How to Use a Shot List to Tell the Complete Story of a Place


The very idea of capturing a quality set of images that truly represents a destination can be an overwhelming thought, especially when that place is a large city, like Havana, or a country, like Cambodia, or a region of the world, such as Tuscany or Patagonia.

By being on the lookout for a variety of images based on a well thought out “shot list,” any traveler can be sure to minimize the chances of creating an uninspiring slideshow for the folks back home.  There’s nothing that will put your viewers to sleep faster than 300 slides of nothing but monuments, or plates of food, or even the most beautiful landscapes.

The trick is to mix it up and keep your audience’s attention from start to finish by providing a sampling of each of the characteristic parts that make up the whole of the destination you’re photographing (also referred to as its “essence”).  Look at just about any travel magazine article and you’ll see that the photo editor will invariably have this in mind when choosing the images to accompany the text.

What is a Shot List?

A shot list is a list of the types of images for which you should be on the lookout.  This is a concept that’s been around since the dawn of photography, and some people simply use a piece of paper and pen, a spreadsheet or a notes app.

There’s something I like to call my “Zen of Photography,” and in it I say:

Seventy-five percent of successful photography is simply making an effort to put yourself in the right place, at the right time.

If you’ll just do that, the vast majority of the work is done, it really is this simple.

Get Yourself Organized

A shot list provides a framework that will put you head and shoulders above the unorganized photographer who’s just out to shoot whatever he or she may stumble upon.  After all, there’s an old saying: “Even a blind mouse finds a hunk of cheese once in a while.”

Spontaneous photo opportunities will certainly present themselves along the way, and you’ll definitely want to be ready to capitalize on them, but be ahead of the game by putting a plan in place, especially if your time in a destination is limited.  This pre-planning doesn’t take much effort and will surely pay dividends down the road when you’re on location.

Have a Goal in Mind

Often, shooting some categories, such as People or Street Scenes, is going to be easier to accomplish than others, for instance Establishing Shots or Night Scenes.  However, if you strive for a select number of keeper images from each of the categories on your list (5 is a good goal, but harder than you might think), you’ll have the basis for a dynamic presentation that your friends and family will be asking you to see, not the other way around.

The best way to improve your photography is to spend money on travel, not more gear.

Categories of a Shot List

The following is an abbreviated list of shots that will help you to thoroughly cover a city, region or even a whole country, and so allow you to stay focused and organized, in turn making the most efficient use of your time.  I’ve come up with over 80 categories of a shot list, and there are 52 in the app I created called My Shot Lists for Travel (free on iTunes), but surely there must be hundreds of other categories.  It’s important to note, too, that one image can represent many different categories.

Establishing Shots

In order to get an overall view of the place, seek out opportunities that will get you to the highest point in the city or place in which you’ll be traveling, whether it involves hiking, taking a cable car or employing a Sherpa or other local.  I always make an effort to venture up in the highest building or monument offering a public space from which to shoot, or I might try to talk my way into a private place with an interesting vista.

An Establishing Shot should give your viewer an overall sense of the place you’re representing with your photography and provides the perfect set up for the rest of the story you’re telling.

Establishing Shots - Dubrovnik from Above at Blue Hour - Dubrovnik, Croatia
Establishing Shots – Dubrovnik from Above at Blue Hour – Dubrovnik, Croatia


Few categories on your shot list will sum up a place more than its people.  My experience with photographing people around the world is that it’s a very cultural thing, where some cultures have little or no interest in being photographed, while others will actually seek me out to take their pictures.

People - Smiley Lady in Rice Paddy - Near Can Tho, Vietnam - Copyright 2014 Ralph Velasco
People – Smiley Lady in Rice Paddy – Near Can Tho, Vietnam

Natural Wonders

Most of us love to get to the wild places, such as national parks and other locations where Mother Nature’s work is on full display, so it’s easy to be on the lookout for the natural wonders of any destination.   However, instead of just taking the postcard shots, be sure to photograph the same scene in wide, medium and detail versions, as well, to really give yourself a chance at telling the complete story.

Natural Wonders - From Behind Seljalandsfoss - L - South Coast, Iceland - Copyright 2014 Ralph Velasco
Natural Wonders – From Behind Seljalandsfoss – L – South Coast, Iceland


In many places, the architectural style of the buildings will immediately tell the viewer where you are shooting.  While attempting to capture a whole building in a unique way, at the same time be sure to hone in on the details.  The roofline, windowsills, balconies and architectural moldings are important, too, so they most certainly should be a part of it.

