How To Tell A Story With Your Photography :: Digital Photo Secrets

How To Tell A Story With Your Photography

by David Peterson 13 comments

Photography isn’t just art. It’s also a peek into our lives. The kind of photography that makes it into National Geographic, Time Magazine, and other respectable journals always tells a story. That’s why it’s so captivating. We naturally fill in the small details, even if they weren’t there in the beginning. So, to get your photos to tell a story, you need to open the door to interpretation. This short tutorial will show you how.

Always Isolate Your Subjects

In many ways, the techniques you’ve been learning have all contributed to your ability to tell a story with your photography. When I talk about composition, I told you to always isolate your subjects. Well, you need to do the exact same thing when you are telling a story. If you don’t, people won’t know who is important, what that person or animal is doing, and why.

Just take a look at the photograph above. It’s a man, all on his own, gazing off into the mountains in the distance. There are so many ways to interpret this photograph. What’s he doing all on his own? He must be a weary traveler, far from civilization. Because there are no other people in the photograph, your mind naturally assumes certain things are true.

But here’s the irony. I know who that person was. I know that this photo was actually taken right on the edge of a small town in New Zealand. Come to think of it, there’s a grocery store that’s a 2 minute walk from where we were standing. The photo screams isolation, and we were anything but.

The Stories You Tell Don’t Have To Be True

And that’s The Fun Part!

If you want to tell better stories with your photography, just go ahead and throw the truth right out the window. Videographers and film makers do this all the time. Their goal is to create a more heightened experience of something real. It’s true in some ways, but it’s exaggerated to give it more style and impact.

When you’re taking pictures with a story in mind, go out and find the most dramatic shooting locations you can. Get rid of the clutter. Focus on your subject and what it is doing. Yes, there’s a McDonalds right behind your car, and yes, you really aren’t miles away from civilization. But you aren’t here to tell the truth. You’re here to make art.

Get Your Subjects To Show More Emotion

It might not be the way your subjects really feel, and only good actors will pull it off with sincerity, but you should try to get your subjects to take their emotions to another level. If your subject is kind of angry, get her even angrier. Do whatever you can. I can’t recommend this for everyone, but I will sometimes start screaming at the top of my lungs just to get a similar heightened reaction. When it works, it’s an emotional gold mine.

You can also try to create a dynamic between two characters. The common one you see on the web is the husband and wife dynamic where she’s angry for some reason and he doesn’t understand why. Think of it like you are creating a film. Define the roles and make sure your characters know where they fit in. Sometimes you just need to tell someone how to feel in order to get the right reaction.

Find Isolated Subjects And Capture Candid Moments

For as wonderful as “produced” photographs can be, candid photography is much more authentic. You will have a more difficult time getting a standout candid photograph that truly tells a story, but when you do, nothing will replace it. When I took the picture of the man under the tree, I wasn’t consciously thinking, “okay, I want this picture to tell a story.” I just wanted to get a nice silhouette of the tree, and he happened to be there.

If you go to a beautiful and dramatic location, the people will come. That’s my motto, and it’s served me well for decades. What you include in your photos and exclude from them tells the story. A crowded street might work well if you can manage to get everything but your subject to blur or recede into the background, but in all likelihood, it will be too cluttered. Picking an isolated and “clean” location is just as important as isolating your subject.

When you are telling a story with your photography, you need to act like a movie director. Yes, most of it is fake. Just remember, you and your viewers will draw in between the lines.

And that’s where the real story takes place.

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  1. Harish Karthik says:

    Mr. Paterson, your blog is either the most interesting, simple and informative photography blog on the world wide web, or I am terrible at surfing the internet. I had stumbled upon your blog on an tired evening just trying to improve a certain skill and ended up reading pretty much your entire blog in a few hours. Most informative material, and more importantly; explained in simple terms for amateur photographers like myself. Wishing you hearty thanks and good health.

  2. fanie says:

    Jou make me think out the box thanks dave

  3. Glenda says:

    I've learned so much from your emails. I look forward to them always. I just returned from vacation and took many pics while there. I heard your voice constantly giving advice, "fill the frame," "tell a story". You speak to me every time I'm behind the lens. Thank you, Thank you, Thank You!! You are a wonderful teacher!

  4. tayo says:

    You are a blessing to me nd the photo profession.tahnks

  5. Mar says:

    Thanks for all the tips, "How To Tell A Story With Your Photography' is another valuable info for photo journalists.

  6. Krasimira Georgieva says:

    Brilliant photo!
    Beautiful sunset colors! Supper composition!
    Any advice from the practice are important .
    I would be grateful if you give practical advice for shooting objects on white background.How to deploy light so the background remains white and the objects do not lose their shapes and colors.

  7. Raelynn says:

    Thank you for all you have provided me. I am an avid photographer, but learning every day, never took a class, would like to, but time. I sooooo appreciate the information you provide. Love the common sense stuff. Your knowlege an gift is much appreciated.

  8. Tariq Zuberi says:

    What a wonderful picture, thanks for sharing it, can I ask what was the camera settings, With regards

    Zuberi from Pakistan

  9. David says:

    David, you always put up good tips, ideas in your newslatter but I think that this is the best tip, instruction, idea I have read for a long time. Thank you.

  10. Anne Vanderwal says:

    Your photo tips have helped to improve my photography to the point that I have more keepers than throwers. Still not perfect but better. Many thanks for all your help. Your tips on fill in flash finally made me understand what my camera manual was telling me but that I couldn't comprehend. Keep the tips coming please. I look forward to each email you send.
    Thanks David

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