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Caption Optional: How a Single Photo Can Tell a Story

Matt Peters
November 13, 2018

Throughout the history of storytelling, visuals have played an important role. Visual storytelling is an integral part of the human experience dating back to cave paintings. Because of our history and attachment to visuals, photo storytelling can be extremely powerful. 

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Although we never truly abandoned visual storytelling, it took a backseat in newspapers and magazines over the years. Only taking a significant role in a photo essay or when accompanying large amounts of text. However, with the onslaught of visual social media platforms, visual storytelling is back and more powerful than ever.   

Digital storytelling on social media is highly visual-based. With so much content online, if people want to tell a story they need to do it quickly. Our brains process images significantly faster than text, so photos are the ideal tool for telling stories digitally. Many photos can have the power to stand alone as a story. Even if storytellers are using a caption to convey more of the story, their image needs to be captivating enough to draw intrigue. 

If done correctly, a single image can have a lot of power. When it comes to telling a good story, some vital aspects are having an engaging narrative, a relatable character, and a meaningful setting. Different styles of photography capitalize on these various aspects of storytelling to tell a compelling story. Not all photos are created equal when it comes to telling a story. Read on to learn about how to make the most out of a single photo.  

Narrative: Capturing a Moment 

Documentary photography and reportage photography are similar styles of photography that capture a moment or event in a narrative way. The power behind this kind of photography is that it is un-staged. The moments are authentic and demonstrate genuine emotions and reactions. One place we see this style of photography being significant is during important events where emotions are high, such as weddings or protests. 

While narrative-focused photos can be especially powerful during large events, they can also play a role in capturing the events of everyday lives. Street photography also captures un-staged moments, but street photos are more spontaneous. They capture the little stories happening around us that we might otherwise miss.  

Character: Powerful Portraits  

An important aspect of characters in storytelling is the idea of “windows and mirrors”. When it comes to storytelling, characters are important because they can offer you windows into the lives and experiences of others and a mirror to see some of yourself in a character and relate to them. Powerful portraits do just this.  

The ideal candidate for a powerful storytelling portrait is someone who can offer either a window or a mirror. A portrait is more complex than just a picture of someone’s face. A lot of aspects come together to tell a story in a portrait. Everything from their body language, to the lighting, to their clothing gives cues to their story. 

National Geographic is a master at using the power of photographs, especially portraits.  

Tea Culture by Alessandra Meniconzi

Leila and Laelle- I will lift you up by Tati Itat   

Cameron Sterling and his Mother by Ruddy Roye   

Humans of New York is a great example of using a photo to capture the attention of the audience in order to get them to engage with the rest of the story. The photo gets you to stop and pay attention and read the accompanying text story. 

While most portraits are not candid, there is a subculture of street photography that does focus on candid portraits. The story of a candid portrait is the story we create for it in our minds. The character is captivating enough to make us wonder about their life and their story.   

Setting: Landscapes with Purpose  

Landscape photography tells a story by setting the scene. Compelling landscape photos often tell us a story by making us question what will happen next. They capture our changing world in an instant.

As ironic as it may be, the absence of humans in a photo can actually tell us more about people than we might think. When people are in pictures we immediately look at them. Their absence allows us to see the traces they leave behind. We can see how people affect landscapes and how landscapes affect people.

Landscapes tell a more abstract story, leaving more up to the viewer regarding the story they tell. Despite this, they can tell just as compelling a story as a portrait of a character or action photo narrative.

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Choosing the Shot

In addition to the content of the shot, there is also a lot of artistic thought that goes into choosing the right one. The rule of thirds is a pillar of photography. Objects, people, and things in general that are presented in thirds are artistically pleasing to the eye. Take another look at the storm picture above.

Do you think it is as compelling without the symmetry? 

Focal length and how it affects depth of field is an important aspect of photography that differs depending on the photography style. Typically, portraits do better with a medium depth of field, so the subject is separated from the background, but their features are not warped. For landscapes and large event photos that need to capture many things of varying distances from the camera a larger depth of field is better.

Digital photography means a few things for photographers. First, it gives you the opportunity to take a lot more photos than you would be able to use film. When you aren’t limited by the number of shots you can take you can fully immerse yourself in a situation or story. By capturing a story holistically and taking many photos it allows you to select after one that captures the feeling best. 

Secondly, digital photography means the ability to manipulate your image after taking it. It’s not just about the shot you take with your camera but also what you do with the photograph afterward. Applications like Adobe Lightroom give you the ability to add more artistic aspects to a photograph. The choices you make in editing a photo can convey certain aspects of the story.

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