Everybody loves a well-told story because stories are the best way to evoke emotions. They can make us excited, laugh, cry or feel empathy for someone else. But perhaps the best thing about stories is relatively simple: stories about other people help us to better understand ourselves. And this is the reason why visual storytelling has such an important role in photography. Below are the three tips to add a sense of story to your photography.
Practice Your Ability to Evoke Emotion in Your Work
If a “story” is a “sentence,” then “emotions” are “words”. So, before we dive deeper in crafting our ability to create visual stories, let us work on evoking emotions in our images first. Head out to the field, either the streets, a wild landscape or the studio, with an aim to create an image that evokes a specific emotion. Start with basic emotions, such as happiness or sadness. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Yes, to evoke happiness, you can just photograph someone smiling or ask someone to smile for you, but that’s too easy and flat, isn’t it? In addition, everyone knows that there could be darkness and sadness behind a forced smile or a grin – capturing someone truly happy at that moment is certainly a challenge on its own. Try to think outside the box and be creative. What colors come to mind when you think of happiness? Can you evoke happiness with an object or an abstract image?
What kind of light comes to mind when thinking about sadness? Is it the blue light of an early morning or that of a foggy day? After practicing basic emotions, try to work on emotional themes. Evoking concepts like: “Family”, “Loneliness”, “Fear”, “Warmness” etc. Again, be creative and do not go for the easy path. For example: try to evoke the concept of “family” without having people in your image.
Think About Your Hero
From Hercules to Shrek, from da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” to McCurry’s “Afghan Girl”, every good story must have a leading character that viewers can connect with. You should think of this leading character as some sort of a tool to evoke those emotions previously discussed.
A good leading character can be anything or anyone, as long as they can evoke an emotion in the viewers. This may be any remarkable subject, from an interesting face in portraiture to a lonely tree in a landscape.
Some people tend to confuse the leading character with a place or genre of photography. For instance, a market or some street cannot be leading characters; they are just general categories that describe the background of your photographs.
Think about iconic storytelling images, like Nick Ut‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Terror of War”, taken during the Vietnam War. To say that the picture is about the war in Vietnam would not be accurate, since there were thousands of pictures made there, but only a few remain engraved in our memories. This image is not about the war in Vietnam; it is about the nine-year-old girl (later dubbed as the “Napalm Girl”) running from the inferno. This is actually what caught attention and managed to move people around the world. She is the leading character of the photograph – she is the hero of the frame, someone you notice immediately. Out of all the people in the photograph, she is the one you will remember the most.
From a technical point of view, the leading character of your visual story must draw the viewer’s eye to the image by being noticeable and significant within the entire scene (or frame). You can think of it as a hook that catches the viewer’s eye.
Craft Your Own Unique Visual Voice
Why do you take photos? This is the question that I consider to be the most important question each one of us must think through as photographers, and this is the question I ask from my students when lecturing them. Each of us has a reason for making photography our hobby or profession. So, ask yourself – Why?
“Because I love taking pictures” – is not an adequate answer. You should dive deeper and ask yourself: What benefit do you gain from freezing those moments? The answer to this question will help you understand your unique point of view and your voice in this visual world.
One of my students shared the fact that photography helps him put his chaotic life in order, which is why he is into landscape photography. Another student told me she uses her camera to take an almost direct look at the things she is afraid of, and she mainly works around the themes of loneliness and seclusion. Some of my students shared that they like the “hunter” feeling they found in photography (mostly nature or street photographers), while one of my students who is engaged in beautiful dark fashion photography shared that photography helps her to show her darker side to the world.
Keep in mind that photography is not just about the right aperture, lens sharpness or your camera settings, but also about other more important elements such as “voice,” “emotion” and “point of view”.
Note From Nasim
I had a chance to meet Oded Wagenstein last year when photographing Israel. He was very kind to show me some of the streets of Tel Aviv and provide guidance in photographing the locals. I was so blown away by his mastery of portrait photography and his ability to evoke emotions through his images, that I asked him to do a guest post at Photography Life. I’m very happy to be able to feature his article here and I hope our readers can learn from it. If you want to learn more about the power of visual storytelling, I would highly encourage you to check out Oded’s eBook “The Visual Storyteller – Creating Stronger Images“.