Quick Tips on Photographic Visual Story Telling

A few years ago I took a visual storytelling class for photography and I never forgot it. It has served me with a good foundation for most of my photoblog posts since – and I hope one day when I get the time to create my book, it will serve me then. For now, I would like to share what I learned with those interested in storytelling.

So, what is visual storytelling – in particular, for photography?

The basics of storytelling can be accomplished in one photograph, if the photograph is particularly emotive, but this is not often seen or published. Most photographers who combine the narrative choose to either self-publish via magazines or books. However, you can hone in on your own storytelling using a photoblog or social media sharing web-based app, like Flickr.

A Photo Story Begins With 3 Simple Steps

1. Start with a basic linear (or non-linear), cohesive tale to tell about an event that took place or with the mood of a certain event, etc. You can also choose a story that illustrates an abstract concept like, “conflict” or “judgment”.

2. 10-12 images. More than a dozen stand the chance of losing the cohesive nature of what you as the photographer are trying to convey. Plus, you risk losing your reader’s interest more easily if you choose more than a dozen shots.

3. A thoughtful sequence of photos which have been carefully edited and contain a “climactic” point. Much like a piece of music, your photos capture a sense of “drama” or act as a crescendo towards a singly-focused theme.

Images can be all black and white, all color, or if it lends to your story, a mixture of both. Captions and texts can be included, but a good caption isn’t always easy for the photographer, so some have said that captions are optional. There is a lot of subjectivity here, but when telling a story, you can caption your photos in a way that shows the reader the direction of your story without biasing him or her. However, this is so difficult for photographers to do because we tend to influence the photograph’s interpretation when we choose our own words, which often cannot be separated from our own bias.

Why Should I Care About Storytelling?

I would highly encourage street photographers, in particular, to take a visual storytelling class for a number of reasons.

  • If you ever plan to publish, you have to learn the art of sequencing, which is fundamental to the flow of a successful story.
  • Not only will the practice of building a story help with future publications, but it also is a great way to distance yourself from the attachment you have to your images. At first, you fall in love with every image, but not every image will hold the same value and meaning for your viewers. Learning to detach yourself from your art is VERY important. You start to learn which 10 photos for example, are truly the best contributors to a story (as opposed to throwing all 50 into your Flickr account just because you’re attached to them!)
  • When guided by a strong instructor, creating stories also helps you really craft a keener eye. You learn how to edit your photos a bit more carefully but even more importantly, you learn how to get better at framing your photos when taking the shot. This is something I’m still training myself to do!

I offer the above gallery as an example of my own storytelling to demonstrate only the method. The images at the top of this post are captioned and sequenced as I chose, but certainly, I could have chosen another way. I decided this layout with these guidelines in mind:

  • Start with a strong portrait or the most visually interesting one you can find.
  • Move into something that pulls the eye back out – a landscape or focus on a broader scene.
  • Begin moving back in slowly with more close up images, add color or emotion to introduce the climactic point.
  • Insert in the middle, the climax – the most emotionally poignant photograph (in the case below, the man playing guitar evoked for me, the most emotion due to the placement of light and the interplay of the three characters together.)
  • Scale back again with wide angle or black and white scenes that lend themselves to a finale;
  • The finale, being the last image, can be another close up or an image of a pleasant “ending”, so to speak. It can also “wrap up” the story by ending on the same note that the story began. See for example the first shot and the last shot here as an example of two images that “feel” similar to each other.

I hope this inspires you as photographers who are interested in storytelling, to begin looking for the story in your shots and to start digging through your archives to create compelling stories. If you’re ever interested in bouncing off critique or want to talk storytelling in general, feel free to contact me.

Him, on the other side, with his meat
Him, on the other side, with his meat
Crowd collision
Crowd collision
Circles and Sounds
Circles and Sounds
Leaving or staying
Leaving or staying
Sundown
Sundown
Sundown layers of activity
Sundown layers of activity
Approaching dusk
Approaching dusk
From the back alley
From the back alley
Crossing Conversations
Crossing Conversations
The last pose
The last pose

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