The Secret of Creating a Strong Image - 5 Tips for Creating a Story in Your Image

The Secret of Creating a Strong Image – 5 Tips for Creating a Story in Your Image

In an era when we are drowning in images and lots of people and talents are competing for the viewers’ eyes or the magazines’ attention, have you ever wondered what makes you have a longer look at an image?

Is it the person that was photographed? Perhaps a certain color or an angle?

What is the secret of the photographers that mange to get their work published on magazines and newspapers? What is the secret of taking a strong image that lasts?


The secret of all strong images is their ability to provide the viewer a story .

Since the dawn of time, People gathered around the fire and shared stories with each other.

It doesn’t matter what subjects you like to shoot. If you want to become a good photographer, you have to be a good storyteller first. An image with a story, one that evokes emotion and curiosity will rise above other images and catch the viewer’s attention.

So what is the stuff of which “visual stories” are made from?

In most cases it is an emotion that the image creates. It can be empathy, curiosity or even negative emotions such is anger.

Even if you are dealing with macro or landscape photography it is better to have an image that tells a story. However, the best way for me to get a story is with people photography, as people are a large “pool” of stories and emotions.

Here are 5 tips for finding your “visual story” in Travel photography before departure, and on the road:

1. Preparation needed

The thing that makes the difference between an amateur and a professional in almost every field is usually preparation.

A professional photographer will start working even before leaving home, while an amateur photographer will wait for things to happen in front of their eyes in the field. Professionals will gather information that will help them exceed the potential of getting those photogenic stories on the road in minimum time and by doing so, increase the amount of good strong images.


What are the things that are worth checking before going to shot on a trip for example? Here are some classic examples:

Will there be any festival or photogenic event during your stay? Festivals are a great place for finding stories. Is there any taboo related to photography or culture in general in the country you are going to visit, that you must know? For example, the hill tribes that can be found on the mountains of Asia (as the woman from the Karen tribe in photo number 2) mostly believe that taking their photo would also take their soul. And trust me, the custom officers in your home country would not like the “soul” attached to your camera.

The best thing you can do to get this kind of information is to get the advice of a photographer who has already been there. Online photography forums would love to help you with that.

Want to take your photography to the next step? – Take a journey deeper into the place and read a little bit about the culture and history, prior to arrival.

The best tip someone has given me is to learn a few words of the local language. Locals appreciate people who try to speak their language (even if they laugh at them a bit at first)

Learning “Hello”, “Thank you” and ” may I take your photo?” will do wonders to your story telling images.

2. Getting closer


Taking photos of people from a distance with telephoto lens may be safer and will not ruin the spontaneity of the story, but there’s nothing like the narrative and emotional quality of close-ups in people photography.

Sometimes I want to photograph people from just a few inches away and still keep the spontaneity and intimacy.

What do I do? – I look for this moment in which the person returns to routine activity, after creating a bit of a connection with them and letting them understand that my camera and I don’t have any bad intentions.

I never approach people while the camera is hanging from my neck. It is threatening and may result in negative responses from the locals.

After greeting the person (in their language) I sit with them for a while, let them get used to my camera and me and only later I begin taking photos

Never ever forget- people don’t like to feel they are on a show for you. Always treat them with respect. The best way to do so is with the help of a local. So go to the next Section

3. Best ice breaker


Professional photographers use a fixer, which is a local who knows their needs as photographers and helps them to get around.

You can use a fixer, but you can also find your “fixer” in a much more interesting way and for free, in most cases. You can connect with local at your age in advance to your visit on the basis of “culture exchange”. The local will help you get to the best places and will also recommend which places to avoid. They will speak for you in their local language and will be the best “ice breaker”. All you have to do is be polite but it won’t hurt to bring your host something for your own country, like postcards or a unique product related to your place.

If you can find a photography student to be your fixer, it can be an exciting experience for both of you.

Hanging with a local as a friend or with a professional fixer does not give exemption from the previous section of “getting closer”.

4. The Stories generators


Feeling lost? Feeling unpleased with the photos you took? You can always try to visit a “story generator”. It can be anywhere that people Gather: a market, a central square or a festival. Just be alert and keep your eyes open and the stories will simply appear before your eyes.

The best tip for finding a “story generator” place is just to go to the places that interest you. It could be a church, a busy street, a quiet beach or even an abstract shooting of a building. Go with your passion and you will find your stories.

