Canon 40D, 120mm, 1/250 @ f/4.0, ISO 400

Telling Stories with Photography: Every Photo Tells a Story

Posted by on July 11th, 2012

Welcome to a new series here on Story|Forward that I’m calling “Telling Stories with Photography.” In the next few months I’m going to discuss the basics of telling stories using visual imagery and we are going to talk about how things like focal length, aperture, and composition shape narrative.

Canon 40D, 120mm, 1/250 @ f/4.0, ISO 400

To kick off this series I want to start with one fundamental concept: every photo tells a story.  “Hold on a second,” you might say. “What about abstract or still life photography? Do they really tell stories?”

First of all I’d like to thank you for asking a question that flows so seamlessly into my point and second I’d like to tell you that yes, every photo does tell a story. It might be an incredibly simple story like “look at these shapes and colors,” or it could be something so complex that a single frame talks about light, color, pain, loss, sadness, hope, war, religion, family, and Italian art (In case you’re wondering, I’m thinking about Samuel Aranda’s World Press Photo award-winning image).

Telling stories with photos isn’t always easy and sometimes even experienced photographers (myself included) get so focused on the technical aspects of our work that we can overlook it. Because storytelling in photography is often subtle — capturing a sideways glance or shooting with a slightly warmer white balance — some photographers forget or never learned in the first place how important it is to their craft.

Storytelling in photography is hugely important for two reasons. If you don’t think about the stories your pictures tell, there’s a good chance they will tell stories you and your clients don’t want to hear. Here is an extreme example; say you were tasked with shooting a wedding and didn’t think about how eye-contact can change the meaning of a photo.

In this situation you take a beautiful photo of the bridal party at the altar; the exposure is perfect, the focus is tack sharp, and maybe there is even some amazing soft light streaming in from the stain-glass windows above.  One problem, you caught the single second in the ceremony where the groom looked away from the bride and locked eyes with the maid of honor. He was probably totally innocent, but if you fail to notice this detail and send of a wall size canvas print of this photo to the bride, you (and the groom) could be in for some real trouble.

The second reason stories matter in your photography is, more than anything else, they differentiate you from other photographers. If you are the kind of photographer that makes your living solely on technically perfect photos, I’ve got news for you, robots are coming for your job. With high dynamic range sensors, insane autofocus systems, and increasingly better in-camera processing, DSLR’s are getting closer to shooting technically flawless photos without photographers touching a single setting. And you know what? So are iPhones. The quality of snapshots from point-and-shoot cameras is increasing dramatically. And, with the advent of technologies that allow you to set focus in post production or choose high-quality stills from video, technical perfection for everyone is not far off.

The thing that will keep photographers working is their style. Whatever you call it — your vision, your signature, your voice, or your look — clients want you to offer something unique. In a world where uncle Joe owns a 5D Mark III and Instagram is making everyone a photographer, the stories you tell and the way you tell them is what will set you apart.

Assignment: Find your favorite photo or take a new one and think about the story it tells. Write out that story and post it below in the comments with a link to the image. For example, here is what  I would say about the photo of the Peruvian farmer featured at the beginning of this post: From the man’s clothes and the fruit in his hand I learn he is a farmer. The use of a long focal-length compresses the background and makes me feel like he is surrounded by trees. The expression on his face tells me he likes his job and his eyes appear to be looking at someone else out of frame who he is about to hand the fruit to. There is a lot more I could say but I’ll just leave it at that. 

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