5 Photo Essay Tips

5 Photo Essay Tips


photo-essay.jpgToday Christina Nichole Dickson looks at the topic of Photo Essays. Christina is a photojournalist for Revolutionary Media. She is also an instructor with the Institute in Photographic Studies. Her work may be found at Christina Nichole Photography.

In the last twenty years, video and film have become the predominant forms of modern storytelling. But before video, there was photography. And for the last one hundred years photography and storytelling went hand in hand.

Now more than ever, the power of storytelling ought to be harnessed. But telling a story with photos takes more than just a skillful photographer. An impacting photo story can only be developed by skillful photographers who understand the emotions and concepts behind ever-great story.

The form of such a story is called the photo essay.

What is a Photo Essay?

A photo essay is very simply a collection of images that are placed in a specific order to tell the progression of events, emotions, and concepts. Used by world class photojournalists such as Lauren Greenfield and James Nachtwey, and Joachim Ladefoged to name a few, the photo essay takes the same story telling techniques as a normal essay, translated into visual images.

5 Photo Essay Tips

A photo essay isn’t simply for photojournalists however. Every human being is drawn to stories. Whether you are an amateur or a professional, the photo essay is a brilliant way to bring your images to life and touch your family, friends, and coworkers.

1. Find a topic: Photo essays are most dynamic when you as the photographer care about the subject. Whether you choose to document the first month of a newborn in the family, the process of a school drama production, or even a birthday party, make your topic something in which you find interest.

2. Do your researchh: If you document a newborn’s first month, spend time with the family. Discover who the parents are, what culture they are from, whether they are upper or lower class. If you cover the process of a school’s drama production, talk with the teachers, actors and stage hands; investigate the general interest of the student body; find out how they are financing the production and keeping costs down. If you photograph a birthday party, check out the theme, the decorations they plan on using, what the birthday kid hopes to get for his or her gifts. All of these factors will help you in planning out the type of shots you set up for your story.

3. Find the “real story”: After your research, you can determine the angle you want to take your story. Is the newborn the first son of a wealthy family on whom the family legacy will continue? Or does the baby have a rare heart condition? Is the drama production an effort to bring the student body together? Or is it featuring a child star? Is the birthday party for an adolescent turning 13, or the last birthday of a dying cancer patient? Though each story idea is the same, the main factors of each story create an incredibly unique story.

4. Every dynamic story is built on a set of core values and emotions that touch the heart of its audience. Anger. Joy. Fear. Hurt. Excitement. The best way you can connect your photo essay with its audience is to draw out the emotions within the story and utilize them in your shots. This does not mean that you manipulate your audience’s emotions. You merely use emotion as a connecting point.

5.Plan your shots: Whether you decide to sit down and extensively visualize each shot of the story, or simply walk through the venue in your mind, you will want to think about the type of shots that will work best to tell your story. I recommend beginners first start out by creating a “shot list” for the story. Each shot will work like a sentence in a one-paragraph story. Typically, you can start with 10 shots. Each shot must emphasize a different concept or emotion that can be woven together with the other images for the final draft of the story.

Remember that story telling takes practice. You don’t have to be an incredible writer to pull off a powerful photo essay. All you need is a bit of photographic technique, some creativity, and a lot of heart. And once you begin taking pictures in stories, your images will never be the same.

In part II of this series on Photo Essays, I will give a practical example of how I apply these techniques in a photo essay of my own.

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Christina N Dickson is a visionary artist and philanthropist in Portland Oregon. Her work includes wedding photography www.BrideInspired.com and leadership with www.RevMediaBlog.com.

Some Older Comments

  • Carolyn June 11, 2013 12:26 am

    Great guidelines as usual! I’m therefore glad i enrolled
    in the blog blogposts.

