Visual storytelling. What is it, how is it different, and what aspects can we as photographers incorporate into our work to create more compelling imagery? Our goal here is to dissect the practice in a practical and digestible way. We’ll take a look at the impact that visual storytelling has with the viewer, how to shoot for story, and easy ways to incorporate it into your next photography project today.
Before we dive in, let’s begin by offering a quick definition of what visual storytelling is as it relates to photography. Visual storytelling is the practice of using still images to communicate messages, ideas, social issues, emotions, or other information presented in a narrative approach. Visual storytelling is intentional, and when done well holds power, from creating a call to action for social injustice, to simply providing a more rich and lasting experience for the viewer. Through proper planning, to developing a narrative, and execution of the image and presentation, we will walk through the process of visual storytelling.
Things to consider with visual storytelling
Similar to your favorite story, we will discuss visual storytelling in much the same way. Before any shutters snap open and close, proper planning and preparation must occur. Questions to ask yourself may include: What is the idea or event you are trying to portray? Will this be represented in a single still image, or a photo series? Will there be any location scouting, special gear, or other considerations involved in telling this visual story? It often helps to jot down a simple storyline of what you will be trying to portray visually. If nothing else, it can help you get past creative or mental roadblocks while you are in the moment, and recall important aspects of the story you would like to tell. You may even consider using (and keeping in your pocket) a simple story map such as this to jot down a few ideas.
The narrative arc that is all too familiar to the written story is absolutely involved in the visual story as well. Questions to ponder when developing your visual narrative may include: How are you going to set the scene? Will it be a wide angle shot of the environment, or a tight shot showing some intricate detail that you will reveal later on? What is the rising action? Are there parts of the image that give contextual clues as to your story, or the tension within? What is the overall impact you are trying to make? Is there a single image that shows the climax or turning point of your story? Finally, what image will portray the falling action and/or resolution. A good visual story leads the viewer on a journey created through compelling imagery, whether that is a single frame, or multiple.
Here is a story I recently shot for our local fire department. Notice the use of storytelling elements to carry the narrative along. The multiple frames are needed in order to advance the storyline.
In contrast, this image below allows the viewer to create their own story within a single frame. The setting (camping), action (reading a bedtime story), and resolution (child falling asleep in mom’s arms) are all witnessed.
Before we stray too far from photography itself, let’s circle back to creating a good image in the first place. Basic compositional elements must not be forgotten. Images including interesting visual elements will be more captivating than those without. Conflict or tension will hold the viewer’s attention in a state of unease. On the contrary, images that portray harmony and peace will deliver a different, calmer message within your story. Your choice in framing the subject can also deliver that same tension or comfort. Be conscious with your decisions when framing the image to ensure that your visuals align with the emotional content of the story.
Visual Storytelling Elements
Now, let’s dive into the elements of good visual storytelling in detail, and then we will look at some examples. The following should be considered when approaching your photography through a storytelling lens:
- Planning and Preparation
- Narrative Arc
- Compositional Elements
- Color and Edit
Planning and Preparation
Success is where preparation and opportunity meet. Much like the woodworking process seen above, before any successful shoot is a great deal of time spent in planning and preparation. There is nothing worse than missing your shot because of a full memory card, or empty battery. Though this may seem obvious, before you capture your first frame you need to have an idea of what you are trying to capture! Is the story you want to tell local, or will you need to travel? Do you need special access? Equipment? What time of day will you need to be shooting? Is the subject something you can have control over, or is it as we will later see in photographer Michelle Gustafson’s series, an event that is unfolding in front of you? Will you need lighting? Assistance to help carry gear or change lenses? Is this going to be a single photo, or a series of collective images? What does the location look like? Can you scout out the best angles, or are you more limited in your space? Will you be shooting outside, or in a studio? These are a few of many important questions you must ask yourself prior to capturing your first frame.
So, what story are you going to tell? As with any good story, visual storytelling typically follows the same narrative arc that you learned about in high school english. Take a look at your favorite movie or book, and you will find that most all have the same storytelling structure. The story starts with the creator setting the scene, describing some rising action, introducing conflict within the characters or environment, marking a pivotal turning point or climax, delivering more tension or falling action, and finally providing some resolution. Variations exist, however this backbone of storytelling is a common thread found throughout. Often, there is a protagonist, human, group, or object, that is the main focus of the story. This is true for photography as well. Centering your story around an individual, group, or object and highlighting contextual clues of conflict or action will provide an image with more depth.
Let’s not forget that when it comes down to it, you need to produce a visually appealing image. And while I tell my kids all the time that “art has no rules”, it kind of does. At least, there are ways to utilize certain artistic elements and techniques to intentionally produce distinct feelings towards your photos. While the following by no means is meant to be an exhaustive list of how to compose a “good” image, keeping these tools in mind can help with keeping your images as in line with your story arc and intended emotional response as possible.
When introducing tension into your story, try including elements that heighten the feeling of unease. Diagonal lines, unbalanced subjects, subject gestures, and contrasting colors or elements can help produce more tension in your images.
The strong leading lines in this photo draw our attention to the subject, and the low perspective gives the subject a strong presence, both leading to increased tension in the photo.
