How to do Visual Storytelling with Photos

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The old adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words”, essentially means that what you can see in one image would take many words to describe the contents, the action, the emotion, what it’s about, and so on. It’s visual storytelling. One powerful picture can evoke an instant response and connection. It allows people to shape what they see, tell its story to them in their words.

Think of some of the most iconic images in history – the sailor kissing the girl in a crowded street by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the Migrant Mother holding her children during the depression by Dorothea Lange, Clearing Winter Storm by Ansel Adams. They are all powerful images that tell a story with impact.

lady in an American flag outfit at a festival - How to do Visual Storytelling with Photos

Sometimes we want to tell more of a story of a place or an event, where we can take many images and tell much more of the story. This allows us to include extra detail elements, wider scene-setting shots, and have the action covered from different angles or points of view.

Doing this provides new challenges. The overall story needs to make sense, have a beginning/middle/end sequence, as well as have some action or conflict and possibly resolution. So the challenge is not just to take enough images to cover what is happening, but to then blend them into a coherent story which makes sense to the viewer.

What does it take to do visual storytelling with photos?

Here are some tips to help you increase the visual storytelling elements of your images.

Example images below

A 90-minute drive from where I live is a small village called Akaroa. It was settled in the 1840s by French settlers and later other Europeans, who shared it with the local Maori tribes. The history of the area is very important and celebrated every year with a weekend festival, starting with a parade featuring descendants of original settlers. I went along with my camera a couple of years ago and spent the weekend wandering around.

This is a context statement (see #4 below) and comments have been added to some images to provide further context.

1. Answer the five key questions

  1. What is happening?
  2. Who is there?
  3. Why is it happening?
  4. Where is it happening?
  5. When is it happening?

In relation to the festival. first I needed some scenery shots – this is the where.

How to do Visual Storytelling with Photos - Akaroa harbour in NZ with boats and a hill

Looking back up Akaroa Harbour to the Village, with Banks Peninsula hills in the background.

bridge over a stream - How to do Visual Storytelling with Photos

How to do Visual Storytelling with Photos - main wharf in Akaroa

Akaroa main wharf.

Include any well-known landmarks in the area – things that will easily visually identify it to anyone who has been there or seen them before. This helps give a sense of place and tells more of the where story.

2. Framing a sequence of events

Instead of trying to cram everything into one big image, where it can be confusing, shoot a series of more specific shots that relate to each other and tell the story that way.

Sequencing – is there a group of images you can put together that tell their own story?

3. Story structure

Your visual storytelling needs certain elements included to help it make sense, tell the story you want it to, and engage the viewer. This is called narrative. Essential elements of story structure include:

  • Introduction  – Sets the scene, introduces important characters, sets the tone and theme.
  • Plot – What is happening, who is it happening to, what are the outcomes?

What about the event? where is all the color and excitement? This is the What and the Who and the Why – which are all part of the plot.

I liked the contrast of the Maori woman and child in their native dress, against the bold red of the brass band.

Children in native Maori dress followed up by the descendants of French and German settlers in period style clothing.

Everyone enjoying the beautiful day out.

  • Themes – Your images should be linked in obvious, but subtle ways, to each other and this can be done in different ways:
    • Visual – Repeating elements (e.g. street signs), color (have a limited color palette or always show an element of a single color in each image).
    • Style – Have a consistent style in the way the images are shot or are processed, using a specific focal length or lens.
    • Consistency – Shooting the same subject but in different places or situations (e.g. interesting doorways, statues, manhole covers, all in different cities or countries) or shooting the same subject over time (a pregnancy story, or engagement to wedding day story).
    • Relationships – Between people or elements in an environment.

And as is traditional in Akaroa, dinner at the end of the day is fish and chips from the local shop by the beach, and ever-present seagulls fighting over a chip.

Note this isn’t the story as I would necessarily tell it visually, but examples of different shots of a place and an event to give you an idea of the things to look out for.

One of the things I did do is provide some consistency with the way they are edited, so tonally they are all the same, other than the variations in color temperature of the sun at different times of the day.

4. Context

The relationship of all the images to each other provide the overall context for the story to be structured within and therefore viewed. So when you are building your visual story you need to have an idea of the context to frame it all within. Otherwise, it could appear to be a group of random images that may or may not be visually related in some way.

It may be that a short textual description or explanation sets the scene and provides the viewer with enough context to assimilate the images within. However, that option may not always be available so plan your story so that it can stand alone on its own visual merits.

Final examples

Are there any local characters you should include? This is part of the Who.

Is there any interesting architecture that helps tell the story – like in this instance, some historical buildings?

This older building has been modernised but the date gives testament to its origins. The decorative street lamps add extra flavor.

Akaroa embraces its French history with red/white/blue featuring strongly, and many places and streets are French names.

Detail shots are also nice to include, they can add flavor to the series, and interest with different points of view. Use them to tell parts of the story.

This guy was clearly important but I didn’t catch his name.

A confession

I have a confession to make. The reality is that these images are actually sourced from about three different trips. They were not all shot in one weekend for the purpose of illustrating my point, and to a certain extent, that shows in the coherence of them.

While a story could be cobbled together from these images (or other ones in my archive) they were not all shot with the idea of craft and doing visual storytelling. That shows the importance of thinking about this beforehand and shooting with intent. It means your final outcome should be the better for it.

Summary

Event or travel photography has its own challenges, and it may not always be possible for you to think about doing visual storytelling when you are in the midst of things. Maybe you don’t have to cover the whole event or trip – maybe, just a special portion of it catches your interest.  Visual stories can be small and intimate too, they don’t have to be grand scale every time. A family birthday, the local school fair or market, a day out the beach, a walk in the park on a nice evening – three images, five more shots, and a few pairs of sequences.

Hopefully, this will give you enough of an idea to start thinking about telling a story with your images, it is not something I do enough myself, and if you have any tips, feel free to comment below.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Stacey Hill invested in her first DSLR back in 2007. While having many adventures out and about in the South Island of New Zealand, Stacey took to blogging about her experiences learning photography. Recently she discovered the fun and creative possibilities to be had with Photoshop. She can be found having an opinion all over the place here.

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