“There’s always room for a story that can transport people to another place.” -J.K. Rowling
Have you ever come across a photograph that was so rich, so poignant, and so full of life that it took your breath away? An image that forced you to linger a little longer than a casual glance? A photo that brought you right out of your home and into the moment of time that was captured? Every time we press that shutter, we have the opportunity to tell a story. Everyone is a storyteller. No matter where we live, no matter the subjects we photograph, we have a chance to create a narrative.
As photographers, we have so many decisions at our fingertips. The list of ways to enhance your storytelling and bring more depth and wow-factor to your images is endless. There are infinite ways to learn and grow as artists.
These are the seven photography elements that I love to incorporate into my images. They will enhance your storytelling so that your images invite others to linger a little longer too.
Have your photographs read like books
Our eyes view photos the same way they do words: from the left of the frame to the right. When setting up your composition, it’s important to consider how the image will read from the left to the right.
You could have your subject on the left of the frame, gazing toward the right. Or you may want to fill your image with negative space on the left allowing the viewer to wander into the frame and toward the subject at the end. Or perhaps you want to include your subject right in the middle where it will get spotlight attention (just like the title of a book would!).
Next time you take a photo, look carefully at all the elements in your frame, and think about how your image will read from the left to the right. If you take a photo that doesn’t “read” from left to right like you want it to, consider flipping your image horizontally in post-production.
Use layers to add depth
My favorite books to read are the ones with highly developed characters. I adore beautiful prose, a page-turning plot line, and content that teaches me something new about the world. These books are rich and full of depth.
We can do the same with our photography! Bring rich depth into your photography by layering the foreground, middle and background. Take a step back and see what elements you can include to add more dimension to your storytelling images.
You can often find me laying down on the floor to include some of the ground before me subject. Get low and grab some grass in your frame! Peek behind a plant. Include a tree branch or the leading lines of your wood floors. Get creative and try using battery operated twinkly lights right against your lens. Have fun experimenting and see how that adds an element of magic to your foreground.
To add rich dimension to your background, place your subject further away from it than you think necessary. The compression you’ll get by keeping your subject several feet in front of the background will add so much more depth.
For the dreamiest depth of field, try keeping your aperture wide open. Your foreground and background will be soft and blurred and your subject in the middle will be nice and sharp. My favorite lenses to use that enhance depth of field the most are my 85mm f/1.4, 70-200 f/2.8, and 200mm f/2.0.
Take a moment to survey the location to see how you can use layers of foreground, middle and background. This simple tip will enhance the richness of your storytelling greatly.
Lines are wonderful storytellers. They can guide the viewer’s eye through the frame, telling us start, where to linger, and where to exit. I love using leading lines to bring the viewers gaze to my subject from the left side of the frame.
Luckily, you can find lines everywhere. Both man-made lines and lines found in nature can be used to enhance your storytelling. Think about rows of trees, sidewalks, horizon lines, and shadows. If you keep your eyes open, you’ll start seeing lines everywhere you go!
I usually like to keep my aperture pretty wide-open when including lines in my foreground and background. This keeps the lines out of focus so that they aren’t a distraction but also allows them to exist enough to guide the viewer to my subject.
Next time you take a photo, look around your location and see if there’s a way you can incorporate lines into your frame. Move your body around and try several different angles until the lines are enhancing your story.
Use color to set the tone
Color and storytelling go hand in hand. The whole mood of a photograph can be told through color. Blue is calm and peaceful. Orange and yellow evoke joy and happiness. Purple is insightful. Green is the color of renewal and energy. Red is passionate.
Using color intentionally can dramatically enhance your storytelling. Do you want your image to be full of contrast? Consider combining two complimentary colors like green and red, or blue and yellow. Do you want your image to be all about peace and tranquility? Try combining cool shades of blues against more blues. Want to convey complete joy? Use a few different warm shades of yellow, orange or red together.
There are times when an image has such presence of light and emotion that color is unnecessary in the story. Those are the images that convert beautifully to black and white. There is a timelessness about a black and white photo that can also enhance a story. The lack of color draws the viewer’s focus to the emotion of the moment and to the presence of the beautiful light.
Intentionally including and excluding colors to match the mood you’re hoping to capture will help you enhance the story of your images.
Include movement (or don’t!)
Freezing a moving moment in time is one of my very favorite storytelling elements. I love the emotion that is conveyed by capturing movement.
A child running into the sea. A boy kicking his soccer ball into the air. My daughter hugging her dad as tightly as she can. A boy laughing in a cloud of bubbles.
Movement takes you into the moment. The viewer gets to imagine what’s going to happen next when there’s movement in a frame. The story continues in the viewer’s mind.
When capturing a moving subject, be sure to bring your shutter speed up higher than you would for a still subject. When photographing moving children, I always keep my shutter speed above 1/250 second.
By contrast, lack of movement can also be a powerful storytelling tool. I love to photograph my sleeping children. It’s one of my favorite stories, simply documenting the stillness of them while they dream. Some of my favorite photographs of my children are the ones of them perfectly still looking out into the world and taking in the view.
Whether your subject is moving or completely still, being mindful of the movement you’re including is key to telling a thoughtful story.
Try using a wide angle lens
I’m a sucker for a wide-angle image that tells a story from the bottom of the frame all the way to the tippy top. There are few things better than a great big sky or a small child in this big world. I love seeing a whole bunch of the environment surrounding a subject. It makes me feel like there’s room for me in there too.
I’m constantly reminding myself to scoot back a bit more. It is tempting to get super close when taking a picture of someone you love! But I want to include more of the story surrounding my subject.
Include more of the foreground. Incorporate more of the background. Even if it’s a messy room! One day you are going to want to look back and see what was in that room. That photo of that room is going to take you back to this moment in time that is so fleeting and special.
When shooting wide angle, I usually like to keep my aperture wide-open or as close to wide-open as possible. Even with wide-angle images, I still love the compression of a background that falls into a dreamy blur.
Never stop practicing
It’s been said so many times, but can’t be overstated: practice, practice, practice! The more you photograph, the more you’ll start seeing elements of strong storytelling everywhere you go.
I can no longer enter a room without admiring a leading line, seeing the light, or noticing the depth and layers. The very best way to enhance your storytelling is by just doing it and then doing it again.
Tell your story on a regular basis. Practice by taking your camera everywhere you go. Photograph your beautiful, messy, fleeting story every single day. Before you press your shutter, consider how the image you’re capturing will translate from the left to the right. Get your wide-angle lens out and include all the details of the world around you.
If you forget to bring your camera, you can still practice! Look at the world through the lens of a photographer. Look for lines and layers and movement and color wherever you go.
What matters more than capturing a perfect image is that you are photographing from your heart. Just showing up day after day with the intention to be a stronger storyteller will get you there faster than any other tip or trick out there.
So go pick up your camera. Find the light. Follow your heart. And tell the only story no one else can tell: the story that is yours.