This lesson is part of the How To Photograph Life - FREE Course. To see the full list of lessons, and learn more about the course, click here for the index.

LESSON No.4:

Storytelling

“Once upon a time there was a little brown bear named Frederick…"

Right now we’re smack in the middle of potty training, which means that bribery is rampant in our home. And one of the most powerful bribes I’ve found to get my son to use the toilet? Telling him a story about Frederick the brown bear. Sometimes Frederick goes for a walk in the forest, sometimes he goes for a ride on the Dinosaur Train, but whatever he does, he gets that bum on the seat.

Stories are powerful (as you can see). Universal. They appeal to all ages. They can cross cultural and language barriers, and stand the test of time.

And as a photographer you are uniquely positioned to tell great stories with one of the best storytelling tools there is: a camera.

​As a photographer you are uniquely positioned to tell great stories with one of the best storytelling tools there is: a camera.

Hold up though. This isn’t just a nice thing you can do every once in a while. If you want to document your life, and do a smashingly good job of it (which I know you do, because you’re here) then you NEED to tell a story. You need to learn how to take the moments in front of you, and use your camera to translate them into an engaging narrative that captures the experience of your life.

Why? Because in 20 years your understanding of the moments you capture will rely almost entirely on your photographs. They are what will bring your memories to life. Do a good job, and you’ll be able to enjoy a vivid and rich story. Capture only part of the tale, and you’ll definitely notice the gaps and holes.

Moreover, remember that you’re not just shooting for yourself. You’re shooting for your family that comes after you. You won’t always be around to tell your stories. Your photographs can do it for you, and they can do a darn fine job when you discover how to tell a great story with them.

And that’s just what we’re going to learn today.

Story Structure

Telling a great story all begins with understanding story structure. At its most basic level it’s simply: beginning, middle and end.

Now let’s dig into each of those components and see what happens.

Beginning

Setting the Scene​

To start a story, you must set the scene. You need to draw your audience into your world, and get them comfy there. You need to give them context.

Doing this is simple: you include details about the location in your images. Give the viewer a sense of place.

Let’s say you’re hopping on a plane and traveling to the jungles of Peru. A great adventure with a thousand stories that can come out of it. So how do you set the scene? Give a sense of place?

You can start off with a photo of the airport, to tell the story of traveling. You can take a photo of your hotel room, to give a sense of where you stayed. A photo of the boat you rode into the Amazon rainforest.

Fill out the story with detail shots that all help the viewer build a richer world in their imagination. Get in close and look for little things that are small parts of the larger scene. These will bring the viewer right into your story, and allow them to imagine themselves there.

The Train

Show your viewers how you got from Point A to Point B, whether by train, plane or automobile (or foot, bike or bus!). 

Houses on the Water

What does the world look like in your new environment? Do the houses look like yours? Is the landscape similar or different? Show us! 

On the Grill

Give your viewers a richer sense of place by showing the little details, like food, clothing and markets. 

Introducing the Characters

Then, introduce your characters.

The classic story arc revolves around the journey of a hero, as they set off to accomplish some goal. Along the way they meet other characters who will help them, or hinder them, on their path.

Who are the characters in your story? Take some time to think about it. No matter what you’re documenting: a once-in-a-lifetime trip or your everyday life, there will be people who are crucial to your story. Sometimes we forget to capture them, because we take their presence for granted. And sometimes we fail to recognize just what an important part they are to the story.

And so you must start to see just how pivotal the characters are to your tale. Start to make it a goal to photograph them, and do it in a way that helps you bring them to life. These characters all have their own roles to play. And, with your photographs, you can show that role.

So you’re in Peru, and you’ve made it to a town that cannot be reached by any roads – you must take a boat or a plane. When you arrive, you are told of a floating town just down the river – a must see. You pack your cameras and head down to the banks, looking for someone to take you there. Two young brothers see you, and ask if you’d like a ride on their boat. You like them immediately – something about their open, genuine manner – so you hop into the wooden boat and they start the motor. Soon you’re floating past brightly coloured wooden homes, rocking on the river, as folks fish for their dinner, and go about their lives. An absolutely magical scene. You take hundreds of photos.

