How to Tell Stories with Photography.
You probably expect a long and rambling introduction. Let’s just not bother, shall we? You can sit back and watch the video above, or have a read below.
The Basic Ingredients of all Stories:
When we boil a story down to its absolutely basic ingredients we only need 2 things. Firstly, we need a Character – the person or thing that the events of the story will happen to. Second, we need a Timeline – an event with a beginning, middle and end; or, put another way, before, during and after.
The Character in your photo is the person or the thing your story is about. Your character can take many forms, but most simply, it will be either a Person, an Object, or a Place.
- People are probably the most obvious choice for a character, because we as people ourselves engage our emotions easily with depictions of other humans. Where we can see their face we can read their emotions, and see how they are reacting to the events of the story. We also gravitate toward human silhouettes and anything that resembles a human (this is called anthropomorphism). Photos of people are the bread and butter of photojournalism, which is the use of the photography to tell stories about human history and events.
- Objects can become characters in their own right if we can become emotionally engaged by it. Perhaps the object is something of human origin with which we are already familiar or have a relationship with, so we indirectly react to the human story through the object. Natural Objects and Animals can also trigger a reaction in us anywhere on the emotional scale from love to disgust.
- Places and Landscapes can trigger our emotional responses and be characters in their own right, too. It may be a reaction to the aesthetic of a location, or something that we know about the history of a place, which ties us back again to human association.Whatever the story is that you want to tell with your photography, there’s a good chance that you start off knowing who or what the character is or will be. What you then need to decide or discover is what events are going to happen to your character, and when you should take your photo to effectively tell that story.
The event or events that will happen to your character will usually have a beginning, a middle and an end. Not always, however; some events or stories are open ended or timeless in nature. This is especially the case in landscape photography where the story of the land is often slow and gentle compared with more human-oriented events.
For now, let’s think about events that have a build up, a climax, and an aftermath, or wind-down. Depending on when you decide to take your photo, you can dramatically alter the emotional impact of the story your image is going to tell.
- The Build Up
In these photos, you can see what is about to happen to your character. There is a sense of anticipation and expectation that could be tense or excited. It’s perhaps the most difficult emotion to prompt with a landscape photograph, but a powerful one to use in other genres.
- The Climax
These photos capture the exact moment that the event reaches its dramatic peak, and freezes it for the viewer to absorb its full impact. The emotion this moment will trigger depends on the content and the context, and can be anywhere on the spectrum of human emotion. This could the moment that an athlete sticks the landing, or a bomb goes off, loved ones reunite. It might last a fraction of a second, and you have to nail the timing of the photo to capture it.
- The Aftermath
These are the images that say something has happened. It could have a sense of closure, of loss, of joy, of certainty or uncertainty. The event has finished but its effects are still being felt. The photo prompts the viewer to wonder ‘what happened?’ or it tells them what the result of a particular event was.
How Time affects Tone
Now we need to consider a simple question. If we took the photo sooner or later than we did, would it still be the same? Scenes and events that change very quickly are Time-Bound. Those events that change slowly are Open-Ended or even Timeless. This also has a profound effect on the tone your story will convey. Images that depend on precise timing tend to feel dramatic or even urgent, while those that are more timeless can be peaceful. For examples, compare conflict photography from warzones with landscape photography. In conflict events happen fast, and the consequences to the human characters in the images are always high. In landscape photography the character is generally a peaceful place or natural object, where natural events happen gently and in cycles. Both genres tell important stories, but they have opposite tones. One is the story of conflict; urgent, dramatic, horrific, consequential. The other is the story of peace; calm, beautiful, inspiring, natural. However, even images with human characters can have open-ended and timeless photos, leading to more ambiguous results, depending on the emotions the people portray.
How to Improve
If you want your photos to communicate with your audience more effectively, then simply ask yourself what the story is. Who are the characters? What is happening to them or it? What are the significant events and moments in this story that I need to be ready for? If you can’t identify any of these things, then you probably aren’t telling the story you think you are, if you’re telling one at all.
The only certain way to improve as a photographer is to practice. Even if you don’t have your camera with you, spend time with your character. Get to know them or it. Invest yourself and your time in their story and make it a part of your own. Sooner or later, you’ll start to develop a more intimate relationship with it, and you’ll learn to tell the difference between ordinary, boring moments, and those that are special. Focus on photographing the special ones, and soon you’ll have photos worth sharing. What’s more, the photos will speak for themselves, and won’t need explanation. This is a key goal of effective visual storytelling. Show; don’t tell.