Tonje Lilleås

The fundamentals of storytelling in photography

We’ve all heard that a picture says more than a thousand words. And it can. If it’s a good image it can tell the story on its own. However it’s not necessarily that simple, and as photographers we have to practice storytelling to be able to capture those images that actually tell a story. But how do we do that? Here’s the fundamentals of storytelling in photography.

Why storytelling?

Long before social media, smartphones, TVs, radios or even books, storytelling brought people together. Around the bonfire in a cave and later around the fireplace in our hut.

Simply put storytelling is the cultural practice of sharing stories with each other. Through storytelling we’ve thought each other and new generations about life, emotions, values, beliefs and our gained wisdom.

Today storytelling still plays a huge part of our lives, even if the way we tell them has changed a lot with the ever evolving technology. Storytelling is important for us to understand the world we live in and our part in it all. We need storytelling to impact the way we think, act and feel towards each other, society at large and nature.

Storytelling in photography

Storytelling in photography isn’t any different than storytelling in general, it’s just that photography is our medium to tell the story.

One of my favorite photographers, Nick Brandt, has told an epic, impactful, beautiful and tragic story about human impact on wildlife through a series of books and exhibitions. You could tell a story through a photo essay, a short series of images, or even through a single image.

When someone views your image, they only take a split second to decide if the image is worth looking closer at. Most of the time it will be difficult to tell a story that someone can catch on to within a split second. And I think that’s why storytelling in photography, or at least good storytelling, can be such a challenge.

You see; you can’t just capture someones interest with your image, you have to capture their imagination as well. Good storytelling in photography means that you manage to get the viewer involved in figuring out the story we’re telling.

However storytelling in photography doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to have a very complex and deep message behind every image we capture or create. We don’t all have to stick to projects like the before mentioned Nick Brandt. But if we ask ourselves what’s the story I want to capture, or to simplify; why do I want to capture this scene or moment, we’ll make it easier to succeed with storytelling in photography.

Storytelling does not equal documentation

It’s easy to think that storytelling in photography equals documenting things as they happen. But that’s not true. Documentary photography is definitely a way of telling stories with images, however it’s not the only way.

I don’t think anyone would object to me stating that all the highly planned and directed fashion photo shoots out there represent storytelling in photography. Nick Brandt doesn’t simply document things as they happen, but no-one would say he isn’t telling stories with his images. And I for one do not doubt that stories can be told through heavily edited and photoshopped images.

So it’s important to keep in mind that when storytelling is your main concern, you use the tools in your toolbox that help you tell the story most effectively. (But clearly you don’t present an image as a documentary if it’s not. That goes without saying).

The fundamentals of storytelling in photography

Enough chitchat, what are the fundamentals that will help you tell better stories with your photography?

Planning

I always talk about the importance of planning. From how you work a location to get the most out of it, to how you capture that one landscape image of your dreams. Planning is crucial.

With storytelling in mind, it’s not just about planning how to capture the image you want. It’s more than anything about planning what elements you need to tell the story. A big part of the planning will be asking yourself these questions;

  • Who’s or what’s the story about? What’s my topic?
  • Why would I like to tell this story? What’s my message?
  • How do I want my viewer to feel? What kind of emotions do I want to induce?

When you’ve answered these questions, it will be easier to plan the actual image(s). This is when you ask yourself how do I best achieve this through the medium of photography? If you decide that the best route is through a series of images, you have to plan each individual image as well as how they relate to each other.

A series is only as strong as its weakest image. If you start off with the weakest image, a lot of people will never look at the rest of the images and the story is left untold. Think about how you behave when you see a photo carousel on Instagram. If you don’t find the first image interesting in some way, do you keep on swiping to see the rest? No? That’s why you have to plan your series meticulously when trying to tell a story through photography.

It’s all about emotions

I’ve always said that I’m not that fussed about technical perfection when it comes to photography or video. It’s not that I don’t think knowing how to shoot a technically perfect image isn’t important, I just don’t think it’s necessarily the most important to tell a story well.

So what is the most important? Emotions. If your images don’t make your viewer feel something, then it’s not telling a story. I really don’t want to capture images that could have been captured by a machine. The most unique thing about our images will never be how technically skilled we are. We are humans, our emotions and being able to communicate them and induce them in others is what makes us interesting and unique.

Storytelling in photography has to be about emotions first. However emotions can be a lot. Strong emotions could be calm, serene and still. I can feel very strongly happy and motivated by and mobile image of someone standing on top of my favorite mountain. And if that’s the feeling the photographer wanted me as a viewer to have, than that is successful storytelling.

