Use The 8 Classic Shots Of Photo Essays To Tell Better Stories

Every picture tells a story. Combine pictures to form an essay, and your storytelling options multiply. This is one way to tell a more complete story, add depth, complexity, counterpoint, nuance, show change over time, and so much more. A photo essay transcends a single lucky shot. It demonstrates commitment, focus, versatility, and skills of another order. 

Essays have definite structures, with a clear beginning, middle, and end – often with standard components that flesh out and advance a story in critical ways. Journalists excel at this type of storytelling. Sometimes they even use cinematic conventions, components, and strategies. Moviemakers storyboard their creations before filming commences. Cinematographers and film editors ultimately develop their own styles with how they handle these devices, and they can also become a part of your style.

Identifying the necessary components of an essay is the first step. Once you know the types of images you need to tell your story, you’ll know what to shoot while you’re on location and maybe even when you need to be there. If you don’t identify these elements beforehand and make sure you come back with each of them, you may find you lack critical pieces. There will be holes in your story. And you may have to return to finish it – if you can. 

Even if your work isn’t narrative, learning these skills will help you create more images, be more versatile, make stronger comparisons and contrasts, and create more effective continuity and transitions between images.

These are the classic elements used to structure a photo essay presented in order of appearance.

1 Introduction
2 Set the Stage
3 Identify the Main Character
4 Significant Detail
5 Human Interest
6 Decisive Moment
7 Outcome
8 Conclusion 

You could say all other images included in an essay are just variations of these few types of images. I’d be surprised if exceptions couldn’t be found, but they would be exceptions. These are worth committing to memory and ultimately making second nature. If you do, you’ll become a more capable and versatile photographer.

What is the function of each image type? 


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Use The Power Of Storyboarding To Structure Your Photographic Explorations

The first time I went to Namibia I used this storyboard to find more ideas and structure my thinking.

Find out how it worked out at the end of this article.

 

Movies are rarely shot without storyboarding them. Consider storyboarding your still photography projects too.

A storyboard is a hand-drawn map or timeline that identifies the various types of images needed to advance a story and the transitions between them. They identify the beginning, middle, and end of a story and the shots needed to move from one to the other. Storyboards create a guiding structure or framework that can help focus and strengthen your work. 

You can use storyboards to structure your thinking when you’re developing still photography projects. Storyboards can help you do many different things, including finding out what your story is, generating ideas, identifying the shots you need, creating stronger relationships between separate images, and telling your story in more compelling ways.

Creating a storyboard doesn’t take long. You can create a simple storyboard in as few as two sketches – before and after or beginning and end. Then you can continue adding more frames to develop your story further.


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How To Break The Rules & Unlock New Creative Possibilities

Stuck? Experiment! How? Try this.

List all of the rules of photography. Then break them. 

Doing this will offer two profound benefits. 

One, you'll develop a better understanding of and versatility with the medium.

Two, you’ll deepen your understanding of your personal goals and voice (vision and style).

If an experiment fails to produce interesting results, you’ll have proven confirmation that what you’re doing is working for you. If an experiment succeeds by producing results that are exciting to you, you’ll develop a new relationship with the medium and maybe even find a personal breakthrough. 

Often you’ll need to try an experiment more than once. Try each experiment long enough to see whether they’re working or not; many of these things won’t feel natural at first.

I recommend making this kind of experimentation a lifelong practice. No matter how accomplished you are, discoveries await you.

Here’s a list to get you started …


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Reversal / Do The Opposite – It’s The Most Powerful Way To Innovate

Day / Night

Looking for something new? Do the opposite of what you normally do. Use the power of reversal; it’s a powerful strategy used by countless creatives. 

The principle of reversal is similar to the photographers’ 180-degree rule. You shoot in one direction. You’re so focused on one thing you don’t see all the other possibilities around you. You force yourself also to look 180 degrees in the opposite direction. You discover new vistas. It’s a good habit. Extend this. Identify the ways of seeing you typically engage. Now list other ways of looking and try them. You’ll quickly discover new ways of seeing that will reenergize you and make your work more vital.

Our minds are conditioned to think in terms of opposites, so ideas for reversal come easily to us.

On – Off

Dark – Light

Day – Night

Vertical – Horizontal

Up – Down

In – Out

Active – Passive

Moving – Still

Dynamic – Stable

Whole – Incomplete

Repaired – Broken 

Full – Empty

Some – None

Many – One

Altered – Unaltered

 

Full / Empty

Try putting a prefix of un or anti on any word (even if the results are not in the dictionary), and you’ll instantly find a different perspective. Then reverse that perspective. Inverting twice doesn’t always return you to the same point. New things can be gained in translation.

The possibilities are so limitless they can be overwhelming.

Break the challenge down into useful chunks. 

Physical Processes

You can make reversals in your physical process. 


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Every Picture Tells A Story … But How Does It Tell It?

Visual stories can be simple or complex, quiet or dramatic, short or long ... the possibilities are endless.

Even in abstract images things happen, at the very least formal elements interact.

Sometimes stories are told with images through their relationships with other images.

Every picture tells a story. Every picture? Every picture!

