Visual Storytelling for Photographers

One of the most universal visual stories is a series of images that read left to right, starting with an ape bent over and finishes with a man walking upright. The story is of evolution, and it is so familiar to us that we don’t need any text to explain it, the images are sufficient.

The ubiquitous image of a polar bear stranded on a melting block of ice has come to represent the story of climate change and needs no words of explanation.

Polar Bears stranded on ice
Copyright Paul Nicklen

The power of an image to stimulate the imagination so that the eye and brain read a story from what can be seen has been used to inform, motivate, educate and exploit since the beginning of humanity.

Today, we experience visual stories primarily through film, graphics, painting, sculpture, dance, theatre and photography.

On the wall in my office is a print of a painting by the artist PJ Crook. The image is of twelve smartly dressed friends sat around a restaurant table that overlooks a vibrant and affluent city. The group are at the end of a celebratory meal and now enjoying a smoke and small talk. 

There is no text, the painting conveys the story.

I recently visited the Lee Miller Gallery in Sussex. Lee Miller was a famous war and fashion photographer, apprentice to Man Ray and wife of the surrealist artist, Roland Penrose. 

In the gallery were a selection of photographs that featured Picasso. Individually, I felt the images didn’t hold attention but together they told the story of Picasso spending the weekend at Miller and Penrose’s cottage, immersing himself into village and farm life.

Susan Sontag, John Berger and others have described a photograph as a quotation. A moment in time that is captured and presented in a rectangle or square format. The role of the photographer is to decide what visual quotations best tell the story in a given situation or environment.  A playwright goes through the same process making decisions about what dialogue and interactions are necessary for the audience to understand the story.

There’s a reason why we don’t see Hamlet getting out of bed in the morning and dressing – it doesn’t contribute to the story that Shakespeare wanted to tell us.

When we think about visual storytelling in the same way that we think about how a play or novel is constructed, we can start to appreciate that it is a craft and discipline. 

Shooting 500 frames a day doesn’t guarantee that you have a story to tell. 

It’s not about quantity, it’s about the quality of each image and how they work together, in the same way that a writer chooses the words to form the right sentence.

Telling stories with pictures (not words)

Holding a pen doesn’t make you a great writer and knowing how to work a camera doesn’t make you a great visual storyteller.

The pen and the camera are tools, the storytelling comes from within you.

We all love stories and most of us have been listening to stories since before we could read or write. Yet despite this familiarity, we can often become overwhelmed or intimidated when thinking about photography storytelling.

As with any form of storytelling, it’s all about structure.

The classic story structure is along the line of:

Once a upon a time…

In a place called…

There was a person named…

Who…

And they…

But…

Then…

The end.

When the author writes the story, they will often think visually and then convey that vision into words. As photographers, our job is to convey a vision into photographs.

If we think about the structure above in visual terms, it starts with a wide shot, then we have a portrait of a person, we then focus on some details of that person’s life and then come back to another wide shot at the end.

American Geography book, page spread by Matt Black
American Geography copyright Matt Black

The documentary photographer, Matt Black, believes that there is no right way to sequence images, it’s a feeling you get when each image builds on the previous ones to tell the story.

Of course, like the written word, there is a visual grammar that can be employed. 

If we use Matt Black’s ‘American Geography’ monograph as an example, we can see that he uses a panoramic image of the landscape to punctuate sections and then focuses on the detail of buildings, skills and people associated with the landscape.

 To oversimplify it, we can see the structure as:

  • Here is where we are
  • Here is what it looks like from the street
  • Here are the people that live and work in this place
  • Here are some of the struggles they face

That’s the story Black wants to tell. 

Eugene Smith’s famous ‘Country Doctor’ story starts with the image of a well-dressed man, walking through a meadow in a rural setting, carrying a bag usually associated with doctors. This is the ‘establishing shot’ the same as we see regularly used in TV and film.

