Storytelling in Photography: 7 Tips to Share 1,000 Words with One Image
Ansel Adams once said, “there are always two people in every picture: the photographer and the viewer.” Well, that puts us, as photographers, in a very interesting position. It’s not just about sharing beautiful images on our photography website. We are also tasked with the responsibility of capturing the attention and drawing emotion and curiosity out of the viewers. Tell a story, if you will.
Now, what story you want to tell in order to evoke certain feelings and thoughts that you hope the viewer will have is entirely up to you. For example, you could capture a sweet old couple sitting in a park on a bench holding hands. Really cute story, right? Or, you could freeze the moment right after a kid licks their delicious ice cream while it’s falling off the cone coupled with their parents’ faces reacting in horror right behind them. Absolutely hilarious.
As photographers, we are simply expected to freeze moments in time that depict a small part of a bigger story. As much as we want to portray certain situations, the interpretation of our captured scenes is entirely up to the viewer. So, how does storytelling in photography works when limited to just a few, or even a single image? Well, it’s quite simple when you break it down because (get ready for the classic, but totally true cliche) a picture is worth a thousand words. These simple tips will teach you all that you need to know about storytelling in photography.
01. Plan your shoot
Look, I know in the intro I said that it’s not so much about the set up and more about capturing the moment. But you still need to be prepared with the proper gear, camera accessories, and knowledge in order to capture the right story. Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you go shoot: What will your subject be? Where will the photoshoot take place? What time will you be shooting and how will that affect the lighting? Which pieces of gear do you need? What camera angles do you want to capture? How much time do you need? What additional tools can you bring to help inspire you to be creative? The list goes on.
The whole point is to prep yourself so that when a creative idea about how to tell a story pops into your head, you can tell yourself: “Sweet, I’m glad I brought my [enter super handy item here you are grateful for]” instead of “Wow… I should’ve packed my [amazing lens that would’ve been much better for this scene].”
As an example, I was driving out to Utah Lake for some evening shots a little too close to sunset. I was feeling rushed at the moment but decided to grab my whole camera bag with all of my lenses, timers, and tripod. Once I started out onto the road to the lake the sun had already set and I thought my trip was a waste. Then, lighting struck off in the distance. I decided to pull over and change my story from a sunset on the lake to an evening in the storm. Because I was prepared, I was able to capture some pretty amazing photographs.
02. Adjust the settings
This is absolutely crucial and has a huge impact on what story you will convey to your viewer. Aside from making sure that your image is exposed properly, ensure that your aperture and shutter speed are set to execute your goal. For example, you can set your shutter speed to be slower so that you can capture the motion blur of racecars on a track and depict high-speed movement. On the other hand, you can set your shutter speed to be faster so you can capture that intense moment of two athletes squaring off on the pitch of a football field fighting for the ball.
When it comes to aperture, you, as the photographer, are in control of what the viewer will focus on. When you shoot with a wider aperture, it will allow you to focus in on a precious moment shared between a mom and her baby’s first steps while the background is blurred out. Thus, drawing the viewer to the gaze of a proud parent. When you shoot with a wide aperture, you can capture an entire grass field in front of you with a majestic mountain range towering in the background. Knowing your subject and adjusting your camera settings is key for photography storytelling success.
03. Compose your image
In photography, composition is second only to lighting in my opinion. Using basic photography composition rules such as framing, leading lines, and the rule of thirds allow you to be creative while still capturing an aesthetically pleasing image.
For example, you could capture a fence line along a ridge that leads your viewer to an amazing sunset view. Or, you could offset the subject of your image to be in the bottom corner while opening up more of the beautiful landscape into your visual. It’s up to you. Get creative.
04. Play with light
It’s not always about where light is in an image that is important. Sometimes, it’s about where light is not in an image. Knowing how to play with light to get the right mood is an absolute must for photography storytelling. Utilizing light and shadows gives the photographer the ability to evoke different feelings out of the viewer. Light can often evoke feelings of happiness or illuminate a specific part of the image that you want your viewer to see. Shadows, on the other hand, can share feelings of sadness, loneliness, or even hide certain parts of an image you don’t want the viewer to see by drawing their attention elsewhere.
05. Utilize color (or lack of)
Color plays a huge part of what story you want to tell. What color takes priority in your image? How vibrant are the colors? How dull are the tones? These questions help me decide what specific emotion I want to draw out of my viewer. Here’s a quick break down of what various colors mean and what they can do for your image:
Red: Excitement, courage, passion, energy, romance
Blue: Trust, honesty, responsibility, freedom, wisdom, joy, loyalty, frigidness
Yellow: Happiness, positivity, liveliness, spontaneity
Green: Hope, growth, wealth, fertility, harmony, peace, balance, safety
Black: Power, control, authority, discipline, elegance
White or gray: Neutrality, practicality, quietness, formality
Orange: Optimism, creativity, adventure, thrill
Pink: Love, compassion, playfulness, admiration
Choosing a dominant color above all of the others mixed with proper lighting and composition will have a powerful effect on the viewer. But what about those black and white pictures, you might ask? Someone once said, “What I like about black and white photographs is that they’re more like reading the book than seeing the movie.” It definitely holds as true.
With the absence of color goes the context of a scene. It’s almost like that feeling you get when you see the movie after reading the book and compare what you imagined versus what you saw depicted. A black and white image causes a viewer to dig deeper and find different meaning than what color usually shows. A monochrome shot will convey more through light and shadow than a color image will simply because the viewer is presented with less distractions.
06. Get weird
Kylie Jenner once said, “If you’re different, or if you think something about you is just weird and out of the ordinary, I just think that’s so dope.” And I agree. Being an artist alone gives us the opportunity to be weird. So be weird! Ordinary people that do ordinary things are rarely ever noticed. Same goes for photographers. Photographers that photograph the “usual” or “same” images as other photographers rarely ever get noticed.
Just get outside and start shooting from a different perspective. Sure, studying the work of other photographers via websites or Instagram can help. But, you need to get out and take a look at everything from your own, unique angle. If you’ve already taken photos of your grandpa’s old ‘65 Mustang in the driveway a hundred times, take photos of inside of the car this time. After that, take photos inside the engine. Get down on the floor and take photos from under the car. If you’ve done all that, take the car on a joy ride up to the mountains and photograph your grandpa livin’ the dream inside of his own car! The possibilities are endless.
Don’t worry about what other people might think. There have been plenty of times where I’m hanging upside down on a jungle gym or laying on the floor of a dirty room. You get weird stares. It’s okay. As a photographer, you gotta do what you gotta do for that perfect pic.
07. Embrace failure and evaluate
Embracing your own failure and learning from it is one of the hardest things to do as a person, let alone as a photographer. Yet, it is the only way we can improve ourselves. As an exercise, I want you to open up your files and look through some of your first photographs (if you can go back that far). You will see how awful you exposed an image or how awful the subject looked smack dab in the middle of the image at noon on a sunny day. Maybe you’ll even see how cluttered and messy an image appears. That’s all fantastic.
By looking through old images, you can tell what you did wrong and know what you either have done or will do to improve your work going forward. It’s that sweet taste of humble pie that makes you an even better photographer than you were yesterday. Always keep in mind that you have room for improvement, but don’t forget how much you have already improved.
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All photos by the author. Andrew McFarlane is a landscape and family portrait photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. See more of his work on his website.
By Andrew McFarlane
Landscape and family portrait photographer