19 Tips for Creating Narratives in Photography

By October 13, 2019 May 23rd, 2020 Landscape and Travel Photography, Photography

A camera empowers photographers to frame the world around them. The photographer can shape and mold reality to match how they want it to be perceived.

While a real, tangible subject must be present to reflect the light to the camera and produce an image, the photographer makes the biggest mark on the reality of a photo. 

The choices made by a photographer create the story told by an image. Here, we’ll explore the intricacies of narrative photography and the different visual elements that enable you to tell a story through photography.

What is Narrative Photography?

A narrative is defined as a representation of an event or a description of something that happened. In other words, a narrative tells a story.

Narrative photography is a type of photography that depicts a story through imagery. This could be abstract or literal, simple or complex.

Narrative photography seeks to create an open-ended question with each frame.

It serves as a visual for a broader story or concept. The photo in itself isn’t the whole story; it’s simply a snippet to encourage viewers to seek out the entire narrative.

The goal of narrative photography is to leave your viewers with the desire to know more about the image. This is different from inducing an emotional reaction through your pictures.

For instance, your picture of a sweeping landscape may arouse feelings of awe and admiration in your audience. But, that doesn’t mean it has the capability of making your audience want to learn more about what they are seeing.

Just as poets use words and composers use music, you can use images to tell a story by inspiring your audience’s imagination.

Your ability to do this hinges on your understanding of photographic elements such as light, color, contrast, composition, balance, and focus.

How to Create a Narrative Through Your Images

1. Lens Choice

Your choice of focal length largely influences how viewers interpret the story that you’re telling through the image.

Viewers tend to feel more connected with larger than smaller objects in the frame. 

If your subject is close to your frame, use a wide-angle lens. Wide-angle lenses make close objects appear larger while making distant objects in a frame appear smaller. 

Telephoto lenses, on the other hand, magnifies distant objects. Using a telephoto lens is ideal if you want to stir up feelings of connection between your viewers and far-off objects.

A telephoto lens also provides a narrow field of view, perfect for isolating elements and highlighting small details.

Wide-angle lenses, on the other hand, create a wider field of view, which gives the viewer a complete understanding of the setting. 

Your choice of focal length also impacts the perceived depth in your image. 

In general, depth is more evident with the use of wide-angle lenses. This is because wide-angle lenses make the perceived distance between objects in the foreground, and objects in the background appear more significant.

The opposite is true with telephoto lenses. In general, a telephoto lens compresses the scene, minimizing the perception of depth.

With that in mind, consider the importance of focal length to narrative photography. Both lenses can emphasize closeness and connection, but their effectiveness will vary on where you position your subject. 

2. Remove Unnecessary Elements

Photography is, in many ways, a practice of minimalism. 

Unlike in painting or writing, in photography, you do not create by adding into a blank canvas. Instead, you create by taking away elements from a given scene. 

When creating narrative photographs, you must be discerning in the elements that you keep in your image. Remove extraneous elements that could detract from the story you’re trying to tell.  

Using a minimalistic approach in your composition will not only bolster your narrative but will also give the viewer the chance to understand its meaning without feeling overwhelmed.

Remember, in narrative photography, a few meaningful elements have a far more significant impact than several unfocused ones. 

Resource: 11 Compositional Mistakes

3. Watch Your Background 

Be aware of any striking colors or large shapes in your background that could draw attention away from your main subject. 

These background elements could distract your audience from the narrative you’re trying to tell. Rework the composition if you do find elements in the background that deter from your subject.

On a similar note, be wary of objects that could appear to jut out of your subject.

Imagine taking a photo in the woods, for example. The trees are beautiful, but if you frame your trees so that it appears to be growing out of your subject’s head, it will hijack your narrative. 

This may occur with background elements like traffic signs, light poles, and similar objects in addition to trees.

It can be challenging and sometimes impossible to remove distracting elements in post-processing. So, be mindful of your background while you’re shooting and consider how it fits in with your story.

Resource: 11 Compositional Mistakes

4. Have a Focal Point

Images need a focal point to help the viewer understand its meaning. This is especially true of narrative images.

The focal point also invites your viewers into the narrative and pushes them to establish their own interpretation of it.

Always choose your focal point before deciding on a composition. Once you’ve selected the element that will serve as your focal point, coordinate the other elements in the frame around it.

You may use compositional techniques such as secondary frames, rule of thirds, and leading lines to highlight your focal point. You may also use visual components such as brightness, texture, and contrast to emphasize a focal point.

A narrative image without a focal point will lack meaning and fail to tell a story. Aim to make your focal point stand out clearly to guide your reader in the direction of your story.

