Shooting Details to Tell a Visual Story

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Cross

The bride’s most prized possession for the wedding day

A visual story, although no longer used as frequently in magazines or media, is a powerful way to give your viewer a taste of a situation without having to be there. It’s also a great way to challenge yourself to produce a coherent body of work. A collection of images, or picture story, can be engrossing and tell a story far beyond what a single image could do.

Think back to a recent trip you took, a night out with your significant other, a favourite book or film. Try to describe it to an audience using only overarching themes. Thailand is hot and the people friendly. We went to see a movie. Lord of the Rings is about good and evil. These give your audience an idea of the content, but no clear idea of the details. The power of a story does not lie only in the bigger themes, or the “include-all” wide shot. In order to clearly convey your message, you often need small details that give your audience a glimpse into the building blocks of your story. The devil is in the details, as they say.

If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough. – Robert Capa

Capa meant this in a couple of different ways: physically of course, but also emotionally. Both of these will help you shoot clear details to aid your viewer’s understanding.

Go Wide

In order to get closer, you don’t always need to zoom in. This will cut out distractions, but also give your viewer a sense that you’re not really close to your subject. Longer focal lengths necessitate being further from your subject. There is an intimacy that comes about by using wide-angle lenses and physically moving in very close. Just be careful of distortion.

The street surrounding this man was littered with his creations, but by getting in close with a wide lens, I was able to just show his current work.

Street Calligrapher in Seoul

Street Calligrapher in Seoul

Feel

Being emotionally close can help you not only with being able to get physically close, but also give you a deeper understanding of your subject, and thus photograph details that are meaningful. If you are working with people, it will also help you gain trust. In the photograph below, it was important to gain the monk’s trust before asking him to take time out of his schedule to pose for a while. By watching and understanding him, the decision for which detail to shoot was obvious.

Prayerbeads

A Buddhist Monk with prayer beads

John Loengard, the picture editor at Life Magazine, always used to tell me, “If you want something to look interesting, don’t light all of it.” – Joe McNally

Loengard’s quote, by way of Joe McNally, gives us a very important concept that essentially tells us to shoot details. If, by not showing all of something we are making it more interesting, then details by their very nature are a strong starting point for interesting photographs.

Light

Light is a wonderful tool for showing only the details you want your viewer to see. Although our eyes are able to see a wide range of tones from light to dark, our cameras do not have that luxury, so you have to make creative decisions.

In the scene below there were multiple interpretations that could have been made. The exposure could have been based on the faces of the candle bearers, blowing out (photographically speaking) the candles to pure white. But the story I chose to tell was about the prayer-candles themselves, and knowing that the scene would fade to black very quickly around the candles made for a great detail shot of a very chaotic scene.

Candles

Choosing to expose for the brightest parts of the scene to show only the necessary details

This applies to lighting, and also to composition. The strongest stories we read are the ones that leave us with guess-work and hints to pique our interest. The same goes for photographs. If you show the entire subject, or the entire scene, you are giving your viewer the answers. If you want them to linger on your photo, fill it with hints, but not complete answers.

Focus

Depth of Field, or selective focus, is a great way to shoot important details. Your eyes are drawn to areas of sharp contrast (which could be light, or focus) before areas of low contrast. This means that you can use depth of field to very effectively direct your viewer’s eye to what you want them to look at.

While shooting this portrait of a young girl, I noticed that she was playing with her ribbon quite intently. This details speaks volumes about her that her mother will remember forever. Her hands will never be that small again, and that is an important reason to highlight them with a detail shot.

Hanbok

A young child’s hands holding the ribbon on her Hanbok

You can use light, subject distance, lens choice, emotion, depth of field, and so many other technical aspects to show details and give extra depth to a story, or at the very least provide you with another interesting way to look at your subject.

Set aside a few hours over the next couple of weeks to practice this. Choose a subject. That could be a person, a craft, a street in your town, a time of day, or whatever else you choose. The task here is to explore that subject. Shoot it from as many angles, and in as many ways as you can, with each and every frame trying to tell the story of your subject. Be sure to shoot as many details as you can using the techniques above. When you finish, take the time to look over these images and make a selection based on the ones that speak the most about your subject. The details will shine here, giving another dimension to the collection of images you have shot.

Tools

Tools at a Thai umbrella factory

Do you have any other tips for capturing details to tell a story? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Dylan Goldby is a full time photographer living in Seoul, South Korea. His specialities are portrait and travel photography. More of his work can be seen at his website, Welkinlight Photography. He is also co-founder and instructor at Flash Light Expeditions.

  • Michael Owens

    My head just exploded. There is so much to learn! This article tells me that its ok to look for details in people, places etc – and not just concentrate on ‘faces’, ‘smiles’ and ‘eyes’ but to look for things poeple might miss, things that might convey a feeling, a story (as you kindly put it) regarding that person / place / thing in the image!

  • Grumpy Binka

    My cat Daphne was kind enough to pose for me briefly. I wanted minimum light, with an emphasis on her expression. I used a handheld stick led light to light her face from underneath and to the side, while the lighting in the back was provided by a small spot lamp with a 40w bulb. I really enjoy listening to the various thoughts and opinions I get on this particular shot.

    Shot with Sony NEX-5N using a Metabones MD-E mount adapter with a Minolta MC Rokkor-PF 58mm f/1.4 Lens at f/1.4, 1/60, ISO-400, handheld. Minor sharpening in Photoshop.

  • This is one of the most important elements of storytelling, I totally agree! If your intentions are deeper than just showing independent, isolated images without connection to each other, this might not be of much interest, but if you intend to observe and study a bit deeper a person/place/object and show it through a series of captures, this article is spot on.

