7 Tips on Telling a Story with your Photography

Whether it's a closeup portrait, architecture, or street capture, photographs that allow the viewer the space to interpret their own story stand apart from the snapshots we all see on a daily basis. The technical aspect of photography is important, but as they say content is king, and when people are given the chance to connect with your work emotionally, a picture truly is worth a thousand words.

What is it that makes one photograph tell a story and another fall flat? This is a highly subjective topic that will vary from not only person to person, but from culture to culture. For example, a photograph of the Medina in Tangier, Morocco, with it's grunge and trinkets and wonderful people, may inspire great reaction from someone who has never visited or seen such an ancient market. For the people who live and work daily there, it may only elicit a shrug. The picture is the same, but culturally speaking, we're in two different worlds. 

Themes that will work cross-culturally are harder to find, but our common humanity can help us to connect here. Take for example this award winning photograph by Warren Richardson during the (ongoing) European immigration crisis.

A man handing a child under a barbed wire fence from the village of Horgoš in Serbia to Röszke in Hungary during the European migration crisis in 2015. Photograph: Warren Richardson

A man handing a child under a barbed wire fence from the village of Horgoš in Serbia to Röszke in Hungary during the European migration crisis in 2015. Photograph: Warren Richardson

Technically speaking, this treasure is no masterpiece. The conditions for shooting were terrible, I'm sure. Would Warren probably have wanted it sharper? Probably. But the very technical imperfections cause an already heartbreaking image to become haunting. Why?

There is a universal theme at play here. A man, probably a father (we apply our own inferences). passes a small child under a barrier meant to keep them from moving freely, in a desperate attempt to secure some semblance of safety. We don't have any idea where he's from or where they're going. We have this one moment: Desperation in trying to save his boy.

What's in this frame that draws us in so? For each of us, we will identify with different elements. But, the fact of the matter is, there isn't much here. Barbed wire, a man with a distressed expression and a baby suspended by four sets of hands. What is it that pulls you in? Spend some time looking at it and let your eyes and emotions wander around this image. It's incredibly powerful.

This moving image is one that few people could hope to capture in a lifetime of photography. Of course it depends on where you are spending your time. Working in war-torn regions as a journalist will afford you many more opportunities to capture images that are equally compelling, but there are many stories closer to home and less devastating worthy of capturing as well. Not all stories are sad, after all.

So how do you start to tell stories within a single frame? Here's my approach.

Set Up Your Camera

Your camera is a tool for capturing images. Like any tool, you should know how to use it and have it set up and ready to go before your start. Street photography in particular is a challenge for newer photographers because conditions of lighting are always changing. Whenever you enter new lighting circumstances, take a moment to use your camera's metering system and set up for an acceptable exposure. Over time, you will develop an instinct for this.

The very best way to lose a great shot is to fumble with your settings and miss it. An over or underexposed shot of a great moment will always trump and perfect exposure of a lackluster moment.

For those of you who know your camera well, you may want to work in manual mode understanding the intricacies of aperture, shutter speed and ISO to get the aesthetic you want within the image.

If you're newer to the technical side of capturing images, you may want to work it shutter or aperture priority mode, or even full-auto. The capture is more important than the technique. I do however recommend shooting with intention: How much background do I want in focus? Do I want motion blur? Do I want to stop time, tack sharp? Decide.

Stop Taking Pictures

OK, it seems counter intuitive to stop taking pictures within this context, I know. But, the fact is, if you're constantly taking pictures, you're actually not really paying attention. Stories are developing all around you and you're like the dog in the movie Up distracted by every shiny thing that catches your eye. Instead, pause, look for the moments which may be about to occur, rather than chasing images. Photography is a quality game, not one of quantity.

Slow down. Look around. Let your mind start wandering as you observe the world around you. You will find yourself beginning to project your own thoughts and stories out there. When you feel compelled by a story you're seeing, capture it. Don't look at your shot afterwards. 

Boy enjoying the sun at 57th and 6th ave., New York

Boy enjoying the sun at 57th and 6th ave., New York

Would I have preferred that this shot was not blown out and some detail remained in his suit. Absolutely. I love this photo anyway because it was a genuine moment that moved me. 

Decide on your Theme

I often times find it helpful to go out with a theme in mind. You can find inspiration in other's work, stories you're reading, movies you've watched, or directly from your mind. Having an idea of what you want to capture will help you prioritize where you're spending your time. Do you want to capture stories about families on vacation? Kids in the summer? Musicians in the park? How the homeless are surviving the streets? Play? Work?

A theme isn't necessary for finding great moments and I encourage you to be open to deviating from the theme, but the mindset of searching will help you to begin noticing. And noticing, is a large part of the battle.

Family Errand, New York, Upper West Side.

Family Errand, New York, Upper West Side.

This day I'd set out with a theme of something like "Family time in the City". I didn't find a lot of fun moments that day, but then I came across this little one and her dad. I can tell you what was going on here, but would love for you to tell me instead what you think was happening.