But the images you should make sure to get? The ones that will help you tell that whole story? Photos of the characters that made it possible: The two boys and their boat.

(Obviously this story is true and is part of the tale of our own trip to Peru. And I just want to take a second to say that while we took some beautiful photos of the floating town, it is the images of the boys who took us there that have the most meaning to us years later. It was the connection we made with them, though only for a brief evening, that gave richness to our travel experience.)

But the images you should make sure to get? The ones that will help you tell that whole story? Photos of the characters that made it possible: The two boys and their boat.

Now I'm sure you guessed that this story is indeed true and is part of the tale of our own trip to Peru. And these images of the boys who took us there that have the most meaning to us years later. It was the connection we made with them, though only for a brief evening, that gave richness to our travel experience. We often talk about going back, and how wonderful it would be to find these boys again.

Point of View

Now here’s a point that many of us photographers mess up when we’re telling our stories. We forget to give a sense of the point of view. That is to say: Who is telling the story?

There are so many things out in front of you to capture, it’s so very easy to forget to include yourself. It can also be kind of hard! But it is a critical part of the story. Who you are and what you care about dramatically influence the story, so you must ensure that your viewer can see you, so they can know you.

This can be done simply, or in more complex ways. You can include your feet in the frame or your hand. Suddenly the viewer is aware of the person behind the camera. Amazing how little it takes to completely change that sense, isn’t it?

But, especially when photographing your own life, I don’t think that’s quite enough. You need to fully get into the frame, to be a part of your own story.

This can involve a “selfie”, holding the camera out and photographing yourself that way. Nothing wrong with those, and they are certainly important. We like to use a camera that has a LCD that flips all the way around to make selfies easier.

A couple quick selfie tips: pay attention to your light (use your tips from the Lesson 3), and shoot from slightly above for a more flattering angle.

Try to also take some full self-portraits. We use a tripod and a remote, get everything set up, then get the whole group into the shot. Take a lot of photos with the remote, to ensure you get a good one.

You might also be able to ask a passer-by to take a shot for you.

However you do it, don’t be the invisible storyteller. Your friends and family will want a record of you, and you will too as the years pass. Get in the photo!

Drew

Our friend Drew joined us on our trip to Peru. Don't forget to photograph the people who share your journeys with you!

Us! 

One evening on Ipanema Beach we set aside an hour to take portraits of all of our friends who travelled to Rio with us. Then we handed over the camera, and let them take a few shots of us. They're some of our favourite images from the entire adventure.

Middle

Now that you’ve set the scene, and introduced the characters, it’s time to get that story rolling. And it's the middle of the story where the action happens. Here you’re looking for ways to build interest. A few things to look for:

Movement: It’s not only interesting in a photo, but it literally moves the story forward. Keep an eye out for things moving, and see how you can capture it to tell more of the story. You can even try a slower shutter speed to add a sense of motion.

Expression: Action doesn’t have to be purely physical. It can be emotional. Look to capture emotions to help convey the feeling of the story.

Interaction: Once your characters start interacting, they’re moving the story along. Capture that!

Conflict: Above all else, conflict and struggle are part of what moves a story. Like we talked about earlier in this course, “I went and saw a pretty sunset” is not an engaging story. You need to show the challenges that your hero is facing. This both engages the audience, and makes the conclusion, where they overcome that struggle, all the more successful. “I went, climbed a huge mountain, got lost, met a goat who guided me back to the path where we sat together and watched the pretty sunset.” Now that’s a story!

Expression

Rob's expression says it all: We've been waiting for a loooong time for our train to leave and – thanks to a flood – it won't be going anywhere. 

Interaction

The hubbub around the train station, as fellow travellers learned that their plans had been waylaid. 