Create tension

If you come away with one thing from this post, make it this; good storytelling is about creating tension.

If you haven’t seen it yet I encourage you to watch Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix special Nanette. In her show Gadsby speaks about how jokes are built with the simple recipe of setup and punchline. With the punchline the comedian relieves her audience of the tension she has built through the setup. Now Gadsby tells why this simple recipe isn’t the way she wants to tell her stories anymore, and I’m not going to go into the details here. Watch the show, it’s worth it.

However as photographers we can learn a thing or two about storytelling from watching comedians build their shows to tell stories. Especially if we watch good ones like Gadsby. And the main thing is to create tension. Wether you’d like to defuse the tension through a punchline image or not is up to you. But creating tension will always help you tell a better story. So how do you do that with photography?

You can create visual tension through composition when including a strong focal point or converging leading lines. You can create tension with the timing of the image, for instance choosing to show someone mid air jumping over a gap. Not making it clear if they’re going to clear the gap or not. James Popsys talks about shooting images about things and not of things, another way to create tension in our images.

Change it up

As mentioned, you need to make sure you both catch interest and spark imagination. An important way to do just that is to make sure that you try different scenes, angles and focal lengths.

If you’re telling a story through just one image, make sure to capture a few varieties of it to find the one that tells the story best. Plan the image, yes, but at the same time it’s important not to be too attached to your plan if you find some variation that works better when you shoot.

If you are shooting a series, make sure each individual image brings a new element of the story. By all means, you can shoot your whole series with the 35 mm straight on and all in the same lighting conditions. However a lot of the time you will be able to tell a more complete story with changing things up just enough to bring some new aspect to the story with each image.

If you’re new to shooting series, try this recipe;

  • A wide shot to establish the scene
  • A medium shot to present your main subject
  • A detail shot to strengthen the mood and presence

You do you

The one unique thing you can bring to the table is you. So don’t try to copy anyone else.

Storytelling through photography is an amazing way to show the world through your eyes. So your images should reflect how you see things. However this does not mean you can’t draw inspiration from others, just don’t copy them.

A nice way to do just this is to draw inspiration from stories from other fields than the one you’re working with. If you’re a landscape photographer telling a story about a location, draw inspiration from a fashion shoot that you really liked. Or if you’ve just seen this amazing photo documentary about penguins in Antarctica, draw inspiration from that even if you’re shooting a story about Formula 1. Ask yourself;

  • What do I like about this series?
  • How are the images composed, and what makes them work together?
  • What would I do differently?

Beginning, middle and end

Every story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not different with storytelling in photography. But how is that even possible if you’re trying to tell a story with a single image you might ask?

Well, I think composition and how you guide your viewer through the image using your composition toolbox plays a huge role. When composing an image you have to think about what you want your viewer to notice first, and where her eyes should naturally be led from that point. Anchors and leading lines are important elements to consider in your composition.

For a series of images to tell a story, you have to think about how you sequence them, but also how each image speaks to the others. How much do you want to reveal in the first image? Or maybe more important; what do you need to reveal to catch interest and spark imagination? Once you’ve done that, give more meat to the bone. Show more of what this story is about. And finish with the shot that ties it all together and delivers your message.

Here’s an example of a simple shot list for the story of hiking a mountain;

  1. A wide shot of a lone car in a remote parking lot before dawn.
  2. A close up of hands tying shoe laces on what’s recognized as hiking boots.
  3. A medium shot of a happy hiker on the summit.

Tell your story

I think a lot of us can feel that it’s somewhat pretentious to call ourselves storytellers as photographers. Equal to saying that we create or make images instead of just saying that we like to snap a few shots and share with people. As if the mere statement that we actually want to say something with our images makes our images less approachable. I say tell your story.

The world and the village is a much more interesting place if more people share how they see their surroundings and experience life. We need more diversity in the stories that are told, not less. I love following young artists, photographers, filmmakers, musicians and poets that share their stories before they are tamed. Sometimes I envy them for their courage to be authentic at such a young age. But envy isn’t a thing I like to spend time on feeling, so I try to learn and be inspired by them instead.

I’m looking forward to seeing a lot more of your stories in the future. And if you find this post or the other things I share somewhat interesting, I encourage you to pop back in here or follow me on Instagram or YouTube.

 

 

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE

LEAVE A COMMENT

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.