Resource: 11 Compositional Mistakes

5. Affinity and Contrast  

Contrast and affinity determine the quality of all visual elements in an image. 

Contrast is the difference between bright and dark elements; affinity is the absence of contrast. Variation in contrast and affinity within a frame allows viewers to understand and connect with what they are seeing.

You can greatly impact the narrative in your image with your use contrast and affinity.

High contrast photos typically evoke a stronger mood and emotional response than low-contrast images. You’ll typically see this type of lighting in pictures of sunrises and sunsets, such as the image above.

You can manipulate viewers’ responses to your images, as well as their understanding of your narrative, by making strategic use of contrast and affinity.

In particular, use high contrast to create narratives that induce strong emotions. Or you can use low contrast to generate calmer moods.

Resource: Make Your Images Look 3D With These 10 Techniques

6. Leading Lines

Leading lines are parallel lines that meet and vanish on the horizon. 

Viewers inherently follow leading lines until they converge, which makes them effective tools for guiding your viewer’s eye towards your focal point. 

Leading lines can be real, such as rivers, streams, paths, and bridges. Or they can be Implied, such as beams of light and ripples on the surface of the water. 

Leading lines create a visual experience in an image, making your narrative all the more evident. Positioning your subjects so that they sit at the point where leading lines meet will make them more meaningful to your viewer.

Resource: 23 Composition Techniques for Photography

7. Visual Paths

Visual paths are compositional elements that help provide a sense of forward movement in a static image. 

They systematically guide the viewer through the objects in the frame so that they understand the connection between each one.

Including these paths in your image can help establish a beginning, middle, and an ending similar to telling a story.

Visual paths are not the same as leading lines, although they have similar characteristics.  

Like leading lines, visual paths may come in many forms, including light, color, and shape. 

The difference, however, is that leading lines are meant to direct your viewer toward your focal point, while visual paths are intended to guide your viewer throughout the entire image.

Although a visual path can also be a leading line, it doesn’t have to be so.

You can use visual paths in your composition to gradually unfold your narrative to your viewer.  

They can be especially effective for subjects positioned in the foreground, such as the image above. Generally, once a viewer sees the main subject, they’ll feel that they’ve grasped the main point of the image. 

But, by including a visual path in your composition, you can prolong the viewer’s interest beyond the main subject so that they see the full story.

Visual paths prevent your viewer from glazing over elements of your narrative. This encourages the viewer to see the whole picture and experience the full story.

Resource: 23 Composition Techniques for Photography

8. S-Curves

You can use s-curves as a visual path, leading line or both.

These curves have an inherent sense of motion and prompt your viewer to move their eyes back and forth across the frame. 

You can use s-curves to create a dynamic narrative while giving your focal points the emphasis that they need.

Consider including a winding path or a river with several bends. Positioning your subject at the end of the curve or along one of its bends will highlight its presence.

Narratives have twists and turns; use S-curves to translate those shifts into your composition.

Resource: 23 Composition Techniques for Photography

9. Layers

The soft, diffused light of an overcast day creates a sober mood over the rock formations.

You can use layers to help direct the order in which your viewers will see the objects in your frame. This is valuable in narrative photography because it allows your story to unfold in a focused manner.

Using layers also encourages your viewers to process the elements in your image thoroughly. This helps ensure that your viewers get a full sense of your narrative. 

Layering is particularly helpful when you are photographing with wide-angle lenses. 

Wide-angle lenses provide a wide field of view. This means the objects in the foreground, background, and center are spread out. 

With visual elements apart from one another, the viewer’s eyes can move from one element to the next easily. In such instances, using layers can help prevent your viewer’s eyes from wandering around the frame.

Some of the most common ways photographers use layers are by including leading lines, s-curves, and secondary frames in their foreground composition.

10. Light 

Light is an especially powerful tool in building a visual narrative.

Brightness draws the viewer’s eye. You can use this to your advantage by making your subject brighter than all other elements within the frame. 

You can also use light to guide your viewer through an image. In relation to narratives, this is especially effective. 

For instance, you can use light rays to create a path that stretches from your foreground to your background. This path can provide your viewers with a clear understanding of the progression of your narrative.

11. Symmetry and Asymmetry

Symmetry and asymmetry are valuable compositional tools in narrative photography.

You can achieve symmetry by placing your subject in the center of your frame and asymmetry by positioning it off-center. 

Asymmetrical compositions create a sense of conflict or tension, which are crucial aspects of any narrative. The imbalance will put your viewer on edge, making them crave the story’s resolution.

You’ve probably heard of the rule of thirds, the rule of odds, and the golden ratio. These compositional rules all represent the value of asymmetry in creating an engaging visual story.

