Putting together a photo story isn’t straightforward and many newbie photographers make the same mistakes. To help you master the art of photo essays here is a great training technique to practice
In my capacity as the editor of JRNY Travel Magazine, I receive a lot of pitches from both newbies and seasoned photographers for our photo essay slots in each issue. And the vast majority of these pitches fall into the category that they are not quite right as a photo essay.
So, if you struggle with putting together good photo stories, read on for a useful training technique that I often set for my guests on my photography tours and workshops that I run.
What is a photo story?
Before outlining the actual technique, I think it’s important to understand what a photo essay is and how it differs from a normal collection of images.
It might sound really obvious to say this, but a photo story is exactly that – a story. The reason I mention this is that the most common feedback that I give on pitches is that whilst the collection of images might look stunning, they are not necessarily a “story”. For example, a collection of photos from a trip to a country might look great, but they would probably be too random rather than contain a premise of a story.
The other challenging part of a photo story is being able to put together a collection of photos that link together through a story, but the images are different enough to be able to keep the viewer's attention. That extends to both the subject matter and the actual focal length and style of the shots.
So, to summarise, a good photo story needs a clear narrative told with a collection of images that all work together as a set, whilst at the same time being different enough that the viewer doesn’t get bored.
"...a good photo story needs a clear narrative told with a collection of images that all work together as a set..."
Introducing the 3-picture technique
Learning to shoot photo stories was something that I practised a lot when I was at university. Often my tutor would task us with the most mundane subject matter, and we had to create a photo story around it. A particular favourite of his was creating a photo story in our bathrooms! Imagine trying to capture 10 photos that are interesting enough, and different and tell a story in a tiny bathroom. But as much as I hated the boring subject matter, it did teach me the skills needed to be able to photograph photo stories.
I adapted this idea by simplifying it when I began running photography workshops with this 3-picture technique. It is a great starting point to train yourself to be able to shoot bigger photo stories. It simply entails shooting a set of just 3 photos that tell a story:
1 The “wow” factor shot
As you have probably seen, most articles and magazine features start with a big eye-grabbing shot. If your chosen photo story is based around a location, this could be, for example, a stunning wide-angle sunrise or sunset shot (like the photo below of the skyline in Istanbul where the main story is around the Grand Bazaar). Or if your photo story is on food, your hero shot might be a beautiful plate of food. This is the photo that is going to grab the viewer's attention, so it needs to be striking, vibrant and eye-catching.
"This is the photo that is going to grab the viewer's attention, so it needs to be striking, vibrant and eye-catching."
2 The main story
Your next shot should be focused on the main story you are trying to tell. So again if your story is travel focused, this might be a photo taken at a medium focal length closer to the action where you are revealing more of the story. For example, the photo below is a shot of the vendor serving a client in the market.
3 The detail shot
The final shot in your set should be an interesting detail. This shot is all about getting close and picking out something that people might usually miss when looking at a scene. So in this story about the market, it might be a close-up of the food. Or if your story is around music, this shot might be a close-up of someone’s hand playing an instrument.
If you use this technique effectively your 3 photos should all look very different, yet they all fit a theme, and more importantly a story.
The next stage
When you start putting photo stories together, you’ll need a few more photos than just three. So once you have practised this technique enough times, you can then extend it to two or three photos of each type of shot detailed above. But you still have to make sure that your shots are all different. This will give six or nine photos instead of three which is much more like the quantity you will need for a photo story.
The great thing about this technique is that you can practice it anywhere, even around the house. Just set yourself a brief and try out the technique for yourself to see how you get on. The more you practice the better you will become, until it becomes second nature to you and you automatically include it into your daily shoots. See an example of a 9-image story using this technique from Cappadocia, Turkey.
Photo Story: Cappadocia
This story below is based on walking in the Red Valley in the UNESCO World Heritage listed landscape of Cappadocia and comprises 9 images: