The old adage is that a photo is worth a thousand words; so why shouldn’t it tell a story.
Long before I picked up a camera, I was a storyteller. As far back as I can remember, I was writing stories and poems and exploring reasons behind what drove people to do the things they do. Many (read: too many) years at university saw me learn different techniques to create a narrative and helped me refine my style.
Photography I would like to think is no different to a good poem or short story or even a novel.
Photos that capture the attention of the view, or that stir a strong response (be it emotional or otherwise), are photos that allow connection or narrate to the viewer. Simply, they share a story. They either show a series of events or cause and consequence, or they share background or context to the main subject.
Any photograph can have elements of narrative and story within them. Be they photos of buildings, of products, of food or of people, everything can share a narrative.
Simply, everything matters in the image. No detail is too trivial to mull over. When you’re creating an image and want to convey a certain narrative or meaning, you need to really consider what you are doing with your composition, your style, your styling, and your environment.
When you frame your image, everything matters. Where do you want to draw the eye (think leading lines and Rule of Thirds, for example)? What does the angle of the image infer in regards to meaning? Does negative space add or subtract to the meanings image?
How does the photographic style influence the image and its meaning? Will a shallow depth of field work or will you lose background details that are important? Does black and white make the image more powerful or would colour add depth and context? What difference does a bright, vivid image create over something more dark and moody? Your camera settings and your post-production all adds to make the image’s narrative.
By styling I mean how you “dress” the image / those in it. What outfit will work best for a model / subject? What does adding props to the table for a food photo do for the image? These are just a few of the things to consider when styling your image.
Be wary of your environment! Everything in the image matters. So if you are taking a photo of something and you have, say, a garbage bin in the background, does it add to the image or distract the viewer? What about that clutter in the background on your desk that you didn’t think to clear before taking your photo? Think about what it means. Does it add to the image and its meaning or does it distract and take something away? A messy desk may show the state of chaos of the mind of a professor in a portrait; but it might just look like a messy desk in a photograph of your infant child.
Keep these four things in mind and you have a solid footing to create narrative in your photographs and push past taking simple snapshots.
We continue this exploration of building narrative in photography in our next article Building Narrative (Part 2): Adding Story To A Portrait.