The Importance of Storytelling in Photography
After photographing weddings for a decade, I have trained my eye to look for stories. With the click of my shutter, I can capture a glance, a smile, a hug or a moment that captures the emotion of the moment and the story of the day. A good visual story sets the scene, captures connection and energy, and shows the big picture as well as the tiny details of the moment.
Recently, I've been feeling compelled to look for these stories in my everyday life. My oldest daughter Eden graduated from high school last month, and it’s made me realize that time flies! She’s living overseas and I no longer have the opportunity to capture family moments with us all together. It’s caused me to realize how valuable each moment is, and how quickly those little moments change, even though at the time they seem to be your reality forever.
I now set the table for four, not five. I don’t wake Eden up in the morning by putting her dog Angel on her bed to wake her up with kisses. I don’t get to see her reading favorite books to her little sister Isla, or watching dumb movies with her sister Elani just so they can giggle and make fun of them. I want to remember those moments forever and I wish I’d taken the time to document them as they happened.
And so I grabbed my camera to tell a story of our "now." This story shows Elani taking care of and cuddling with her dogs on our front porch, and the current view from the porch. It took about ten minutes of my time, but captured moments that can never be repeated, especially with the puppies who are growing fast.
So here’s your challenge! Tell a story through a series of about 5-10 photos. Choose something close to home. Maybe a family routine, a favorite outing, or a place you like to visit. Create a visual journey for the viewer.
How do you do that? Here’s six steps:
1. First, set the scene. Give a wide angle view of the setting. If you want to clean up a few distracting items laying around, that’s great, but if you want to capture it exactly as it is, that’s great too. The main thing is to not let an excuse stop you, like “I’ll take the photo later when the room’s clean.” We all know that probably won’t happen. Just capture it today!
2. Next, introduce the characters. Maybe shoot them from behind, or from around a corner, doing something relevant to the story. Try not to be obvious that you’re photographing the moment, or it may become too forced. Don't tell them to look at the camera, just capture candids.
3. Look for connection. Look for the moment when two or more interact with each other in some way. Maybe one is washing dishes and the other one is drying. Maybe it’s a group of people together playing a card game. Maybe it’s Grandma petting the cat on her lap.
4. Emotion will make your story so much stronger. Wait for moments of genuine emotion; laughter, excitement, or quiet contentment that flash across the expressions of the characters in your story. See if you can capture this. Emotion can be captured in many ways: through body language, facial expression, or even a simple glance.
5. Capture some close ups next: a hand, a cake, a knitting needle, a teacup. Whatever details are around that help to tell your story.
6. Now here’s the ultimate challenge: when appropriate, be part of the story yourself, and infuse the emotion into it that you’d like to see. The way you do this will depend on the people you’re photographing, your setting, and your own unique personality. Maybe it’s bringing your kids some cold lemonade to enjoy on the porch after a hot afternoon. Maybe it’s turning on some quiet music to set a peaceful mood while you watch your grandfather read the newspaper. Maybe it’s cheering on the sports team to build the excitement. Sometimes you may have to ask someone to do something again that you didn’t photograph the first time. This is usually okay, as long as you don’t make it forced or unpleasant. It’s also okay to give some general direction to people, such as, “Kids, can you go play by that window for a minute?”
For example, in this photo story, I asked Elani to get some water for the dogs, and to play with them at the edge of the porch (where there was good light).
Whatever it is, know that your interaction in the story can make a difference in your photos. I believe in your ideas. You’re the one who knows this story the best. You’ve got this.
Some of us worry that picking up our camera can ruin a moment. Yes, sometimes that’s true. We don’t want to be that person who lives with their phone constantly in their hand, never interacting but only photographing. But that’s not our only option. Another option is to show people we value them by capturing them in their natural stories, with intention.
Tell someone else’s story, or tell a story close to your heart. Maybe all of your photos are taken in one moment, or maybe you space them out through the day, or a series of days. There are no rules.
How do you know when you’ve completed your story? Put all of your photos together. Would someone viewing them feel like they know the story you’re trying to tell, without any other explanation?
If you’re not sure, send them to a friend and ask them what story they “hear” through your image collection, without any captions or words. Maybe you’ve nailed it, or maybe you need a few more images to fill in gaps in the story. If you’d like, you could post these online as a collage (see below for recommendation), image gallery, or blog post. Or you could just save them for your own memories, treasured moments captured forever.
So that’s it! Now head out there and see what visual story you’re able to tell. Is it easy? Not always. Is it valuable? Absolutely. Let me know what you’re able to capture this week!
Peace and Light,
Tip: Collages are a quick and fun way to tell a story at a glance. I used the free online collage maker at www.photocollage.com in order to make this collage of my daughter in the backyard with our three dogs. It took less than a minute. You can import your photos and click “auto collage” and they will arrange them instantly (and then you can go in and change things if you want). For best resolution, click “Collage” at the top left, and “Save as image (HD)” before you click download.
My "Looking for the Light: Photography & Life" online course will launch in 2021. Are you interested in learning more about photography? Click below to view more about the course.
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