We’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words. But how does that really work? Sure, a picture can have many details, details that would take many words to fully describe. The true meaning of this famous adage takes shape when the picture tells a story, or better yet, inspires a story. We’ll look at some ideas to inspire your storytelling photography. A course in the Fundamentals of Photography can help you to get started with the ideas we present here.
Storytelling Photography in a Single Frame
First, the photograph has to be inviting to look at, especially for an extended viewing. The lighting must not be too harsh and contrasty. It should have good detail but not be over-sharpened. The colors should be vivid, but realistic and not overly saturated. You don’t want the exaggerated quality of the image to distract from the story. The photograph must invite the viewer to visit and stay a while. You want the viewer to think. You want them to ask questions. How did that happen? What will happen next? The viewer will supply a story that is probably different from the story you felt when you were there; they can only do this if they are engaged.
Believe it or not, though, you might overdo it on the quality. If your story is to tell about a war zone or poverty, a really pretty picture may work against you. In this case a bit of roughness or edginess adds more realism to that particular story. Always think about how all of the elements of your photograph are going to work with and reinforce the message of your story.
Composition plays an important role here. We don’t mean the commonly heard “rule of thirds.” That will help to bring your viewer into the picture, but by itself, the so-called rule of thirds will not keep the viewer there. All of the fore-mentioned quality must be there. Beyond that, be sure that every other element in the photograph contributes to the storytelling. Bright areas can be distracting, as can objects along the edges of the frame. Sometimes that “rule” of thirds is meant to be broken. A person or animal on the edge, just entering or exiting the frame, could be a strong element in storytelling photography.
Leading lines are important. That classic S-shaped line of a country road, or perhaps a river, winding its way into the distance tells the story of a journey. Sure, the scene is pretty, but that road or path urges us on, and we wonder about what might be at the end. Where is this taking us and why are we going? Leading lines can also be implied, such as the direction of a person’s gaze. What are they looking at, and why? Is something about to happen? Lines and other elements lead your viewer’s eye through the picture, keeping them engaged with the story and learning about this style of composition is essential in telling a story.
Does your storytelling photography have people in it? If so, can you capture their emotion? Your viewer will wonder, “Why are they so angry, or sad, or happy?” “What will happen next?” If you can capture a moment in mid-action, your viewer might wonder how this moment is going to be resolved.
A person’s hands can tell a story. The hands of a violinist will look different than the hands of the craftsperson who made the violin. There is a lifetime of work that made those hands look they way that they do. The hands can tell the story of that lifetime.
A key element in storytelling photography is motion. There are basically two techniques to capture a sense of motion in still photography: panning and long exposures. With panning, the subject will be sharp, or mostly sharp, and the background will be blurred. This will convey the motion of your subject through the scene. If some of your subject is showing motion, this will add to the effect. The effective use of flash can help to stop enough motion and have your subject stand out from the background. This article on flash photography can help you to get started with flash.
The second technique is long exposure. This can show a blurred subject in a static background, perhaps wind-blown flowers or tree branches. However, there are other possibilities, such as showing fast-moving waves or water currents washing over a static subject, perhaps clinging on for its life.
Equipment for Storytelling Photography
By now, we hope you have realized that the equipment to help you capture storytelling photography will be as varied as the stories themselves. Think beyond the usual lens that you might associate with a given subject. For instance, with wildlife we might usually think of long telephoto lenses to get that great closeup of nesting birds. Indeed, this might capture a nice story of parental care, or a not so nice story of sibling rivalry in the nest. However, also consider backing off the focal length to get a wider view, perhaps of the parent bird approaching a nest high on a cliff or up in a tall tree. Or perhaps it is a not so tall tree in a swamp with an alligator lurking beneath. This can tell a very different story of a precarious life. The lesson is that no matter what your subject is, a variety of lens focal lengths will help you to capture an equally wide variety of stories.
There are some common factors for equipment in all storytelling photography. Peak moments happen quickly. You must know your equipment well. All of those lens choices we mentioned? – You had better know how to change those lenses quickly. You must understand autoexposure and autofocus and know when they will work and when they won’t, and what to do when they won’t. When these tools will work, you must master their use so that they are an asset, not a hindrance, to your photography. Related to this, your tripod should be easy to use and you should practice so that any adjustments can be made without struggle.
Multi-photo Stories: The Photo Essay
If you have the luxury of using a group of photographs to tell your story, there are more techniques at your disposal. Moreover, these techniques also form a set of requirements, a sort of a grammar of storytelling with a collection of photographs.
The first of these requirements is a list of elements in the story. There will be some sort of environment, a backdrop or setting in which the story takes place. Then there will be the main characters. Often this will be people, but it could be wildlife, or even perhaps an endangered flower. Then there will be the activities or events in the lives of these subjects. For people, this will include a wide variety of activities from sports to festivals to local industries and crafts. For wildlife, think of how the typical documentary covers milestones such as birth or hatching, rearing, finding food, avoiding predators, and mating.
These elements will be included in a variety of photographs of different types. The first of these is the wide establishing shot. As the name implies, this type will be at the beginning of a story, but additional ones may be included throughout the story. This is where you might get that nice landscape shot that gives a great view of the environment, habitat or city where the story takes place. Give a sense of the lay of the land.
A story of all wide shots, no matter how good they are, will not hold the viewer’s attention. The other types of shot are the medium views, portraits and small groups, closeups and details, and point of view shots. Mix these up throughout the story to keep your viewer engaged with the story.
All of the equipment, all of the technique, the greatest mix of shots, none of this will help you if you are not there for the defining moment. Know your subject. When will those unique local festivals take place? Capture the action at the center of attention, but also work the edges of the event to find crowd reaction and other unique details. What do you need to do to get the trust of the people or animals whose stories you would like to photograph? You can’t get the definitive photograph if you do not know what you are looking for and where you have to be.
These tips and ideas will give you the foundation for great storytelling photography. It will be up to you to do the work and preparation it takes to actually build the story and become an artistic storyteller.