5, Last one for the road – get lost

We talked about the preparations and the work needed for good story finding, but sometimes all you need is to leave the tour guidebook in the hotel room and just go outside to walk the streets and roads looking for the unexpected.

Some of my best stories and photos came to me with this way of traveling.

Don’t forget to check with the locals or your fixer about the places that should be avoided and always, but always, check the time of your last ride home.

Read more from our category

Oded Wagenstein is a cultures photojournalist and author. His work has been published in numerous international publications, such as the National,, and Time Out. He is the author of three photography books. Visit his Facebook page and continue to discuss travel and people photography and get more fantastic tips!

Some Older Comments

  • Pieter August 3, 2013 08:29 pm

    Another brilliant article, thanks for sharing Oded!


  • Dave April 24, 2013 05:04 am

    I can't say I agree at all about a photo "telling a story" to get attention. I am constantly looking at images, and I can't think that this has anything to do with images I appreciate. Their graphic nature, their uniqueness, and an interesting subject are what grabs my attention. For sure it isn't a photograph of the most wrinkled elder in the clan! How many of those have we seen!

  • Tatyana April 20, 2013 08:37 am

    I had the opportunity to participate in Oded's lecture a year ago and I remember the story behind that woman's portrait, and some other stories Oded told. But fThis article is too short for them, but in spite of seeing too many photos this year, I remember these photos and try to use the tips. Thank you, Oded!

  • Jens Rueckert April 20, 2013 06:13 am

    Yes, I agree with a lot written here.
    I lived in Ethiopia for some years and got roud a lot. Some people don't care, some don't want you take a photo at all, others you have to pay, others ask you if you could take a picture of them ... very different and sometimes difficult.
    But another tip aside from walking round and get lost is that I have my camera always with me ... always? Always. no exception. As soon as I leave the room I take it with me, it is in the car always reachable ... even when I don't shoot at all, there could be a opportunity or I just get in the mood ...

  • helal April 20, 2013 03:46 am

    Nice. It really attractive and I am enjoy this blog very much. you can visit my blog
    Thank you for your hard work.

  • edward April 20, 2013 03:42 am

    great tips...thanks

  • Tim Roper April 19, 2013 11:45 am

    Great tips, and I would add "always be nice." Seems obvious, but what I mean is, be nice to the cows on the street, the kids, the tea seller...In places without TV and internet addiction, there's gossip and word of mouth. Even if you're only in a place for a few days, word gets around, and maybe that chicken you stopped to be nice to is owned by the cousin of a man you end up wanting to photograph, who heard the story of this nice foreigner in town.

  • matt April 26, 2011 07:11 am

    fantastic tips for a young photographer i will bee sure to use these tips in the future or when i am able to go on another trip thanks for sharing these tips.

  • jennifer April 25, 2011 01:44 am

    What did you clone out of the woman's forehead? Just curious.

  • Helen April 24, 2011 10:52 pm

    Thank you for so much advice and tips. I look forward each week to your course. I have just started off after buying a Canon SLR 1000 at Christmas. Have joined the local camera club and loving every minute of it. I have learned so much from your articles and photos. Our next competition is "Still Life" so againd thanks for all the tips on that one.

  • luis e gomez April 23, 2011 02:33 pm

    Spectacular blog.

  • mbkamrani April 23, 2011 10:18 am

    I always say a nice shot transfers many things much better than thousand pages of written words,interesting article,thanks.

  • Gavin April 23, 2011 09:20 am

    Great article. Recently I was in Thailand shooting for a client, they supplied an interpreter for me which helped immensely with the shoot, after completing the assignment, I had two days in Bangkok which I had deliberately planned for, out of my own pocket I paid the interpreter to guide me through the back streets of Bangkok, away from where all the tourists go and where the locals live, I got some amazing shots that I would not have taken if it was not for the interpreter.

    She was a fixer for me. she guided me through the streets and alley ways, avoided the dangerous areas, prevented me from paying large amounts for taxis, food and drink, told me about the customs and traditions and which ones I needed to be aware of, so I didn't offend anyone.

    Nothing was planned except for the departure time each morning and at the end of Day one I asked where next, she went home, spoke to her family and friends and come up with some amazing places. She showed me how people live in Bangkok which is something that I would not have achieved without her, we also got lost on several occasions which didn't worry me at all.

