How to Create Storytelling Photography That Will Captivate Your Audience

We have all seen that one photograph which makes us pause and think. Perhaps it also spoke to your imagination and made you experience the story. In this article, my goal is to help you understand what is storytelling photography and how you can master visual storytelling elements to create a compelling photograph.

A dreamy photo of a girl looking away from the camera at a flight of stairs.
A photograph I created using several storytelling elements. “Fall in Love”. Taken with a Canon 5ds | 200mm | f4 | 1/125 | ISO 100

What Is Storytelling in Photography?

Storytelling photography is an image that captures a moment with tension, inspiration, and emotions. It tells the story of your subject matter without using motion pictures or words.

A storytelling photograph created using several visual elements. A girl staring into the abyss with a teddy bear
“Dream a Little Dream” Canon 6d | 50mm | f1.8 | ISO 100 | 1/60

Contrary to the movies, where you have thousands of frames to tell a story, here you have only one shot. Some could see this limitation as a setback. However, it can also be an amazing opportunity for you to shine! You just have to understand the need to be methodic while creating the composition.

Why Storytelling Matters in Photography?

Unlike a simple image that only gives random data or facts, a storytelling image inspires people, makes them think, and invoke their emotions. In other words, it can have a bigger impact. While it is more challenging to create such an image, these moments can help you to deliver how you feel about something, send an important message or show an idea with your photography. As a result, you will improve the connection between you and your public, boosting the viral factor of your images, or even move competition judges to choose your image over others.

The images you capture are sometimes not just about you. Perhaps you want to shine a light on a social cause or an injustice. In these situations, evoking strong emotions through storytelling photography, can make social changes or compel people to act.

Tips for Storytelling Photography

There are many ways to tell stories. In general, you should focus on being authentic, be respectful with cultural heritage and mankind, creating links and use of a general idea. Here are some tips to achieve these concepts in your photography.

1. Keep Visual Distractions to a Minimum

Be aware that an image with an excess of information will be distractful. It creates unpleasant chaos to the eye. Due to the actual panorama in imaginary, every photo has just a few moments of the viewer’s attention. You need to grab his look to your work very quickly. During those few seconds, you want your message to come across. Instead of the viewer having to scan the image to find what they are supposed to be seeing.

Another advantage of having less in the frame is that it creates curiosity. You are giving the viewer just enough information and let their imagination do the rest. To learn more about this technique, please read our isolating subject guide.

Pro Tip: You can eliminate background distractions if they are not important to your story by using a large aperture to blur the background. It will also create a dramatic/ bokeh effect in your photography.

2. Start with Your Why

What is your idea? Who will be the audience? Why this story? What is the best way to create your story?

By answering these questions, your mission will become much more clear. Sometimes a certain idea may appear quite appealing at first sight. Still, when we really think about what will be the theme, for whom, the motivation, and the best way to do it, doubts may appear. Use those doubts to dig deep and come up with better answers.

If you are able to contemplate these questions first, the chances of making a successful storytelling image will increase highly.

3. Pay Attention to Your Composition

Successful photo stories are about drawing the viewer’s eye to the subject and important elements within your story. The composition is all about knowing exactly the information that has to be in the frame and where to place them in your frame in order to direct the viewer’s eye to your subject. Using several focal lengths is obliged. By using a wider focal it means that the location or the environment is essential to the plot, and use a telephoto lens if you need to emphasize something or compress depth.

There are many composition rules. Being familiar with these rules helps you practice the most impactful way of telling photo stories. Perhaps the most used photography composition rule is the “Rule of Thirds”. It argues that important subjects in your frame should be placed along the rule of thirds intersections or lines. The reason being that the human eye divides a scene into thirds.

4. Plan Your Story

Sometimes, you do not get the chance to plan ahead. For example, if you are covering a crisis or a fast-moving story you need to think quick and act fast.

In any other type of photography, you can take your time to plan the details of your story. For example, If you are creating storytelling photos through landscape photography, scouting the area ahead of time and knowing the forecast, lighting, and weather patterns are important.

Same goes for travel or documentary photographs. Knowing the culture, events, and behavioral patterns of your subjects are crucial to capturing them in their most expressive situations.

Don’t forget about yourself when planning. What props, gear, other accessories will you be needing to do your job?

5. Include Powerful Emotions

You can include emotions in your story through a variety of ways such as body language, facial expressions, props, light, softness, or colors to name a few. They help the photographer to create a vast array of emotions.

Having empathy with the subject, making he or her at ease is another must. If you are a total stranger, either be discrete with a long telephoto or simply introduce yourself and listen to them. More often than not, they would love to find a listener who wants to capture their stories and emotions. That is how The Humans of New York project or GMb Akash is able to capture thought-provoking storytelling photos.

A storytelling photography where a child in poverty cries after being hit
Emotions are essential in storytelling photography. A photo by GMB Akash.

6. Use Colors to Create Storytelling Photography

While creating your moment, the color scheme and even the temperature of it are a great tool. Knowing the color theory can help you to create a visually pleasing image or deliver impactful images.