Even abstract images tell stories. The stories they tell are not about their subjects. By definition, they don’t have subjects. Or do they? They have themselves. So they tell stories about themselves. They tell stories about the things that make them – color, line, texture, shape, proportion, etc. How all of those things relate is a drama of form.

How many kinds of stories are there? There are scientific stories that tell us what things are and how they work. There are historical stories that tell us how things were, how they changed, and what they’ve become today – some even speculate about how things will be tomorrow. There are emotional stories that tell us how people respond emotionally to things. There may be more kinds of stories, but these are the big ones. When it comes to images, the stories they tell are usually only about a few kinds of things. The images themselves. The things images contain. The processes things go through. The feelings people have in response to things and processes. The concepts created through interpretation. Things: Nouns. Processes: Verbs. Feelings: Adjectives and Adverbs. Concepts: Abstract Ideas.

So if every picture tells a story, one way to determine the strength of an image is to ask, “How strong is the story?” Put another way, one way to improve your images is to tell stronger stories. A story doesn’t have to be big or dramatic to be strong; it just has to be told well. Tell stories strongly. Tell them with stronger form; tell them by more clearly delineating actions; tell them by disclosing emotional responses more passionately; tell them by inspiring us to find the bigger picture beyond each picture or group of pictures.


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How To Use Association To Go Deeper With Your Photographs

My early curiosity about clouds displaying invisible forces at work, lead to associations of nephomancy (divination by clouds) and later clouds as divine messengers.

The working title for this series, Glory (later changed to Illumination) was drawn from religious iconography in western art history.

The working title for this series was Heaven's Breath but it was later released as Exhalation, leaving room for viewers' interpretations. The many personal associations I bring to my imagery remain subliminal but strongly felt giving them consistency and depth.

 

Our work is as deep as the relationships we have with it. Mastery involves much more than researching subjects and perfecting craft, it also means doing some soul searching. So how can you deepen your relationships with your work? How can you understand the inner life of your work better? One way is to associate freely.

Free association is a classic psychological technique that can be used to reveal and clarify internal relationships. While most association is done linguistically, you can use anything as a touchstone for association; sounds, gestures, tastes, smells, images, etc. Use one or more at the same time. Whatever you choose to associate with, record your associations with something that doesn’t get in the way of the free flow of your association process. If you use words, use the language that comes most easily to you. If you use something else (colors, sounds, images) make sure that collecting them can be done fast, fluidly, and flexibly. Do record your associations. If you don’t record them, you’ll forget most of them and the patterns they make will elude you. 

Simply observe what comes to mind. Don’t critique or censor yourself during the process; nothing shuts down this process faster. Let it all out. Be thoroughly spontaneous and utterly candid with yourself. You may or may not choose to do this with others. It’s your choice. Try different approaches and see how each influences the experience and results.

There are several ways to guide association.


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How To Use Metaphor To Make Stronger Photographs

Zoomorphism animates and connects these images.

 

Photographs can often be well-crafted transcriptions of their subjects and nothing more. It’s usually that elusive ‘something more’ that makes great photographs, elevating them beyond craft to art. How can you bring more to your images? One way is to use a guiding metaphor.

What is a metaphor? In language, spoken or written, a simile implies a shared quality (This is like that.), while a metaphor states that two things are the same (This is that.). When a metaphor is used, it’s understood that poetic license is being taken. A metaphor isn’t used to create misinformation and confusion, it’s used to emphathetically draw attention to shared qualities.


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Three Keys To Analyzing Images – Content, Form & Feeling

1 Realistic images emphasize content.

2 Graphic images emphasize form.

3 Expressionistic images emphasize feeling.

4 Impressionistic images may evoke content, form, and/or feeling.

 

Making verbal statements about visual images can be challenging. But, it’s also very useful. Learning to make useful statements about images can help you clarify the type of work you’re looking at or making. It can help you identify an artist’s intentions, including your own. It can help give you direction. It can help you improve your images. It can help you develop projects and predict outcomes. It can help you more effectively communicate with others. When it comes to appreciating and making images, words can be very useful. You don’t need to have a degree or be a professional writer to use words well. Sometimes, a few simple words can end up being the most useful – especially if they’re the right words.

One useful way to comment on images is to discuss three important and related aspects of images - content, form, and feeling. While all images have these dimensions, you can describe the kind of image a work of art is based on how it weights these three concerns. 

Here are several types of images that weigh these concerns differently.


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Three Ways To Tell A Story More Creatively – It, I, You

Using words can help you find new perspectives that can be translated into images. How? Tell a story, from at least three different points of view – it, I, and you.

First, tell the story in the third person (it) as a distant observer – “Just the facts ma’am.” 

What images are needed to tell your viewers a complete story about your subject?

This perspective tends to be more objective, emphasizing facts and linear timelines so you do more research. It values clarity, balance (all sides of a story), and completeness (the whole story). It tends to avoid metaphor and stylistic distortion. It’s rarely the easiest way to build empathy for you subject. Be careful not to keep too much distance from your subject and find ways to make your viewers care.

Next, tell the story in the first person (I) as an involved participant – “How do I feel?” 

What images are needed to tell your viewers the story or you experience with your subject?

