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So, you’ve learned enough about composition and lighting to get people talking about your images. That’s excellent. Also, you can hold their attention on Instagram long enough to get them to hit the heart button. Wonderful! But what’s the next logical step? How do you hook people in for more than just a few seconds? Learning how to do storytelling with your images.
As a photographer of people and cultures, I spend a lot of time thinking about storytelling. I want to put it to you the next logical step is learning how to introduce storytelling elements to your images. If you can draw viewers into the frame and make them think deeper, then you are taking one giant leap forward on your photography journey.
Here are eight tips to get you started, accompanied by some of my own images to help illustrate the points. They may have been taken in far-flung places, but I promise you the theories can be applied to anywhere on Earth.
Imagine your task is to tell the visual story of a person. A parent perhaps, or even yourself. How would you do it? A single portrait wouldn’t be a story. A person’s story is in the details; a picture of their desk, travel books strewn across a bedroom floor, a close-up of their hands that are dirty from working the garden, and a wide-angle portrait of them surrounded by a few of their favorite things. Next time you’re photographing a person, try to include small details in the frame that add to their story.
I didn’t visit India to focus my lens on poverty alone, but it would have been dishonest of me not say anything about it when trying to tell the story of Mumbai. Confronted with this scene, I saw a commentary about the gap between the rich and poor in the city. The small details here are his plastic bag, the skin condition on his arm, and frail body language. A big detail is his juxtaposition against a backdrop of expensive high-rise buildings.
Related to the last point is you that you need to remember to take a variety of different images styles of a single situation. Whether you want to tell the story of a camel market in India, a farmers market in a Chicago suburb, or your niece’s birthday party, just focusing on one kind of photo won’t tell a whole story. You need portraits, wide-angle shots, shots from up high, down low, action shots, zoomed-in details… all these combined tell a whole story.
I tried to tell the visual story of a sunrise hot air balloon flight over the ancient, temple-strewn plain of Bagan – Myanmar. A variety of image styles was the key to success.
You’re not only a photographer anymore, but a storyteller too. Part of realizing that role is taking control of the whole frame. Don’t just think about your subject’s positioning. It’s important to teach yourself to be aware of the whole rectangle in front of your eye.
Sometimes I lie flat on the floor to gain new perspectives, in an attempt to include environmental details in the frame that lend to the scene and add storytelling. I get strange looks, but who cares.
Whether you’re heading out into your hometown for some street photography, or to the Eiffel Tower for some vacation photography, why not write down a few notes beforehand in the form of a shot list? I’m talking about ideas for specific shots, angles, people that you might include in the frame or even chat to then ask for a portrait.
Research online the kind of shots that other photographers, amateurs, and pros, have taken in that place before. Seek out never-been-done fresh angles to lend a fresh storytelling aspect to a well-known location.
Uploading a hundred photos to Facebook, all of a similar theme and setting, taken from slightly different angles is a surefire way to lose people’s attention. That 100 could be narrowed down to the 10 best storytelling shots. Learn to be selective and start sharing only your best images.
Loktak Lake was so spectacular that I wandered around the hilltop I was on taking hundreds of images. It was bliss. A lot of the results were great, but would I really want to dump them all online for friends, family, and followers to sift through? No, no I would not.
Let’s keep this one short. To capture emotions, your primary requirements are people and faces. However, emotion can be communicated secondarily through body language, so capturing whole bodies works sometimes too.
At the marvelous Mother’s Market in Manipur, India, I met these lovely ladies animatedly playing the board game Ludo. I broke the ice by asking if I could join in. It was a no but made them laugh, and I got permission to shoot away. The best shots came after they’d forgotten I was there. It was then that their natural expressions returned.
In your bid to learn storytelling, don’t forget about composition and lighting. This is all too easy to fall out of touch with, especially when you’re starting out. Focus too much on adding storytelling elements and you may well start paying less attention to composition and lighting. Now that you know it’s a possibility, you’ll be better armed to make sure it doesn’t happen.
How does a traditional novel or movie work? They are stories with beginnings, middles, and ends. If you’re just starting out taking series of pictures to do storytelling, you could practice with a chronological narrative structure. This is by no means the only or even recommended narrative structure to follow, but it’s a fun and easy way to practice.
Tell the story of a single day in a place you know well. Start with sunrise, then take photos throughout the day as the light changes, and let the series conclude with sunset and night shots.
Life on the rivers in Bangladesh. I attempted to tell the stories of day and night on the rivers running through the cities of Chittagong and Dhaka.
Why not give storytelling with your images a go? I certainly hope I’ve inspired you to try. Share your thoughts and storytelling images in the comments section below.
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