Most of us can recall some sort of instruction in story writing, whether it was in grade school, high school or college. Never mind that you didn’t really have an interest in writing fiction, for some reason academics seemed to demand it. So do you remember anything you learned while you were penning those required mysteries, romances and sci-fi stories? Believe it or not, you may find some of those lessons useful in your photography. Read on to find out what they are.
1. Show, don’t tell.
You almost certainly remember this one, because it is perhaps the most oft-quoted piece of writing advice given anywhere in all the world. Creative writing teachers love it like they love a non-fat latte with extra foam and a little heart drawn on top with the end of a spoon. They love it like they love that red pen they used to scratch all over your assignment.
“Show, don’t tell” means that instead of telling your reader what happened: “Bob watched the car explode,” you show him what happened, instead: “Bob turned his head in time to see a brilliant flash of light, and the vaguely mushroom-shaped column of smoke and fire that consumed the car and then rose into the sky.”
The first sentence tells you what happened; the next sentence shows you. So how can you apply this advice to your photos? Let’s look at a couple of examples.
The first photo is the equivalent of “telling” your viewer what’s going on. These four kids are posing in front of their school on the first day of classes. A photo like this one is a literal description of an event—four kids went to school. The second photo, however, leaves more to the imagination. In the second photo, there is a child with a backpack standing next to the road. He might be waiting for the school bus, or he might be crossing the street. It’s clear that he’s going to school, but the details of the scene provide the viewer with a little more creative interpretation. There’s a sense of vulnerability, because he’s standing there alone on the road and we’re not sure why. This photo “shows” the viewer something, rather than telling him. And because we have a reason to spend some time thinking about the second photo, it’s more compelling.
2. Write what you know.
This is another favorite for English professors, and there is a certain amount of truth in it. If you don’t write about things that you know, you’re going to have a hard time convincing your reader that the world of your story is real and compelling. If you’ve never fished, for example, it’s going to be hard to describe the act of fishing in a meaningful way.
The same thing goes for photographs—that’s not to say that you should never try shooting an event or a subject you don’t understand, but it does mean you need to do your best to give yourself an understanding of any new subject you might want to take pictures of. One obvious example of this would be if you were shooting wild birds. If you know nothing about the behavior of wild birds, it’s going to be really difficult for you to get compelling photos of them. To photograph wild birds, you have to know when they sleep, when they eat, what they eat, what times of day they are active and most important, where you can find them. But more than that, understanding your subject means that you can photograph that subject in a more meaningful way. If you know, for example, that your subject is hopping around in distress not because she has a broken wing but because she’s attempting to draw a predator away from her nest, you have an opportunity to shoot the photograph in a more meaningful way—that knowledge can be used to help you make a decision about how to frame and shoot that particular series of images.
3. Every story needs a beginning, middle and end.
This is true for stories that happen in real life, too, even if it’s just ordinary day-to-day moments. You get your child up in the morning, you give him breakfast, and you send him off to school. Beginning, middle and end.
Now obviously you can’t put all three of these things into a single photograph, but you can use the idea to greatly expand the number of photo opportunities you take advantage of for any one event. Let’s say your child was in a school play—you probably bring your camera to the performance to take photos of the play itself (the middle of the story), but how much time do you spend taking photos before and after the play? There are those moments where teachers are helping kids get into their costumes, there are those last minute rehearsals, there is the nervousness that always goes along with the moments before a big performance. Likewise, there is the relief that comes at the end of a performance, after the applause. There are those moments when parents give bouquets of flowers to their children for a job well done, there are embraces, and there are congratulations from parents, teachers and from other kids. So use this advice to remind yourself not to miss the things that happen before and after the middle part of an event. Make sure you’re always shooting the beginning and the end as well.
4. Hook the reader.
If a writer can’t interest her reader in the first sentence or two, then she’s not going to have a reader at all. Without a good hook, there’s no incentive for anyone to keep reading.
This is absolutely true for photographs, too. Each and every image you create has to have a “hook,” or something that compels the viewer to spend time looking at it. In the case of a landscape, this might be something as simple as beauty or color. In the case of a portrait, it might be character. It could be a splash of color in an otherwise dull scene, or it could be deep emotion in the face of a subject. Whatever it is, it must immediately grab your viewer’s attention and draw his eye into the image, so that he’ll be compelled to study it and to think about its deeper meaning. Without a good hook, your viewer has no incentive to keep looking at your photograph.
5. “Don’t put anything in a story that does not reveal character or advance the action.”
This is actually a famous quote from Kurt Vonnegut, and it basically just boils down to this—cut out the clutter. Have you ever read fiction from a century or more ago, and found that you were struggling to get through all the ponderous passages and lengthy descriptions of how the main character wore her hair, what her dress looked like, how it smelled outside and whether or not the flowers were in bloom? That used to be the way everyone wrote fiction, but today you won’t find that kind of lengthy description anywhere in any modern novel. That’s because ultimately, we are not only bored by lengthy and unnecessary descriptions of people, places and things—we are also distracted by it.
Just like fiction, your photographs should never contain any information that isn’t necessary. When you distract your viewer from the primary purpose of the photo, you make the photo less meaningful. That means that when you’re shooting a picture of your dog at the dog park, all those people in the background, all those other dogs, all the cars in the parking lot, the fences and any billboards that might be in the distance are all distracting elements that don’t belong in the photo. If they don’t add anything to the story you’re trying to tell with your image, you need to take steps to angle them out or blur them to obscurity with a larger aperture. This means that you need to think about the background and the surroundings in every photo you take, and decide what should be included and what should be excluded. It does not mean that you should always exclude the background altogether—sometimes it will help “reveal character” or “advance the action.” For example, a portrait of a man who operates a catering truck is actually going to be less meaningful if you don’t include some context—without the posted menu, a plate full of food he’s about to hand to a customer or the order window, it’s just another generic portrait of a person. Those other elements, on the other hand, help to reveal his character. He’s a guy who runs a catering truck—so those are details that you need to include, not exclude.
As a photographer, you really aren’t a whole lot different from the J.K. Rowlings and Ken Folletts of this world. Your job is to tell a story, but while they do it with words, you do it with your camera. And while it is certainly true that the process is a lot different, ultimately your goal is the same—you want to move and inspire people and you want to create something with lasting meaning. Use the same guidelines as your favorite authors use, and you’ll be able to achieve those goals just as effectively as they do.
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