Beginners often fail to think about the Storytelling aspect of photography, and that’s okay. When you’re just starting out, it’s important to focus on lighting, composition, and camera settings.
But once you familiarize yourself with those key concepts, what’s the logical next step? How do you hook people for more than a few seconds? Tell a story. In this article, I share fourteen tips to get you started in Storytelling photography, along with lots of sample images to help illustrate the point. Photos can be taken in remote locations, but I promise you: the tips I’m offering can apply anywhere on Earth.
What is Storytelling photography?
Storytelling photography is all about capturing images that tell a compelling narrative. It’s not limited to any particular genre; it can be documentary, candid, posed, or even abstract. The beauty of storytelling photography lies in its ability to engage the audience and keep them connected to the story being told.
When you find a photo that tells a strong story, it can hold your attention for minutes as you explore its intricate details. These images have the uncanny ability to spark your imagination, allowing you to contemplate what might happen next or reflect on the emotions being conveyed.
It is important to note that Storytelling photography can be achieved through a single image or a series of images. Some photographers excel at encapsulating an entire story in a single frame, while others choose to create a series of images that, taken together, create a comprehensive narrative.
For street photographers, wildlife photographers, and bird photographers, capturing a single photo that tells a story is often the norm. On the other hand, fine art photographers and photojournalists often tend to create a series of images that, when sequenced, tell a bigger and more complex story.
Whatever the approach, storytelling photography allows you to engage your audience on a deeper level, making them active participants in the narrative you are presenting. It is a powerful tool that allows you to evoke emotion, provoke thought and transport your audience to a whole new world.
10+ Storytelling photography tips
Including stories in your shots is a great way to interest – and engage – viewers. But how do you do it? How can you capture the kind of shots that are full of narrative? Here are plenty of tips to help you out:
1. Try to understand the story from all angles
If you’re capturing a newsworthy event – like a protest, ceremony, or even a party – it’s crucial to do your homework and grasp the event from every perspective before you arrive on site. Get to know all the key players, be aware of scheduled activities, and understand the event’s objective.
Once you’re there, take the time to engage with a variety of people involved in the event. Have conversations, listen to their thoughts, and gain different perspectives. Armed with this valuable information, direct your photography to tell the story from all angles. Ensure it’s not one-sided, capture essential elements, and strive to create a series of images that presents a neutral account.
Bottom line: Understanding the story from multiple angles enables you to create a comprehensive visual narrative that resonates with viewers.
2. Decide if you want to capture a single image or multiple shots
Now comes the fun part – deciding how you want to tell your story through photography. You have two options: capturing a single image that encapsulates the entire narrative or creating a series of shots that collectively weave the story together.
If you opt for a single-image approach, you’ll need to focus on capturing that one perfect shot that conveys your entire story. It’s like hitting the bullseye in one shot – impactful and direct. This method works well when your story has a clear and straightforward message, and you want to make a strong statement that leaves a lasting impression.
On the other hand, creating a series of shots allows you to unfold the story gradually, piece by piece. Each photo adds a layer of depth and reveals a different aspect of the narrative. It’s like assembling a puzzle where each piece matters. This approach is ideal for more complex stories with multiple angles, subjects, and nuances that require a broader context to be fully understood.
Both approaches have their strengths, and the choice depends on the story you want to tell and the impact you want to make. Just decide which style suits your vision best and get ready to capture that story through your lens!
3. Include small details to tell a story in a single frame
Imagine your task is to tell the story of a person. A parent, or even yourself.
How would you do it?
A standard portrait wouldn’t tell the full story. A person’s full story is often in the details: a picture of their desk, travel books strewn across a bedroom floor, a close-up of their hands dirty from working in the garden, a wide-angle portrait of them surrounded by a few of their favorite things.
So the next time you’re photographing a person, try to include small details that add to their story.
I didn’t visit India to focus my lens on poverty alone. However, when trying to tell the story of Mumbai, it would have been dishonest of me not to include it. Confronted with the scene above, I saw the gap between the rich and the poor. The small details here are my subject’s plastic bag, the skin condition on his arm, and his frail body. A big (and still important) detail is his juxtaposition with a backdrop of expensive high-rise buildings.
4. Give yourself plenty of time
Sometimes, you know exactly what story you want to capture, but turning it into a stunning photograph takes time – it’s not an instant process! So here’s the deal: don’t rush yourself. Take the time to research your subject beforehand, and then give yourself an ample amount of time to actually capture your images.
Look, let’s be real here: storytelling photography isn’t something you can rush through. It requires patience and dedication. And guess what? Sometimes, you might spend days or even weeks on a project without completing it. That’s totally okay! Rome wasn’t built in a day, right?
Here’s a little tip: try estimating how long you think your storytelling project will take, and then double it. That way, you won’t be caught off guard and get frustrated if things take longer than expected.
5. Aim for variety in a series of shots
This storytelling tip is related to the last point:
You must take a variety of different images of a single situation. Whether you want to photograph a camel market in India, a farmers’ market in a Chicago suburb, or your niece’s birthday party, just creating one type of photo won’t tell the whole story.
Instead, you need portraits, wide-angle shots, shots from up high, shots from down low, action shots, zoomed-in details, and more. All of these perspectives combined tell the whole story.