  • Mia Luisa January 27, 2013 02:10 am

    umm.. I'm about to join a photo essay in our school... that I never have done in my life.. I just want to know and discover my other talent.. I like to live in my own world but maybe this can make others understand me and I can show to them what I'm seeing in this world.. On Monday I will submit my work If I remember again.. I will take time to comment here again and tell you what happened.. . Thank you for your tips, I hope it can help me to not to win but find out where I should be...

  • Sohbet July 27, 2012 11:50 am

    I have lived on both coasts, and throughout the midwest and south and I can tell you Wichita has a lot to offer. The Sedgwick county zoo is incredible (and I’ve been to zoos all over the country, including San Francisco Zoo, which at the time I visited, couldn’t hold a candle to what I see in the Wichita Zoo, there is Exploration Place

  • cody jones May 18, 2012 12:07 pm


    Are you volunteering at any hospitals? You could ask a patient if they would allow you to take pictures. This would be huge considering most people wouldn't dream of being able to get shots like that. You just need to find some one who agrees to let you follow them around.

    To tell a great story with photos is all about spending time with the subject. Good luck!


  • AmnaBMunir May 17, 2012 08:43 pm

    I'm a 2nd year medical student and there is a photo essay competition taking place in which I have to participate.
    In the competition we can use minimum 2 and max 5 photos and they should be self explanatory.I want help in choosing topic. Anyone please give me some ideas?

  • Cody Jones October 4, 2011 02:01 pm

    Mrs. Dickson

    I'm not sure if you will see this or not but it is worth a try.

    I am on the newspaper and yearbook staff at my school and my newspaper staff has requested that I have a photo essay on the back of every issue. I have already done one and the staff told me to do it about homecoming weekend. Here is a link to a picture of it:


    I would love to get your opinion on this!

    Cody Jones

  • Luiz Montenegro (Brasil) August 10, 2011 11:30 pm

    See photo shoot of Barbie in

  • Shlomo March 25, 2011 09:56 pm

    this was i prosnal one it was my frist trip that i took with a group and i had a wonderful time i went to lapland now that im back icant wait to see when and were i will go next

    here are my pictres fromthe trip

  • asiya shoukat March 13, 2011 12:05 am

    I was very upset for my assingment but after the reading of your 5 tips i fell that i can do my assngmnt.
    your doing a great job keep it up .
    thankyou, God bless you.

  • Jawad Butt November 30, 2010 06:03 pm

    Very interactive website for those who would like to learn Photography with the Art of Seeing..Great research and excellent work..
    Keep on doing the hard work and you would be a part of Makiing the world a great place to live in..Everything that you see is Beautiful but you should have a camera to shoot that moment and share it with ohters..

    Sharing is Caring...God Bless you.

  • Sukhi Takhar October 2, 2010 04:08 pm

    This is going to be my first attempt for a photo essay. I found the tips very useful on how should I go about planning for it.

  • smonica alexaa June 17, 2010 05:43 am

    Party planning is very time consuming, I wish my brides would understand that.

  • Donna McDine April 18, 2010 01:24 am

    Having never tackled a photo essay before, I appreciate your tips. Thank you. BTW, when searching Google for Photo Essays Examples your post was the first one listed.

  • K.Marie March 31, 2010 04:09 am


  • rorie January 11, 2010 07:18 am

    to cindy nichols

    the write is not confusing her essays......this is not writing but photography and the meanings are different

  • AMGphoto November 19, 2009 03:35 pm

    Great Post! If you enjoy photo essays, check out work from the students at Western Kentucky. They have a photojournalism program that highly respected. Cindy, this form of storytelling is commonly referred to as a "photo essay". It is used exactly how you described it, but using photos to help illustrate. The writer is not misleading or confusing her terms. Maybe you can do some research on this first.

  • Cindy Nichols October 22, 2009 01:00 am

    Some nice stuff here, but the writer is confusing the "essay"--which is expository writing--with "stories"--which are narratives. There is such a thing as the "narrative essay", but that is just one somewhat minor kind of essay. This writer is definitely confusing her terms and in a fairly serious way. Readers should be wary of being misled.

