Category Archives: Digital Storytelling

Don’t stop creating

Posted by on February 1st, 2014

How do you land photography jobs? How do you get good enough to become a professional photographer? If you’re starting out in this industry or even if you’ve been in it for a few years but feel like your creative wheels are stuck in the mud, these are the kinds of questions that lodge themselves in the front of your mind. Even if you are well into your career, there’s always a haunting feeling that one day people are going to figure out you’re a fraud, that the majority of the images you take are garbage and sometimes you feel more lucky than talented.

If you are anything like me, you struggle with the gap between your creation and your vision — between the work you do produce and the work you want to produce. In my career there have been times when I wanted to (and at least one time where I actually did) put down the camera and stop creating because I couldn’t stand the images I captured. During those times, everything I made repulsed me. My photographs were cliche, shallow, and uninspired. I felt like a climber who has given his best and just wants to lay down in the snow to rest a while. But just like that climber, giving up would be dangerous. If you want to get better, you have to keep pushing forward. It’s true in life and it’s true in art.

The video in the top of this post is a great reminder that pushing forward and creating new work is the best way to improve your craft. It’s from a longer series of talks by Ira Glass about storytelling which I highly recommend to anyone who does creative work, even if journalism or radio isn’t your thing. There’s some deep stuff in there and great reminders about the work that goes into making something meaningful.

Other Stories: A Different Side of My Work

Posted by on July 10th, 2013

Most of you know me as a photographer so it may surprise you to learn that a few of my biggest professional projects to date have been animated motion graphics (including the one you see at the top of this post). A big part of multimedia storytelling is using the right tools for the job. While photography, writing, and video are the core of what I do, animation allows me to tell stories with dense information quickly and in a way that engages an audience differently than other visual media.

My most recent project was a graduation video for the University of Washington’s College of Arts and Sciences. Animation projects are time-consuming beasts and require a lot of thought to execute well. My team spent hours making sure we had the right information, brainstorming ways to present that information, and then creating the foundational graphic before animation ever began. It’s been great to work on a big collaborative project like this. While your own artistic vision can take you a long way, bringing in other viewpoints and skill sets opens doors you didn’t even know existed.  It also helps you catch mistakes and that’s important when every export of your video takes several hours to render, and fixing one typo can mean almost a full day of work — trust me, I know.

There were a lot of technical challenges to overcome and many lessons learned. I now know that all those fancy cores your processor has won’t live up to their potential if there isn’t enough RAM backing them up — Adobe recommends 2GB per core. I learned that even when you have enough RAM you’re not going to get the fastest render speeds until you enable multiprocessing. Seriously, if you’re doing any video/animation work you need to learn about this. There were lessons about hard drive configurations and about optimizing Illustrator files for After Effects (better to use a lot of small files than one big one that takes 30 minutes to conform every time you make an edit). Probably the most valuable thing I learned was to set keyframe interpolation to linear before you draw a massive animation path. Leaving it on the default “Auto Bezier” is a sure way to make your animated paths look like bouncy boomerangs.

This project took about two weeks of solid work but I had a blast seeing it through. I feel like one or two of these a year is an ideal number for me. Enough to keep my skills from getting rusty but not so many that I spend more time hunched over my monitor than I spend behind a real-life lens.

Creating Stills from Video with the Canon 5D Mark III

Posted by on March 15th, 2013

5d mark III stills from video (1 of 1)

There’s been a lot of buzz about motion image photography specifically surrounding super high resolution cameras like the Canon 1D C. With the advent of cameras that shoot video at resolutions higher than standard HD, it is now possible to pull still images directly from video with surprising results.

I’ve been shooting with a Canon 5D Mark III for about a month now, and I decided to go back and pluck some still shots from my video using the “capture frame” feature in Adobe Lightroom 4. I’ve posted a series of images here showing both edited and unedited stills. All the following images were uploaded in their full resolution to give you a more accurate picture of what to expect. Click on the photos to view them at 100%.  Continue reading

Guest Post for NGO Storytelling

Posted by on August 6th, 2012

When I was getting into this industry, I always wondered how photographers handled the business side of things. It seemed like everyone was willing to share information on f-stops and shutter speeds but not as ready to let you look at their contracts.

