I believe we are all storytellers. But as we are mastering our craft, we can find ourselves so absorbed by the new concept or technique we are trying to learn that we often end up neglecting the story.
The purpose of a photograph is to say something. Sure, we have to learn the technical aspects of light, the exposure triangle, composition, and so much more. But all of those skills are learned so that we can better communicate with our audiences.
Storytelling is always happening in photographs. Both beginners and seasoned photographers are conveying narratives through their images but with different levels of intention, complexity and ease.
As we begin to understand our visual voice, it’s much like learning a new language. We first learn to make simple and concrete sentences. Eventually we are able to express more complex and abstract thoughts.
Today I am sharing 5 steps you can take right now to help you elevate your storytelling game. Wherever you are in your photography journey, you can use these tools to better communicate with your audience.
Find your story
Most of the time, we see a moment, snap a photo or two, and then put the camera down. Then later, we look at our photos and find that they are just okay. Which is a bummer because there was a story in that moment and we wanted to capture it!
So next time you see a moment that makes you reach for your camera, take a second to identify the story. What emotions do you want to express in your photograph? What characters, plotlines, and actions are guiding the moment? Spend the time to identify what about the scene draws you in and work to photograph that.
Take some time to plan. Think about the story you want to tell with your image. Ask yourself questions to create a detailed plan to help you find your story.
Who is your audience? Who are the characters in your story? What is the best location, environment, or backdrop for your story? What time of day or year will best illustrate your story? Do you want to photograph the plot (main story) or is your story more about a struggle or a happy ending? What is the title of your image? What is the intended mood? Can you identify details that you should include so that a stranger can understand your story?
In this image, I was shooting a family session with my partner. Typically when we shoot together, we alternate from primary to secondary shooter throughout the session. In this instance, while he was capturing the family playing together with this orange ball. I was on the sidelines capturing different perspectives.
All of a sudden, all I could see were this little boy’s legs. A title instantly popped into my head: “friendless”. I quickly positioned myself to emphasize the loneliness (lot of greens and negative space) and waited for the ball to come close to his feet. Click!
In this moment, I saw that *my* story was going to be different from that of my partner’s. It was this little moment alone on the ledge. Once I found my story, I was able to get my photo.
Choose your angle
Now that you know the story you want to shoot, it’s time to pick the right angle. Your position in relation to your subject is key in creating a strong image. You need to decide which angle will best tell your story.
Who will tell the story? Will it be a removed narrator, an active participant, or the subject himself? What is the best point of view to illustrate this point of view? From above? From below? At eye level? From behind?
As decisive moments don’t last forever, I recommend first taking a safe shot and then changing your point of view until you find the optimal angle. A less-than-ideal photo of a magical memory is always better than no photo at all!
In this image, I began by shooting from the side so my subjects would be facing my camera. It was my safe (and kind of boring) shot.
Once I had the moment captured, I started to move around. First I moved behind my son (the boy in the back of the final frame) but didn’t like that the girl was hidden in the picture. I moved again and ended up behind dad and daughter (and hoped for the best for my lens!).
I liked the fact that this point of view gave the viewer the feeling of being right in the action. Even better, I was able to capture this extra layer of splash to add depth while also including the antagonist (my son) in the frame. From this perspective, I am able to construct a more complete story.
This is an image of my son writing his letter to Santa. (It’s in French…he wasn’t writing to Cher!). While he was writing, I tried different things but found that the story I was striving toward was incomplete. I tried creating a double exposure. I tried capturing this as a dramatic low light image.
Then I finally realized I was getting far from my initial intention. Him simply writing a letter was the story and that was what I wanted to capture.
Again, an idea popped into my head: the letter to Santa would be a pretext to document his six-year-old handwriting. I chose the “participant” angle and the “from above” perspective and captured an image I really like!
Structure your story
If you were writing a 1000 word essay, you would structure your ideas according to their relevance and importance to effectively communicate your story. Even the best story fails if the ideas within it are not structured properly.
In photography, we structure our images using composition techniques. You can utilize leading lines, framing elements, and implied triangles to guide your viewer through the frame.. This will take your audience on a visual path where the elements of the story are organized in such a way that the story makes sense.
This image is an example of implied triangles. Do you see them? Our eyes naturally connect the points of interest to form a natural shape. Here, the mother’s gaze acts as an indirect line which leads us to her first born who is looking outside of the frame. This can weaken an image as it throws our eyes out of the frame. However in this case, with the help of the triangle our eyes stay in the frame. There are many other triangles in this image: Mother’s arm, mother’s face, son. Mother’s face, son, newborn. Mother’s arm, bottle of milk, newborn. Can you find more?
The image here is an example of using leading lines (the path), centering with intention (subjects are at the vanishing point) and including a framing element (the arch of the aquarium). I also used a lot of negative space around them to echo the quietness of the family and the silence of the underwater world.
You should also learn to avoid certain things that can weaken your message. Ineffective composition, unintentionally chopping limbs, or failing to isolate your subject from the background can all work against your story.
Add depth to your story
I am not talking about just physical depth here. Though of course you should seek out opportunities for adding dimensionality to the frame. Rather, I am talking about looking for opportunities to add emotional depth to your imagery.
Compositional elements are truly helpful in reinforcing depth in your narrative. You can use juxtaposition to accentuate differences between contrasting elements in your frame. Use a reflection to emphasize the importance of a character or to show something the viewer otherwise couldn’t see. Explore how negative space helps you create mood.
I love this image of my daughter running away. She was biking and decided to stop to take a sip from the sprinkler. And of course she got all wet! She ran to the patio door for her dad to dry her. I decided to use the bike and the sprinkler in the foreground as a layer. I then placed my daughter in the middle ground of the frame and my house in the background. The layers of abandoned fun and golden sunlight add both physical and emotional depth as the child who would be expected to have fun with them runs away.
Compose and capture your story
Once your plan is well thought out visualize your plan and carefully compose your frame, you wait for your moment. This is what we call “macro-composition.” Of course, these are guidelines! In real life, we make these decisions on the fly and we correct our plan while looking through the viewfinder! We take the safe shot and then we improve on our composition to strengthen our storytelling.
Picture yourself in the shoes of a hunter. Instead of hunting down a prey, you are hunting the decisive moment in the scene unfolding in front of you. You have already determined that you are in the best possible position to capture your story. Commit to your composition and wait for your characters to move into your frame.
Coordinate your ideas. Your task consists of micro-adjusting your macro-composition to make sure your image follows the rules and guidelines of composition (subject isolation, depth of field, no limb chops, etc.). Move your feet a tad, incline or tilt your camera a little, make subtle changes to your point of view until you achieve nice subject separation.
Shoot through the scene. You want to capture your subjects in the right light, with a great expression, doing the right thing at the perfect moment for your story. All of this without forgetting the aforementioned rules of composition. The smallest details can mean the difference between making art and taking a snapshot.
Annick Paradis is exploring storytelling more in her new Click Photo School breakout Fleeting to Timeless: Composing Stories that Last a Lifetime. You can register now for the live run April 23-May 8!