In this Photo Project, we are going to explore how you can develop “Photo Stories”, or “Photo Essays”. Being able to tell a visual story without too many words is an important part of your capacity as a visual storyteller, and one skill that I had to take time and effort to develop. There are a number of different skills that you can develop and fine tune as you conceptualize, write, and photograph these stories, and learning how to create an engaging Photo Essay is one skill that you will take a lifetime to develop. That’s a guarantee.
As you develop your style, and your voice you will find your own ways to document, interpret and display the topic that you want to speak about, but let’s start with some simple steps that almost anyone will find useful!
Table of Contents
What Are Photo Stories?
Photo Stories or photo essays are a sequence of photographs that tell a story by themselves when placed together. They aim to inform, educate and to invoke emotion and empathy in the viewer. They’re a form of documentary photojournalism, and you’ll see them frequently in magazines along with some text. One of my favourite sources of photo stories is National Geographic magazine. You can usually understand most of what the text is about simply by looking at the accompanying photographs. Of course, the content is gripping too, but for many people it is the photographs that make the magazine what it is.
How Can I Photograph a Photo Story?
Now, down to business. It’s easy to start making photo stories, but as you develop your skill, you’ll find that it can also be challenging. Here are a few guiding steps to help you get started with creating engaging Photo Essays.
Pick a Topic to Document in Your Photo Essay
You would start by choosing a topic, preferably something which is close to your heart and easy to access. Try doing something like “A day in the life of…” series for your family or just a series of photographs of something in your neighbourhood. This will get you in the mood for more challenging series…
You could then move on to more interesting time-based stories, like capturing certain buildings and their interiors over the passage of a day, or a year! The working of a local charity, featuring the key people behind it and the work that they do, the people their work benefits would make an impressive photo story. Here’s a decent attempt at capturing a Russian, Ilya, and the 44 disabled dogs that he cares for. The photo story is in Russian, but it could be in any language and not make much of a difference. The story is still there.
Don’t Feel Intimidated By The Task
Photo stories are most often seen in journalism and reportage of events as in this photo story about Riots in Dublin but there’s no reason why they can’t be used to tell interesting everyday stories too, like this “Story of a parrot” by Subhasish or Surreal stories like Xylonets‘ “If You Go Out to the Barn Tonight . . . You Better Not Go Alone” and this one about the “Modern Family” by bihua.
Try To Capture Moments and Emotions
Remember that what you are trying to do is to capture the key moments that define what ever it is you are photographing. You can imagine that you’re capturing multiple slices of time that convey the story that you want to tell. Capture different types of images, portraits, action shots, sequences, establishing shots showing locations and environments. Don’t hold back, capture it all.
Among those shots, also try capturing a variety of emotions, good moments, sad moments, interactions between people, interactions between things – objects and places – and also capture some of the surroundings in these shots to convey some of the contextual information that can’t be put into words.
Essential skills that you’ll need will be good composition, a discerning eye for detail that could add meaning to the photograph and good communication skills (if your story is about people). But, worry not if this list sounds daunting, for we are all learning… That’s why I asked you to start with an easy topic, remember?
Creating photo-stories helps you to refine your skill in composition and portraiture, and if you’re doing something outdoors, maybe even your landscape skills. Remember, there are no hard and fast rules as long as you capture the essence of what you are trying to convey.
Get Familiar With Your Equipment
If you are intimately familiar with your equipment, you are free to focus your attention on the world around you, and the scenes that are unfolding around you all the time. That’s not to say that you should not pay attention to the technical aspects of photography… By all means, be aware of your exposure settings, and the aesthetics of the photograph that you’re trying to capture, but also be aware of your surroundings, and observant of what is about to happen next.
Edit Before You Show
In writing, an editor is a person who looks over your work, understands what it is about, and makes or suggests changes to make the piece more cohesive, understandable and polished. They may suggest that you add or remove content of the overall piece to be more understandable. You should do the same with your Photo Essay.
Once you have your photographs ready, look at them objectively and try to remove all the fluff. This is difficult as it requires you to put aside your own attachment to the images that you have just now captured so lovingly. However, removing extra images from the ones that you will eventually display makes the overall story more understandable, easier to take in, and quicker to get your message across.
If you feel that you have missed out an important part of the overall message, you may want to go back and take a few more photographs to complete your story.
Presenting Your Photo Story
The ideal old-world finish to the photo-story is to print your pictures out and paste them in a photo-book with larger pictures wherever you want to emphasise the photograph and to show some extra detail in it. You could also put together a multimedia presentation like
this one made by the baltimore sun. These days, its not all that difficult to do. Otherwise you can just put them together in a folder on your computer and number them 001, 002, and so on so that they are displayed in order when seen with a slide show software. [TIP:] The two zeros in front of numerals zero to nine ensure that they are not displayed just before ten and twenty.
Remember that your work needs a title and a short introduction to set the stage. After that, let the images speak for themselves.
Each time you create a photo essay, you will learn more, and it will be come an easier process as you become more adept at knowing what you’re trying to achieve with each photograph. But each step forward will most likely also show you a few more steps down your journey. There is so much to learn on the way to your destination.
Share Your Work With Us
We’d love to see your work! Feel free to tag us on Instagram, and use the hashtag #BPTprojects. I encourage other members of the BPT community to offer their thoughts in a constructive manner so that we can all grow together. Remember to be kind, and generous with your critique.
You can also leave a link to your photo-essay in the comments down below.
Challenge Yourself with More Photo Projects
If you’re interested in more photo projects, check out the other Photo Projects that we already have, ready for you at the Photo Project page. Get into the game and continue to develop your eye, with more projects like this.
Thank you for reading this, and we hope that you have a great deal of fun working on your first photo-essay.
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Published: March 17, 2007 | Last Updated: November 24, 2022