Photo Craft: Storytelling Through Photographs

The summer before I went to art school, I landed in Edinburgh, Scotland for a six week photojournalism class. I was in my mid-twenties, madly in love with photography, and in over my head. At that point, I didn’t have much experience shooting in the field, unless you count the two different wedding photographers I assisted on location.

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I took a number of photography classes but not one of them focused primarily on documentary-style storytelling or field work. My lack of experience mattered little. I wanted to absorb everything about the medium. I saw a flyer about the Scotland trip pinned to a bulletin board, tapped into my savings, and signed up immediately. When was I going to have that experience again I thought. I bought two extra lenses, a second camera body, a ton (50 plus rolls) of film, batteries, flashes, lens/dust cleaner, gray cards.

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What I learned during those six weeks of class stayed with me. Those experiences still influence the way I photograph today. When I first went out on assignment there, I felt as if I were thrown into a deep cavernous well and had to find a way out, blindfolded. Suddenly, I didn’t know what I was doing or how to capture the images I needed to capture. But after the first roll was shot, it became easier. The magic of repetition and of learning from the act of doing something over and over again until it becomes a creative habit.

I learned the limits of my equipment (shoot fast action well without auto focus, for one thing) and how to push them. I also found out where to for good cheap vegan food and post shooting pints. Most importantly though, I learned how to craft a picture story in the field.

Essential photo storytelling techniques:

1. Find the subject of your story. A good place to start is to research where you want to shoot and to make a list of things that interest you. Most of my photographs from Scotland were about traveling performers who took part in the annual Fringe Festival held in Edinburgh. Once you know your subject and do your research, you’re ready to create a body of work.

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2. Create your shot list. I carry a notebook with me whenever I’m on assignment and write down a list of photos I need to take based on when and where I’m shooting. Typically you want to capture a variety of perspectives: close-up, medium, wide angle, action, and still shots.

3. Get to know your subject. Talk to people and gather details. Ask permission to take a portrait.

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4. Include at least five shots in your story (of course you will shoot shoot shoot from all different perspectives, angles, distances):

The Establishing Shot (the opening shot that sets the scene).

Portrait.

Detail.

Signature shot (tells a story within a single frame).

Closing shot.

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5. Edit your story and stay true to your theme which ties all the single images together. Theme answers the question, What’s the big picture here? and Why should the reader care?. A well-defined theme brings focus to a story that allows you to extend beyond the single shot. Choose images that support your overall theme and save the rest for your personal album.

6. Share/present your work: make a book, a portfolio, a blog, submit your project to magazines.

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(The images in this post were shot with a plastic Holga camera fit with 16 frame insert on 400 speed black & white film during my recent trip to New York).

More in the Photo Craft series:

5 Essential Photo Tips To Remember

A Date With Your Camera (In Four Parts)

Pinhole Photography

Black & White Photography

How To Deal With Rejection Or Leave It To The Stars

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Comments

  1. I love this Nikki. I’d like to do more storytelling through photos…this is so helpful.

  2. This post shares some great perspective, Nikki. I’ve become so comfortable shooting in my studio at home, I often feel overwhelmed out in the field. I’m going to use these tips for sure!

  3. Great B&W shots. The first picture is my favorite.

    Cheers,

    Rosa

  4. Now I know where to spend my next chunk of ‘free’ time.. so nice to read your thoughts!

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