How to Tell a Story With Your Camera
Anyone with a camera can take a photograph, but to become a true artist you need to be able to tell a story. A photograph takes a moment out of time to be viewed again and every pair of eyes will read a different tale.
All good photography stories have narratives that matter to the photographer, so to begin with you need to discover what it is that interests you. From stories of humanity to nature, capturing the essence of each subject can transform your photography and increase audience engagement.
“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”
Framing a Photo Story with Camera Settings
The setting that your subject is in can make or break the shot, particularly with candid portraits. You need to be cautious not to overwhelm your subject by enveloping them in too much detail.
Choosing the Correct Depth of Field for a Story
By carefully selecting the correct F/stop, your aperture can assist the story to unfold. Whether it’s a shallow DoF to focus on a singular feature, or a wide DoF to draw in as much detail as possible.
Selecting Light Quality
Next, the direction and quality of light are important to set the right atmosphere. Adding in soft sidelight can create a moody yet low key image. Whereas a hard light shining on the front of the subject will appear cleaner cut and innocent.
If you are using ambient (natural/pre-existing) lighting for your photograph’s story, consider the effect of colour temperature. Calm sunsets make viewers think of relaxing, romantic, uplifting and warm contexts. Whereas cooler light from a cloudy day can invoke feelings of loneliness, melancholy or emptiness.
Therefore, as long as the lighting and camera settings are adding to your image, it’s time to pick the right lens based on how much of the surrounding scene you want in the shot.
In the context of a portrait:
- Shorter focal lengths around 30mm or lower include more of the view
- Mid-length to head and shoulder shots are better around 50-85mm
- Highly compressed backgrounds are easier to achieve over 100mm
Emotion or a feeling in a photograph is what helps the viewer piece together the connection as it can give the audience a recognisable quality to relate to.
To capture true emotion in a story, you need to pay attention to small details in your frame such as facial expressions, mannerisms, gestures and movements. Sometimes, setting the camera down and simply observing your surroundings can help you to absorb your subject and immerse completely in the mood.
Top Tip – Only include elements that are vital to your photo’s story. You may have to be handy with editing if you can’t remove annoying distractions in camera!
Before capturing the actual content of your story, ask yourself…
What emotion am I trying to depict?
Every subject, human or not, holds the potential to create a unique photographic story. It’s down to you to display the emotions that you feel (or want others to feel) in the image. Angles are a good place to start.
High Angle Emotions
Taking up high angle positions with your camera make an audience feel powerful, in charge and all-seeing of the scene below.
You can use high angles to make a subject look cute, compact and non-threatening too.
Low Angle Emotions
Placing your camera down low will make your audience feel that they are diminutive, insignificant and subordinates to the surroundings.
If you are shooting a subject from a low angle though, expect them to look dominant, feared and controlling to your viewers.
It’s important to consider the emotion that your angle creates and what it says of your subject (if there is one).
Emotional Body Language
Body language can play an important part in telling the emotion of a photograph; simple, small changes to poses can transform the overall feeling from happy to isolation or discontent.
In a portrait, the eyes offer passage into your subject’s soul, so it is imperative to make sure you consider your subject’s eye direction when posing.
Have a look at these cropped portraits and see how many different emotions are displayed just by the eyes alone…
Observing or creating emotion is not the only way to tell a story in photography. More often than not, introducing signifiers or symbols, in the form of props, can further (or change) the context of the story you are trying to tell.
Using the correct prop can translate more of your story to your viewer quicker than an expression, dressed up location or hired clothing. Don’t overlook the power of props to save time, energy and money in your photography.
Take this scene for a moment…
Do you see a resolute and strong tree, outlasting all others?
Do you feel empowered by its stubbornness to exist in a barren landscape?
Keep those feelings in mind as you see the true photograph (with the original ‘props’). Now how do you feel…
Do you feel strong? Or now sorry for the withered and weak tree?
Has your feeling of empowerment now changed to anger?
It can take a simple prop to set the message of the story. Therefore, consider adding in extra details like this to your photo’s story when you are wanting to create drama, conflict and debate. Use your earlier learning of ‘choosing an emotion’ to depict in order to select the right prop, symbol or signifier.
Here are a few top choices;
Presents / Gifts
Unopened Boxes / Books
Fences / Barriers
How to End your Story
Simply – you don’t. Every shot you take maybe a stand-alone photo story but it doesn’t have to be.
Once you are comfortable with building a story in a single frame try spreading it out over 3 or 4 to create a sequence of how that story develops. In the way that a movie is a series of stills played out at 24 frames per second, think of this as an opportunity to create a story with different chapters.
You’ll have to plan out what the story is in advance and then shoot each scene. If you want to upload your sequence to the iPhotography gallery then stitch them all together in a single frame in Photoshop or Pixlr. Here’s how:
Editing a Sequence Together
- Resize all your photos to the same size and resolution
- Select your first shot (the one that starts the story)
- Go to IMAGE > CANVAS SIZE
- Extend the canvas to the right 4x the width of each image. i.e. if your photos are 1,000 pixels wide then extend the canvas 4,000 pixels to the right.
- Copy and paste each photo into the blank space
- Arrange them to the correct order
- Flatten the layers
- Go to IMAGE>IMAGE SIZE
- Resize the document so it’s under 5,000px on the longest size
- Save and upload to the gallery!
What Do You Think?
Now you’ve got some hefty tips to work with, we want to see your creations. Upload your photography stories to the iPhotography gallery and let us know what challenges you found, and overcome, whilst shooting. It’s important to share your experiences with others so we can build a stronger network of knowledge amongst the iPhotography community.
Has this article helped you create some new ideas or given you a better understanding of creating stories in your photography? If so, let us know. Your feedback is vital so we can keep creating the perfect content you need to improve your photography.
What Others Are Reading
iPhotography Course not only teaches you all the standard technical expertise, settings, skills, and special effects with your camera – but we also show you how to use these skills to develop your own individual style as a photographer.
Find out how iPhotography student Laura Harrison creates her magnificent abstract photographs. Watch step-by-step her shooting and editing workflow.