How To Create An Engaging Photo Story, Part 1: Discovery & Planning

The secret to a good photo is through the art of storytelling. The difference between a ‘good’ photo and a ‘great’ photo is often in the story the image conveys. This can be done in just one photo, or a series of frames. If you want to take your photography to the next level, the ability to create an engaging photo story is something you need to adopt.

In part 1 of this series, I will show you how you can find an idea for your photo story, as well as give it the necessary structure to make it flow. In part two, which you can read here, we’ll cover the technical side of things and discuss some shooting tips and techniques. But for now, let’s focus on assembling our story.

Finding Your Photo Story

The world is full of potential ‘stories’. Wherever you look something is going on, although the photo story you’re looking for may not be so obvious at first sight. Whether you’re a wildlife photographer or a street photographer, every photographic discipline can double up as a ‘photojournalist’. I suppose this is the term that best fits someone looking to tell a real story with their images.

Now, ‘photojournalist’ doesn’t necessarily mean you’re capturing images that are going to be on the front pages of tomorrow’s newspapers. A photo story can be something simple; it doesn’t mean you need something equivalent to a high profile event or other things you’ve seen in the news.

Seizing the Moment

Having said that, newspapers love photo stories; if you’re looking to make money from your photos, this is a particularly important thing for you to get your head around. As a wildlife photographer and biologist, I am fascinated by animal behaviour. These quick interactions are often over in seconds, but a sequence of images published together can tell a great story. Most recently I sold a collection of images showing a lesser black-backed gull stealing fish straight from an Atlantic puffin’s beak. The cheek of it!

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A sequence of images that show an event taking place can tell a great story. (Photos by Will Nicholls)

This doesn’t just show an aggressive seagull, but actually shows kleptoparasitism (a form of feeding, where one animal steals from another). It was over in seconds, but it’s an interesting sequence that many people won’t even have the chance to see.

One of the most important things, for me, is the ability to see a situation starting to develop. You can plan some shoots, but sometimes things are totally unexpected and you need to seize the opportunity as it presents itself. In the case of the above robbery, I spotted a puffin coming into land and knew the beady-eyed gulls nearby would want to seize the opportunity. Being ready on the shutter, I was there and able to record the sequence.

Whatever The Discipline

The same principles can be applied when photographing people, too: you might see a brief encounter between two people on the street. Perhaps you’re photographing a protest and someone is looking particularly fired up, with that glint in their eye that means they’re about to shout or throw something. This is the time you need to lift up your camera and get ready to fire the shutter. Don’t just shoot one frame either; utilise burst mode and capture a number of images. You can then use them side by side to show the event unfolding.

Covering a Theme: Pre-production and Planning

Perhaps you have a theme you’d like to document through a series of photos. It might be a particular place, performance, or even a certain person. Whatever it is, you should look at it just like you would if you were writing a book. Every story needs a beginning, middle, and end – you probably heard something similar back in school. Well, it’s exactly the same whether you’re wielding a camera or a pen.

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Make a checklist of shots that are essential to your story before you head out. (Photo by Ivan Bandura)

Whatever your theme is, pre-production definitely helps you plan your shoot and ensure you come home with all the images you’re going to need. Keep a shot list at hand to keep you on track and stop you from going on some strange photographic tangent. You want to document as many of the key moments you can.

Making A Shot List

Let’s imagine you were shooting a dramatic story around a riot. You might want to capture images of both sides ‘preparing’ – that could be people putting on balaclavas, and the police getting kitted up by their vans. This would be your beginning, and for the middle you would look for all the explosive action (although hopefully not literally!), such as shouting and flames; something that keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat, and feeling the emotion coming from the photo. The end? Perhaps the clean-up operation or burnt out cars. You’ve got a clear beginning, middle, and end – your photo story is complete.

Perhaps street photography to this extreme isn’t your thing. But the principles of that situation can be applied to everything. Even so, your story’s structure doesn’t need to be so chronological like this. You could be documenting a certain area, as I recently did in the Amazon rainforest. I looked to document a regenerating forest to show what happens when forests are allowed to grow back. My photo story was a big one, and the message was that regeneration is possible with the right conditions and conservation thinking.

The Beginning

So what did I do? Well, my beginning, middle, and end was based on size instead of passing time. I started by capturing my beginning; I looked at the wider picture, documenting the environment and area I was working in. This is the home of all of the animals I would be looking for, so it made a fitting start.

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Capturing the Amazon rainforest as a whole marked the ‘beginning’ of my photo story. (Photo by Will Nicholls)

I captured this aerial view using a drone. A drone which now sits somewhere in the canopy of the Amazon, so if anyone happens to be passing through, please keep your eyes peeled. Anyway, I digress…

The Middle

Once I’d shown the environment as a whole, I wanted my middle. These are the big, bold, and characterful animals that stalk the forest through the day and night. It’s what captures people’s attention, and gets them thinking ‘wow’. What springs to mind for me is primates swinging from the trees. My story is looking at regeneration and the return of species to previously felled areas. So, thinking about the important keystone species (or key events, mirroring my previous analogy), I knew I needed to capture endangered species returning to this area.

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The ‘middle’ to my photo story looked at the big, bold species returning to an area of regenerating rainforest. (Photo by Will Nicholls)

One thing that works nicely is when your photos flow into each other. If you imagine yourself moving between the shots in a sweeping motion, there needs to be some connecting element between them. The first image of the Amazon as a whole shows the canopy of the rainforest from above, and the second image shows a woolly monkey within the canopy itself.

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Capturing little quirks or poses in one particular shot begs questions of its own, adding depth to your story. (Photo by Will Nicholls)

If you can capture poses, or looks of wonder, in individual shots then you beg more questions of your story. It’s almost like the movie Inception, but with a story within a story, instead of a ‘dream within a dream’.

The End

I’d focused on the big things, so the end of my story looked at the finer details of the rainforest. In this case, it was amphibians and invertebrates. I had captured the attention of my viewers with the wider pictures, but now I was narrowing down the message. Biologically, this often lies with the smaller things in the rainforest as they can be very sensitive to environmental change. For another photo story this might be your take away message, or overall emotion you want the viewer to feel.

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Narrowing down my story, the ‘end’ focused on the finer details. This glass frog indicates a healthy forest, so made for a good ‘conclusion’ to the photo story. (Photo by Will Nicholls)
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The classic, bright green tree frog was something I had to photograph. (Photo by Will Nicholls)

In Conclusion

The guys at National Geographic are experts in doing this, their magazine stories are excellent sources of inspiration. I’ve had the privilege of assisting one of their photographers on an expedition before, and I learnt some really awesome things. They see stories in a way I’ve never seen anyone work.

In part 1 we’ve looked at the structure of your photo story and where to look to find something relevant to photograph. In part 2, I look at techniques and other tips you can use to help open up and develop your story using light, emotion, and other elements. Be sure to head over there next!

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About the author

Will Nicholls

Will is a professional wildlife photographer from the United Kingdom. He has been behind the camera since 2007, and is also a trained zoologist. Will runs photography blog Nature TTL alongside his full-time business as a freelance photographer & cameraman.

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