Our Guide to Storytelling with Photography

Photo by: Federico Alegría
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Storytelling is something broader than photography, of course; and by now I’m confident that you’ve heard that word quite sufficiently. This could raise some questions, of course.

Beyond being a fancy word or a catchy phrase used by everyone, what is storytelling really about? Well, it has to do with the notion or the sense of the story one is trying to tell. This sounds quite obvious, but achieving it in a meaningful and aesthetic way, requires a step-by-step process that I want to share with you.

Warning: This is just a personal proposal that you might disagree with. I encourage you to use it as a baseline for crafting your own better-suited process

On the Importance of Reading (visual and textual)

As social beings, we’ve transitioned from the oral tradition to the visual consumption. Almost all of our daily communication happens via visual platforms, and we need to take advantage of this for telling better stories with photography.

Reading is an important step of this narrative process, and personally I think it should be the first one. It is also the one that never stops happening, or at least it shouldn’t.

Narrowing it down, we can pinpoint precise sources of inspiration and content. Contemporary social issues, for example, can be accessed via multiple formats; from daily news to even movies and books (or audio books in case you spent a lot of your time behind a steering wheel).

Everyday stuff, or simply the quotidian, has a lot of things that could tell us about the way we are currently living as human beings. And guess what? This is a great way of inspiration! If you are deep into social media (like Instagram), I highly suggest you have two accounts. One for selfies, cats and food, and the other one exclusively for photographic purposes.

Related to high quality visual consumption, being picky about just following photographers that inspire you, will come with a high reward.

Pulling out Some Ideas

What does reading work for if we don’t fish for some ideas while doing it? But be very careful. It is true that we’ve switched to a highly visual culture, but we are also living some quite accelerated times [1]. That means that everything is entering through our eyes, at overwhelming rhythms.

Being able to skim and scan for useful ideas could be a challenge when being highly bombarded by the multiple spectacles [2] happening at the very end of our hands. Dedicating some proper time to simply jotting down some ideas could help you out into finding something that could become a great visual story to tell with your photographs.

Don’t limit yourselves to social media. Having a broader selection of inspiration sources would make the difference between simply mimicking what everyone is doing with their cameras and presets and actually standing out from the crowd.

“Thanks” to COVID-19 a lot of museums have put out great efforts for making their exhibitions available via web access. Here are some of the sites that I tend to visit on a regular basis:

Ideas can sprout out of the most odd places, the important thing is to always be awake and quite receptive to their subtle call. It is easy to drown into the anesthesia of our postmodern times, but fighting back comes with nice experiences of vital resonance.

Building a Concept

Ideas are inoperative unless you make them happen. After having a batch of some ideas (you can also have just one, but selecting from several ideas is quite productive), you’ll need to select just one. Try that your decision has some sort of justifying nature or strategic component. After all, it has to be doable.

From here on, you’ll start building the concept to be developed in order to tell a story with your photographs. There is no precise way of doing this, but you should be able to design or plan the images to be taken. This includes creative decisions regarding optics and lighting, as well as people in front of your lenses.

If you are drawn to more artistic photographs, then you’ll have to develop some leading skills that will make you an agile director on the set. If you are willing to pursue documentary projects with high social components, then you’ll have to work hard on those social skills that will allow you to get closer to the phenomena you are willing to record.

Some people like drawing sketches of the things that they’ll like to achieve, and some others have a simple notebook with precise shots to be taken. Personally, I think that the sketched script is a robust solution, and it corresponds better to artistic photographs.

In animation and cinema, this is called the “Storyboard”. A fantastic tool that allows these creatives to follow precise instructions regarding each scene. In photography, lighting will be crucial, so don’t forget about that! These are some useful tools for crafting visual scripts of your concepts:

Research

Defined the concept, let the research begin!

Deep diving into research is one task that might not thrill everyone in the same way, but trust me on the importance of it. Every concept that has to be developed will benefit from some proper research. And I’m not talking about photography related stuff, but social ones.

Both artistic and documentary works become immediately more meaningful if they are aimed at representing or registering topics that matter to specific clusters, communities, populations and even the whole humanity.

It’s true that projects get developed out of our own decisions, but photographs become truly powerful when they are able to transmit stories and messages to other persons out there.

Warning call: We currently live in the times of post-truth thanks to the overwhelming boom of fake news, be cautious about your sources of information when immersing into research about that specific topic that you are trying to develop into a solid storytelling concept.

Making it Different

One of the most important things research gives is a clear understanding of the things that have already been done in the past by other photographers. We all want to achieve creative breakthroughs by doing things that no one has ever done, but this goal is extremely hard to achieve. Therefore, in most cases, you’ll come up with ideas that have already been done before.

Should you drop your ideas then? Of course not! Research gives a clear perspective of what has already been done, and even though topics might feel limited, there is still much we can do to develop them in different ways. Hence the need of knowing what and how things have already been done before.

How are you going to make a very popular idea different? That’s an answer only you can answer it to yourself.

