Photography works as a direct representation of real life, preserving a specific point of time and place. What other photographers fail to realize though is that photography can also capture emotions and the overall atmosphere of a scene. This is why pictures are also powerful modes for storytelling, having the ability to convey ideas, concepts, and events even without any explanation or words. However, if you want to use photography as a technique for storytelling, there are a few tips and recommendations you can follow to produce effective and striking photographs.
Image by SplitShire
History of Photography Storytelling
Storytelling is an age-old craft with a history that spans almost 30,000 years. From the cave drawings of the Lascaux and the Chavaux to the oral traditions of ancient civilizations, storytelling has been part of the human experience since time immemorial. As technology develops and other modes to remember are invented, storytelling evolves. One of these more modern storytelling techniques is photography.
In the early years of photography, this technique was mostly used for social documentary purposes, effectively narrating, and documenting ordinary life, family, and even war. According to ArtDoc, a contemporary photography magazine, photography is used as a storytelling tool to not only establish a connection with the audience but to also convey emotion and communicate more effectively. In a way, photography transports viewers into a specific space and time, and may even convey the emotions of the photograph’s subjects.
Today, photography is used in news and editorials to drive stories home. While it is common practice in mainstream media, there is no monopoly in photography storytelling. Hundreds or even thousands of independent photographers try their hand at using pictures to tell meaningful stories, not for recognition, but to provide viewers with different perspectives.
How Can You Tell Stories Through Pictures?
If you’re planning on building your photography portfolio through a focus on photography storytelling, there are a few tips and recommendations that you may want to apply to your overall process. These tips will help enhance your photograph’s detail and ability to tell a clear story.
1. Visualize Your Story
Before you start taking photographs, you may have a rough idea of the things you want to shoot, especially if there’s a specific setting or a group of people you have in mind. List down a short list of things you want to capture. It doesn’t need to be exact or extremely descriptive. Think of it as a rough draft of the story you’re planning on telling.
Just remember that while a shot list is a great tool to keep things along as you go about capturing images, do not limit yourself to the things you’ve listed down. Always be open to capturing unscripted and spontaneous moments, since they’re typically the things that connect the best with people.
2. Try to be Aware of Your Surrounding Scene
When taking photographs, it’s easy to become engrossed in the subject you’re taking pictures of, limiting your viewpoint to what you’re currently focusing on. To avoid this common bottleneck, consider scoping out your surroundings first and finding potential subjects and areas, as well as spaces with good lighting. Try to be aware of your surroundings so you don’t miss details that may add to the authenticity of each shot.
3. Include Small Details Inside Your Frame
When telling a story through photography, the first thing you should remember is that a story doesn’t exist in a vacuum. You want to include small details in your frame if it can make your photo stand out more or at least give your picture a larger context. This will not only allow your viewers to understand the setting more but including details also make your story clearer. You might also want to draw attention to specific details of a subject that would typically go unnoticed to provide your audience with a fresher perspective.
In addition, consider creating layers in your pictures, especially if you think the background is a necessary part of the whole scene. While a lot of photographers blur out backgrounds to better focus on the subject – especially with portrait shots – storytelling photography needs as much context as you can afford. Try establishing a contrast in lighting and color to effectively divide your photograph.
4. Experiment With Different Angles and Lighting
Angles and light placements are important factors in a photograph’s appearance and overall vibe. For example, if you’re trying to photograph a somber scene, framing your photo with a darker and cooler hue might help set the feeling. The same goes with livelier scenes using a more vibrant color palette. As for lighting, you have the choice of using front, side, or backlighting to create depth and shadows, which may add depth and shadows to your photos for a more interesting look.
5. Don’t Shy Away from Taking a Photo Series
Telling a story through a picture doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to tell it through a single photograph. While it is possible to capture all the right elements in just a single picture, there is also a risk of making your scene too cluttered for your viewers to clearly see what you’re trying to focus on. One great way to tell a story through photography is to do a photo series, where you capture different aspects of a story through a group of photographs. This is actually a great way to provide your viewers with an adequate amount of context, as well as provide them with a clearer picture of the environment without missing too much of how the subjects move.
A perfect example of this is Nadav Berenstein’s photo coverage of different locations around the world. Using multiple photos to complete his story, this photographer is able to capture the overall sense of the location, as well as the emotion of his photography subjects without limiting his audience’s exposure.
Produce Powerful Stories Through Photography
Since the invention of the camera, photography has been used to document, capture, and tell the stories of people from around the world. From documenting world-altering events to just capturing memories, the camera has been telling countless stories for centuries. If you’re a beginner photographer or you’re trying to widen your photography skillset, try applying the recommendations and tips listed above for a more effective approach to storytelling. Good luck, and I hope to see you out there!