I never liked that and wanted to do something about it. So, if you would like to take a look at the licensing section of my contract, head on over to NGO Storytelling and read my guest post. I wrote this article to help non-profits understand contracts, but it should be equally useful for photographers who want to work in this industry.

Fighting Cholera in Haiti with a Camera

Posted by on July 26th, 2012


Mention the words “Haiti” and “disaster” and you’re likely thinking about the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 300,000 people and left nearly a million people homeless.  But in its wake another disaster is creeping over the island, and there is mounting evidence that this one is manmade.

A cholera outbreak in Haiti has killed thousands of people and sickened many more. Now a new film by David Darg and Bryn Mooser blames the United Nations for bringing the disease to the island and covering up their involvement in the outbreak. They are following up their video with a social media campaign and asking the public to tweet the United Nations asking them to admit responsibility in the outbreak.

After I saw the video, I knew I wanted to learn more about their work and contacted them on Twitter. I learned that Darg and Mooser became friends in Haiti where they have worked for more then two years. I also learned that the duo originally set out to make a film about Haiti’s first little league team but when one of their main subject lost his mother to cholera, they knew there was a bigger story to tell.

Keep reading below to find out more. Continue reading

Anthony Kerr

Storyteller Spotlight: Motojournalism

Posted by on July 19th, 2012

Anthony Kerr

Let me introduce you to Anthony Kerr. He’s a 32 year old Canadian and has been blogging over at for the last two years. Kerr brings a unique mix of overland motorcycling know-how and photographic knowledge to his audience. He writes on topics that range from packing a bike for a big trip to nailing composition in photographs.

On his motorcycle powered travels (he has never owned a car) to 10 countries in North and Central America, Kerr has caved out a niche in the photography world. He said, “I think it’s important to have a passion outside of photography itself. Like, you should be into something besides the cameras themselves, Cameras are just a tool to tell stories after all.”

The love for cameras came before motorcycles, but only slightly. Kerr is a self-taught photographer who used to break into his high school’s unused dark room to develop film while learning the basics from Time-Life books. He renewed his passion for photos in 2005 and started working seriously at it in 2007, about the same time he was planning his first overland trip. “I figured if I was going to head out into the world I should make a worthwhile effort to document it,” he said.

Graphic courtesy of Anthony Kerr

That effort paid off. By the time Kerr reached Panama City on his Canada to Panama ride his post on ADVRider had nearly a quarter-million views. Lots of people wanted to know about his photography and asked questions about what kind of gear he was using. “I figured there would be enough moto-travelers that would enjoy learning more about photography.” And thus Motojournalism was born. Continue reading

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. 

Survivors of a sunken landing craft are helped ashore on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. Photo via U.S. Military, Public Domain

Stories More Powerful than Morphine

Posted by on April 21st, 2012

Survivors of a sunken landing craft are helped ashore on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion. (Photo via U.S. Military, Public Domain)

Before my wife and I left on this trip, we downloaded a ton of Radiolab episodes to my laptop and our iPods. If you’re not familiar with Radiolab, I’d encourage you to check them out. As far as I’m concerned the people behind the show are some of our best modern storytellers. In the few months that I’ve listened to them, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about what makes a good story, both on the radio and in general.

I recently stumbled upon an episode from way back in 2007 about the placebo effect. The episode is about an hour-long and you can listen to it here. But what I want to talk about is a particular segment that begins 13 minutes into the program, it’s a story about stories and how they can actually change the way we feel, even take away pain.

This segment highlights the work of Dr. Henry Beecher who discovered something amazing in the middle of battle during World War II. Cut off from resupply, without enough morphine to treat all the wounded soldiers, Beecher found that many of them didn’t actually need the drug. Men with serious wounds seemed to have a higher pain tolerance in the heat of battle than those with similar injuries back in the States.

It’s worth your time to listen to the segment and their explanation of the hows and whys, but the gist of it is this: wounded soldiers had higher pain tolerances because they were telling themselves a better story. They were alive, their wounds were for a cause, they might get sent home and even awarded a medal. Provided they survived there was a good chance that these soldiers’ lives were going to get better.

The effect of this story was so profound it did more than give them a positive outlook, it actually changed the way they felt, sometimes it even took away the pain from horrible injuries.