    I highly recommend using a fixer or an interpreter that is from that area you intend to shoot in. Their local knowledge is invaluable. It was a real bonus.

  • Paul April 22, 2011 10:07 pm

    Great article and lovely photos. I liked the tips!

  • waseem zafar April 22, 2011 05:23 pm

    Best ice breaker
    is a best picture specialy clearity of eyes

  • james April 22, 2011 10:29 am

    Hi, I like that photos should tell a story, but I feel like this is overextended and to be honest, a bit dramatic/manipulative as photography advice.

    Maybe it's because I'm inexperienced, but to me, telling a story simply isn't realistic with a photo by itself for some types of shots. For instance, the portrait pictures you provided in this post really don't tell a story- they have nice color, DoF and other elements, but perhaps the thing that makes it seem like a story-telling photo is that the faces are those from other countries that don't look like the 'average' type of person we're used to seeing. If it had been a polished, white male in a business suit in that portrait taken in the same way, would it have had the same story telling feeling?

    This article introduces a story telling feeling, and then shows great images which leads readers to feel that there is some kind of story in the photo examples given. But in reality, no story is being told from the example photos. Speculations perhaps, ideas yes, but a story? Not for me at least.

    I think what makes a strong image is a great foundation of techniques (all the right settings) plus a little extra pop from a particular element (like a stunning subject in itself or emotional colors), and yes, an element of story telling (most images provoke most people to think about the instance at which the photo was taking and its context), but a real story is not full enough in an image by itself- to tell a full story, it really should be accompanied by words.

  • bertango April 22, 2011 08:19 am

    Beautiful portraits!
    The last tip is a very important one; lose yourself, feel in another world, and you'll find the right time for the right shot (at least when you take it ;)

  • Ray April 22, 2011 06:12 am

    Nice article, but I honestly think that the need to "tell a story" is a bit of a cliche and way over-rated. To the extent that an image can tell a story, that's a bonus, but I really don't think it's necessarily the element that makes a great image eye-catching. How many times have you paused and admired a macro shot of an insect on a flower, or an eagle soaring through the sky, or a beautiful sunset over the ocean? There probably wasn't much of a story being told, and yet these subjects can still be eye-catching when they are captured by a skilled photographer. Some things are just interesting or awe-inspiring in their own right and when they are skillfully captured with the right composition, lighting, perspective, etc., that will get my attention and admiration.

  • Oded wagenstein April 22, 2011 04:43 am

    I shot the karen tribe woman from pretty close somthing like 50 cm'

    With 1/150
    5 F
    37 mm
    You can see more in my facebook group as wrriten on the article


  • Quennie April 22, 2011 03:05 am

    Thanks for these a beginner its really a big help for me to get started and keep going with this passion for photography, it really requires a lot of effort and skill to keep the pictures alive.

  • Mawanusa April 22, 2011 01:12 am

    Amazing and helpme a lot

  • Ryan April 21, 2011 02:35 pm

    Thanks for the tips! The shot of the old woman is great, care to share the EXIF? Did you shoot from far away, or was it a pretty close shot?

  • Niki Jones April 21, 2011 04:46 am

    Great tips and great photos!
    I especially agree with the last tip, I love to head out with my camera to places I've never been and see what turns up.

  • Jason St. Petersburg Photographer April 20, 2011 11:56 pm

    It is easy to create strong images using people as the subject that tell a story, especially if they are from a country different than your own because one's own curiosity will arise and start wondering what their life is like....

    I recently suggested that photographers should try "seeing a different reality" to produce images that tell a story, even if that story only makes sense to you alone:

    I make photographs first and foremost for myself. If anyone else digs them, great, if not, I know years later they will still have meaning to me.

  • Linus April 20, 2011 09:31 pm

    Nice tips! Photography is a great medium of telling stories. Here is a small effort from my side:

  • Aloha April 20, 2011 09:11 pm

    Captivating photos and very well written article. I love the toning in your portraits!

  • baby April 20, 2011 10:55 am

    Great tips and even greater images! Thanks for sharing!