This perspective makes it personal and so draws your viewers closer to you by helping them to live vicariously. This viewpoint can become highly subjective and opens up a lot of room for interpretation. It can become like a journal. In translating this to images you might include the traces of things you do and leave behind or even yourself. (Go ahead and stand by or with your subject but be careful not to leave your subject behind.)

Finally, tell the story in the second person (you) as if you were the subject – “How does it feel to be you?” 

What images are needed to tell your subject’s story from the inside out?

This perspective encourages empathy, initially in you and later in your viewers. You can move deeper into this perspective by asking, “If I were you I would sense, think, and feel …” It might seem strange at first to do this with inanimate subjects – like rocks or buildings or roads. Remembering what it was like to be a kid playing these kinds of games will help you a great deal here. (We all know how creative kids can be, so have fun and play a little.) This perspective may encourage you to photograph from different perspectives; get closer or further, lower or higher, or turn around and photograph what your subject might see. Often, this voice will help you discover the most unusual perspectives.

 

Read more in my Storytelling resources.

Learn more in my Creativity & Photography workshops.

The Big Differences Between Vision & Style – And How They’re Related

Many people think vision and style are the same. They’re not. What’s the difference?

Vision is what you have to say; style is how you say it.

Confusing one for the other or focusing on one and not the other can be disastrous.

Just because your images look different doesn’t mean you’ve said anything or said it well. No matter how dazzling something may look, when style becomes a substitute for vision ultimately the viewer leaves unsatisfied – though they don’t always know why. If you confuse style for vision it confuses your viewers. And when you use a style that’s inappropriate for your vision it distorts the way your work is seen and it’s likely that you’ll be misunderstood. A style without a vision is a gimmick; visual cleverness. A style that supports a vision is a vessel for deep authentic expression.

You don’t have to make your images look different to say meaningful things and say them in your own authentic way. Sometimes less is more. Less style, more vision. Stronger styles make the viewer work harder to see past the surface of an image and find the deeper meaning within it. Strong styles work only if they complement a vision – then both become stronger.

Vision and style are related. Hopefully, vision drives style. Vision gives style meaning and purpose. When style reflects purpose it deepens the whole experience, making statements more deeply felt. Style can create meaningful connections between the subject and the way an image looks and even between multiple images. Subtle shifts in style throughout a body of work and even an artist’s lifetime have the potential to communicate even more meaning.

Style is easy to identify because all you need to do is make formal statements about what you see. You simply describe how the things in an image look. When describing style you focus less on the things you see and more on how they look. You state what your eyes actually see, the visual building blocks of an image not the content those elements are used to represent. To do this well, you need to learn a little vocabulary to formally describe images in ways that others will understand, but there’s an added benefit, learning that vocabulary will help you look more carefully and see more things and relationships between them. Each one of those relationships is a creative opportunity. Line, shape, volume, color, texture, scale, proportion, range, and compositional patterns are the fundamentals – and you can make finer distinctions in each of these categories. Some aspects of style describe relationships that are visible between multiple images such as the number of images used, their sequence, its pace and rhythm. Style can be extended to anything you do in a particular way, not your actual practice (she used a camera) but the way you practice it (she always moved in close). The ways you do things communicate the kinds of connections you like to make and the relationships you like to cultivate and so they imbue what you make with meaning.

Vision is harder to identify than style. Vision is the mystery you (and your viewers) are trying to solve; style offers the clues to figuring it out. It takes some guess work and repeated confirmation to figure out where your images are going. But vision is where you move beyond taking pictures of things (subjects) and start making pictures about things (themes). It’s part plot; your subject, events that happen to it, actions it takes, reactions, and consequences. It’s part theme. The theme is the big (or main) idea and subthemes are smaller (or subordinate) related ideas. It’s what the work says about a subject. It’s the overall message and the underlying messages. This is the least literal often least visible aspect of work and it’s often where the most soul can be found.

It’s part you … the patterns you see and create, your relationship to your subject and the images you create of and possibly about it, all the associations and connections you make between it and other things, the things you choose to show and not to show, your emotional reactions to things and events and even their appearances, the reasons why you care and why we should care. All these things say a lot about you, so vision is also about self-discovery and expression.

If the style of your images is appropriate it will help us see your vision … in a very particular meaningful way.

You don’t have to figure out your vision or your style before you start making meaningful images. Whether you start with no idea or a good idea, it’s likely that you won’t know the full meaning of your work until you make it. An essential part of the process of creating images is figuring things out. Show your process, not all of it, just the interesting parts, the ones you decide are meaningful. What you finally make doesn’t have to be perfect, finished, or even fully resolved; you just have to do it well enough to create a compelling experience. And to do that, you have to figure out a few things, perhaps only the most important things, about your vision (what you have to say) and style (how you say it). Then make more images and figure out a little more. Keep repeating this process enough times and you’ll find your way, your vision and your style, If you hold nothing back and give it everything you’ve got, you will be amazed by what you discover.

Download my Vision worksheet here. (Coming Soon)

Download my Style worksheet here.

Read more in my Storytelling resources.

Learn more in my Creativity & Photography workshops.