The Secrets of a Story-telling Photo

A few weeks back I had visited George Eastman Museum of Photography where there was an exhibition on Travel photography. It was a great experience of watching world’s best photographs showcased in a 2hour tour of the exhibition halls. After looking at most of the photos (half way of the tour), I found an intangible element in almost all the photos. It’s the “story” behind what (and how) the photo has been shot. What can make a simple photograph of two children staring at the camera from inside a window of a mud house in Peru so unique and worth that it was displayed to thousands of people visiting the museum. We all have emotions within us and a careful shot of a scene (may be staged also) can make us laugh, cry or even angry. This is the magic of a photo that tells a story. When a person feels an emotion out of anything, process or event, the person will hardly be able to forget that specific thing, process or event.

Baby Care
Baby Care by Paul Wager

May it be a good, positive or even negative feelings. Same holds true when a person sees a photograph. The fun part with a photograph is that it “always” tells us a story, actually there can be multiple stories that can be associated with a photo. But it is in the mind of the photographer to “direct” or “channelize” the minds of the viewers to a particular, strong and appealing stories. And if the photographer is not successful in this endeavor than the photograph loses its distinctiveness and falls under the “normal” category.

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Although this topic is closely linked to Travel, Street Photography and Photo journalism but doesn’t have to be limited to those field of works only. Actually everything that happens around us has some background story linked to it, unless you are a computer geek sitting in front of computer and surfing the internet for 23 hours a day. Even a photo of such a geek (a big round glasses will make it more dramatic) sitting amidst of gadgets and looking at the computer screen busy typing (some motion blur will do the work) having that weird and lost look on his face can make an excellent story-telling photo. Who knows this might be the winner at the “Best Geek Photo” of the millennium contest. Of course you will get “better” real life shots when you are out in a public place (street photography) or a tourist place (Travel Photography) or an event location (Photo journalism)

So now you have an idea of what is a story telling photo and why it is so important to make the viewers feel an emotion (any type) when they look at your photos. Now let’s get to work. First of all story telling in itself is very “creative” and it is difficult to formulate any specific “techniques” to tell good stories. But definitely there’s a structure. Same holds true for photography. The next thing to keep in mind is if you are not satisfied with the photograph’s capability of impregnating a story in your mind, probably it will not have any effect in any other viewer’s mind either.

As any other properties of storytelling, a photo should comprise of one or more of 5 elements – Mood, Emotion, Narrative, Ideas or Messages. Let’s elaborate on each of these characteristics one by one.

I. Mood

The mood can be achieved using correct background (objects or effects like blurring). The background should have “relationship” with the subject in order to bring the mood. Even the objects can be inter-linked to build up the thought process of the viewer in a particular guided path.

All is good
All is Good by Edgar Barany

II. Emotion

The emotion can be demonstrated through facial expressions of a person as well as activity being performed by the subject(s).

Mother and child
Mother and child by Tanja van der Westhuizen

III. Narration

The narrative property in a photo comes to life when the viewer can easily visualize what happened “before” the shot was taken from what is happening in the photograph (similar to narrating a story to demonstrate the flow of events). This can be successfully demonstrated by “including” or “excluding” certain elements into or from your photograph. For example, a person talking to someone not in the frame. Thus it is very important to decide on what you should include in the frame and what should be excluded in order to leave the viewer’s mind figure out the rest of the story that preceeded the current moment of the photograph.. Generally the more detailed the photo is (i.e. more exclusion) the more narrative quality the photograph possesses.

Children by Paul Wager

IV. Idea

The idea is kind of difficult to illustrate but if you have something in your mind that you want to show the viewers through a photograph, it shouldn’t be too tough. The key is to already have in your mind what you are looking for. This is more demonstrated through abstract photography which is nothing but a completely different way of looking at something very common.

Cyclops by maestro vecchio

V. Message

Finally the message is the “future” of what the viewer is currently seeing and conceiving in the photograph. This is often dictated by the theme of the photograph. The theme can be visual (color/pattern), style (macro/zoom/panorama), relation (objects in the photo) and location (room, market, open space) or combination of the above. In most famous photographs, the photographer intentionally leaves a lot of things unsettled so that the viewer’s have an open idea of what is going to happen next.

man and friend
Man and Friend by Mark Haygarth

The key to grab the attention of the viewer with a subject and then instantly pass on the idea/message/narration to the viewer so that he/she can feel the same emotion and mood as the photographer felt when present in the actual scene taking the photograph. The work of a photographer then is successful, fulfilling and truly complete.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the creativity of building up a story in a photograph can be a difficult task but with practice and keeping the above specific structures in mind, you will be able to generate more interesting photos that will be appreciated by the viewers. Someone told it right:

A picture is worth a thousand words

If you have a photo that tells a story, post the link below in comments.

About the author
Sudipta Shaw is a Software Professional and a Self-made Photographer. He likes to mentor and teach. He is the founder of the site

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2 Responses to “The Secrets of a Story-telling Photo”

  1. Amit says:

    nicely explained..yup me to agree if we give a suitable name to the image the viewers understand wat a photographer wants to depict from the pic..
    thank you very much for this beautiful article..

  2. So different from the usual tutorials. Even the best designers won’t get anywhere without knowledge of logical concept like this 🙂

    thanks, great tutorial!

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