How to Tell a Story in a Single Image – Tips from a Photojournalist

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Photography is visual communication medium. You can follow and use some rules, through composition and technique – but photojournalism takes it a step farther and states facts and gives information that is true and real. You need to follow two basic pillars to be an ethical photojournalist. Those principles are: you do not manipulate your scene, and the information you are photographing must be real.

The best recipe you can use for getting a good photo that tells a story is by combining good composition, action, and emotions. If you are able to engage with your subject mixing those three elements you will be able to get a good photograph.

As photojournalist you can display facts and affairs but you will level up your work if you are able to evolve those facts in something emotional and touching. Then is when you photo stars to tell a story.

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Suruç hospital receives Kurdish fighters from Syria.

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Kurdish women cry for the wounded, treated in Suruç hospital.

Both photos describe real facts, something that is going on. In the first one you see some action, and some mood in the people waiting for the wounded fighters. But in the second one, the emotion is stronger and you see the action coming out from the other women crying around them.

“If you want emotions in your photos you need people around”

Include people in your frame. Look for the faces, not for the backs, but understand that body language in human beings is another way of communication so a full body can also express emotions.

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Ukrainian army enters the eastern city of Mariupol leaving civilians casualties as result of the attack.

Firefighters are in action, the fire inside the personal armoured carrier is action too and the whole scene makes the tension of a probable incoming explosion. You need to make the action evident, so you need to get close. The action needs a bigger space in your frame. For that, use your feet – they are your best zoom. You could step back ant shoot the armoured vehicle on fire from the distance, but the main characters of the photo will be lost and the man handling the water and the fire in the foreground is pure action.

You can get a story going on in your photos too, if you are able to engage with your subject. A close portrait with the right attitude is it always good. In these photos you can see a little bit of action in the background but not much. However, you can replace that making a strong engagement with your subject. You can feel in these photos they are arrogant, they are proud of what they are, they stand up not ashamed, and look forward and straight into the camera and their body languages speaks for itself.

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Pro-Russian sniper guards a checkpoint in Slaviansk, eastern Ukraine.

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Pro-Russian militias patrol the main administrative building in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine.

When you look for a story in your photos try different angles, do not be afraid of watching things from a different perspective. Get low, as a photographer you need to change your point of view. When photographing kids and animals you always need to get to their level, at the same level you make them to stand up and you give them the major role in frame.

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Pro-Russian militia Vostock Battalion celebrates the independency of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

As you can see in these examples the action and emotions are the key. There is no better way to find those emotions than looking forward and getting close to the principal characters of the events.

A good indicator of whether your photography is good is if you do not need to explain anything. A photograph telling a story does not need to be explained. If you want to make the story more complicated you will need to put more elements in harmony in your frame, it is more complicated but is a challenging experience.

How do you tell stories with your images? What can you learn from these tips that you can use in your own photography, even if you do not do true photojournalism?

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Felipe Passolas is a freelance photojournalist. He has been working covering crisis in eastern Ukraine and the Syrian Border. Most of his work is done in high-risk areas. He documents people, expeditions and adventures around the globe and has traveled almost his entire life. He also teaches and writes.

  • Liza

    fake labels

  • Ivars

    Yup, guy is definately pro-russian-terrorist here.

  • OBender

    I’d like to ask author to correct the text under the photos. Those are terrorists not “militia”. Even EU officially labeled them as such just recently.

  • Alexthegreat

    If you guys look back to Odessa’s tragedy, Boeing crush, or everyday Donezk bombings, it’s easy to conclude who are terrorists. The author is damn right. I can not stand why do you think otherwise.

  • Al Baymar

    ???? ???? ?????

  • Al Baymar

    As a citizen of the United States I am ashamed of D.Ph.S. sympathizing to pro-Russian terrorists publicly condemned as such by the civilized world.

  • Central Maryland Legend Section 262 and Pete’s Period need to appreciate everybody who came out to assist together with the Feed the Kids food shed this year. That is Legend Section 262’s third year these were able to boost cash that is enough to feed 400 individuals within the Baltimore region. Pete’s and Chapter 262 could also want to thank those that donated gadgets that are children’s. Honda motorcycles dealers

  • Michael Owens

    Regardless of who is right or wrong, the wording should be neutral. As although it’s written by an independent, it’s here on DPS and could lead people to think DPS are pro russian – which we know isn’t the case for or against.

    Just saying.

  • Jandro Rico

    “By the civilized world”, he said.

    Riiiiiight… 🙂

  • Peace

    As a citizen of the United States you have no idea what are you talking about, guy who posted these amazing photos here was there, get it?
    Civilised world also condemed the terrorists in Syria who are supported by your Unites States (my country also but not as direct as US) (look closely, you won’t find them on photos, but you’ll find the destruction and pain they bring to the innocent people of Syria on first few), but I don’t see you go crazy about that…
    Belive me, you are not informed well, I wish peace to you, to Ukrainians, Syrians and whole world!

