Tech Tips for Photographic Storytelling
Written by Daven Mathies
Photography is all about storytelling. Just finding a story can be its own challenge, but choosing how to tell it is even more difficult. How you frame a shot not only determines how viewers will be drawn into your image, it also controls how they connect to the story. Photographic stories need not be complex, nor need they be complete—viewer interpretation is part of the magic. Knowing how to use the tools and techniques at your disposal will help you shape your story.
Find new angles
I photographed a wedding last summer. As the second shooter, I was looking for stories separate from the main action, and noticed the flower girl asleep on the ground while everyone else was dancing. As I walked toward her, the boy came over and lay down next to her. I instantly knew I had the moment I was looking for. From my normal perspective at 6'1", I towered over my subjects. Shooting downward, my first exposure revealed not much more than their backs. It was a passing snapshot, and what most people would consider to be the "normal" photograph of that scene. It captured the same moment, but not the same story. It told the story of me, a photographer, who decided to take a picture of a couple of kids napping on the lawn. So I quickly stepped in front of them and lay down to put myself on their level. By doing this, I found that I effectively removed myself from the story (or at least, I think I did—you can be the judge). In the final image, the focus is now solely on the two children; they are the only subject of the story. The viewer sees them from their own angle—not the angle of a passerby. Moreover, you can see the detail in their faces, including the almost adult-like expression on the boy who looks like he just clocked out after a 12 hour shift at the office.
A painter starts with a blank canvas and adds everything he or she needs to complete the picture. A photographer must work in the opposite direction, by removing all of the elements of a scene until only what matters is left. Sometimes, this does actually mean physically moving things out of the way, but you can also use the camera to subtract unwanted features from the frame. This may be a simple change of perspective, or it could be a trick: using a telephoto lens to hone in on your subject, or controlling depth of field to blur away everything you don't need. A little creative thinking can turn an otherwise unattractive or boring scene into something beautiful and interesting. What separates a snapshooter from a professional is often just the amount of thought that happens before the shutter button is pressed.
Put your technical knowledge to use
When trying to tell a story, don't forget to draw on the techniques explored in past Tech Tips articles. Are you shooting in low light? Is it a portrait? A moving subject? Be sure to think about how light, depth of field, and motion affect your story. The great thing about photography is that every subject is open to your interpretation: there is not just one right way to photograph any particular thing. By knowing how to use your camera to control the image, you can tell the story you want to tell, or at least bring the elements together to allow your viewers to find their own stories.
Have a tip of your own? Feel free to add it in the comments!