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6 Fundamentals of Visual Storytelling in Photos

A woman holding pictures by myshakisia, 123RF

In the words of photographer Elliot Erwinn – the whole point of taking pictures is so that you don't have to explain things with words.

Photography is a powerful tool for telling stories. Professional photographers or amateurs can use your camera to capture moments and convey emotions that words simply can't express.

In this guide, we'll explore the fundamental aspects of visual storytelling, including choosing a narrative, capturing emotion, using composition and lighting to enhance your story, and sharing your story with an audience.

Identify and plan the story you want to tell

Woman holding a bottle of whiskey in the toilet by miljanzivkovic, 123RF

Before you start taking photos, it's essential to think about the story you want to tell.

What message do you want to convey? What are you trying to tell your audience? How do you want to visualize your story – with a single image or in a series of images?

Keep in mind that more isn’t always the merrier. A single image can be as powerful as a series of images.

But if there’s only so much you can capture in one shot, try using a series of images to allow the viewer to engage with the story.

Once you’ve figured out the story you want to tell, you can begin to plan your shots and pick the photos that support your narrative.

Create an emotional connection

Tired firemen by the truck by supernam, 123RF

Any photo that has a worthwhile story should invoke a strong emotional impact on your viewers.

Emotions in a photo can be portrayed through many factors like a subject’s body language, facial expression, gesture, or action. It can also be portrayed with more technical properties like lighting, mood, or composition.

For example, black-and-white photos tend to exude a sense of timelessness, nostalgia, and serenity. If you’re new to photography, play around with the colors to choose which ones better emulate the mood you want to set.

It’s also not necessary to have a human figure or grand interaction to be emotionally powerful. It can be anything from a full portrait to landscapes and abstract visuals.

What truly counts is whether your story in the photo can really stir powerful emotions in the heart of the viewer.

Use visual elements to guide the eye

Damaged residential buildings in Podilskyi district of Kyiv by palinchak, 123RF

A well-framed and composed shot is critical in visual storytelling. Lines, shapes, light, and shadow are used as cues to guide the viewer through the photo.

It can add a sense of focus, hierarchy, depth, or movement to still images. It can also provide the viewer with more context for the subject by including relevant background elements or the environment of the subject.

Go through some of your favorite photographer’s work, and study how they composed their shot. Why did they take it this way? Did it add some depth to an otherwise boring photo?

All in all, the composition and framing of a photograph can help to convey a specific message or idea and create a visual narrative that tells a story.

Timing and pacing

Hands holding a wedding picture by sayfutdinov, 123RF

Visual storytelling in photography involves more than just capturing pretty images. It’s also careful consideration of the timing and pacing of those images to create a compelling and cohesive narrative.

The right timing and pacing can evoke emotions, capture tension and transitions, and create a sense of rhythm to pull the viewer into the story.

For example, a seasoned wedding photographer would not just take photos of the wedding ceremony or the walk down the aisle. They would also photograph the moments when the bride is getting ready, while the groom awaits nervously, and guests begin to arrive.

They would alternate between close-ups, wide shots, and different angles to create rhythm and progression to help the images flow seamlessly. This is especially true if you’re presenting your story in a series of images.

Editing your photos to perfection

Hiker taking a picture of the mountain view by soloway, 123RF

Once you’ve taken your photos, it’s time to edit. Editing photos allows photographers to refine and enhance their images.

Through editing, photographers can adjust factors such as exposure, white balance, contrast, color balance, sharpness, and other parameters to create a more visually striking image.

This is also the step where photographers remove any imperfections in their images. This includes removing blemishes, smoothing out skin tones, fixing stray hairs, and adjusting lighting to create a more polished image.

Another editing technique is to use the cropping tool to remove any distractions in the photo. This could help the viewer’s attention focus on the key elements of the story.

Putting the images together

A family's photobook with a newborn by sayfutdinov, 123RF

The last step and probably the most important step of visual storytelling in photography – arranging the photos into beginning, middle, and end.

It’s not enough to just have a collection of photos, you need to craft them into a narrative that tells a coherent story.

By arranging your photos in a specific order, you can create a sense of progression and flow to help the viewer understand how the story unfolds.

For example, you might start with establishing shots that set the scene, then move on to action shots that convey the story's climax, before ending with resolution shots that bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.

Now that you know the six fundamentals of visual storytelling in photography, it’s time to have fun with it!

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