How to be a better storyteller with your photography

I’m a designer at Atlassian who also happens to be passionate about photography. I try to carry a dedicated camera (as opposed to the camera that’s in my smartphone) with me every time I leave home… just on the off-chance that a photo opportunity presents itself. Maybe that’s why I’m often pinged when someone at work needs a photo taken at short notice, whether it’s a headshot, or an office event or a team photo. My photos were most recently featured in a medium post by Alastair Simpson.

However, having a dedicated or expensive camera doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great photo. And great photos will help you tell a better, more engaging story. To tell an effective story with one photo, or a sequence of photos, or an article/blog post accompanied with photos, is equally about preparation as it is about taking the shot(s). So here’s a breakdown of my tips for how to be a better storyteller with your own photography.

  1. Do your homework
  2. Look before you shoot
  3. Know your gear
  4. See the light
  5. Take a knee
  6. Watch and listen for patterns
  7. Crop till you drop
  8. Tag you’re it
  9. Retro time

Do your homework

Know your audience.

Who is the audience? Are they familiar with the subject matter? How much context will they need to see in your images? Will your photos be used in a presentation? In a web article? For print? What is the story you want to tell? What feelings do you want to convey? Will you take a journalistic approach? Will the subject be posed? Will the environment be staged? Answering just a few of these questions will guide your preparation and shoot time.

The image above was taken during an in-progress Q&A session between Atlassian’s founders and president and Sydney staff. It was a candid shot taken from a kneeling position to signify authority as well as the magnitude of the event. The positioning of the stools symbolises a strong foundation, and as a united trio they project out towards the audience. I converted the image to black-and-white in post production to give the image gravitas. These simple choices contributed to a better story about the event and its importance.

Look before you shoot

If you have the opportunity, take the time to visit your location before the shoot. For example, if you are photographing a team event, check out the room beforehand and have a plan in your mind for where to situate yourself during the event. Sometimes it’s not possible but if you can move around during the event, even better. Try and visualise the shoot beforehand so you have an idea of what you are trying to capture. If a pre-shoot visit isn’t possible, take a few moments to evaluate your environment before you start shooting. Look for a unique perspective. If you are photographing a person you are unfamiliar with, try to get to know them beforehand. Some people can be uncomfortable being photographed, so taking a few minutes to have a chat and build some rapport can help.

Think about the story you are trying to tell, and then visualise the shot that will help you communicate it.

Taking a walk around your subject will give you better options and more likely reveal the best shooting position. Most people took their photo of milk crate Santa front on (top left) but for this time of day, I prefer the shot at bottom right.

Know your gear

The camera you will get the best photos from is the one you are most comfortable with. I totally suck at taking photos with my iPhone because I don’t use it very often. I don’t know how to control it and it’s that unfamiliarity that causes me to miss shots, shoot video (!), or require second takes. Whatever you are using, know how to use it and how to manually take control when you need to.

Choose the tool you’re most comfortable with

See the light

Where is the sun in relation to your subject if you’re outside? Is it cloudy? If indoors, how many light sources are there? Are they point lights (e.g. naked light bulbs, fairy lights) or diffused lights (e.g. fluoro or LED light panels)? Are the walls light coloured or dark coloured? These will all factor into what your photos will look like. The direction of light will also affect what you are shooting. Light coming from behind your camera will generally flatten your subject. Side lighting will give your subject more dimensionality. Point lights cast harsher shadows. Diffused lights give you softer shadows. The colour of the walls can cast their own colours on your subject.

Using the LCD monitor as a soft light source and for catchlights in the subject’s eyes

The image above was taken with tight focus on the subject, separating her from the foreground and background. There is enough light from the LCD monitor reaching her to make her stand out from the background and make her the obvious subject of the story.

Take a knee

This one is a quick and easy tip. Most photos are taken in a standing position. Try changing your point of view by dropping down to one knee. The perspective of your shot will change and you’ll get a different look. You’ll likely also have straighter vertical lines in your photo.

As a bonus, the subject in your story will also look more heroic.

Shooting from a kneeling position also makes your subjects more heroic

Watch and listen for patterns

I waited for the right gesture and expression, and position in relation to the projected logo.

If you are photographing someone who is performing an activity, observe them closely to see if there is a pattern in their performance. For example, presenters will often look to certain parts of their audience and speak in a specific cadence, or perhaps even repeat certain gestures. Given enough time, you can often time your shot to capture the gesture/pose/look that you are after. And that gesture/pose/look should contribute to the story you are trying to tell.

Crop till you drop

Once you have all your photos and you are putting your story together, be ruthless and cull your photos down to the absolute minimum you can tell a story with. And once you have this set, crop each photo to remove unnecessary distractions and detail. You’ll know you have absolutely nailed it when every background and foreground element is there as part of the overall story.

No crop (left) compared to cropped (right) — more emphasis on the presenter

Tag you’re it

Tagging your photos will make your images easier to find in the future, especially if you decide to share them within your workplace/community. All Atlassians are encouraged to contribute photos to Atlassian’s stock photo library. We currently have over 10,000 images in our library documenting the history of Atlassian. All are meta-tagged with at least location and event type details. About half are also tagged with the names of people in the photos.

Retro time

When it’s all over, conduct a retro and ask yourself what you stuffed up and how you can do better next time. I like to do this within a few days so that the shoot is relatively fresh in my mind. Make a list of these areas of improvement and refer back to it the next time you go out to shoot something similar. If you photographed for someone else, ask for their feedback as well.

Capturing the moment!

So that’s it! Remember that practice makes perfect and I hope that the tips above will help you develop your own style and approach. As Henri Cartier Bresson once said:

“It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.”
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