Stealing a Kiss, 55th and 6th ave, New York

Stealing a Kiss, 55th and 6th ave, New York

I'd had a string of bad luck around the time this image was taken. I had about 100 shots of people just breaking after a warm embrace or a kiss. So, I set out to capture some kisses. Love was in the air, and after a few outings, I captured this really cool moment in front of the "dandelion" fountains here in New York. 

Theme is an important aspect of your photography. It will help guide your technique, composition, post-processing, and of course, where you point your camera. I would say though that the most important aspect of deciding on a theme is photographing with intent. You may go out to capture stories of love, only to capture quite the opposite. Having intention however, helps your start noticing with more awareness and connect you to the stories happening all around you.

Don't Be A Monkey

Admittedly, this is a hard one for all of us. You want to make sure that image was exposed correctly, composed well, sharp, etc. This goes back in part to tip #1 above, but there is no easier way to take yourself out of the zone than getting into the images. Yes, I have plenty of times where an exposure was off or the shutter speed was too slow for the motion in the frame. I can promise you though, whatever is happening outside your camera is far more interesting that what's on the SD card. Stay with the scene and do your best. Learn from your mistakes and do better next time. Wait for a break to start assessing your shots and be disciplined and deliberate about when you do it. This will help you stay in the zone and remember, the quality of the content -- the story and the moment -- is far more important than how technically perfect your image is.

Sometimes the action you're photographing is prolonged and there is time to check the images. Over time you'll learn to be more and more judicious about checking your images. I'll say that they are far more instances where I have been disappointed about missing a shot because I was busy reviewing images instead of being in the moment, than there are where I was shooting and didn't like the images I got.

A great smile, 58th and 8th ave, New York

A great smile, 58th and 8th ave, New York

In the image above, I had already taken a couple of shots of her. They indeed told a sad story about this woman, homeless, and sitting in a pile of trash. Instead of moving on though, I stayed with this moment and she flashed me this brilliant smile. An entirely different story was born out of that persistence.

Stay in the moment. Stay out of the camera as much as possible.

Ask for Forgiveness, Not Permission

Now we're getting into touchy territory. I am a firm believer that candid photos tend to tell a deeper and more authentic story than posed ones. Many people do not like to have themselves photographed without permission. Many locations can be touchy about having someone taking pictures without asking.

In a decade of shooting street photography, however, I've really only had a handful of people actually approach me and express frustration. These conversations are usually over quickly and don't amount to much. Oftentimes I'll show the image to them and tell them that I am a street photographer and something about why I took the picture. This is a good moment to practice your storytelling. 

Sometimes. they love us. New York, NY

Sometimes. they love us. New York, NY

I've gotten used to finding people giving me the ultimate expression of affection on photographs such as the on above. It makes for an interesting story anyway, wouldn't you agree? Most of the time, a simple wave of "Sorry!" is enough to diffuse the situation.

Ultimately, remember, in the U.S. it is perfectly within your rights to photograph anything or anyone in a place in which the expectation of privacy is not present. If you are taking pictures in a public place, you're fine. If you are within a place of business, they have a right to ask you not to take pictures and this situation is more intricate. Consult a legal professional if you have specific questions. Within a place of business, I respect the wishes of the management and usually just ask for forgiveness should they object.

As always, I suggest an approach that is respectful to all. If someone asks you not to take their picture, don't.

Get Close

You will be tempted to be a fly on the wall with your street photography. There is a certain value in photographs that feel voyeuristic in nature. However, our brains are wired to feel more emotional connection and to develop more interesting stories when we feel involved. This requires you to step outside of your comfort zone and into the story.

Likewise, we can subconsciously tell when a photo was taken with a long lens and the photographer was standing a distance away so it's hard to cheat in this regard. Take your 35mm or 50mm lens and stand closer to your subject. Compose the shot in such a way as to capture important contextual details, but let your subject own the space.

She's got Pride, Pride Parade, New York

She's got Pride, Pride Parade, New York

Here, this woman dominates the frame not only with her size relative to everything else, but with her actions. I shot with the camera at about her belly button level and about 24mm and angled slightly up giving her a larger than life perspective while also capture the energy around her. 

The closer you get to your subjects, the more deeply you will draw in your viewers. Don't be afraid to get close!

Anticipate the Future

Once you've gotten into slowing things down and observing, you'll want to start looking for moments that are about to occur. A couple stops on the street and spins into an embrace. A kiss may follow! Someone steps into a subway car with a guitar. Could a performance be next?

Work to predict the future and guess what might happen next. Often, there's a logical conclusion to a moment that will make your photo tell a story.

Crowd Pleaser, Columbus Circle, New York

Crowd Pleaser, Columbus Circle, New York

I had a few pictures of this vibrant drummer (where drummers are often found just outside Columbus Circle Station on the 1 train). I noticed a mother giving this little guy a couple of dollars and "predicted" he was going to go give it to the performer. I quickly changed position to capture that moment. I love here the drummer's expression as well as the fact that the kid shot me this look. I sent this one to the drummer.


I'll close this with a challenge. Go out today, and create 3 images that tell a story all on their own. Not a series but three stand-alone images that a viewer can project into and could tell you a story on what's going on. Share them with people, or even send them to me! Ask them to tell you what the story is. The better their story, the better your image.