Telling thought-provoking stories with our photos is a technique that brings value and life to the pictures we take. The story in a photo is what draws viewers in and keeps them thinking about it long after they look at it.
I’ll admit that it took me time to figure out how to tell a story well. In my early days of learning photography, I worked with several mentors. All of them would look at photos I’d taken then cock their heads and say, “it’s nice, but what does this photo say?”
I quickly realized that this was a crucial question to ask myself during the editing phase of my photography.
This is not to say that every photo absolutely must have a story. Sometimes a picture can just be a pretty landscape, travel photo, or family vacation capture.
But for impactful or thought-provoking photography, your photo has to say something in order for people to linger on it and remember it.
The story in your photo doesn’t need to be complicated, just as long as it has something interesting to say. In fact, unique yet straightforward stories often have the most significant impact.
I’ll admit that I’m still working on finding those truly unique stories in my photos. But I do have examples of personal images that I love as I think they tell a good story and have an impact.
But before I get to that, let me start with this photo of mine.
I do like this photo and it holds a nice memory for me. But what does this photo actually say? Not a whole lot. It’s an abandoned beach house against the backdrop of mountains with a log in front of it.
The most interesting part may be the construction of the house and the looming dark sky in the distance. But other than that, there’s not much of a story here.
Also, the placement of the house and log is too centred which is a bit boring and cliched. (Hint: this is part of composition that we must also consider when telling stories.)
Now let’s look at a different photo:
This photo certainly has some interesting things to say. I don’t know if it’s humorous or sad, it depends on who’s looking at it. Which leads me to an important point — the more variety of stories a photo can tell, the more interesting it is.
There’s enough detail in this photo to give us information without being over the top. Each of these characters has something to say to the viewer as well as each other. The two men on the left seem to be conversing, whereas the other is staring outward.
We can clearly tell that they’re drunk based on the the beer bottles and their slouched postures. And also, did the guy in the middle pee himself or did he drop his beer? Who knows.
I also love the textured building, the cowboy hats, the sign, and the old door. All these things keep you looking and wondering.
In this next photo, we can see a more obvious but thought-provoking story.
We see people dressed in fine clothing, talking on phones and some even have a posture of arrogance.
Then, as we look closer, we see the woman sitting on the ground amongst them. She’s not finely dressed at all and appears to be selling something. The look on her face speaks volumes.
For this type of photo, the story is provocative as it’s so “in your face.” But these stories are effective and make us think and reflect on important issues. For this photo, issues of class, societal divisions, and who we are as humans with each other, is very clear for us to see.
For this next photo, the story is more subtle and not as provocative.
I took this photo using my own hand and a frog I found while staying in a remote part of Mexico for the summer. It’s a pretty simple story yet it has potential for interpretation and impact.
The idea of having a physical connection with nature can be beautiful to some while frightening to others. Some frogs are poisonous, (although this one wasn’t) but they are also gorgeous and mysterious creatures.
The eye contact with the frog is both alarming and interesting. We wonder, who would put a frog on their arm and why? We can actually see its little toes digging into my skin, (it didn’t hurt, don’t worry) which really emphasizes the connection between woman and nature.
Lastly, this photo has a more landscape feel, but it still tells an interesting story as well.
I will say this, photos with people, animals, or some kind of action, tend to tell a more potent story in my opinion. However, there are some photographers that beg to differ for sure. Indeed, there are some skilled landscape or still life photographers that can tell amazing stories without these elements.
For me, I’m more apt to tell stories in my photos by including people or something unique.
There are two elements in this picture that really speak loudly. The first, is the unique and strange landscape. Are we in the mountains? Or is this some kind of pool? Why is there a dead tree there? It’s hard to figure this out, which really draws in the viewer.
The next is the people; they’re immersed in the water, the two on the right seem to know each other and the other is looking out at the vista. But why are they here in this strange place?
All these elements create curiosity. The photo has a lot of beauty that’s almost science-fiction-like. It’s as if we’re on a strange new planet where people also thrive. It makes us want to go there and see it for ourselves.
So that’s the basics of story-telling in photography. It’s crucial to practice this skill if you want photos that get seen, are talked about, and remembered. I will say that it requires knowledge of composition, lighting, and observation in order to perfect our story. These skills come over time and practice.
Every single time I get my camera out, I’m always asking myself the question my mentors first posed to me, “what does this photo say?”
Sometimes, we’re not really sure what the story is. The best thing to do is to keep clicking the shutter and then during the editing process, keep asking yourself what each photo says. Over time, your senses will become more attuned to story-telling.