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From photography contests to job offerings, the term storytelling is becoming more and more popular. But, do you know what storytelling in photography is? In this article, I’ll share with you some facts that help you understand what it is; and some tips on how you can improve it in your photography.
I’ve heard many definitions of storytelling in photography from an explanation that compared it to a bowl of ice cream, to the classic “an image is worth a thousand words.” What I got from all of them is that you need to portray a message and convey a feeling.
Let’s get started by clarifying some of the most common doubts.
So, what type of photography uses storytelling? The truth is, if you want to improve your photography, you have to tell a story regardless of the type of photography you do. A wedding photographer tells the story of a couple as much as a documentarian reports an event. Here are some ideas:
Think about it this way: in magazines, sometimes you have an entire article spanning pages, and other times just a cover image. Storytelling in photography can be about an entire project, but it also refers to single images. For example, this image was picked as the cover for a compilation of short stories centered around women’s sensuality.
Perhaps it’s easier to think about storytelling when you refer to a series of images. This is because we can associate it with a narrative that has a beginning, middle with a climax, and an ending. If you’re not feeling confident about it yet, learn How to Shoot a Sequence of Photos That Capture a Story.
First of all, you need to do your research. Each type of photography will have different needs and it’s harder to tell a story that you don’t know. For example, once I was invited to visit a beekeeping farm “whenever I wanted.” At that moment, the extent of my knowledge about honey was simply where to buy it and how much I like to put in my tea.
To make the most of my visit, I had to pick the right time to be there. I learned about the process of honey harvesting and extraction, and the time of the year it happens. Then I learned how it depended on the weather and the type of flowers in the area. Thanks to this research, I was able to capture an image of a fully-capped honeycomb ready for harvesting.
It’s a given that being a photographer means you know how to take a well-exposed photograph, but this isn’t enough when it comes to telling a story. The technique needs to work in your favor, so it’s not just about which settings but why those settings.
Every decision you make changes the final result. A warmer or cooler light gives a different type of atmosphere. Where you put the focus point and how deep you set the depth of field directs your viewer’s eye, and so on. It’s not only about having a technically perfect photo, but it’s also about making the perfect photo to tell the perfect story.
Always ask others what they ‘read’ in your photographic images. This will help you understand if the message you want to portray is being received. This scene I witnessed in a local park really moved me, so I decided to photograph it. I later found out that I didn’t manage to capture the feeling of the moment, as the photo wasn’t much appreciated when I asked for opinions.
[Editor’s comment: I don’t agree here – I think this photo says a lot about the connection of a child and their favorite toy that they love to include in everything they do. To me, the child is treating the toy as a friend who is playing on the see-saw with them. Also, while there is a level cuteness, there is also a sense of sadness at perhaps having no one else to play with but a stuffed toy.]
Your work will always be more effective if you are passionate about what you’re doing. Find out what interests you and what your style is. If you’re having trouble finding your way, I suggest reading To Specialize or Not to Specialize with Your Photography.
Keep your eye trained by looking at how the professionals tackle storytelling. Browse through magazines, go to exhibitions, check the winning images in contests, and follow them on Instagram. While you do this, also start doing your own and keep on practicing. Remember, it’s okay to fail, as long as you learn from it and keep trying.
Storytelling in photography is the ability to transport the viewers into a particular scene and atmosphere. While in there, you convey the message in a way that gets your audience involved, interested and leaves them wanting more. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a single photo or a full project, a documentary or advertising, tell your story so that you can portray exactly what you want your viewer to know, or leave them to ponder multiple possibilities.
Do you have other tips for doing storytelling in photography? If so, share with us in the comments, along with any images you’d like to share.