In Part 1 of Building Narrative, I looked at four basics to carefully consider when you’re creating an image and want to convey a certain narrative or meaning: composition, your style, your styling and your environment. These four things give you a strong foundation to creating narrative within your photography.

As I said before, I have always been a storyteller. I have always been focused on people. It was little surprise to me when I found a passion for portrait photography.

My goal is to create a folio of portraits that tell the stories of people. I want to tell stories with meaning and not simply take snapshots of time. I want to create images that grip people and allow connections between photographer, subject and viewer.

Have I achieved this yet? Sometimes, yes. Sometimes, I have work to do.

But here are some thoughts on my process when creating a portrait and some tips to take on board.


Talk To Your Subject

It seems like such a trivial thing, but one of the most important things you can do as a photographer taking portraits is TALK. Talk before, during and after a photoshoot.

Talking before your shoot will allow you both to get to know each other, making you more at ease with each other when there’s a camera between you. It also allows you to get to know your subject and learn about what will make an image have a greater story than a simple just capturing what they look like.

Talking during the shoot creates a relaxed atmosphere and allows your subject to open up. This can lead to much more honest, authentic photos. On top of this, it allows you to give direction to your subject and you can find out even more about them, which you can add to their photograph.

Talking further after the shoot might allow you to find out which photo tells the most about your subject and can lead to future ideas for other photo shoots.

(C) Peter Bower.

This is a photo from a wedding of a lovely couple I shot back in 2012. In our talks leading up to the wedding, I discovered the story of the groom’s Kombi, which was one of two bridal cars for the day, and its repeated breaking down. This photo is part of a mini-series that sprung to mind instantly. (C) Peter Bower.


Explore THEIR Story and History

Everyone has a story to share. I have always loved taking photographs of people because sometimes, when you’re lucky, they open up and share stories while you shoot and talk. As a writer and photographer, these stories fuel me and leave my mind racing. Stories of past jobs, drunken adventures, lost loves, and key moments can come up as a result of a shoot. But remember that just because you’re shooting doesn’t mean the camera has to stay a barrier between you and your subject; lower the camera every now and then and have a good chinwag. You will appreciate the experience even more.

(C) Peter Bower. Laman Street.

This is a portrait I took of my good friend from uni, Tim, a few years back. He had moved to Newcastle for his studies, during which time he had spent most of his time living in the CBD around Laman and Darby Streets. The area was of historical importance to him, where he spent a lot of his time. This photo was taken literally in the middle of the street in Laman Street. The following day, temporary fences went up around the street before a lengthy process (involving many protests) to remove all the giant fig trees. This is believed to be the last photo taken in Laman Street with all the glory of the fig trees and none of the fencing. (C) Peter Bower.


Discover Passions

If you are visiting this site, I assume you are passionate about photography. You are probably thinking about getting behind the camera and plotting your next shoot. When you are at shoot, you’re holding the camera, looking through the lens, thinking about composition and settings and light.

The person on the other side of your lens will have something they are equally passionate about. When you talk to them, find out what makes them tick the way that photography makes you tick. Showing their passions in a unique way is a great way of sharing some narrative in your portrait. Ask them what they’re into, what they love, what they enjoy doing, and go from there!

(C) Peter Bower.

Taken way back in 2010, a friend asked if I wanted to take some fun photos. We discussed a few options, and considering dancing is such a passion of hers, I told her to bring her dance partner and we’d hit the beach at sunset. (C) Peter Bower.


Dress To Impress

When you photograph someone, you might want to consider capturing them and their current story. Perhaps you want to capture what they do for a living, or their favourite past time (a sport, for example), or even their favourite colour. You want to have them dressed in something they’re comfortable in, but also something that shares something about them. Consider instructing them to wear their work uniform, or they’re favourite dress or favourite funky suit and bow-tie that shows off their quirky side, or even just something they would mow the lawns in…

(C) Peter Bower. Dream Land

While you may want to take a serious approach in exploring the narrative, shooting someone in their work clothes, sometimes you might be working on a fantasy shoot and need to dress your subject accordingly. Also, of note, is my stuffed pooch, which holds great sentimental value to me. (C) Peter Bower.


Add Props With Meaning

Every element in your photo should mean something. Styling your photo is essential. That book shelf in the background? If it is in your portrait, it should have something on it that adds to the image, such as books on the subject’s field of expertise or perhaps sporting trophies. Or perhaps it is covered in old childhood toys. As I said in the previous Building Narrative article, everything matters. So make sure it is there for a reason.

(C) Peter Bower. Amy Lovat.

My friend and University of Newcastle postgrad student / lecturer Amy Lovat needed some new photos and head shots for bios and the like for various publications. We had a chat about what we wanted to do, and decided books and coffee were the essentials. Thankfully, another ex-UON postgrad student now runs a second-hand bookshop / press coffee shop, The Press Book House Cafe. It was a perfect location for her. Amy scoured the shelves for a few books for the table, enjoyed a coffee, and we set about shooting in this beautiful spot. (C) Peter Bower.


Location Location — Building An Environmental Portrait

Perhaps the strongest element in creating a strong narrative in a portrait is location.

Environmental portraits — i.e. portraits using the subject’s usual environment, such as their home or workplace — is a style of photography that adds an incredible amount of depth and story to a photograph. By setting your portrait in the location of their house or work place, you can create a great narrative within your portrait. It can tell the viewer of the photograph so much about this individual’s life: where they work, the type of house they live in, their passions and interests, their loves, their socio-economic background, even, if you’re lucky, their thoughts. It also comes with the bonus of allowing your subject a better chance of being relaxed and at ease if they’re in a familiar place.

Environmental Portraiture. Place the subject in their most familiar setting, and let them be themselves. (C) Peter Bower.

Environmental Portraiture. Place the subject in their most familiar setting, and let them be themselves. (C) Peter Bower.

Bonus tip? Since the background and surroundings is such an important element and add so much more story about the person, you should use a small aperture and greater depth of field to try and include as much detail of the background as possible.


With these tips in mind, you will find yourself taking portraits with greater depth, meaning and narrative. And who doesn’t want to share a good story?


Peter Bower Bio PicPeter Bower is a mixed bag of tricks. He is a professional photographer, published writer, English academic, award winning poet, hater of soup, website manager, social media guy, ginger, and creature of the night. He is the Founder of VOTogs. When he’s not working, he is a semi-serious competitive gamer and lover of live music, bad movies and action novels. You can find more of his work at his website and ‘like’ him on Facebook. You can also say hello to him on Twitter @OeterB.


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