How to Tell a Story With Your Photos
One thing that eludes some photographers is the ability to create images that tell a story.
That's unfortunate because telling a story with your portraits is one of the best ways that you can turn an image from something that's just so-so into something that really wows.
The question is, how do you create images that tell a story?
Happily, the answers to that question are pretty simple and straightforward.
Let's see what you need to do to make a story-rich image.
Capture Organic Moments
Let me first say that this isn't a diatribe against posed portraits...
As you can see above, a portrait that's intentionally posed can be beautiful and meaningful. And as you'll learn below, there are ways to make them more impactful and authentic.
However, there is something to be said about capturing something that's organic, that's unfolded on its own, that makes it a more meaningful shot.
Looking through my collection of photos, my favorite ones are those when my friends and family didn't realize I was taking their pictures.
There's an authenticity to their presence, a genuineness about the moment, that can be hard to get when you're directing the subject to sit a certain way, look a certain way, and so on.
It's just a natural reaction for people to stiffen up a bit when a camera is shoved in their face.
There's also a tendency to try to force a smile or look good for the camera.
In many cases - at least in my experience - a stiff body, a forced smile, and attempts to look good for the camera don't end up making for a very good photo, let alone one that tells a story.
How do you get organic shots, though?
Use a Small Lens
If you have a 300mm telephoto lens on your camera, it'll be hard for you to blend into the crowd, so to speak.
Instead, opt for something like a 35mm or 50mm lens. They're small, compact, and lightweight, and will allow you to be a little more stealthy as you hunt for those authentic moments.
Likewise, if you're trying to work on the down-low, don't use a flash.
Just like a huge lens will give you away, so too will that bright, annoying flash of light from the top of your camera.
Besides, on-camera flash seldom looks good anyway!
One of the best ways to capture an organic moment is to focus on the interactions between two people.
Doing so gives you the chance to highlight the relationship between the people.
What's interesting, though, is that they don't even need to have a pre-existing relationship for you to be able to show it.
It might sound strange, but even perfect strangers talking on the subway can give you fodder for a better story than a photo of an individual person.
And as seen above, a person with their favorite pet makes for an authentic image that tells a story of complete joy.
I don't mean that you need to focus on taking photos of people skydiving and bungee jumping...
Instead, have your camera at the ready when people are doing something active.
It might be dancing at a wedding reception, making cookies in the kitchen, swinging on the porch swing, you name it.
When people are doing something, they are also not doing something - worrying about looking good for the camera!
Photograph Things That Inspire You
Telling you to photograph things that inspire you is a little easier said than done.
That's because each of us is inspired by different things.
What's more, what inspires you today might not be what inspires you in a month's time, so it can be hard to nail those things down.
However, spending some time thinking about what inspires you right now, at this moment, can help you create photos that have much more meaning and depth.
To that end, it's necessary to spend a little time with your thoughts to consider the things in this big, beautiful world of ours that get you feeling something.
Maybe it's a person or a relationship that gets you inspired. If that's the case, photograph that person. Heck, you can even include yourself in the shot to show off that meaningful connection.
Perhaps it's a place that you find yourself thinking about. If so, grab a friend or two, head to that location, and see what you can do to create moving portraits using the energy of the location to guide you.
Music, for many people, is a vehicle by which they connect with their emotions. If need be, listen to some tunes to find your inspiration (and then keep it playing during the shoot!).
It might even be something as simple as a color, a favorite memory, a scene from a movie, and so on that gets your creativity going.
The point is that finding what "gets to you" and using that to direct your portrait-taking will result in images that make viewers feel something on a deeper level than any old photo will.
Here's a few tips for taking what inspires you to create images that tell a story.
Help the Model
I know, I know...
Earlier, I said it's helpful to hang back, have a small lens, and let things unfold on their own.
But as I also said above, there are ways to make posed portraits tell a story.
One of those ways is to help the model by getting them inspired and in the moment and directing them to show the emotion or feeling you want to portray.
For example, if you're going for something moody, maybe you have the model hide part of their face to indicate vulnerability.
You might also have them curl up, bend their limbs, or sink into themselves to indicate sadness.
Conversely, you can crack a joke, ask them to think of the funniest moment of their life or show them photos of puppies to get them smiling and laughing for an upbeat shot.
With a little help from you, you can elicit just about any emotion you need from your subjects to get great portraits.
Change Your Perspective
The perspective from which you shoot the portrait can have a significant impact on the story the photo tells.
For example, a very low perspective, looking up at the subject, makes them have a looming presence in the shot.
It reads as them being powerful and confident...
Conversely, taking a higher shooting position and photographing the subject from above minimizes their size.
This can help you create a portrait that tells a totally different story - one of being small and vulnerable.
All it takes to get this wide range of stories is for you to move around, lay down, stand on a chair, and so forth.
It doesn't get much easier than that!
Think About the Location
When you want to tell a story with your photos, you have to think of much more than just who you're photographing, what they're doing, and the perspective from which you shoot.
You also need to think about the location of the shoot, as that can make or break the story.
If you want to tell a story that's warm and inviting, what better place than outside at sunset to capitalize on the warm and inviting light as the sun fades?
If you want to tell a story that gives viewers a sense of being alone or hopeless, select a location that's stark, bleak, and cold.
The moral of the story is that telling a story with your photos requires you to layer things into the shot, from your inspiration to the features of the location at which you shoot to the clothes the model is wearing.
By being purposeful in all aspects of the shot and planning what you want to convey, you'll be more apt to convey that feeling or emotion and tell a strong story with your images.
See these storytelling tips in action in the video below by Mango Street: