The Fastest Way to Learn Photography Storytelling

“Sometimes there’s a unique picture whose composition possesses such vigour and richness and whose content so radiates outward from it that the single picture is a whole story in itself.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson 

35mm lens tells stories by relating ourselves to the world that is personal to us and present viewers the selective reality we chose to show.- 35mmlens.com

What is photography storytelling?

Storytelling connects a photograph with its viewers by delivering a message that lasts and triggers emotions within. The difference good photography storytelling can make is evident in many similar comments you can see online: “…this would make a nice stock photo.” With my full respect to the fascinating stock photo authors, the comment refers to the lack of a higher form of aesthetic value in some beautiful photographs. As a photography, you may develop skills and acquire tools to refine a photograph from all technical aspects in terms of exposure, clarity, colour saturation, white balance etc, unfortunately, it may still be received as a ‘top quality stock photo’ if it lacks a storytelling element. On the other hand, I can think of many examples where a photo is far from outstanding at technical aspects but enjoys huge success because of a story which adds so much character to it. For all readers of 35mm lens photography, the 35mm focal length is born for storytelling. It delivers a point of view that is personal to us and present viewers with just enough carefully selected visual information that tells a story.

Types of photography storytelling 

Understanding the types of photography storytellng helps determine where you would like to start.

Photojournalism / Documentary

A most obvious type of photography storytelling is documentary. The photographer documents how an event takes place as detailed as possible use either a single photo or a series of photos. The photojournalism genre focuses more on reflecting the facts in the clearest possible way. The informational element of photos outweighs the aesthetic elements. Photographers working for news agencies and journalism organizations produce a large amount of documentary photographs every day, the story covers every possible topic from the birth of a new cub in the zoo to the war taking place in certain part of the world. Photojournalists are often found to be using full frame, full spec cameras as the priority is a piece of reliable equipment that can go anywhere with them in rough conditions. The camera needs to be able to respond and capture every possible detail as stories unfold, therefore a high level of automation with lenses that cater for a wide range of conditions is ideal. 

Photo project or series

Photo series is a great way to raise the game
Photo series is a great way to raise the game

Photo projects or series usually starts from an idea that a photographer have. The idea can be about any topic as long as it is specific. Then the photographer would seek photo opportunities that adds to the story about this topic or idea. This is then carefully sorted and arranged so that viewers are presented with the entire photo series which tells the story. During the photo project, it is not uncommon for the photographer to discover new elements about the story and eventually end up with a result far greater and deeper than expected.

I believe every photographer can and should start doing at least one photo series to lift his or her game from ‘stock photo’ level. This helps train the mindset to shift from the technical details of a photo to the context and meaning of it. It is not uncommon for photographers to deliberately weaken the graphical information of the photo by, say, using black and white, so viewers’ attention is not distracted by the graphics and is focused on the context instead. In a photo project, as a photographer is not restricted by the news value of the photos he takes, he may find a balance between the technical details of photos and the story of them. A great photo series created by masters are outstanding in both elements.

Photo series makes great material for exhibition and publishing. Depending on the subject of a story, they attract a wider range of audience interested in both photographs itself and in the story. For this reason, a photo series with a clear storytelling feature is easier to be published or ‘featured’ both offline and online. 

Implied photography storytelling

What story comes to your mind when you see a gun and a rose laying on an apartment floor? What about a pair of wide-open eyes peeking out of the darkness behind a half-closed door? These are examples of Hollywood posters telling stories of a movie using implied storytelling without revealing the actual story (obviously with the intention to sell you a ticket to learn the story in the movie).

We can use the same technique in our photography storytelling. The key here is to include enough key elements of the story that the viewer is able to figure out what the story is.

As an example, some street photographer deliberately captures body parts of his subject without revealing the face. So the story is incomplete as the identity of the ‘lead character’ is not shown. Another example is the lifeless scene is included in a photo without any subject person, but the information is enough to suggest what has happened earlier on.

Interestingly implied storytelling also serves to ‘select’ its audience. Sometimes only a certain group of people would be able to figure out the story implied by a photo. Such as the one below:

Ambiguous stories open for interpretation

Photo by Matt Stuart, GB. England. London. 2006. Oxford Street
Photo by Matt Stuart, GB. England. London. 2006. Oxford Street.

Ambiguous storytelling is a powerful way to attract viewers as it uses one of the basic instincts of the human being: curiosity.

Clarity is deliberately avoided in an ambiguous photo. This technique is sometimes used in advertisements, where a photo with ambiguous yet suggestive message attracts audiences to study it more carefully to satisfy their curiosity. Viewers are also invited to use their imagination to fill up a story in their mind.

Modern art is full of examples of ambiguous storytelling. What exacting does this mean? This is a mental status that bothers as well as pleases viewers. Knowing this to your advantage means as a photographer, you do not always have a clear story in mind. As long as the photography contain strong suggestive signals, it is often times than not to be enough.\

Landscapes: an Aesthetic Choice

A landscape photo does not automatically mean it contains no story element. In contrary, the modern art history is a rich source of examples to combine still life, including landscape, in storytelling.

Make sure you don’t miss my thoughts on this topic in the following article:

35mm Lens Landscape Photography: an Aesthetic Choice

Elements of a Story (the 5 Ws)

Who – The subject person

The subject person (or people) is the centerpiece of a story. A photographer with storytelling in mind captures an image which represents a point of time in a story line. Some photographers do everything to stay as an ‘invisible spectator’ so the subject person continues to be engaged naturally in the activities; while others (especially street photographers) do not mind if he looks right into the lens, almost equivalent to having direct eye contact with the viewer. Sometimes other persons are allowed in the frame as ‘supporting actors’ in a story. The interaction between two or more people, especially their eye contact, is what can link two persons in a story.

What – posture, expression and activities

Posture, expression and activities are what sets photography storytelling from portraiture photography. The subject needs to look like he is in the middle of doing something: checking time, smoking, making a phone call, or something more ambiguous such as looking at a direction with an anxious expression. (Who is she anticipating? Why is she doing it? Curious viewers will try to seek answers from the photo.)

Sometimes a close up photo of a body part intensifies the emotion of a photo. Posture can be the dominant message in the photo that implies the story it suggests.

Where and When – The environment

The environment makes a photo believable. When choosing the environment, a photographer needs to consider whether it is believable that a story takes place here and now. The environment can also contain important information about a story. Sometimes the photographer hides an ‘Easter Egg’ in the environment that’s like a riddle for the viewers to solve.

Why – the caption/cutlines

The last W of a story, the ‘Why’, can be expressed in two ways. In a photo exhibition, a newspaper or a photo book it can be written next to the photo to help viewers understanding the story a photo is reflecting. ‘Why’ may also be an ambiguous message hidden from the viewers, calling for his or her curiosity and imagination to fill in the gaps.

The value of Photography Storytelling

Documentary / News value (does it capture something that is worth recording?)

Photography storytelling can contain documentary or news value. This is what most photojournalists are aiming at. The documentary value of a photo is functional, it is the graphical evidence of an event that is recorded.

Emotional value

The acid test of the emotional value of a photo is: does it tell a story that triggers a certain emotion of its viewers? The emotional value of a photograph is determined by the quality of the ‘story’ it is telling. Is it a story that the viewers can relate to and echo? How strong are the viewers feeling about the story? The emotional value of a photo is something that makes people look beyond the ‘technical benchmarks’ of a photo and answers to the question ‘why is it taken in such a way’.

Artistic value (does it please the viewers artistically?)

A good storytelling photograph does not sacrifice its artistic value when delivering the story. In fact, the masterpieces are often praised because they are able to achieve both. Usually, it is the case that artistic value is what sets fine art photography apart from photo-documentary and photojournalism. Unless you work for a news agency, do not totally disregard things like the clarity of a photo, the composition, accurate colour and print-quality pixel counts. The artistic value of a photo is able to be extended greatly if a photographer studies modern art history. This is discussed in my earlier article: 35mm landscape photography (sorry to repeat myself.)

Humour in photography storytelling

Alex Webb The Suffering of Light Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to United States 1979
Alex Webb – The Suffering of Light USA. San Ysidro, California. 1979. Mexicans arrested while trying to cross the border to United States.

A sense of humour goes a long way. In photography, express your sense of humour is a shortcut to set you apart from the rest of the pack. The only tip: don’t try too hard to be funny, it usually goes the other way!

Photography storytelling tips to get you started

Start from yourself

Yourself are the best subject to start with because there’s just one free actor in this word that will work without pay for your story 24/7. The bonus is that you are the star of your own movie. Your first storytelling photography starts as soon as you set up a tripod and stand right in front of the camera. Think very hard about your expression and body language, create a scene in a story and this is your first storytelling photography nailed in a fun way.

Animals

Animals are our second best cute little actors in our storytelling photography everyone will like. Animal can be a great subject for your storytelling photography. The trick is to think of them as a human, give them emotions. After all I truly believe pets do know how to love and hate but if you can help them with expressing the feelings, even a subtle tilt of head will have a meaning in the frame of a photo. What’s best if you have more than one animals that interact with each other and suddenly you have a story line.

Travel

When we are travelling, the journey itself is a fantastic story you don’t want to miss capturing. It is a good opportunity for you to create a photo series based on a theme. The most obvious choice of a storyline is the place you are visiting. Alternatively, it can be about a certain topic such as a group of people, trees of different sizes and shapes or all sorts of interesting doors. When travelling, a person naturally becomes more curious about everything around him because everything is new to him and seeing, experiencing new things is the very reason for travelling. Best of all, even if you don’t have a certain theme in mind when you’re taking photos, after your trip you can always hand-pick a few photos from all the photos that you have taken, making up your storyline. There is nothing wrong with figuring our the storytelling part afterwards the audience is not going to know that

Photo series

If you take storytelling photography more seriously, you should create a photo series and take it on as a dedicated project. Work on it day after day, months after months, you don’t have to finish it by any certain date so take your time and make it perfect. I’ve seen people define a theme for their photo projects and just go onto the street and talk to strangers day after day; a female traveler carried a little action figure with her and put the little toy as the subject person wherever she goes. You are only limited by your own imagination. Photo projects help you become a more dedicated photographer overall. Working on it is also going to take your photography journey to the next level. Having an exhibition in mind is not a bad idea because then you can inspire yourself to take a vast amount of photos to select from for the exhibition: what a great inspiration!

Take a photo with emotion

Emin Özmen , Civilians cross the Tigris River by small boats near the village of Tuebe, southeast of Mosul, Iraq November 2016.
Emin Özmen , Civilians cross the Tigris River by small boats near the village of Tuebe, southeast of Mosul, Iraq November 2016.

Having your own view means to look at the world around you with a certain emotion and take a photo when the emotion is intense. This sometimes works in a way that the photography becomes a medium that carries your emotion and delivers it to the viewers. You can use a unique perspective as an expression of your emotion. Artistic distortion is a technique frequently used by modern artists as a way to carry that emotion and delivers it. Finding a unique view is also beneficial for creating a strong photography style. When you consistently apply that style it’s going to become your signature it is very appealing to have stylized photos that is associated with the photographer because to differentiate yourself with the rest of the photographers and this is definitely a shortcut for artistic success

Further reading

If you like this article, you will probably be interested in:

35mm Lens Photography: the Selective Reality

Check out other photography lessons here at Photography Manual

Send your comments and your photos

Let me know how you have found photography storytelling in your journey of photography. Also, if you are happy to send me your favorite ‘storytelling’ photo, it will be put on this website as featured photos. Please leave me a message below if you are unsure how to send the photo to me.

Photo by Matt Stuart, GB. England. London. 2004. Trafalgar Square.

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