Three Tips to Help Your Photos Tell A Story

I might just be attuned to the theme, but I hear and read a lot about storytelling in photography. This, of course, is what photo essays are about – the narrative form perfected by Life magazine among others, and the staple assignment for at least two or three generations of photographers, me included.

Oddly though, often when the word “storytelling” is invoked, it just gets left at that, with little explanation. I went to a gallery opening last month here in London. The solo show prints were interesting and thoughtful, and the gallery notes told me that the sequence of prints around the walls told a story. What exact story, however, was completely opaque, as the captions were limited to a time of day, and there was nothing in the images themselves, however touching they were, to give a clue. I wanted to know more.

The “telling” part of the word “storytelling” counts for a lot, especially with photography, which can show some things with absolute clarity, but doesn’t always spell out the story. Actually, many photographs are successful because they don’t spell things out. But telling a story – making a photo essay, in other words – is a different matter. First off, if you think you can do it all in one single picture, good luck! A few, a very few images are composed and timed in such a way, and have just the right subject, that you can read a story inside them. Most tell just a part of a story. That’s why photo essays have several-to-many images arranged in a sequence.

Let me share three starter tips with you. They’re not camera technique tips, I’m afraid. Storytelling is about something else. It’s about finding interesting subjects and telling their tale imaginatively and in pictures. There are techniques, of course, but they’ve nothing to do with your equipment.

Tip 1: There’s an audience out there. Help them!

One thing above all sets a photo essay apart from other kinds of photography. It’s intended for an audience, and it’s intended to tell its story clearly. You might argue that there’s an audience for any photograph, isn’t there? Well, photographs are often taken for personal pleasure, then end up getting shown to people. Photo stories start with the audience in mind. It’s one of the key ways of judging the success of a photo essay – that it got the point across to the viewer. This means that the pictures, apart from all the fine image qualities you’re trying to put into them, including composition and timing, also have to do a job of explaining.

So, a simple technique is this: Stand back a moment from what you’re shooting, and put yourself in the viewer’s shoes. Is there anything unexplained? Would you want to see another picture in the series that shows something missing? Did I say viewer? How about also reader? Very few photo essays can be effective without some words. Wilson Hicks, the Life magazine editor who probably did more to create the photo essay than anyone else, wrote that “the basic unit of photojournalism is one picture with words.” You may need captions and a short introductory text. To some photographers, this is heresy. Some would believe that a picture should speak for itself, without a caption. That might well be true for an individual photograph, but it’s ultimately a matter of opinion. A group of pictures that are supposed to tell a story to someone else is often in need of some help. Photographs can do many wonderful things, but they can’t do everything. Even the great Cartier-Bresson grudgingly accepted that it “rarely happens” that a “single picture is a whole story in itself.”

One last check before you unleash your story on the world: Try it out on a few friends. Do they understand it? Do they have any questions?

Here’s a case. A striking scene, but who, what, why? The usual journalist’s questions. If this picture is to be a part of a story (it was), the viewer needs some information. The following is the caption that was used with it:

In the gorge of the fast-flowing Mekong River in Tibet, thousands of wood-and-earth platforms are filled daily with brine from salt wells. The sun and wind evaporate the water so that by afternoon, the remaining salt can be collected, as it has for over a thousand years.

That might be too much information for some people, but at least the image now makes sense.

Tip 2: Start with the basic “3-plus-1” ingredients

This is dead simple. Photo essays go like this: opener, body, and closer. In other words, a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s down to the edit to find the strong pictures. So, you need to:

1. Start strong

2. Then develop the storyline

3. End strong (though not necessarily as strong as the opener)

4. And the “plus 1”? That’s the key shot. Always aim for one photograph that is strong, powerful for whatever reason (subject, composition, lighting), and which will halt the viewer and key the story. It may come anywhere in the middle, in the body of the story. You cannot guarantee that your best shot from a sequence of shooting will come predictably, but you need at least one somewhere.

This is how it worked for a story I shot not long ago for the Smithsonian magazine on the first excavations for 50 years at Stonehenge in England:

Tip 3: A linear narrative is the easiest

Looking to start with something? Need an idea? Actually, you can make a picture story out of just about anything, but it makes life a lot easier if you have an interesting subject, and one that naturally lends itself to a series of pictures. So, the tip within a tip here is: Try a “making-of” story. Making-ofs are standard fare. Examples include how an automobile gets made, how a cake is baked, and how an artist creates a sculpture. One of the things that making-ofs have going for them is that they follow a timeline. Generally, it starts with raw materials and tools, and over a period of time the thing, whatever, it is, takes shape. Below are just three shots from a story on the making of the St. John’s Bible, the first hand-written and illuminated bible, on parchment, in 500 years. Try something similar yourself; it’s an easy start to doing photo essays.

About Michael

Michael Freeman is a renowned travel photographer and photography book author. He has served as a lead photographer for the Smithsonian Magazine for three decades and has published more than 120 photo books, 50 books about the practice of photography and an iPad application that corresponds to his bestselling book, The Photographer’s Eye. Freeman has two new books that will be published by Focal Press in the coming months: The Low Light Photography Field Guide (November 2011) and The Photographer’s Vision (October 2011). For information, visit Focal Press’s website at www.focalpress.com.

Do you want to learn more about storytelling through photography?

Visit www.focalpress.com to view the full schedule of events and to learn how you can get involved. Call Dan at 781-663-5284 with questions.

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    • Very interesting. Never thought much about photo essays and now I'd like to give it a try. The “making-of” is a great tip for starters.

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    • Excellent tips as always, Michael.

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    • I have admired Freeman's work for a long time.  This article is at his usual standard, excellent.  I have been building these things for years all be it in that old medium slides.  I have also blogged about it attaching the name DIE or digital image essay to the soon to be commercial product.  visit my blog http://asifoundit.com/blog for all the details

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    • great commentary and advice. the article is very helpful and practical. it made me want to do additional research. sorry michael is not coming to seattle in the near future.  let us know if he ever schedules in this area. 

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    • Yes, very clear and interesting. Makes me want to give a try at the genre.

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    • Excellent article, and great tip to get started.

      I hope more articles like this are in the making!

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    • I enjoyed the article very much

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    • For me, the value of any photo is in the story "it" tells.  I know the difference between a photo essay composed as an explanation for what is seen in photo/s. I am not relating to photo journalism but I wonder if the common use of the term "storytelling" in reference to photography is meant to describe the quality inherent in a photo based on its' ability to evoke an emotion and tell a story based on the reference of the viewer. 

      I expect this comment is a bit out of context but as a professional storyteller now turned photographer, it is something I wanted to share. Hope it is a valuable contribution. 

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