Use Story-Telling to Power Up Your Photography
by Eric Hatch
Great photos tell great stories and have visual impact. Such photos stick in the mind and resonate for decades when you come across them again. Here are a few tips on how to make your photos tell their stories better.
Tip #1 Recognize a story when you see one.
Stories are about people, or relationships, feelings, or situations. They aren’t about snapshots, selfies, and (generally) objects. So the question you ask yourself as a photographer is “what’s the story here, and how can I tell it?” This question alone will power up your photography and lift you out of the ranks of camera-clickers into the more rarefied plane of observers of the world around you.
Here are two photos: both are good, but one tells more of a story than the other.
The first is a portrait of a kid at a butterfly show. The second really tells the story of what’s happening. Two things make the difference. In the first, the lifted gaze and brighter light on the kid make him the center of interest, so the picture is about him. (The eye goes naturally to the brightest areas of a photo).
In the second photo, the gaze of both humans is towards the butterfly. This creates a powerful implied line connecting the humans and the critter. Also, the brightest area of the picture pulls our eye toward the butterfly (with some distraction at the lower left, which could be darkened with a vignette, but, hey, enough’s enough). Love on the dad’s face, intense concentration on the child’s, and both looking towards the wonderful sight of a butterfly alighting on a human hand … this is a story of love and discovery and sharing and is much more of a story-telling photo than the first one. So here’s the tip: photograph the story, not the kid. Let sight lines and light and dark do the heavy lifting for you.
Tip #2 Enhance and clarify the story by reducing distractions.
Here’s another story shot from the same event.
Here the story is about sharing a moment between grandparent and grandchild. The hands tell the story. The blue morpho butterfly is the ostensible subject, but the real subject is the young and old hands transferring the card on which the butterfly is momentarily poised — both old and young hands are being delicate and gentle and very careful. Technically, this photo required some photoshop to darken the blazing white card so that it’s less distracting. Also, the photo has been cropped both in-camera and afterward to make sure the story is what counts. Finally, the energy in this photo in increased by composing it on the diagonal, from upper left to lower right. Straight shots are far less energetic than angled ones!
Tip #3 Emphasize the emotions.
Emphasize the emotions. They’re the story in most people pictures. So you want to crop or compose to emphasize the emotions (and faces) of the people. But an emotion without context is less of a story, so the trick is to include what you need to give necessary context, and exclude everything else. It’s best to do this in the camera, but you can do it post, though that will reduce your ability to make good large prints.
Here are two versions of the same shot to illustrate the point. Both are good, but which does a better job of focusing on the anxiety of the passenger? Is enough context included in the tight shot?
Finally, you don’t have to have people in the shot, or even animals, to have a good story-telling photo. Sometimes architecture and artifacts alone can do the job.
To sum up, power up your pictures by finding the story, then framing to tell the story. Expose, crop, and edit to make sure you’re focusing on the story, and nothing else. And watch your photos take off! (PS — you can do this with cell phone pictures, too!)
Check out Eric’s recent exhibit “post-industrial ghosts” in a virtual gallery.
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