Do Your Pictures Tell a Story?

Here I'm showing Cold, Fog, Rain, Immensity, Ruggedness, and Struggle.  (Photograph by Dan Westergren)

Reader Question: How do I tell a story with photographs?

My Answer: A photo editor’s nightmare is when someone shows him a picture and then starts to explain what’s in it. In the worst cases, the photographer starts to talk about important things that aren’t even in the shot.

In the simplest of terms, a storytelling photograph must show what the story is about. As the stories we want to tell with pictures get more complex, it becomes harder to fit all the elements into one frame. However, trying to make that happen is a great exercise.

The first step is to photograph all aspects of the story. Get to know the subject until you can decide what visual elements help tell the tale of that place or person.

Think about it in terms of covering the story from different angles. Photograph your subject from near, far away, back, front.

The key to an interesting photographic coverage is variety. Change up the size of the subject in the photographic frame. Shoot the same thing with different focal length settings. This is the time to really play around.

Photos work best when they have more than one storytelling element. In this case I was pretty bummed that the rain and fog were obscuring the Alaskan mountain range behind the glacier. Then I found out our boat was to be visited by two National Park Service rangers. Their small size emphasized the scale of the landscape.

One of my tricks is to think of adjectives that can describe a place and then see how many of them I can get into a photograph. Here I’m showing Cold, Fog, Rain, Immensity, Ruggedness, and Struggle.

And, last but not least, don’t fall into the trap of including the main subject of your story in every picture. After a few photos the viewers will get the idea.

Be sure to mix things up, take a lot of pictures, and review your shots while you’re still in the field because that’s when ideas for what will become the best photos — the keepers — will start bubbling to the surface.

Most photographers don’t just stand around waiting for the best scenes to appear in front of them. They work to draw their mind into the scene, hoping to capture the telling details that would have gone unnoticed without careful observation.

Do Your Pictures Tell a Story?

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