Shoot the place, not your face.

YOU ARE THE WORST THING about your travel video. I say this with all kindness and I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings but the truth must be looked in its ugly, slightly out-of-focus face.

The realization that you (yes, you!) are the worst thing about your travel videos materialized as a tiny voice in my head: “You are stinking up your video man.” Of course, the finger-wagging “you” applies to me explicitly. So before you start scoffing at my abuse of your talents and passions, realize that this is a position held in a state of humble self-application.

I had taken the course of many of my travel video peers and put my face in frame as much as possible. I would yack at the camera, smiling my idiot smile, and generally waste time and SD card space. You know, the usual. Not that there’s anything wrong with all that, but I am operating under the assumption that you want strangers to watch and hopefully enjoy your creation.

Scrubbing my footage, I would cringe at my stupid factoids, banal diatribe, and general unusefulness.

I was making the mistake you are likely making. I thought I was interesting.

I thought I was the ‘host’ of my ‘show’ and that what people wanted to see was me interacting with whatever place I was filming. In many ways, I was emulating what I had seen on TV. I thought a ‘travel video’ should be shot in a format that held the host as the focal point of the travel experience.

But that is total bullshit.

Instead, try expressing your personality in the way you shoot and edit your video.

If you take anything away from this post, I hope it is this — the place, the people, and the culture you are visiting is the most interesting thing you can present in your video.

Your opinions, your face, and your impromptu insights usually only serve to muddle up what could be a very interesting nugget of media.

Perhaps you seek to brand yourself and want face recognition that will eventually lead to your own show on the Travel Channel. Nothing wrong with that, godspeed and good luck, but start with creating great content that focuses on the place — not on your face.

If you have a huge following, or if you have face rec coming out your ear holes, or if you are extremely interesting, informed, and entertaining (your mom is not an admissible judge of these qualifiers), then making YOUR experience the driving force of the video can work.

The problem is most people just don’t play well enough on camera to satisfy the entertainment needs of anybody but their dear old mum.

Robert Reid is hilarious, wry, and a great host of his travel vids. He can do what he wants because he hits all these points AND focuses on place, people, culture, and experience. But look in the mirror — are you Robert Reid-like or showing signs of inborn Robert Reidishness? Be honest.

Regardless, we all should be weary in getting caught up in the delusion that we are what makes our travel video interesting.

photo by Anders Adermark

Instead, try expressing your personality in the way you shoot and edit your video. The things you choose to focus the camera on says a lot about you as a traveler and media producer.

Similarly, the manner in which you react to and film the people and place can truly set you apart and reveal you as an attentive storyteller — not just a host.

I am by no means saying that every video should be a silent abstraction on travel or a music-video-style montage. I’m saying that before you have the requisite skill to blend all these elements into a delicious video smoothie, you should work on what counts — conveying a sense of discovery and mystery.

After all, why do people devour travel shows, articles, blog posts, and videos? Because they offer something unfamiliar, something yet to be seen and thus entertaining and enticing. Play to that desire for the ‘exotic’ and serve up what people want — something new.

* * *

As I came to these conclusions, I gradually started phasing my commentary out of my videos and focused on the action and environments I was visiting.

Enter the GoPro. This little gadget suddenly gave me a way to shoot my videos that precluded any unneeded yammering on my part (mostly due to the fact that the mic is crappy). My last half dozen videos have been shot exclusively with the GoPro, and I revel in the freedom it gives me.

What is more interesting — watching a traditional canoe builder fall a cedar and prepare the trunk, or me describing it and adding ‘my experience’?

This doesn’t mean I will never show my face on camera, open my mouth, and release a diatribe — I surely will. I’ll make all sorts of videos and some of those will be centered on me and my experience. But, like peeing outdoors and armpit farts, there is a time and place.

If you are just starting out making videos, or have been at it for a while and want to do some soul searching, I would suggest scaling back your facetime dramatically and focusing on people and place. Focus on what people are doing and saying. Focus on the landscape and culture and where the two come to a confluence.

After all, what is more interesting — watching a traditional canoe builder fall a cedar and prepare the trunk, or me describing it and adding ‘my experience’?

Notice the videos we feature at Matador TV. How many talking heads do you see? Almost none. That isn’t because I don’t enjoy these videos; it’s because the online audience at large is not all that interested in them. 99% of people who watch and share travel-related videos don’t want to hear you talk, they don’t care about your cable television aspirations, and they are not interested in your journey.

They are interested in a dope video.

They are interested in something they have never seen before or from an angle they haven’t encountered. They have seen a million talking heads, and I can almost guarantee that as soon as you start to introduce yourself — “I’m Joshy the awesome adventure dude from awesome adventure dude.tv and today I am…blah blah blah” — unless it’s your best friend or your stalker ex, they are tuning out.

Harsh? Boohoo. Take it as friendly advice from a guy who (thinks he) knows. And really, I’m talking about me as much as I’m talking about you, so relax.

Now grab your camera and find something to shoot. Anything but your face.