    This is always my own approach: I try to combine the wide, establishing shots with more minimalistic, detailed ones. An example of this is my last post about Koh Mak, one of Thailand’s most beautiful (and quiet) islands: I spend there 3 days and tried to capture its beauty through its small details along with the more obvious, general shots. See the images here: http://gonzalobroto.blogspot.com/2014/08/koh-mak-tranquil-island.html

  • Michael Owens

    I would much rather you shared the pictures here, after all – if it relates to THIS story, then what difference does it make, other than you not getting ‘hits’ to your blog. Ulterior motives?

  • Thanks for the answer. However, we are talking precisely about series of images, collections that, put together, tell a story. Sharing an isolated image here would fail to show what this post is all about, so that’s why I though that sharing the whole post was a good idea. But nobody is forcing you to visit it, Michael, just ignore it.
    Happy shooting.

  • Michael Owens

    I just saw your post as a clear way to post a spamvert. That’s all. I did ignore it btw. Sharing an image is easy. Try it sometime.

  • Jason Teale

    Great write up from a great photographer. Dylan Goldby’s work can tell a story in a single shot. Myself, I struggle telling a story with several shots. Dylan is and always has been a great inspiration to me and I am very happy to see his article here at DPS.

  • The word “spam” implies sending personalized mails with commercial purposes without prior request by the receiver. Posting a link in an open forum matches neither of both conditions. But that’s your opinion, and I respect it, since you put it in a quite polite manner, so no worries!
    But sharing directly a picture is a very easy task compared with the work that creating a whole, cohesive post requires, wether the post turns out to be of any value or not. We all have different approaches, I guess!

  • sandeep

    Nice article. here’s my pic on traditional Indian dress http://500px.com/photo/78464945/four-men-by-sandeep-walvekar?from=user

  • Michael Owens

    Each to their own 😉
    You do have lovely work btw, just share it here! :p

  • BNV Photography

    Simetimes I let my clients have 10 to 20 minutes to pose and or dance or just look around Nd think to themselves. I tell them I am her photographing you however dont focus on me take a little relaxation time and mean time I will sit on a table play with the camera and slowly start zooming and get tne shots. nly that it gives you time to learn somuething new about your shoot style,camera, model, or just yourself or life and feelings. It works well for me and usually I feel something close to whats on there mind when I edit there photos.

  • BNV Photography

    Yes it is feeling the vibe and shooting what you feel as in the client.

  • Thanks Michael, and I will try that one day! 😉

  • Spot on with the idea of shooting a detail!

  • Great approach Gonzalo, that’s what I always think as I approach a magazine story. It gives you a great mix of images instead of coming home with a lot of the same thing.

  • Cheers, Jason. Hope all is well in your part of the peninsula!

  • Great to hear, Michael. This is an important step in making strong images I feel. Record the subject, or part of it, for what it is and you will certainly end up with great images.

  • Guest

    Here is my contest entry for the weekly assignment, Blue. I spotted this fellow rowing his little boat up the stream in peace and had to stop and get this as I motored along the drive. Some days, university crews row with long boats.

  • Michael Owens

    …add to that the fact it’s breaking the usual rules. I like breaking rules. So that’s another addition in the pro column of learning photography.

  • Michael Owens

    Exactly. Art, like drawings, abstract and mainstream is all about YOUR interpretation and if you are happy with what you’ve shot, nothing else matters.

  • BNV Photography

    Hey Michael Owens or anyone…I am new to owning my Studio and actually learning how to sell my work and a few business issues. However, I have been shooting for a year and I learned some through my mentor and some hands on I have captured many types of photography and I don’t know how to sell my work especially being in a small town. Also abstract photography I adore it and I have a few photos I would like a experienced photographer to rate it. How do you rate abstract or work that wasn’t meant to be like you assumed. I have even captured shadows of people or something strange is that normal? Just let me know your input my Facebook is Ashley Lynn Burnette if you would contact me there or via email blunuvueimg.ashley@gmail.com or via text business phone 919 221 2235

  • Michael Owens

    Hiya. I email you a few pointers. Hope you get it.

    🙂

  • Hello Dylan: Many thanks for an excellent and thought out article. Very helpful, indeed. For my travel photos I use a 50mm lens to catch the details and I believe that my photo is only a humble trigger for the much better “internal” picture (and psychological motion picture) inside the viewer’s mind. I allow the viewer’s mind to create her/his own interesting “internal” pictures and movies by offering images of (i) parts/details, (ii) symbols/logos and (c) contrasts/contradictions. Such, I keep the viewer’s mind busy, try to seduce my viewer to complete my photo, to improve my photo, to add (her/his) sense to my photo, to fantasise about my photo and to mentally exceed my photo.
    Find below an example (Nikon D3100 – f/3.5 – 50mm – 1/1600 – ISO 100) and feel free to click for more photos from WorldPride Toronto 2014. Thanks.
    Matt.
    .

  • https://flic.kr/p/oB7pjq

    monks collecting alms luang prabang

  • Marian Willing

    Happened upon this cellist and her teacher practicing in a courtyard where I had intended to take photos of something else — finding unexpected scenes is one of the things I love about street photography. There was a cacophony of piped in music, children laughing, loud conversations and they both were totally in the zone while she created some amazing music in the midst of all those distractions. I had to zoom in, as I didn’t want to interrupt their concentration, so it’s not nearly as clear as I would like, but as a musician myself, I loved the story told by the hand of the teacher.

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