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How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

I frequently encourage people who attend my photography workshops to approach the day as though they have been assigned to shoot for a magazine editor and need to provide a strong series of images for a photo essay. One of the locations we visit is the local fresh market here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, so I’ll use images from this market to illustrate the point in this article.

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

The time it takes you to create a photo essay may be determined somewhat by your chosen subject. If you’re photographing your child’s birthday party, a social gathering at work, or a football match, you will have time constraints. With other subjects, you may have the luxury of being able to return many times over a period of days, weeks, or months to continue building your pictorial story. Whatever you choose as your subject you will be able to apply the points in this article to help you produce a strong series of photographs that a picture editor would welcome.

Approach to making photo essay

There are two main ways of approaching a photo essay – thematically or narratively.

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

I’ve chosen a series of images for my photo essay here with a thematic structure, showing the market as the overall theme. You may like to choose a narrative structure and tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. To follow a narrative storyline at the markets I could choose to follow someone who arrives to do the buying for their restaurant, follow one of the porters who haul produce for shoppers or spend time with a vendor documenting their daily routine.

Whether you take a thematic or narrative approach, applying some basic guidelines to the way you shoot and how you make your final selection of photos will result in a strong series of images.

You want to look for three types of images; wide, medium, and close-up. By shooting these three image types you will build up a broader perspective on your subject.

Wide Shots

Photo essay tips 01

At a market, I’m always looking to capture a great wide shot showing the lively hustle and bustle and feel of the overall vibe of the market. This is difficult to capture because I have no control over what’s happening. It’s important in situations like this to take your time. Find a good location where the lighting and background are pleasing and you will not be obstructing anyone, and shoot a lot. Be observant.

Watch and see the flow of what’s happening and anticipate the best time to shoot. If your chosen subject is more static you might want to include a single prominent feature in some of your wide shots. For example, if you are making a photo essay of your local park, try including one of the park benches, a drinking fountain, or a flowerbed in your wide compositions rather than taking just a wide shot with no main focus.

Medium Shots

Medium shots are best composed with one main subject as the focus, and including relevant aspects of the location as well. These shots will show a more intimate view of your subject, draw the viewer deeper in, and help them connect with your story.

At the markets, I like to shoot environmental portraits, often of the people who work there. Including some of their surroundings supports the theme by developing the context of my story.

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

Showing the mango vendor with her cart, produce, scales, and umbrella helps build the essay more than if I was to crop in tight and to make a portrait of only her.

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

Including some action in these shots makes for interesting photos too, as with this photo (above) of the butcher sharpening his knife. Neither of these photos was posed, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take a little control of the situation and ask someone to pause so you can make a portrait.

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

I asked this fishmonger with the lovely smile tray of smoked mackerel to pose for me.

Close-Up Shots

Coming in close to capture the details will definitely add depth to your photo essay. Look for elements to include in your close-up compositions that others may overlook. Single colors, patterns, and textures all work well as close up shots.

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

The neatly stacked fish in the blue plastic tub, the basket of (live) frogs, the bundle of soup ingredients for 5 baht and the bunch of flowers made from pandan leaves all add variety and interest to my market photo essay.

If you’re photographing a birthday party your close-up shots may be of the detail on the cake, some of the wrapped or unwrapped gifts, or tightly cropped happy children’s faces. Look for detail shots which fit in with the overall feel of your photo essay.

Other Considerations

As you are shooting, consider how your images will fit in with your overall story. Think about the five “W” questions – who, what, where, when, and why. Answering them with your photos will build up a very good impression for someone viewing your photo essay or picture story.

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

How To Shoot A Compelling Photo Essay

Traditionally, this market is where the people of Chiang Mai have gotten food. The market is over 160 years old, so it has real character.

When you’re shooting your photo essay be aware of the overall tone and feeling of the situation you are photographing. Become a part of it, not an outsider with a camera, and you will produce more intimate, interesting photographs. If you have time on your side, even consider visiting the location where you’ll make your photo essay without a camera. Doing this will give you a different perspective and may help you connect with your subject more easily.

Choosing Your Photos

Once you’ve completed your shoot and have downloaded the photos to your computer, begin by discarding any that are technically inferior. You don’t want to include shots which are out of focus, poorly exposed, or your timing was off. Remember, you are aiming to please the photo editor of a magazine (just pretend this is the case, even if you are shooting just for yourself, it will help you to have this mindset) and they will reject any images not up to their technical standards.

Photo essay tips 13

Photo essay tips 14

Take your time to look over your photos. Grouping them into the three types, wide, medium and close-up will help your decision-making process. Compare your photos within these groups and look for the strongest pictures that support your overall story. Think about how they might be laid out on the pages of a magazine and what they will communicate to someone viewing them that is not familiar with the subject of your photo essay. Finally, you will want to choose one main shot to be the feature image. The one you are most happy with that best conveys your feeling for the story you are telling.


So even if you have no aspirations to shoot for a magazine, this is a good exercise to help you put together a better photo essay. Consider printing a book or your completed project for yourself or to share with friends or fellow travelers.

Please put your comments and questions in the space below, and share your photo essay images.


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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his e-books and his website.

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