Architecture - Punakha Dzong and Bridge Over River - Punakha, Bhutan - Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco
Architecture – Punakha Dzong and Bridge Over River – Punakha, Bhutan

Markets and Vendors

Because of the colors, textures and variety of shapes of both the products being sold and the people that abound at most local markets, they’re one of the first places I seek out when traveling.  It’s at these markets that you’ll capture the locals buying their daily provisions, and it’s here that the often weathered and experienced vendors become the subject, along with their wares.  If you seek them out, and your research should have provided insight as to where the best markets are located, wandering specific areas will provide a great opportunity to capture some candid shots of the merchants and their clientele.

Markets and Vendors - Man and Colorful Market Stall Display - Casablanca, Morocco - Copyright 2014 Ralph Velasco
Markets and Vendors – Man and Colorful Market Stall Display – Casablanca, Morocco

Street Scenes

Look for distinctive design elements or surroundings that will provide an interesting backdrop for your photography.  If you come across a colorful wall, an ornate mural, or some interesting graffiti that adds to the story, be prepared with your camera and wait until your subject walks into the frame (or simply sits there, as in this image) to provide what I like to call a “human touch.”  After a while you’ll blend into the scene as you capture these unique moments.  Like a spider waiting for its prey, let a variety of subjects come to you and then be ready fire away (do some focus and exposure testing beforehand).

Street Scenes - Man Sitting with Cuba Libre Sign in Havana, Cuba - Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco
Street Scenes – Man Sitting with Cuba Libre Sign in Havana, Cuba

Storytelling Close-Ups and Detail Shots

When I show my images of well thought out close-ups and shots of the specific details of a place, it’s often then that I’ll get the most positive comments that we all as photographers seek. Get in close and let the details reveal themselves. I know from experience that the keepers you get in this category will be some of the most gratifying images you’ll capture.

Storytelling Closeups and Details - Lady's Hands Making Medicine - Silk Island, Cambodia - Copyright 2013 Ralph Velasco
Storytelling Closeups and Details – Lady’s Hands Making Medicine – Silk Island, Cambodia


The above sampling is not a comprehensive list of shots by any means, but only a starting point.  Feel free to add or eliminate categories as you see fit, or as the location dictates.  Again, your goal should be to capture a minimum of 5 solid “keepers” (10 is even better) in each of the relevant categories for the particular place you’re photographing.  Accomplishing this goal will almost certainly guarantee that you come back with a well-rounded portfolio of images of which you can be proud.

Remember, photography is an art and there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to being creative, and besides, as they say, rules are made to be broken.  If you push the creative envelope by stretching your photographic skills each and every time you travel, great results are sure to happen and your photography can’t help but improve.

Remember, you can’t get worse at photography…now get out and shoot!

Photo credits:  ©Ralph Velasco. Used with permission.

Author Bio:  Ralph Velasco is a U.S.-based photography instructor and international guide. His current eBook is titled Essence of a Place: A Travel Photographer’s Guide to Using a Shot List for Capturing Any Destination, and in it he discusses more in depth the concept of working from a shot list in order to create a well-rounded portfolio of images that tells a complete story.  In his first book, Ralph Velasco On Travel Photography: 101 Tips for Developing Your Photographic Eye & More, he outlines a variety of photography and travel tips and tricks he’s learned from the road, as well as provides over 100 sample images and interesting quotes.

As creator of the recently updated My Shot Lists for Travel app for iPhone, iPad and iPod touch® (free on iTunes), Ralph has taken the age-old concept of maintaining a shot list and brought it into the 21st century.  Designed to help all travelers to bring back a more well-rounded set of images from any destination, the app is a powerful organizational tool, no matter the user’s photography skills or type of camera used.

Ralph has taught travel photography classes at the University of California at Irvine Extension Program, Saddleback College, Santa Ana College, Julia Dean Photography Workshops and the REI Outdoor School, among others.  He’s a regular speaker at the Travel & Adventure Shows and the Orange County Fair.

Connect with Ralph on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Instagram, and subscribe to his blog at

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January 7, 2015 3:54 pm

This is a great resource! I’ve got a lot of trips planned and this will come with me. Thanks so much!

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