Now you might think this has more to do with medical science than it does with the art of storytelling, but I think it illustrates something incredibly important about stories. Stories are hardwired into us. From the time we can comprehend language (and possibly before) we are fascinated by stories. There is a deep power in narrative that has the ability to change us in both mind and body.

Reminders like this, about how important stories are to us as humans, motivate me to make sure the stories I’m telling are good ones.

Climbing Cuesta Santa Ana-2

Podcast: Climbing Cuesta Santa Ana

Posted by on April 12th, 2012

So we’ve been in our new apartment for almost a week now, but I thought it would still be worth posting something about the guesthouse we were staying in when we first arrived in Cusco. Mostly because that guesthouse was reached only by one very brutal uphill climb through painfully thin air.

I decided the best way to tell this story was in audio format. This is the first time I’ve put together a podcast and it’s still a little rough around the edges, but a fun experiment nonetheless.

Click the play button below to listen.

Safari Magazine

Worth Repeating 11/11/11

Posted by on November 11th, 2011

Photo via Africa Geographic

Interview with the creators of Safari Magazine about their interactive masterpieceMatador Network 

Magazine photography: fees, negotiation, and contracts — Wonderful Machine and A Photo Editor

Stunning film of rhinoceros relocation — Green Renaissance 

With investigations like this one on Peru, I’ll be going back to this magazine — New Internationalist





Screen Shot 2011-11-09 at 1.09.09 PM

How to Write for Lonely Planet and Go to Hell

Posted by on November 9th, 2011


A FEW years ago, Lonely Planet was making headlines for all the wrong reasons. There were allegations that underpaid writers were plagiarizing other books, making facts up, and even writing about countries they had never visited. Most of this controversy revolved around Thomas Kohnstamm’s book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

In the book, which chronicles his booze and drug fueled foray into writing for Lonely Planet, Kohnstamm paints himself as an idealistic — albeit substance dependent —  young writer sent to Brazil, who learns the only way to get by in the business is to cheat. He reasons that everyone else is doing it, so he might as well do it too.

“The sad truth is, travel writers are disposable and can easily be replaced by new writers for cheap if they don’t learn how to play the game, or ask for too much cash. This is a ‘dream job,’ after all, and there’s always someone else in line.”

There are two things Kohnstamm knows how to write about well, nausea and the stress of looming deadlines. Neither are topics I’m eager to read about, but he has no problem devoting the majority of his 270 pages to them. Locations in the book blur into one long hangover with passing references to dirty hostels, sweltering bars, and sun-baked beaches.

Moments of clarity rarely appear until page 214 and are reserved only for anguishing over mountains of unattended work and a deadline growing closer, despite his best efforts to drink it away. He deals with this stress either by writing furiously for an hour, going out to a bar, or trying to find creative ways to make money — once even dealing drugs.

Allow me to be blunt, I did not care for this book. I’ve never been the kind of traveler who counts getting wasted as a goal and I don’t factor in the procurement of exotic substances on my itineraries. Still, Kohnstamm managed to get what many consider a dream job and devotes at least a chapter to explaining how he arrived there. For that reason, it’s worth taking a look at his career path

How to Write for Lonely Planet

Kohnstamm was born a traveler. His parents were educators and toted him on long summer vacations all over the world. He started traveling independently in his late teens and kept traveling through college.

Beginning in his junior year as a Government and Legal Studies major, he got a job working as a guide for high school students visiting Costa Rica over the summer. It was here that he honed his Spanish fluency, which would lead to his first book.

While visiting his brother in India, Kohnstamm noticed that Lonely Planet had only one phrase book for all of Latin America. On a whim, he fired off an email to the customer service department and asked if they would like a book on Costa Rican phrases. They said yes and in a few weeks, he knocked out the book from an internet café in Tamil Nadu.

This was 1999, Kohnstamm was 23, and the world economy was booming. “I believe that if I were to send a similar email to the customer service department these days, I probably wouldn’t even receive a response, let alone a book deal,” he said.

The book was successful and he was offered a chance to write for Lonely Planet’s guide books, but turned it down and got an MA in Latin American Studies from Stanford. Because he opted to study Portuguese, most of his schooling was paid for by the United States Government.