  • Martin Soler HDR Photography April 20, 2011 06:13 am

    Thanks for some great tips. There is one tip that I use a lot when I go out for some street shots which is to look around at what others get. Then get some inspiration and try to find areas where I know I can get some great stuff. For example street musicians are sometimes great. Or finding large posters with a message and then waiting for someone to get under it that contrasts that message.
    See this one of a Jazz musician by Notre Dame:

    Or my other street stuff:

    I've got a lot to learn though and your tips are great!

  • Kiran @ April 20, 2011 05:56 am

    Great tips especially on breaking the language barrier and attending events.

  • Ed Verosky April 20, 2011 04:23 am

    These are excellent tips for travel photography. And, there are even more opportunities to create images with a story in the world you live in, and know well. People you have frequent access to will tend to give you a little more of themselves, allowing you the time and latitude to create, experiment, and craft some great picture stories (or even sequences of images). Friends, family, and just the general population that you are familiar with, might not be as exotic as what you'll find in a foreign land. But, with more understanding about what you're shooting, and who you're shooting, the images can contain more depth and meaning.

    Thanks for the article. I'll use your tips the next time I travel.

  • wayne April 20, 2011 03:20 am

    Nice article. Gives me thought for my winter months in Mexico.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 20, 2011 02:33 am


    I like the concept of employing a Fixer to get you close and familiar with your subjects. It doesn't always have to be in a foreign land or different language, but someone familiar with the area and who may have connections to get you to certain locations by their connections. This was the case during a travel photo shoot where we contacted a friend who had access to a parachute drop zone which was normally restricted. We were allowed to get right under the landing zone to catch the excitement of the parachutists. In this case, we were surprised by the ho hum look of this tandem instructor in total contrast to the adrenaline filled expressions of the others.

    Another Day at the Office:

  • matabum, MaP blog April 20, 2011 02:29 am

    thanks for great tips! the best one is "get lost" for sure. that's my style...
    here are three of my my travel photos that tell some story... at least i think so:)

  • fortunato_uno April 20, 2011 01:37 am

    I actually had some difficulty reciently when I went to shoot an Indian Pow-wow. I had gotten in touch with an elder, asked permission, explaned that I wanted to document the earlyer parts of the event (as is my style) and asked that he make everyone aware I would be there to shoot. My plan was to shoot the preperations for the ceramonies. I told him I wanted to be there as they began putting on there regailia. He told me that They would be starting as 1:00pm. I asked when they should be getting ready. He told me 12:00 (noon). I showed up at 11:00 am to find that every one had already gotten ready and was sitting in the crowd. Imagine how dissapointed I was. I had to go to every one and ask permission to take their image. Needless to say, I was not looking to have people pose. I (as I told the elder) wanting to "document" the preperations, the transformation from the modern to the tribal. So I guess even well layed plans don't always mean things will work. I was so dismayed that I left with no real shots. Bummer!!!

    I mention this so some will understand that even a well planned trip does not always mean things will go your way.

  • doodles April 20, 2011 01:07 am

    Your advice is perfect..............getting lost is my it all the time actually. My finds have been great. Nothing like being adventerous.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 20, 2011 12:57 am


    I like the story telling aspect of this article. This first was taken at a vintage car show where this troublesome child was meeted his punnishment Can’t Drive 55:

    This second struck me as I was in a parachute drop zone watching all the excited parachutists except for this one guy who was assigned Tandems: Another Day at the Office:

    Its the story that grabs you, not just a well shot image!

    Regards, Erik

  • Aaron Martin April 20, 2011 12:57 am

    Beautiful article, striking images and great advice---thank you for sharing! The tips Wagenstein relates on portraiture, especially with regards to indigenous cultures, remind me a bit of what David DuChemin talks about in his excellent books (most notably in _Within the Frame_). Wonderful stuff!

  • Mei Teng April 20, 2011 12:57 am

    I like the last tip. Wandering down the unfamiliar and unplanned route can spring wonderful surprises.

  • scott April 20, 2011 12:43 am

    Interesting article, all great tips. Learning and trying a few words of the language can be the ice breaker ice well.

    Agree on local markets and festivals, many opportunities from those events.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck April 20, 2011 12:28 am


    I like the story telling aspect of this article. This first was taken at a vintage car show where this troublesome child was meeted his punnishment Can't Drive 55:

    This second struck me as I was in a parachute drop zone watching all the excited parachutists except for this one guy who was assigned Tandems: Another Day at the Office:

    Its the story that grabs you, not just a well shot image!

    Regards, Erik