Three Tips for Photographic Storytelling

I’m a visual person. I would rather see something than be told about it. Storytelling with my images seems only natural at this point in my life. It is one of my absolute favorite things to do.

Forget the business side of photography, the post processing, and all the rules. When I am standing in front of a story worth telling, all I want to do is make the magic: be creative, capture truth, show it through new eyes. Everything else just seems to melt away.

When I first started, I couldn’t reach that magic feeling right away. I struggled, like everyone who first picks up something new. I took a lot of images that were not honest, creative or technically sound.

It’s like learning to ski. There are so many different parts you are thinking about and trying to do correctly. But, when something is so new to you, you are really only able to focus on one thing at a time. Meanwhile, everything you’re not thinking about falls to the wayside and you look like a puppet hanging from tangled strings.

I learned that there were really three main things I needed to keep straight when I was shooting, especially when I was trying to tell a story with my images. It took a while before I could be thinking about all three at the same time. And now, it doesn’t seem like I am thinking at all while I shoot. It feels fluid, like instinct.

_DSC9795-2

Here are three of the most important things to keep in mind when telling a story with photographs.

  • Authenticity – Keep it real. Keep it honest.
  • Innovation – Put your spin on it. 
  • Technique – Settings and equipment for the greatest impact.

 
————————————————————

Authenticity 

Authenticity to me is one of the most important factors in a story. Sometimes in photojournalism we become so focused on the story we want to tell that we don’t let things unfold naturally. When shooting something spontaneously, as it is happening in real life, we often catch those candid moments. Those are some of my favorite images. Because they are real. They are raw and one hundred percent honest–no one can deny that. Sometimes, this just simply means being in the right place at the right time.

horses

This past summer I was walking back from a shoot with a friend and his handmade canoe. One of my absolute favorite shots from the evening is the last image I caught. He was walking back to the truck. I had already said “That’s a wrap!.” As we walked side by side, I looked over and saw the softness of the sky and the boat stacked on his shoulders. I ran a few feet ahead and got off a couple shots. Forget the rest of the shoot. The whole evening was worth this handful of images that took place on the way home.

_DSC7396

The times when I’m not shooting spontaneously and am telling a story on cue, I need to check in with my model and myself and make sure I’m not creating an unrealistic story. I love it when I ask my subjects to do something and then ask “would you ever really do that?” and they reply “Nope.” So I ask them what they would normally do. They immediately fall into a movement or a stance that immediately appears much more natural, their face relaxes, and their body becomes less tense. This is when a non-candid image moves a lot closer to honest than posed.

_DSC5968-4

Innovation

There aren’t many stories today that haven’t been told in some way, shape or form. We have to come up with a new way to tell it. This really isn’t that difficult if you think about it. We all have different ways of seeing things. My take on a scene versus your take is going to be really different. We are two different people, seeing something with two different sets of eyes. What sets your eyes apart? Find that and roll with it.

_DSC4081

Sometimes this can be something that catches your eye that isn’t part of the main story; maybe it’s a supporting feature. Use that to set your story apart. Maybe your post processing is unique to you and you put a special spin on each of your edited images. There are a million and one ways to see something and a million more ways to piece together a series of images into a story. Find what speaks to you and explore it.

Technique

I’m not going to lie, this is my least favorite one. I’m not a technical person by nature. I’ve never read an instruction manual in my life and I don’t know what every single setting on the internal menu in my camera does.  I learn things best through trial and error. Whatever level of technical you are and however you get there, you have to have a pretty good sense of what your equipment can do.

If you don’t know what all the custom settings can do, that’s ok. But you need to know what to do when you are shooting in a dim room, or how to capture an extremely fast-moving subject, or which lens will give you the desired view of a scene.

I certainly have a go-to lens. I love my 50mm. I feel it is the most honest lens I own. But when I’m shooting cowgirls sitting in a hayloft and I want to capture the essence of what that hay loft really feels like, I reach for my 14-24mm wide angle. This allows me to capture a broader sense of the barn, something that I feel speaks tremendously to the story. I want to be able to see the hay on the floor and shape of the loft, while still maintaining the girls as my main subjects.

_DSC5731-2

You also need to know how to control your light. I was standing in an old forest service cabin. I watched as my friend Hannah’s silhouette moved in front of the window. I immediately loved the narrative of that wide brim of her hat and the shotgun in her hand (we were on a bird-hunting trip) as told by their shapes. I stopped down my shutter speed and brought even more darkness into the image than I saw with my own eye. I wanted to eliminate detail in the shot and let the shapes speak for themselves. This is a way of using equipment as the tool for telling stories your own eye has created. It can become so fun.

_DSC3844-3

————————————————————

These are a few things I’ve found helpful in my own storytelling. I’m sure there are things that stand out as equally important to others. We all operate a little different and that is why we are able to come up with unique points of view with our work, one of my favorite things about photography. If you take one thing away from what I’ve shared, it’s to keep it honest.  Real stories are the ones that unfold naturally, whether a camera is there to document them or not.

_DSC9755

 —

Camrin Dengel is a graduate of RMSP’s 2014 Advanced Intensive program. You can check out her website or her Instagram to see more of her beautiful photography.

5 thoughts on “Three Tips for Photographic Storytelling

blackfootnativeplants

great reminder on making it real – your photos do that so well! thanks

Lorraine Mitchell

Enjoyed your writing! Thanks for making me think about these things!

J Shumi

Along with keeping the shot real, I want to add here that its nice to keep the shot simple as well. Sometimes unnecessary complexity just ruin the story, lying inside that shot.

Chuck Rumpf

Your comments resonated with me. Well done.

Md Enamul Hoq

Authentic Photography and helpful tips for Photographic Storytelling .Thanks

Comments are closed.