Flash forward a couple of years. Kohnstamm is turning 27 and working at a glorified data entry job. Fed up with his work, he makes another shot in the dark, emails Lonely Planet, and asks if they would still like to give him a job. Eventually they say yes, he writes a few sample chapters on New York, and gets an assignment to cover a large swath of Brazil’s coast.

Kohnstamm’s story began more than a decade ago and would likely be hard to replicate now, but there are a few things worth mentioning. First, language as a key to travel. If you want to be a global professional, being bilingual or multilingual is almost a requirement. It is one of the biggest holes in my own resume and the reason I’m taking six months off work to go to school in Latin America.

Americans who have spurned learning another language should know that in our modern world, they are competing for jobs against people who have learned to speak several different languages from childhood. There are few skills that so clearly help on an international job application.

The second thing worth noting is the value of long shots and getting your foot in the door. It is unlikely that Kohnstamm would have been picked for the Brazil assignment had he not proved himself with the phrasebook. It is even less likely that he would have been hired to write a phrasebook had he not sent that first email. Lonely Planet might not be responding anymore but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other outlets.

Lastly, his degree in Latin American Studies, how much did that help? A lot, according to Lonely Planet publisher Piers Pickard who said in the Sydney Morning Herald, “The guy’s got a masters in Latin American studies, he actually studied Colombian history and culture as part of that specifically. We thought he was an expert.”

I think the most important thing to take away is that good old-fashioned networking, cold calling, language skills, and education still have value in an industry increasingly focused on hustling your way to the top.

Is It That Bad?

Kohnstamm paints a bleak picture of the travel guide industry. He tells of a Yahoo Group called LPA (Lonely Planet Authors) where current and past writers get together and gripe about massive assignments with little pay.

He recounts advice from the author who covered Brazil before him. “Remember that if you are in your room at night writing, you aren’t doing enough bar research,” he says.

When Kohnstamm tries to trade a camera to cover a hotel bill the owner is shocked. “This is your first time working for Lonely Planet, huh?” The owner explains that all guide-book authors take freebies and that Kohnstamm won’t have to pay for anything.

Those who read this book might decide that all travel writers are a bunch of hacks sacrificing their readers in exchange for freebies. It would be easy to write off the industry as corrupt and full of bottom feeders. But should we really trust the author?

In my mind, Kohnstamm has a major credibility problem. He spends an entire book talking about what a clever liar he is and then asks his readers to believe his allegations.

Kohnstamm writing an exposé of Lonely Planet is like Janet Cooke writing an exposé of the Washington Post. During my reading of the book, I kept a running tab on how much he spent on drugs, alcohol, and women. While it was impossible to give an exact number, it must have been a significant part of his budget. This makes his claim that he didn’t have enough money to do the job suspect at best.

Of course, Lonely Planet is far from blameless in this affair. The most damning evidence comes on the book’s last page. It is a review of Kohnstamm’s work by his supervisor.

“Thomas is an excellent writer and researcher with a deep knowledge of Brazil. This was his first project for LP, and he did a fantastic job. Thomas is a hard worker who’s willing to go the extra mile to make sure his text is right. He added a lot of great new material to the chapters and substantially revised everything that he did decide to retain. He fits well with the LP tone and style, and is a delight to collaborate with…”

To Hell?

I didn’t like the book and I didn’t grow to respect Kohnstamm while reading it. It seemed one part expose, one part confession, with the author walking away far more scathed than Lonely Planet. Though the impact on the guide-book publisher cannot be understated.

While reading Do Travel Writers Go to Hell, I couldn’t help but flip open my copy of Lonely Planet South America On A Shoestring. There, six pages from the cover, was Kohnstamm’s photo along with a little paragraph that said something about his dedication to travel. I closed the book and considered throwing it away.

One thing I will say about Kohnstamm and his book is that it does make a lot of good points about people who treat guide books as a Bible. Thought I don’t trust all the stories in the book, it might be good reading for anyone you know who is overly optimistic about the travel writing industry. Who knows, maybe it will keep more like Kohnstamm from getting into this business.

Further Reading

Lonely Planet’s Official Response

WorldHum Interview with Kohnstamm

Matador Explaining Why This Book Makes People Angry