket, hold the camera slightly below shooting height, step on the dangling cord, and pull the camera up until the rope is taut. By keeping a slight upward tension on the camera as you shoot, you can reduce camera shake considerably.
  • Accessories: At least two lens filters are essential: a clear (1A or UV) filter to act as a transparent lens cap and a neutral density (ND3 or ND6) filter for better color saturation in very bright outdoor light.

And don’t forget camcorder maintenance supplies: special fluid and tissues for lens cleaning (never use a facial tissue), plus a combined brush/air bulb for lighter cleaning chores.

If you’re traveling in North America or Japan, which use our NTSC video standard, pack an RF cable so you can screen your tapes on motel TV sets. (RF cables are screw- or push-on
types with single central wires.)

Finally, I pack a clear plastic bag big enough to hold the camera for shooting in bad weather. Only the lens protrudes (protected by its 1A filter), and I can still work all the controls.

  • Tapes: Take as many as you have room for. Even if you shoot VHS or 8mm, you can probably buy them cheaper at a local discount store, and if you shoot less popular formats like S-VHS, VHS-C, S-VHS-C, or Hi8, you may well be out of luck in tourist areas or out in the boonies.
  • Camera bag: Now you’ve got to carry all this stuff, and I suggest two stashes: a padded fanny pack that holds just the camera, spare tape and battery, and maybe a small fill light and cleaning supplies, plus a rigid, protective case for the entire outfit. Sightsee wearing the fanny pack (or a soft
    shoulder gadget bag, if you prefer) and leave the case in the car, motor home, boat, or motel.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.

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