Even an elementary school student should be able to tell you that a story has a setting, characters, and a plot. Photography gives you the opportunity to tell a story in a unique, powerful way – without the written or spoken word. A picture IS worth a thousand words. Although the medium of storytelling isn’t the same as what you learned in elementary school, the elements of the story are still important. And remember a story can be told with one or several pictures.

Depending on the story, less may be more.

PURPOSE

First, decide what your purpose for telling the story is.

  • Are you sharing a vacation with friends?
  • Do you want to tell about an important event like a birthday or wedding?
  • Or even just a little event like someone trying something new?
  • Is your goal to tell the story of a person or family?
  • Now, why do you want to tell this story?

CREATE THE MOOD

Identifying your purpose will help you create the mood you want for your story.

  • Is it happy or sad?
  • Thrilling or peaceful?

If you were writing a story, the tone would be set by your word choice. When telling a story with pictures, you write with light rather than words – so your lighting is important. Make sure you consider the direction of the light in relation to you and your subject when shooting your story.

SETTING

Depending on your purpose, the setting is generally decided for you.

  • But what parts of the setting will you include when you frame your picture?
  • What angle will you shoot from?
  • If the setting is too busy, it can detract from your plot.

Remember that setting isn’t just about location. Letting your audience know the time is important too. I’m not saying you need a clock in the pictures (although that might work for some stories), but can they tell if it’s dawn, day, dusk, or night? Knowing the setting your characters are part of in the story can be important to accomplishing your purpose for telling the story.

CHARACTERS

Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and found that you really didn’t like it because the character was not fully developed? It’s hard to care about what happens to someone who might as well be a vegetable for all you know about them. Also, if I don’t feel some type of connection to the characters, I don’t enjoy the story. That’s why two people can see the same movie, or read the same book, and have such different opinions – one person relates to the character and the other doesn’t.

When taking pictures of your characters, consider what makes them universal.

What about them will emotionally capture your audience? Highlight this with the way you frame you picture and your lighting. This also will help you decide what images to shoot, or to include when you present your story. If you’re photographing a wedding, a picture of the bride and groom kissing would be important to your story. It’s universal. It tells about their relationship and how they feel. But 20 kissing pictures in a row is overkill. Instead, move on to the next part of the story.

PLOT

Remember a plot has a beginning, middle, and end.

For example at a birthday party:

  • Beginning: you may want pictures of the preparations.
  • Middle: this could be blowing out candles, opening presents, and eating cake.
  • End:  This might be the sleeping little birthday girl with cake all over her content face.

Not every birthday plays out this way, but hopefully you get the gist of it. At a wedding you’d want to make sure to catch all the highlights such as walking down the aisle, cake cutting, bouquet tossing, etc. You may even want to start with the bride getting ready. But don’t limit yourself to just highlights – any other shots that add to the development of your character can be important to the plot too – like the big smile on the groom’s face as he sees his bride walk down the aisle.

Can you have a beginning, middle and end when you tell a story with just one picture?

Let’s say you need to tell the story of that same birthday party in one shot. It’s tricky, but imagine you have the birthday girl sitting there with balloons and people in the background, a cake to the side, a plate of a mostly eaten piece of cake to the side also, her favorite present on her lap, wrapping paper strewn about at her feet, and a happy expression on her face. Can you see the plot?

There are many ways to share your story: printed story boards, photo albums, slideshows, and blogs are some of them. Thinking in terms of plot will help you decide how to arrange your images so that they tell a story instead of just being random snapshots of an event.

Photographs can have power that words do not. They have the ability to tell a story in a way that makes it come alive and creates a unique emotional experience for the viewer – or they can just be “nice pictures.”

The magic happens when you create a mood while using the basic elements of a story.