In the image series below, I tried to tell the story of a sunrise hot air balloon flight over the ancient, temple-strewn plain of Bagan, Myanmar. Capturing a variety of images was key to my success.
6. Take control of the entire frame
Now that you’re thinking about telling stories, you’re not just a photographer; you’re a storyteller, too. And that role involves taking control of the whole frame.
In other words:
Don’t just think about your subject, their lighting, their positioning. Be aware of the whole scene in front of you, including surrounding details, backdrops, shadows, bright areas, etc.
Sometimes, I lie flat on the ground with my camera. Why? I want to include environmental details in the frame that improve the shot-through storytelling. I get strange looks, but I don’t care; it’s the price of telling the real story.
7. Plan ahead with a shot list
Whether you’re heading out into your hometown for some street photography or to the Eiffel Tower for some vacation photography, why not create a shot list? I’m talking about ideas for specific shots, angles you want to try, and people you might include in the frame.
Research the kind of shots that other photographers have taken at your destination. Seek out new angles that’ll produce fresh storytelling even at well-known locations.
8. Don’t be afraid to start without a plan
I know I know; I just explained all about the value of using a shot list – but while a shot list can be extremely helpful, you don’t always need a meticulous plan to get started. Sometimes, it’s liberating to let go of the reins and follow your instincts.
Instead of overthinking every shot, embrace spontaneity. Head out with your camera, keep your senses open, and let your curiosity guide you. Capture whatever catches your eye, and trust that the story will unfold naturally.
Sure, having a subject or a location in mind can help focus your efforts, but don’t be bound by rigid expectations. Give yourself the freedom to explore, experiment, and see where the journey takes you. Often, the most unexpected moments and connections lead to the most captivating stories.
So, pack your gear, follow your intuition, and let the adventure begin. Remember, great storytelling photography often starts with an open mind and a willingness to embrace the unknown.
9. Learn to narrow down, trim, and exclude
Uploading a hundred photos to Facebook, all of a similar setting, and taken from the same few angles is a surefire way to lose people’s attention. Those 100 photos could easily be narrowed down to the 10 essential storytelling shots.
So learn to be selective! Start sharing only your best images.
Loktak Lake (pictured below) was so spectacular that I wandered around a single hilltop taking hundreds of images. It was bliss. A lot of the results were great, but would I really want to dump them all online for friends, family, and followers to sift through? No, I would not!
Instead, it’s important to find a favorite or two that tells your subject’s story:
10. Show emotions
Emotions are a central part of storytelling photography, and to capture emotions, you’ll primarily need people and faces. Emotion can also be communicated through body language, so capturing whole bodies works sometimes, too.
At the marvelous Mother’s Market in Manipur, India, I met these lovely ladies (above) animatedly playing a board game. I broke the ice by asking if I could join in. They said “No,” but it made them laugh and I got permission to shoot away. The best photos came after they’d forgotten about me; their natural expressions returned and I was able to capture their emotions.
11. Show human interaction
People are the heart and soul of storytelling photography. They bring life and emotion to our images. So let’s focus on capturing those genuine moments of interaction that make stories come alive.
When you have the opportunity to include human interaction in your shots, go for it! Look for those moments when people embrace, hold hands, or even touch each other gently. These gestures create a connection that resonates with viewers and sparks their imagination.
Stay alert and aware of your surroundings, even if the interaction is happening just outside the frame. Be ready to turn and click the shutter when you sense a captivating moment unfolding.
Remember, timing is key in capturing these interactions. Trust your instincts, be quick on the draw, and don’t hesitate to take multiple shots. Not all of them will be perfect, but the few that truly capture the essence of the story will make it all worthwhile.
12. Don’t forget about the basics
In your bid to learn storytelling, don’t forget about settings, composition, and lighting. It’s all too easy to fall out of touch with photography basics, especially when you’re first learning to tell a story with pictures.
After all, when you’re thinking about storytelling, you might start to drift away from photographic fundamentals.
So instead of replacing composition, settings, and lighting with storytelling, make sure everything works together. A shot with beautiful light, excellent composition, perfect exposure, and a great story? That’s how you capture people’s attention!
13. Use a narrative structure
How does a traditional novel or movie work? Novels and movies are stories, so they contain beginnings, middles, and ends.
You can do the same with your photos!
If you’re just starting out taking a series of storytelling pictures, try creating a chronological narrative. It’s by no means the only or even recommended narrative structure to follow, but it’s a fun and easy way to practice.
You might tell the story of a single day in a place you know well. Start with sunrise, then take photos throughout the day as the light changes. Conclude the series with sunset and night shots.
Here, I attempted to tell the story of day and night on the rivers running through the cities of Chittagong and Dhaka:
14. Do some (but not too much!) editing
Editing is a crucial part of photography, and it’s no different when it comes to storytelling. Post-processing allows you to enhance your images and convey your story more effectively. However, it’s important to strike a balance and avoid going overboard.
Make adjustments that bring out the best in your photos without losing their authenticity. You can fine-tune elements like white balance and tones to accurately represent the scene. Experiment with techniques like vignettes and color grading to enhance the mood and atmosphere of your storytelling shots.
But remember, less is often more. Don’t get carried away and lose sight of the authenticity. Stay true to the story you captured through your lens. Let your editing enhance the mood, intensify emotions, and make your viewers connect with the narrative. Just strike the right balance and let your storytelling photos shine!