Warm vs. cool colors

If you focus on the spectrum of reds, that will increase the sensation of an enjoyable feeling, Also will connect the viewer with strong emotions like passion, giving an energetic charge to the scenario.

On the other hand, cold colors, around the blue will transmit calm or, the opposite, unhappiness.

Complimentary colors

This technique is based on the theory which says that placing a primary color with a secondary color that is located at the opposite side of the color wheel create high contrast and color harmony. By using this technique you can make your image pop and make it more pleasant to the eye.

A photo of the color wheel showing opposite colors which compliment
placing a primary color with a secondary color that is located at the opposite side of the color wheel create high contrast and color harmony
A story telling photography of a woman on a cliff looking at the horizon to a dreamy sunset
“Flowing as the Wind” – Canon 5ds | 20mm | f.8 | 1/40 | ISO 100

“Flowing as the Wind” has a lot of color theory in it. If you see the color scheme of this particular moment, you’ll notice that the frame is made of warm and cool colors. We have blue, purple and green on the shadows, opposite to reds, orange, and yellow on the highlights/mid-tones. As a result of the placement of these complementary colors, I was able to achieve a high contrast in my image.

7. How Much Do You Want to Reveal?

You have two ways to tell stories.

Open Stories: By having an open story, the viewer has the prerogative of understanding the narrative by himself. His past emotions, experiences will affect directly the way your story is seen.

“You and Me”  – Canon 5ds | 16mm | 1/30 | f.4 | ISO100

Closed Story: On the other hand, a closed story doesn’t give room to second interpretations.  It’s quite easy to read and the little information within the frame creates an unequivocal understanding of it.  Despite the way you should, never confuse the viewer!

“Sunset Shooter” – Canon 6d | 85mm | f.1.8 | 1/50 | ISO100

8. Include Details to Support Your Narrative

A story is many elements coming together to create a narrative. When you are attempting to create storytelling photography, always ask: “what elements should I include in my photo to help me with my narrative”?

For example, I wanted to tell the story of this woman exploring this small pathway. So I decided to include certain details (part of her body, hat, nails, ring, and phone) to help me tell this story.

a women taking a photo of a alley using her smart phone.
“Her World”  – Canon 5ds | 85mm | f1.8 | 1/320 | ISO100

9. Consider a Series of Images

Sometimes a single image is not enough to cover the whole story. Whether you are covering a cultural event in India or a mouth-watering dish from a street-side joint, you may want to capture a series of photos to complete your story. Feel free to go wide and capture the overview shot, then go into details, textures, human elements, and emotions. Perhaps you want to make a Collage or present your images with captions to help your audience easily navigate the story. You can usually find examples of this type of photographic storytelling in photography magazines.

10. Be Inspired by Your Peers

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This is true for creative souls as well. Our creativity is sparked when we participate in creative communities. So feel free to look and admire the work of your peers. Give and receive constructive criticism. Once you get in the habit of doing this, you will start looking at photography differently. Every photograph will present a learning opportunity.

A Case Study on Visual Storytelling: Spirals of Time

A story telling photograph titled "spirals of time" where a women walking on a narrow street
“Spirals of Time” – Canon 6d | 85mm | f1.8 | 1/800 | ISO 100

Human Elements:

One of my favorite subjects is landscape photography. Being able to enjoy Mother Nature and all its creations are one of the reasons I love it so much. In this photo, I decided to add a human element for giving a sense of scale to the scene. We all relate to other human beings. Including a human element helps your viewers to visualize as if they were there, experiencing the story themselves.

Be aware of your canvas

Your frame is your canvas. What a glorious canvas it is! Half the work is done when you discover a place or a subject that makes you tick. I started to feel my own intuitions, and generally, they are right. Think about it, how many times you felt absorbed by a particular place? Well, it could be a sign. I went on this same road almost 30 years ago, when I was a kid on a trip to my grandparents, and I never forgot it. So one day I made a trip searching for it. The moment I saw it was like having a revelation!

What emotions do you want to invoke?

In this image, Spirals of Time,  my storyline was about a photographer. I wanted my story to invoke questions. Where this road lead to? What is she shooting?…etc.

When scouting it I clearly saw that I must use a low angle and a shallow depth of field to clearly separate my model from the background, making her stand out. This also helps to create that dreamy mood/emotion I wanted.

Composition

As you can see, I used leading lines composition technique to guide viewers eye towards my subject. Color combinations also work perfectly in this scene. The combination of greens and blacks conveys serenity and peacefulness. The gentle light invokes emotions of hope. Mind you, I waited for about an hour until the illumination was perfect.

Over to you

We would love to see your attempts at storytelling through photography. Please share your photos and feedback via the comment section below.

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About the author

Pedro Quintela

Pedro Quintela is a Portugal based Photographer, Historian and Educator. He never leaves his HQ withouth a camera, a movie soundtrack playing and a smile. Loves fine cookies, strong and bitter coffee, watches, dogs and, above all, his treasured family.

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