Documentary Photographer. Visual Storytelling for Photographers. Country Doctor walking over grass against dark skies
USA. Colorado. Kremmling. 1948. Dr. Ernest Guy CERIANI, a country doctor (aged 32), going to visit his patients in their remote villages. Copyright Eugene Smith

We then see another man, not as well dressed, slightly unkempt, sat in a chair with bookcases behind and certificates on the wall. The man has a child in his lap. By placing this image after the first we can conclude that either the man or the child is unwell and is waiting to see the doctor. 

There then follows a sequence of images of the doctor quite clearly treating patients. The patients are of all ages and the locations vary from his office to homes to the back of a car. The story being told is of a busy doctor who works in the community where he is most needed.

All of this can be ‘read’ from the images alone.

You can’t be an effective visual storyteller without first having some clear objectives or at least a working hypothesis.

What story do you want to tell?

Firstly, you need to decide if you are the sort of photographer that is motivated by storytelling.

Many great photographers aren’t. They are perfectly happy capturing stunning wildlife, landscapes or interesting street photography. These can, of course, convey a story but many can simply be enjoyed for their composition, colour and visual interest.

I follow a number of photographers on Instagram who fall into this category. They might share visually interesting and well-composed images of diagonal shadows across primary colours, but is it a story?

If you want to be a storyteller with your photography you need to know what story you want to tell, and why.

‘Boy meets girl and falls in love’ is a story that has been told thousands, if not, millions of times but always slightly differently. 

As a writer, you choose the characters, the location, the date, and the manner in which the characters meet. 

As a photographer you frame the world in a particular way, you decide how to present people and you choose what characteristics to reveal. 

You are the creator and editor of the story you want to tell and you will always tell it differently to someone else.

Stories do not have to be documentaries of events, as with photojournalism.

Gregory Crewdson tells compelling stories through his photographic work which is all fictional. ‘What I am interested in is that moment of transcendence, where one is transported into another place, into a perfect, still world.’

Car in street at dusk. Gregory Crewdson Beneath the Roses. Visual Storytelling for Photographers.
From Gregory Crewdson’s ‘Beneath the Roses’ project

To achieve this, Crewdson recreates the scenes and stories he wants to tell, often on the streets of America, using volunteers and amateur models, alongside a team of lighting and set designers. The stories are layered, complex, beautiful, and mesmerising.

By contrast, Matt Black also captures stories from small-town America that are equally engaging and emotive. But they are made in the moment, capturing the real-life situations of the community without any models or a huge team of assistants.

Crewdson creates the vision of America that he wants to share with his audience, whereas Black finds what to photograph of real lives to share with his audience.

Both are storytellers. Both are editors. Both choose the story they want to share and make photographs that tell the story.

What angle do you want to take?

Truth is how you see it.

Every news article, documentary, biography and thesis is a version of the truth about a subject.

The person responsible for the story decides what they want to say and then works out how to say it.

You might think that a biography of one person’s life would have limited scope for variation and yet the artist Pablo Picasso has been written about as an artistic genius, a monster of cruelty and everything in between, depending on the biographer. 

Donald Trump can be either the greatest American President of all time, or the worst, depending on the news channels you read and watch. 

Every story has an ‘angle’ about the subject being shared.

In ‘news’ the term ‘angle’ simply means perspective. We can all look at any situation from a different perspective or through a different metaphorical lens.

The decision for the storyteller is what perspective they want to focus on.

For example, when I wanted to tell the story of new tenant farmers in south east England, I wanted to highlight how hard farming was for the individuals working the land and how they were adapting to climate change. 

Raimes Vineyard, budding the vines
Tending to the vines at Raimes Vineyard

I might have instead chosen to glorify farming by focussing less on the day-to-day hardship and more on the celebration of harvesting, big machinery and satisfaction of the yield. I could also have focused on isolation, life in the farmhouse, animal welfare, or any number of other ‘angles’.

In fact, I could return to the same farm every year and tell a different story.

Make it for you and the integrity of the subject

Whatever story you choose to make, make it for you. Trust that because you find it interesting, others will too.

Choose a subject that interests you deeply rather than one that you think might have more photographic appeal. Working on a subject that you feel invested in will enable you to find creative ways to tell the story .