    Otherwise, some insightful material.

  • Jerome September 29, 2009 11:38 am

    Excellent coverage on the topic of Photo Essay. Photo Essay tells a story in photos -- less talk, more photos on a specific subject. Recently I published a photo essay on my trip to Ottawa, Canada. If you are interested, you may find it in my blog posting of September 25, 2009.

  • Toni Rose September 28, 2009 09:19 pm

    The information you have given, really helps me to be a young photographer at the age 13 even though i'm not joining some seminars. Thank you to you because i will be joining this kind of a contest.

  • Jan Shim April 29, 2009 03:21 pm

    I am a photographer and a newspaper columnist who live in a small town in Brunei called Seria. Seria is over an hour's commute away from the capital city where most of state dignitaries and celebrities would visit. Between 2008 and 2009, we've been fortunate to have Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla visit my town where the British Garrison is located and I had a rare and wonderful opportunity to photo document the visit.


    And just less than two weeks ago, we had celebrity chef Bobby Chinn pay my hometown a visit as part of his book signing and cooking demo event.


    I believe these are what may be termed as Photo Essays in that fleeting moments are captured as candidly, as creatively and as artistically as experience and opportunity allows.

  • Eric Mesa April 18, 2009 02:21 am

    I've always had trouble with teh concept of a "story" for a photo essay. I keep thinking the shots should be like watching a movie. For example: a Photo of someone getting in the car. Driving somewhere. Basically an animatic. Should a photo essay be able to stand alone without captions?

    I have looked this up in wikipedia as well, and I can't get a good enough grasp on what a photo essay really is. Help?

  • Herman Krieger November 17, 2008 04:25 pm

    For a good example of photo essays, see:
    "Photo Essays in Black and White"

  • digital photography tips September 16, 2008 04:37 pm

    Wow!! Thats an amazing idea of story telling using photographs. It will remain in the listener's heart for a longer time.. Thanks for the tip!

  • maz September 6, 2008 11:34 pm

    "a bit of photographic technique, some creativity, and a lot of heart"

    You've got it in a nutshell! Great article. This is how I choose to present my photos (unprofessional!) with a few words, original or borrowed. I find that the whole- a few carefully chosen and ordered photos, and a succinct written narrative- far exceeds the sum of the individual parts.

    For example; Irish holiday photos...


  • Joseph B September 5, 2008 05:21 am

    Well written! I've been giving a thought to doing something similar, but I had no basics. Thanks for sharing these tips with the rest of us.

  • Smitty September 3, 2008 11:24 pm

    Anyone else have any good examples of well-constructed photo essays?

    I'm thinking of doing one for my son's first year (he's 5 months old now) and would love some 'creative inspiration'.

  • Eve September 3, 2008 03:03 pm

    @Jack It can also be used to create a book instead of an essay.

    This is a great way to add drama to a series of photos. I've made photobooks with stories starring my daughter with them. It is a great concept and a wonderful way to be creative in writing as well as with your photos.

  • Jack Herrmann September 3, 2008 10:22 am

    My Wife is an Author and She will love this article. Sounds a lot like how She developes a book.



  • Bryan September 3, 2008 05:31 am

    These are great tips, thanks! Here is an article about how to structure a photo essay that can help anyone looking to create one.

  • Lee Rees September 3, 2008 04:15 am

    Very useful post.. thanks.
    As a person that reads the news paper by only reading the captions and maybe the first paragraph or two of any story I find Photo Essays really interesting. I have even had a at doing a photo esay myself about my brother, who is a farrier. If you want you can check it our here:

    Thanks again,
    (aka mrlee_1979)

  • John September 3, 2008 03:04 am

    One website that let's you easily create photo easy is Showbeyond.com. You can upload or grab photos, arrange them and record your own voice or embed background music. Then the story can be shared or embedded to blogs.

    There are also some desktop tools like Microsoft Photo Story or Apple iMovie.