Create a meaningful set of images by producing a photo essay or story

Intermediate

A photographic essay is a deeper and more meaningful way to use your photography than a single image tends to be.

Typically associated with documentary and news-gathering, a photo essay doesn’t necessarily have to follow those genres, but can be used as a way to tell a longer or more-in depth story about all manner of subjects.

Creating a photo essay however is about more than just taking a set of images and presenting them as one package. They require more forethought, planning and editing than many other forms of photography, but the results are often more rewarding, too.

Follow our guide below if it’s something you’d like to consider putting together.

1 Find a story


The first thing you will need to do is to figure out what you want to do your photo essay on.

"Inspiration can come from anywhere, but a good starting to place is to look at news sources to see if something catches your eye."

Inspiration can come from anywhere, but a good starting to place is to look at news sources to see if something catches your eye. If you’re not sure where to begin, you could start by looking at what’s going on in your local area - if nothing else, it’ll make the practicalities easier.

Start jotting down ideas that you can explore and figure out exactly why you want to do it. Try to be as active as you can in discovering what’s going on in the world and eventually something will keep your attention for long enough that it will seem like the right idea.

"In a world that is quickly becoming marginalized with the tech culture these traditional villages may not be around 50 years from now." - Photographer Leslie Brockett put together this poignant photo story on the indigenous populations of the Peruvian Andes.
Finding a story that resonates with you is half the battle when it comes to photo essays

2 Do your research


Next, try and find out as much as you can about whatever it is you want to create your photo story on.

"If you find that others have done photo essays on the same or similar subject, then that’s something you should be aware of."

Importantly, you’ll need to see what else already exists out there - if anything - on your story. If you find that others have done photo essays on the same or similar subject, then that’s something you should be aware of. That’s not to say that you can’t also do one, but it pays to be prepared so that you can perhaps approach it in a different way.

You’ll also need to do some research into the practicalities that will be required to help you along the way. You’ll need to look into people you should be contacting, how you will get to the destination (if it’s not local), any requirements you need for visiting the location, any restrictions on what you can and cannot shoot and so on. Doing as much research ahead of time as possible will make the project run smoothly when it comes to actually shooting it.

Taking a look at how other photographers have approached the same - or similar - subjects can help you figure out the angle you wish to take. This photo essay by Maximilian M. Meduna takes an alternative approach to a popular photo topic - the United States

3 Make a structured plan 


Once your research is complete, it’s time to make a detailed and structured plan about how you’re going to go about shooting your photo essay.

It doesn’t have to be completely rigid so as to disallow flexibility, but sorting out shoot times, shoot dates, shoot locations will give you something to work with, even if things eventually go off plan.

Some photo essays can be shot in an afternoon, others might take several months or even years to complete. Having an idea of how long you want to spend on a particular project can help focus your mind and give you an end date for when you might want to publish the essay. It’s also useful to tell subjects and those involved with the shoot a rough timeline of events.

You might find it helpful to organise everything together in one easily accessible place - such as online calendars and spreadsheets, so you can quickly refer to anything you need to.

A selection of images from a photo essay on North Korea by James Gourley. Photo essays can take anything from a few hours to a few years to create–particularly when it comes to travelogues or photo stories on specific locations. Having an end goal in sight can help keep things focused, however

4 Tell a story


Your photo essay needs to be more than just a set of images on a similar theme.

"...including some introductory or contextualising shots before you get into the heart of the subject matter is a good approach."

Think of it exactly like a story, which usually requires a beginning, a middle and an end. That’s a very simplistic way of putting it, but photographically, including some introductory or contextualising shots before you get into the heart of the subject matter is a good approach.

There might not necessarily be a neat “resolution” to whatever story you’re trying to tell, and it might not always be a happy ending, but having that at least in your mind as you go along can help to create a neatly-packaged story that has a definite and well-constructed narrative.

Make sure your story has a well-constructed narrative and think of it as having a beginning, middle and end

5 Stick with a cohesive style


Exactly how you’re going to shoot your photo essay is entirely up to you, but in order for your story to have a cohesive look, it’s usually best if you stick to the same style throughout.

"With a photo essay, you want the images to hang extremely well together as a set, so keeping things consistent will help you do that..."

That could be as simple as not mixing black and white and colour, always using a particular lens, always shooting in a particular way, or even applying the same post-processing techniques to the finished shots.

With a photo essay, you want the images to hang extremely well together as a set, so keeping things consistent will help you do that - that is, unless you’re actively trying to use disparate styles as an artistic or storytelling technique.

A cohesive shooting style helps your photo essay to hang together well. Here, photographer Roman Robroek only shoots abandoned places with available, natural light

5 Create a strong edit


The chances are that in the process of creating your photo essay, you will have shot dozens, if not hundreds of images.

"It can help to step away from your essay for at least a few days if you can to give yourself some distance and perspective - don’t be afraid to be brutal and keep your final selection down to only those that are the strongest or the best."

For the final edit of your photo story, you need to make sure that the images selected to appear are the strongest of the set, with each adding something unique to the finished story.

Try to avoid “padding out” your story with too many fillers, even if you think they are strong images on their own. It’s a good idea to avoid too much repetition, and here again you should look to include images that create a strong story arc with a defined beginning, middle and end.

It can help to step away from your essay for at least a few days if you can to give yourself some distance and perspective - don’t be afraid to be brutal and keep your final selection down to only those that are the strongest or the best.

There’s no defined number for how many images should be included in a final story, but as a general rule, you’ll probably want it to be under 20 for the most impact. 

Being ruthless about what you include - and perhaps more importantly what you don’t - can make your photo essay stronger. Images from the photo essay - 'Iowa' - by worthingtonphoto

6 Ask for input


It’s very easy to get so close to your subject and your images that you become blind to any flaws in them, or the structure of your story. Asking for advice and input from somebody you trust can help to tighten up your story even further.

"Asking for advice and input from somebody you trust can help to tighten up your story even further."

In certain situations, it can be helpful to ask the subject of the photographs themselves what they think, to make it more of a collaborative process - but you should be able to determine whether that’s appropriate on a case-by-case basis.

If you have any contacts who are photographers, editors or publishers, asking them to cast an eye over your finished story is a good idea, too.

7 Add some text 


It can be a good idea to add some text or individual captions for a photo essay, to give some background information and context to whatever is shown in the pictures.

If you’re not a writer, try to keep it as basic as possible - including things such as names, locations and dates. A short introduction to the piece to give some background information is useful, too. Ask somebody you trust to check it over for sense, clarity and mistakes.

"Tajik children playing in the village of Pskon in the isolated Yaghnob Valley."

Including even a basic caption describing the action unfolding can help add much-needed context for your photo essay. Photo by Roman Shanev

8 Get the story seen


Once your story is complete and you’re happy with it, the next stage is to get it seen - also known as, the hard part.

"Once your story is complete and you’re happy with it, the next stage is to get it seen - also known as, the hard part."

A sensible first step is to create an album on your Picfair store which is dedicated to your photo essay. That way, anybody who is looking for that particular piece won’t have to wade through all of your other work to find it.

You can then start sending out information about the work to editors and publishers, including a link to the album on your Picfair page as an easy way for them to look at it.

Sending a link to your photo essay on your Picfair Store is an ideal way to share it with others
Editor's tip:

If you're not sure where to begin with pitching to publishers, be sure to check our how to pitch guide.

Creating albums on your Picfair Store is a simple and effective way to send direct and specific links to editors and publishers. See this example from Stefan Ferreira with his beautiful London portraits story