If you work on a subject simply because you think it will be aesthetically pleasing, or easier to make the photographs, then you probably won’t be as invested in the subject matter and that will likely show through in your work.

The photographer Sean Tucker describes a time when he photographed members of an African tribe and was very pleased with the results until someone pointed out that whilst they were technically very good portraits, they didn’t really convey anything of the subjects.

He realised that he hadn’t connected with the tribe or allowed himself the time to understand them as individuals. As a result, it showed in his work.

Your belief and passion in a particular story will make it more interesting and engaging for audiences.

I know that we are often told to think about the audience, but I doubt Edward Hopper had an audience in mind when he painted Nighthawks .

Edward Hopper's Nighthawks painting of a late night coffee shop.
Nighthawks by Edward Hopper

Writers are often told that their passion for writing should be so strong that they would want to write even if nobody ever read their work.

Make  your photographs as if everyone will want to experience how you see the world.

Ideating interesting stories

When your head is full of ideas, writing them down helps you to sort and prioritise.

When I write my thoughts on paper, I immediately think of something else, then something else, then something else. By the time I’ve finished scribbling I’m often several steps removed from where I started – but the idea is stronger.

Write with a pen.

I don’t think you get the same flow of ideas typing them out on-screen. The speed of thought is often much quicker than the time it takes to type – so scribble, draw lines, cross things out, doodle and enjoy the process of formulating your ideas into a potential project.

Many years ago I wrote a list of things that I was interested in and I keep it updated. It’s just a list: Film Noir, Inspired by artworks, Farming, Crofting, Traditional forms of Entertainment, Sustainability…

Most weeks I will make notes in a book usually related to a subject on my list. For example, an interest in farming and food production led me to focus on the growing wine industry across the south of England, which was triggered by an article I had read.

Ideas don’t just jump into your head. You need a source of inspiration to spark the idea first. That starts with research.

I read the news daily. I visit the websites of associations and bodies that represent the subjects I’m interested in. I read local newspapers online. I email people and ask questions. 

It’s through this effort that I’m able to take a subject that is of interest and develop it into an idea for a photography project.

I can test the strength of my ideas by giving them the “Five Ws Test”.

I find this is a helpful way to summarise a potential project and assess whether it is worth pursuing or not. Often you can have an idea that seems great until you break it down and realise it’s not.

  • Who – who is the story about?
  • What – what is the angle?
  • Where – where does the story happen?
  • Why – why is this story important or interesting?
  • When – when does the story take place?

Once you’ve answered the questions the only remaining measure of success is whether you are still excited by it.

Establishing your signature style 

Not every photographer has a visual signature but some do. Certainly, we often see a visual signature running through particular projects where we can clearly identify certain attributes that are carried from one image to the next.

To my mind, visual signature is more than just what is in the frame. It is a conscious decision to create photographs in a certain way.

I think of six elements that are in my control that I can make choices about:

  1. Digital or film
  2. Black and white, or colour
  3. Aspect ratio
  4. Choice of lenses
  5. Time of day
  6. Natural or artificial light

1. Digital or film

This is where I always start. I love film, it produces a quality that can’t be authentically replicated with digital. But, it is expensive.

I can purchase an SD card that will store 900 images for less than a quarter of the price to buy the equivalent shooting capacity in film, and once I have an SD card I can shoot again and again and again.

Also the processing and scanning of film can be costly, unless you have your own kit . 

Cost is definitely a factor but I will occasionally still choose to use film for a project where I think the richness, depth and character will add to the quality of the story.

2. Black and white, or colour

With digital this is not something you have to consider at the outset but you need to make a decision fairly quickly.

Particular projects will steer your decision. If you were doing a project on gardens you would probably want to emphasise the colour of the planting. If you were photographing a manufacturing facility in a warehouse you might choose black and white as a way of emphasising the drama of the work involved.

3.  Aspect ratio 

Most photographers will choose to shoot in 3:2 aspect ratio in the camera, which is a standard ratio based on 35mm film. However, with digital cameras in particular, it’s not the only choice.

