10 Tips to Help You Create Unique Storytelling People Photos

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storytelling with photos leadFor most of us, the joy of photography goes beyond taking a great image, to being able to share our pictures and experiences with our friends and family. To do storytelling with images.

How many times have you been traveling and come across someone interesting that you wanted to share with your family? Did asking for permission hold you back? Did you get a photo or series of photos that really tell the story? Were your photographs different and did each add a new perspective?

The following tips will walk you through a real-life example of how I shot a glassblower in his shop and created a series of unique photos to tell his story.

#1 – Get clear on your goals for the shoot

Something attracted you to this person or situation. What peaked your interest? Do you like the subject’s purple hair? Do you love photographing people having fun? Do you want to try to capture the beautiful light on someone’s face? Or perhaps you love dance and would like to capture a dancer in a beautiful portrait?

Here are my thoughts on the glassblower. What I wanted to photograph, what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it.

Why I wanted to photograph the glassblower:

I have been a Canon user for a long time and Sony lent me one of their new cameras and two lenses (50mm and a 90mm) for a trial run. I had already spent some time playing with the camera by photographing squirrels and I was ready to try something with a little bit more potential.

storytelling with photographs

While on vacation in a small beach town, I noticed a small shop run by a local glass blower. He made beautiful glass as well as offered lessons to tourists. I liked the idea of photographing the glass blower for several reasons:

  • He makes beautiful art.
  • The workshop is interesting with a lot of picture possibilities.
  • I could shoot available light in his workshop.
  • He was there all day doing interesting things which means I had a lot of time to shoot.
  • He seemed very proud of his work.
  • He seemed to have an extroverted personality and a sense of showmanship.

What I wanted to do:

I wanted to be able to photograph him as he worked and interacted with others.

My most important goal was to have the opportunity to shoot something pretty simple as I learned to drive this new camera. I liked this situation because I could shoot available light and there was enough action and movement that I could test out the different autofocus settings as well as the creative features of the camera.

I also wanted to be able to shoot, leave to download my images, and come back to the same situation later to tweak my approach. I had found my subject, I just needed to get permission.

storytelling with photos

#2 – Be honest about what you want and don’t be afraid, just ask!

A lot of photographers are shy about asking friends, relatives, and strangers if they can take their photo. Asking is easy if you are honest, sincere, and you know why you want to photograph the person.

The truth is, some people hate to have their photo taken and so be prepared for a no. If someone shies away from the idea, perhaps they require more convincing. Some people actually enjoy being persuaded, so push gently after the first no. There could be a yes hiding behind a little bit of shyness.

And, if you get a no, remember that it’s never personal. Some people are just going to say no. Sometimes the person being asked has no idea why anyone would want to photograph them. They are afraid you are going to make them look dumb and they can’t imagine why anyone would want to take their photograph. That is why step #1 is important.

storytellings with photographs

Before you ask permission, get clear on what you want so you can explain it and overcome any objections. Yes, it’s partly sales, but if you are sincere and enthused and truly want to photograph them, most of the time they will feel flattered and say yes.

How I approached the glassblower

When I approached John to ask him if I could photograph him, I had my camera over my shoulder. I told him his work was beautiful and I’d love to take some photographs. He beamed. He loved the attention.

Note: I didn’t run into the shop taking pictures without permission. I intentionally had my camera, though, so he knew from the start that I was interested in taking photographs. Having your camera on your shoulder, hanging loosely is non-threatening. If he had an aversion to having his picture taken, he would have felt much more relaxed than if I had put a camera in his face. This isn’t paparazzi. It’s about connecting with someone you want to spend some time with.

I told him the truth. That I was in town visiting and I wanted to learn how to use this new camera. I smiled and told him I had already photographed every squirrel in town and was ready to shoot some people. He laughed.

telling stories with photographs

Being able to put people at ease is a great step toward getting a yes. I find it easier to connect with people as a student than a professional. When I approach people as a professional they put up more of a front. When I’m just trying to learn my camera, the pressure is off the subject to do or be anything.