  • Buksi

    People relax, labels are correct, politcly neutral. Author was there and he writes about photojournalism at it’s most dangerous form. He deserves respect for his work, how many of us would go there to the what we all love, photography?
    DPS nor author didn’t try to convince any of us readers that someone is right or wrong.
    Few days ago whole world cried about how freedom of speech was attacked with the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and now, you think that only your opininon is right one.
    Let people publish what they want, you have your wisdom to conclude what is right what is wrong. Read and think about what are you reading, don’t let the media shape your thought and your own being in the end.
    I wish peace comes to all those who fear for their life, love and home and may the God gives us more of men like Felipe Passolas to remind us that there is a conflict that needs to be stopped and lives to be saved!

  • Al Baymar

    Nor only DPS is pro-Russian – it’s created, supported, financed and led by Russians.

  • Al Baymar

    I was born and raised in Eastern Ukraine, which I visit every year, including 2014. Please spare the reply – I’m tired of idiots.

  • Jandro Rico

    “DPS” stands for “Digital Photography School”. How is it “created, supported, financed and led by Russians”?

    Having a passion to care about issues is good, but having enough brains to actually understand the topic is even better.

  • Michael Owens

    I thought it was Australian owned and ran?

  • Jandro Rico

    Apparently, Al confused “DPS” in your statements with “DPR” (“Donetsk People’s Republic”). One Ukrainian hothead is fighting a war here, no time to care about fine details. 🙂

  • Phase19

    Oh do shut up…

  • Jan

    Felipe, is the last photo (the soldier showing the rifle to the boy) made in a single shot mode or in a burst mode?

  • 3-4 single shots till I got the right moment at the right time, too many people around not easy to work so, no much time to guess or playing around. Focus in what you see!

  • Holy cow, is that kid’s finger on the trigger in that last photo?! You almost got shot while taking a great shot!

  • Geoff

    When you think of photojournalism during military conflicts there’s an expectation that you’re going to see front-line stuff. The action in all it’s true horror. The consequences. That’s what Robert Capa did and it eventually cost him his life.

    Here we’re given images of soldiers (clearly not rebel amateurs) in squeaky clean uniforms guarding unblemished town centres; many miles from the conflict I’d guess. Some of the captions would suggest that the photojournalist wasn’t an impartial observer either. ‘Ukrainian army enters… Mariupol leaving civilian casualties as a result’ as compared to ‘Pro-Russian militia… celebrates the independency of the DPR’.

    Not that being biast is essentially wrong – I don’t think Capa was always ‘neutral’ either – but it’s probably best for the photojournalist to declare which side s/he’s supporting. That would be ‘ethical’.

  • Mike Arrera

    Is this DPS or a Fox News message board? Get over yourselves people. Felipe is being very nuetral with his titles of the soldiers in this post like most photo journalists tend to do. “Pro-Russia Militia” is as nuetral as it gets. The whole point of this post is not to start a political debate. If you want to debate this kind of stuff find a different medium. Why does everyone have to turn everything into political bantering? Nice arcticle Filipe. Stay safe!

  • Mike Arrera

    If he labled them terrorists I gaurentee he is not getting anymore shots of these conflicts. He would be a target. As a photo journalist you can’t pick side publicly or you sacrifice getting the whole story. It is more than likely that he asked them what they consider themselves or talked to locals and gathered a term inbetweenn everyone’s opinion. He’s a journalist, they do research.

  • Mike Arrera

    Where is your evidence of this, Al?

  • erikiki

    thank you Felipe for your article – there is a lot of useful information in it.
    and your photos are beautiful (i do not want to comment if it is right or wrong) artistically i do find them beautiful.

  • dale wooten

    how about we get back to the meat of the of the article…the reason it was written…it was not about politics…it was about photojournalism. How to convey a message through a picture, or series of pictures. He has displayed the facts of the time and place he was at. His pictures go with what he is teaching. Politics and subject matter aside, this is a good article on photojournalism…the only thing he didn’t cover here was writing a cutline…a good cutline is needed to help immerse the viewers into the photo and help identify the 5 w’s. a very good article and worth the read….now set your political b.s. aside and take it for what it is…a learning tool on how to shoot better photojournalistic photos.

  • walwit

    Thank you Felipe for sharing your thoughts and photos.

    In the first photo everybody is looking into the ambulance, but there’s nobody there, no fighthers.

    I’m aware that the fact I’m pointing does not diminish the value of that picture.

  • Vern

    Thanks for the article … it was interesting. I noticed that a couple of the images are heavily vignetted, presumably in post production … could this technique be considered “manipulating the scene” as it is drawing the viewers attention to some parts and not others?

  • Scott

    And no one had any reply to this? Hey, thanks for your post. This is about photography not politics. I think we all wish for peace and harmony in our time. I certainly wish there was more discussion of the photography and role of the photojournalist in taking these images.

  • Bob

    Felipe Passolas is a known scammer, be careful with this POS.

  • starsky

    Too much vignetting imo. Better cropping may have had more impact.

  • Jess

    Where’s your proof Bob?

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