How to shoot vacation video

When I was a kid, the Armbrusters had a slide projector.  Which meant that after every vacation they took, we’d troop dutifully to their house for endless carousels of badly-shot Kodachrome slides, narrated  live.  The slide show always seemed longer than the vacation itself.  Washed-out, badly composed views of Disneyland or Paris—dotted here and there with the back of the head of someone we knew.

Today technology has changed everything.  People can record hours of vacation video on a single chip. But they don’t trap you in their living rooms anymore. Instead they find you at work, at parties, on the train or a zoom call.

Who would do such a thing?  Anyone with a smartphone.  We have met the Armbrusters and they are us.

Luckily for the bore-ees, technology is also a good defense.  Today if the video’s bad, we watch 10 seconds and click off to “Family Guy.”  Then we lie to each other’s faces about how good the video was.

Oh, wait– you actually WANT people to watch your vacation video?  No problem.  Start by shooting vacation video that’s entertaining.  It’s not hard.  All you need is a little bit of thought ahead of time and the awareness that– whether it’s you, your kids or your friends– your video just may have an audience.

Here’s how to shoot vacation video that won’t bore people to death:

1)  Shoot Short Shots: A shot is like a sentence—it has a noun and a verb.  Together the noun and verb are what keep the “move” in “movies.”

On your backpacking trip a random video clip of “Bob” is not a shot.  “Bob picks up his pack” is a shot.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is a shot.  To keep your shots short, stop shooting when the action is complete.  “Bob hikes down the trail” is interesting for about 5 seconds unless Bob falls off a cliff.  So once you’ve got the action covered, be done.  We don’t need to see Bob’s back for another 30 seconds as he heads off into the distance. [more on short shots]

2)  Shoot People, Not Scenery: Think about why you’re shooting vacation video in the first place—to remember.

The Empire State Building will probably look exactly the same 10 years from now,  In case it doesn’t, thousands of great photographers have already shot it better than you can.  What makes your vacation video special is that your kids went up the Empire State Building—and your kids are going to look completely different in 10 years.

“But the scenery’s so beautiful” you say.  It is–  in person.  Video of the Grand Canyon looks great in Imax, pretty good on your 60” flat screen, and like tiny blurry garbage on your iPhone.  Unless you’re shooting Imax, best not to dwell.

Frame a great shot of the kids looking over the railing and that stunning canyon vista will look great too—in the background, where it belongs.

3)  Find the Story: Instead of random shots of the family posing on a boat, find the story of everyone getting together and taking your parents on a cruise. Have your camera ready when you surprise them with the tickets.  Interview your brother, who hates cruises but is coming anyway, armed with Dramamine and wrist-bands because he loves his parents.  Shoot your dad tearing up as he gives a speech to the group at your first big dinner on board

What’s different about your vacation?  Is it the family’s first time out of the country?  Your daughter’s first plane flight?  The Disney vacation you’ve been saving up for for 5 years?  Think before you shoot.  Tell that story.

4) Interview the Family:  Video captures not just what we look like, but how we think.  Which is perfect for that embarrassing wedding video 20 years from now. Don’t just interview the kids. Interview your spouse, your parents, strangers you meet on the trip.  It’s a great way to capture the emotion of a moment in time.

Your five-year-old will never be 5 again. Ask her open-ended questions about what’s going on.  Let her show you, explain to you, sing to you.

5)  Shoot sparingly. If you shoot just 2 ten-second shots  in each of 8 touring hours a day, that’s almost 3 minutes of footage a day.  A week-long vacation is pushing an Armbrusturian 20 minutes—longer than anyone, including you, will actually watch.  Practice being selective.  Sure you can edit later, but will you?  And even if you do, the shorter and better your footage when you start, the less work it is.


Do you have questions about shooting video?  Of course you do.  Click here and ask them!

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  • Mattie says:

    Thanks Steve, there are so many great tips just in this one post. So many people don't shoot enough stories to improve their skills and taking the opportunity to shoot videos of your family has the added priceless memories. I have some wonderful videos of my kids when they were young that just started out as camera tests. I am so glad that I have them now. For those who are trying to get better at shooting you can improve your skills of shooting sequences and then have the wonderful memories in years to come.

  • Travel Squiree says:

    These tips are really refreshing. Shooting vacation videos is difficult when you want to enjoy the best time of your life as well as capture the best moments to share. Find the things you want to shoot and save rather than randomly shoot video.

  • Caroline says:

    I love these tips!

    Just wondering if you have advice on making a good video of a solo trip? It’s harder to tell a good story if you have nobody to film but yourself (which is hard without a tripod).

    • steve says:

      Selfie stick might work, if you can survive the embarrassment of using one. Or prop your phone on walls, chairs etc. Or make something else the hero, like “flat Stanley” or a garden gnome. Or interview total strangers. Or do something that’s strictly stunning scenery, or portraits of people you visit. Or do “where in the hell is Caroline”, like Matt did (google it), only with YOU dancing. There are a million stories to play with, and any story you try will make your video better.

      Anyone else have ideas?

  • Mark says:

    Great advice! I just bought a Sony handy cam for Disney Florida. This will come in useful.

  • Liz White says:

    These tips are great and very true. There's so much video out there these days, and we don't have time to watch it all. If we want family and friends to watch our videos without them being bored to death, we have to make them interesting. Your humor throughout this article made for a great read. That was you not boring us to death, too. =P

  • Shooting short shots keep people engaged and I do agree with you that it is the main point for vacation videos

  • Brandan says:

    Here is a family vacation that I shot let me know what you think.

    Family Vacation from brandan on Vimeo.

  • Mike Pirie says:

    Some great tips here. I'd add a couple.
    In Post Production, mix in a few slow-mo and fast-mo clips for variety.
    If you have several cameras – DSLR, iPhone, GoPro etc. make sure all clocks are synchronized. It makes sorting the various clips out later much easier.
    Record some stretches of background audio (street markets, beach, car radio etc) these can be used in post to smooth over cuts.
    NEVER erase your camera's cards until you have at least 2 backup copies of your shots.

  • Robin says:

    I love how huge this article has changed my view towards video recording my trips. I am more of a "photograph guy". You are right though, time spent on vacation with family is precious and should be recorded because, as you have perfectly pointed out, "your five-year-old will never be 5 again" and most things may never happen again. I promise that on my next trip out of the country in January, I will start capturing vacation videos and apply your tips.

    Robin Pinkman

  • Tom says:

    This is an interesting subject. Most people on vacation that shoot video probably plan to show at least a few other people details about their trip and why it was so great. With the popularity of social media, that will only increase the amount of sharing. So, it's important to have something worthwhile to show others.

  • This is what people on most vacation shoots does. They fail to tell a story as they just shoot and chatter. I like videos that tell a story about the place. We could use some video editing elements.

  • Keith says:

    Although I primarily follow your excellent advice of shooting people not scenery, and it has improved the quality of my videos 10-fold, there are times when I need to establish a scene and take a brief shot of scenery or building. I keep the shot to only a couple of seconds, just long enough for the viewer to see the image and figure out what it is. I also like to include something moving in the image like a pedestrian, or vehicle so the viewer understands it’s a video and not a picture slide show. Thank you for creating an excellent text on creating better videos.

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