Developing the Concept

This could easily relate or be translated into “the photographer’s workflow”, a topic you’ll see mentioned in various places, but which rarely will be found explained in a proper way. Honestly, this is a very mysterious topic, so I’ll share my own perspective of the process that I’ve been using since a decade now.

First thing’s first, let’s narrow this down to the actual act of taking the photographs, a process that could start with a check-list and finish with the online publication of the work. Everything that happens in between those limits, that’s what we’ll understand as the photographer’s workflow.

Personally, I divide it into three main stages which are:

  • Preproduction
  • Production
  • Postproduction

Simple huh?

Preproduction corresponds to everything that you’ll need to prepare before actually turning your camera on. Paperwork like model releases and location permissions are key. Gear related check-lists are crucial for having a smooth shooting, and proper planning will reduce clumsy improvisations to the minimum.

Side-note: I’m not saying that improvising is bad, I’m just saying that you shouldn’t solely rely on it. A healthy degree of creative freedom is always helpful, but having no plan at all could come with a very high price to pay.

Doing a bit of a brainstorm could be helpful, especially during the first times doing this process.

Production is the highly operative step of the workflow, and is just a fancy way of saying “let the shooting begin!”

Postproduction is everything that you do with your raw files, from downloading them to your computer to publishing or even printing your final images out. Here I like making a decision between the editing process and the image development stage. Editing relates to selecting the best photographs for you to tell the story in the way you want it, and the other is the technical moment in which you spend valuable time just with the photos that work the best for you.

Some people enjoy spending several hours retouching their images, and some others like me find that to be a bit tedious. Whatever your way of working, postproduction is everything that happens with the actual photos that you made during the production stage.

Single Shots or Essay?

Here there are at least three possible ways of doing the images. The first one is single unique photos, like those praised by the true believers of the decisive moment dogma. For me, this is something you could perceive when watching iconic photographs which are deep in storytelling, but hardly ever planned. They are the result of a well trained photographer that was mighty prepared for the action, and a wise editor behind those publications like Magnum or Time.

The second route is several unique works around a specific concept or topic. Contemporary photographers since Cindy Sherman, Andreas Gursky and Jeff Wall are great examples of this tradition of artistic work. And last but not least, the photographic essays.

This last way of telling stories with your photographs is the result of careful planning, or simply listening to a single shot that craves for more images to be made around it.

Visual Grammar

If we are talking about stories, shouldn’t we consider the way in which these stories are read? Tricky question, and the simple answer is yes. But before answering something about it, another question should be asked. Why bother at all? Well, because you have the responsibility of transmitting something to your audience, and it is important that you understand how this communication process happens in order to create smarter photographs.

Sometimes, people wrongly state that photographs are read just like written text. And that’s a barbaric thing to say. Photographs should start to be read from a particular place, the very portion of the photograph that draws your attention the most. And then, the composition elements within the frame will glide you through the whole photograph [3].

This applies to single image reading, but if you are creating an essay, you should also consider the complete reading experience of the whole set. And just like a tale or a novel, not all photographs have to be exactly equal in force. Some will help the viewer to rest, and some others will create the needed tension for the readers to keep on interested in the visual story at their gaze.

Statement

Last but not least, you have to write [4] something about your work if you want your audience to consume it in a proper way.

Originally translated from the French, “Images à la sauvette” for marketing purposes [5] as “The Decisive Moment” is a book that has blandly been reduced to a concept standing far away from Henri Cartier-Bresson’s original intentions of “Hastily Taken Images. Nowadays, people talk about the decisive moment in a reduced way that has limited a lot of photographers into thinking that one single image has mandatory to be capable of telling a deep story. And even if this can scarcely happen, it doesn’t always correspond to powerful narratives, especially when shooting on the streets.

Photographic essays are a great solution for this, but this will be a topic for another day. The main thing that you have to know when shooting for storytelling purposes on the street is that perhaps one single shot won’t have the power of telling a story in the most proper way. That’s when a series of images come in handy.

I hope that this brief guide (or recipe if you wish) helps you out into taking meaningful photographs that will empower you to tell stories, and allow your viewers to have a delightful aesthetic experience while reading it out.

References:

[1]. Rosa, Hartmut, 2016. Resonanz: eine Soziologie der Weltbeziehung. Erste Auflage. Berlin: Suhrkamp. ISBN 9783518586266. HM590 .R67 2016

[2]. Debord, Guy, 2014. The Society of the Spectacle: Annotated Edition. Paperbound edition. Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets. ISBN 9780939682065. [

[3]. Barthes, Roland, 2010. Camera lucida: reflections on photography. Pbk. ed. New York: Hill and Wang. ISBN 9780374532338. TR642 .B3713 2010

[4]. Benjamin, Walter, 2003. Understanding Brecht. London; New York: Verso. ISBN 9781859848142.

[5]. O’Hagan, Sean, 2014. Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his Decisive Moment has passed. The Guardian [online]. 23 December 2014. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/23/henri-cartier-bresson-the-decisive-moment-reissued-photography

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