Conflict

The source of the drama: The turbulent, muddy waters that wiped out train tracks and travel plans (ours included!). 

End

This is the part of the story that I so often neglect to capture. After you’ve documented the action you often feel like you caught the important stuff, and can put away your camera. But the story isn’t complete, and if you leave it there you’ll leave the audience (and yourself) hanging, feeling unsatisfied.

So always, always, always, when you’re shooting, look for a way to close out your story. What can you capture that will show that everything is wrapped up? The conflict has been overcome? The hero has found their way to the finish line?

Perhaps the sun setting on the river in Peru. The plane flying you home. Waving goodbye to new friends.

Our example here has been a big story, but even the littlest ones can follow this story arc. An evening at home can have all of these components as well – the scene is your living room, the action is jumping on the couch or snuggled up reading a book, and the conclusion is a little one, all tucked into bed. Even the simplest of experiences can become an engaging tale when you capture all the parts of the story.

Little Endings

A photo can capture the end to a little story within a bigger story, like the final moments of our interaction with this Peruvian fellow, as we presented him with an instant photo of himself.

Bigger Endings

Don't forget to capture those bigger endings too: Your departure from a city or country, a plane ride or bus trip, or the sight of your house as you approach after a trip away. 

Telling a Fast Story

You can tell a story in a large set of images, and many stories benefit from that. But sometimes you’re looking to tell a story in just a few shots. Or even one.

Context

You can tell a lot of a story in just a single frame, but what you need to include is context. Stepping back, and including more of the scene will help you add in all those storytelling elements we just discussed. It will help give a sense of place, perhaps include more characters, some action, some conflict. Be sure to think carefully about everything you’re including in that photo, to ensure it helps tell the story, but still keeps the focus on your subject.

The Wide, Medium, Tight Trick

A quick way to get into the habit of storytelling is to use the Wide, Medium, Tight trick. You take three shots:

  • ​A wide shot, to set the scene and give that all-important context. Here you’ve gotta step back and almost remove yourself from the scene a bit. It can be hard to remember, especially if you’re really engaged in the action, but remember that this part of the story is important.
  • A medium shot, to show the characters and the action. This is going to help your viewers understand the story: what’s going on and who’s doing it.
  • A tight shot, to show details. These details add richness to the story, and help folks to get a better sense of really being there. Try to look for details that someone wouldn’t normally notice, but that tell something about your story.

It can be particularly helpful to walk around while taking your shots, changing up your angles and perspective. This will help you see the scene from all different vantage points, and let you find the shots that will best tell your story.

Wide

The wide shot gives us context, showing us the boy and his sheep in their environment. 

Medium

A medium shot lets us get to know the boy better – we're focused more on him and the sheep than the wider environment. 

Tight

A close shot puts all the attention on the details – the instant photo and the emotion it creates as he sees himself on film. 

Conclusion

Stories are everywhere, in even the smallest moments of life. The skill of a documentarian is both in seeing the story, and communicating it. You now know a lot of great tips for how to better communicate a story with your images. Now it’s time to get out there and start seeing the stories.

What should you shoot a story of? Just follow your heart. What makes you feel something? Start there. If something makes you feel happy, sad, scared, angry, nostalgic, or curious, – chances are there’s a good story in there.

Remember who you’re shooting for: someone in the future who may not know or remember the details – then shoot to tell them your tale.

Keep On Learning!

Want to make a living out of telling a beautiful photographic story? Wedding photography will let you do just that! 

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Rebecca Denton

Coming Up Next...

​We’ve been talking a lot about how to take great images, but tomorrow we’re going to tackle a topic that’s possibly even more important: How to find the motivation to actually keep up with this practice. This is what I personally struggle with the most. So we’re going to get deep, real, and serious about finding ways to get that camera out. Definitely show up for this one, it can make all the difference in whether or not you use what you’re learning!

See you then!​

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