The two images above increase the feeling of unease and tension by placing the subject away from a typical compositional “power point” and towards the edge of the frame.
In this image we can clearly see the boy does not want to let go of his stuffed animal. The use of gesture and body language help to increase tension in the image.
We see here that the use of light, somewhat silhouetting the dark subject, along with the environmental cues, increases the tension.
If you wish to bring in more peace and harmony into the story, try finding balance and ease within your compositional elements. Color can also play a large part in how the viewer experiences the image. We will discuss color a bit more in depth later, but you can find a good review of basic color theory in photographer here.
The use of green, yellow, and gold pair with the soft curves of the petals and bokeh in the background to give a sense of peace and harmony.
In the image above, we find balance in the kayakers, allowing our eyes to go from one to the other with ease. The use of shallow depth of field also focuses our attention on the subjects, minimizing the effects of a distracting background.
Color and Edit
Color theory is a vast world into the subconscious, psychological relationship that humans have with color. We will only scratch the surface of this here, but it is an important aspect to visual storytelling that must be intentional. Similar to how compositional elements can impact your story, using color theory in your work can play a powerful role in how viewers interpret your story. By capturing strong colors, such as bold reds and oranges, more power or danger is felt in your story. Using cooler tones of blues and greens can provide a calming effect to the viewer. And on the other end of the spectrum, taking color out all together and turning your images to black and white can give the story a classic, timeless, or documentary vibe. Black and white is often used to portray the seriousness of the subject. Take a look at the below example. I would describe the image on the left as lighter, serene, warm, peaceful, and hopeful. The use of the soft oranges and gold creates this interpretation, whereas the image on the right devoid of any color feels cold, distant, even sad.
Bringing it All Together
Finally, let’s take an in depth look at this series by Michelle Gustafson, editorial photographer from Philadelphia. Michelle begins the series with a tight shot of a woman wiping away tears. Right from the start we are presented with struggle, or conflict. Without context, we have no idea what’s happening, however we are already curious as to what is causing this emotional response. The image brings us in close enough for it to feel intimate, almost intrusive. It strikes the viewer with an immediate emotional response that we can all relate to. Even without knowing the full context, the viewer is connected by shared experience.
The next image gives context to the situation. This pulls back a bit, and sets the scene for the narrative. A protest of a well-known social issue, abortion, is witnessed in front of a courthouse. Though we don’t see the same woman from the first image in this story, the viewer connects the emotional experience of the first image to this protest. The courthouse is prominently framed in this image, focusing our attention to the white pillars of justice. This intentional framing adds power to the story, and a sense of separation from the courthouse and protestors.
As we move along, we are presented with more rising action. Michelle pulls us back in with a tight shot of a different woman staring off into space. Again, without context we wouldn’t be able to piece together what this woman is staring at, but we begin to connect the clues. As we examine the image more closely, we can see what looks to be the same courthouse reflecting back in her eyes. The look of disgust, contemplation, determination, and anger in her eyes and facial features only come to us within knowledge of the larger context. without the prior images, we would have a much harder time differentiating the emotions presented.
The climax of the story can be seen next, as Michelle finishes her series with different images of the courthouse, now more easily identified as the Supreme Court, from the viewer’s perspective. In the first image we see the powerful, grand courthouse standing dominant over the crowd with the words “Equal Justice Under Law” written above the main entrance, blocked by security gates. The second image provides some resolution, displaying the words “our bodies our choices” painted on a drab security fence separating the affected protesters from the decisions made inside those walls.
Michelle presents us with a great example of using visual storytelling to add emotion, power, and impact to her images. This story is meant to be used as a tool to drive action, however not all storytelling needs to be this intense in order to provide a deeper experience for the viewer. Below we will see other examples of how to incorporate visual storytelling into your work.
Here are some easy ways to start out practicing the art of visual storytelling.
Diptychs and Triptychs
Try putting two or three photos next to each other that hold each other up. Often a single image fails to provide the same amount of impact or context when compared to multiple images. We get more information from multiple images, leading to a better understanding of the subject or situation as a whole. When using this approach, the arrangement and presentation are as important to the overall experience as the individual images themselves.
Consider shooting the same subject in a variety of settings, or the same setting, with a variety of subjects. This can bring repetition to your viewers, and when treated with consistency can generate a much greater impact than with a single image alone. Here the repetition and framing of the subjects provide a greater impact to the viewer.
A few more examples of diptychs and triptychs are shown below to help get your creative juices flowing. Remember that presentation can make or break these. Ensure that you have consistent editing of your images, in a consistent arrangement (ideally with the same aspect ratio height width), and align the images appropriately. This will allow your reader to flow from one image to the next without hitting any barriers.
Change of Perspective
Thank you for going on the visual storytelling journey with me. I hope that you were able to glean some new information, or inspiration, to go out and pursue your own visual storytelling! Beware however, as you may find richer narratives, greater visual impact, and possibly a new addictive hobby. As always, feel free to reach out with any additions, comments, and pearls of wisdom from your own visual storytelling quests. Happy shooting!
For a related article, check this one out! Photography as Voice in a Single Image.