If you’re planning to shoot a story  which will be distributed via social media, such as Instagram then choosing 4:5 ratio in your camera settings will give you an image that can be shared without any cropping.

Some photographers shoot 1:1 ratio, which gives them a square image. This is also the aspect ratio of medium format film cameras such as the Hasselblad 500cm.

In Matt Black’s book, American Geography, all the images are square apart from the main establishing shots which appear to be 16:9, or widescreen as it’s commonly referred to.

4. Choice of lenses

Using a range of lenses is pretty standard for any project but some photographers prefer to use lenses to create a particular look and feel. And carrying five lenses around isn’t always practical.

Photographer Garry Winogrand spent most of his career using a 28mm lens, which for many people might seem very wide but suited his visual signature.

Martin Parr has favoured a 24-70mm zoom lens for many years, and Steve McCurry also a zoom lens for his documentary work.

Martin Parr photographing on beach
Martin Parr with his Canon and telephoto lens

There is a discipline that goes with limiting the lenses you choose to work with and you have to consider the environment and places you’ll be.

I personally prefer to use a 50mm lens, it is my default, but it has its limitations. This is why I also carry a 24-70mm for those situations where I simply can’t get enough distance between myself and the subject and therefore need something wider, or I need to get in close but don’t want to encroach into someone’s personal space (and therefore need a longer lens).

5. Time of day

Gregory Crewdson only shoots his pictures at dusk or twilight as he refers to it.

Brassai famously photographed Paris at night. Many of Daido Moriyama’s photographs are also at night on the streets of Tokyo.

Phil Penman does most of his New York photography just as the city is waking up and coming to life.

Saul Leiter liked to photograph umbrellas in the rain.

Think about your project and whether there is a time of day that is better suited to conveying the story you want to tell.

6. Natural or artificial light

Martin Parr uses a flash for all his photography and it creates the visual signature, a pop of saturated colour, that he is famous for.

Bruce Gilden also uses a flash, choosing to carry it rather than mount it on the camera.

By contrast, Henri Cartier-Bresson was vehemently opposed to flash “out of respect of the actual light – even when there isn’t any of it.

There is no doubt that using a flash creates a particular type of light, some might say a harsh or unflattering light. There are steps you can take to control artificial light  but they are also time-consuming, which means you could lose the moment you are trying to capture.

Artificial light can be used to achieve a particular style and sometimes might be the only way you can photograph within an environment.

Natural light is harder to work with but potentially more rewarding and gives you more freedom as a photographer.

Five Storytelling Photography Takeaways

In wrapping up, here are some final thoughts and key takeaways. 

1.     Never lose sight of what you started out to achieve

Keep sense checking your work against your original idea. It’s okay for an idea to evolve but be sure to write it down and then realign your planning. Don’t just drift off-topic.

2.     Be your own critic 

What is a great photograph to you? What is a great photograph for your project?

3.     Use your network to gauge their feedback. 

There is nothing wrong with asking people to view work-in-progress. 

In Hollywood, it is common practice to hold screenings of films before the official release so that changes can be made if required. Manuscripts go through several editors before the completed version goes to print. Asking friends, family and other photographers to view your work will help you tell a stronger story.

4.     ‘Photograph the thing itself’ 

…as Matt Black says. ‘Don’t look for symbols or metaphors of the thing, find the actual thing, even if it requires more effort.’ 

What he means is don’t photograph the front page of a newspaper with the headline about an event; be at the event.

I once photographed two toy vehicles on some shredded plastic to demonstrate waste. I spent hours getting it right and never used it. What I really needed to do was go to a waste site, even though getting permission was very difficult.

5.     Keep thinking about how you will share your project and get it in front of an audience.

Your initial ideas might evolve as the project comes together. What started out as something to share in printed book form might end up being a great digital photo essay or an outside exhibition.

In the words of photographer Jonas Bendiksen 

The people who will inherit photography are not necessarily the people who are capable of taking the most brilliant composition or taking the ‘best picture’, whatever that means. It’s the people who come up with the best ideas or are really using photography to ask the most interesting questions.