If you are looking for great vacation photos and stories to share with your friends and family, say so. Imagine if a traveler approached you, said you looked amazing and would love to show people back home what people here looked like? You’d be flattered! Of course!

I also explained that I was testing the camera and I might shoot for awhile, go look at pictures, then come back again to shoot some more. Would that be okay? He got excited over the attention and immediately started to share photos another photographer had taken. He loved the idea of being photographed and I had a subject.

#3 – Be considerate

You are shooting in someone else’s home, yard, or business, so be courteous. If a customer comes in, the customer comes first. Always take the back seat. It’s a privilege when someone allows you to take their photo. Remember that and you will always be welcome.

telling stories with photos

#4 – Tell your subject to pretend you aren’t even there

First of all, you will get better pictures and expressions if your subject keeps busy doing what they love. You can watch how they do it and begin to anticipate their next move. Secondly, especially if you are working in a place of business, you don’t want to distract them from their livelihood. If you do, they will grow impatient and suggest the session is over.

I often get close to shoot and then back away for awhile. It relaxes the subject and keeps them off guard. It truly allows them to forget about me and get into their zone.

how to tell stories with photographs

#5 – Really work the situation

Create a variety of shots, with the goal that each shot adds a different element or idea to the story. Walk around, shoot high and low, and use a variety of lenses. Work on cleaning up the background and capturing great expressions. Look for opportunities and unique ways of showing it. Experiment. Have fun. Get creative.

telling stories with photographs

#6 – Shoot portraits

Look for different expressions, light, and angles. Shoot tight and shoot loose. Include the environment in some shots. Work on taking candids as well as photos with the subject looking at the camera. I loved the light on John’s face when he was looking at the fire and how it reflected in his glasses.

telling stories with photographs

Remember, variety is the key. Notice how many different expressions John has in the different photos in this article. Each expression helps to add an element to the story.

telling stories with photographs

#7 – Shoot action shots

Tell the story of what the person does. Try shooting the same activity in different ways.

telling stories with photos telling stories with photographs

#8 – Shoot close-ups and details

telling stories with photos telling stories with photographs

#9 – Shoot hands

telling stories with photographs

#10 – Photograph relationships

Try to capture the relationship your subject has with other people. In these photos, a tourist stopped by to blow his own piece of glass.

telling stories with photographs telling stories with photos

You now have the tools to approach strangers to ask them if you can spend time with them taking pictures. These rules apply to every situation, whether it’s a musician in the street, your child’s ballet class, or a homeless person. Remember to know your intention and be honest with the subject. Sincerity has opened many, many doors for me.

Once you are inside the door, really work your subject to tell the story. Try different angles and remember to shoot close as well as far away. Shoot portraits, close-up shots, focus on recording what the subject is doing, as well as their relationships.

What story would you love to shoot? Do you know a musician in your neighborhood or a craftsperson? Share your thoughts below, go out and shoot and then share your images in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Vickie Lewis is a National Geographic shooter who is known as a heartfelt photographer who loves telling stories with photographs. She’s been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and has taken over 150 portraits for People Magazine. Vickie loves sharing her passion for photography with others in her writing and workshops. You can sign up for her free Crash Course on photography and follow her on Instagram.

  • Steve Luck

    Hi Vickie,
    Loved your tips. I’m going to try and put them to some use this week-end. I have a special trip that could benefit from them. I was thinking of only taking a multi purpose zoom and maybe a macro but now I will definitely take the macro and also a portrait lens. I feel more confident in that I now have a better idea of what I will say to my subject. Wish me luck!
    Thanks,
    Steve

  • This is such a cool post – your photos are amazing! Thank you for sharing this!

  • Glenn Johnson

    Great Article.

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  • This is one of the best article on the subject in a long time. Thanks a lot for sharing. Hope to use some of these tips on my next travel…

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