That said, don’t let the compositional rules discourage you from centering your subject. 

Symmetry has its place in photography, and there will be times when creating a symmetrical composition is what your image needs.

For instance, positioning your subject in the center is a great way to give your subject immense authority within the frame. It can work as a spotlight and highlight the most critical element in your narrative.

Symmetrical compositions are also excellent for evenly distribute weight throughout your composition. An excellent example of this is images with perfect reflections over a body of water.

While some stories will require tension to portray a message, others may require a more symmetrical and balanced picture to make a story more impactful. 

Resource: How to Use Rule of Thirds in Photography

12. Focus

Focus is another important component of narrative photography.

When looking at images, elements that are in sharp focus naturally draw viewers’ attention more than elements that are out of focus and blurry. 

You can use focus to draw attention to certain elements more than others. You can clarify which aspects of your narrative play a leading role and which ones play a supporting role. 

To utilize focus in your narrative, you can either adjust your depth of field or use motion blur.

For example, you can use a shallow depth of field and create a small area that is in focus. This will tell your viewers exactly where to give their attention. 

You can also use the focus in your scene to eliminate elements that can e distracting.

For example, if there is lots of motion in your scene that can be distracting, you can blur it out by using slow shutter speed. As a result, your viewers will give more attention to the elements in focus rather than the blurry ones. 

Resource: Sharpness vs. Focus

13. Color

Colors evoke feelings. By selecting colors carefully in your image, you guide the viewer’s emotional response to your image.

For example, red is connected to feelings of intensity and passion, while blue is considered a color of tranquility.

It’s important to note, however, that the way your audience interprets color will vary depending on different factors.

For instance, If a viewer is in a calm state of mind, a shade of blue could spur feelings of serenity and bliss. In a gloomy state of mind, the same shade of blue could make a viewer feel lonely and somber.

This is also true with the color red. In one instance, red can be the color of love and passion. In another instance, it may be the color of blood and horror. This contrast can drastically impact your audience’s perception of your narrative.

Culture can also influence how your viewer perceives color. For example, red may mean danger to one community and prosperity to another. 

That said, in general, we think of colors in relation to natural elements: blue is the shade of the ocean, green is the shade of plants, red is the shade of fire.

Colors strongly contribute to mood, which is a critical factor of any story. In narrative photography, be conscientious with your use of color so that it works to strengthen your story.

Resource: A Landscape Photographer’s Guide to Color Theory

14. Shoot At Different Times of Day

Backlit trees in the forest.

The easiest and perhaps the most obvious way to control color in your composition is to select subjects based on color. But, you can also manipulate color through the use of light.

The sun changes position throughout the day, and with those changes come shifts in ambient light. 

As the day progresses, you’ll see the light outside change from placid blues to glowing golds and back again. With this change comes a shift in the mood of your scene.

The simple absence or presence of clouds in the sky can make for two completely different moods: one that’s gloomy and dim versus one that’s bright and promising.

You can make use of this by shooting your subject at different times of the day. See how the tone of your narration is altered throughout the day and then carefully consider what quality of light will best tell your story.

From there, you can plan your shoot around weather conditions and the sun’s position in the sky to achieve your desired mood.

Resource: The Best Time To Take Pictures Outside: A Complete Guide

15. Shutter Speed

Shutter speed changes the quality of your image. Slow shutter speed and a fast shutter speed deliver entirely different visual effects.

Slow shutter speeds expose the camera’s sensor to the scene longer. This allows the sensor to record motion as objects move across the frame.

This prolonged exposure blurs details about your subject. Instead of details, you’ll see traces of colors and textures left behind by the moving subject.

You can use slow shutter speed to create an ethereal effect in your narrative. Or you can use it to depict the passing time.

If, however, you want to freeze your subject in time, use fast shutter speeds. Fast shutter speeds create a sharp, detailed depiction of your subject and show intricate narratives that are not possible with the naked eye.

The skillful use of shutter speed enables you to control the visual that you present to the audience. This impacts your narrative by bringing focus and quality to the story that you want to tell.

Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Exposure

16. Overexpose or Underexpose

Consider deliberately underexposing or overexposing your images to create engaging narratives.

For instance, letting in an excessive amount of light makes some elements in the image appear burnt out. The viewer is tasked with filling in the omitted details, making them a more active participant in your narrative.

You can also obscure details by underexposing your image, although it will convey a completely different tone in your narrative.

While an overexposed image produces a light atmosphere, underexposed images tend to be very moody and evocative.

There’s an eerie beauty to underexposed photos as certain details are hidden in darkness. This type of exposure can be very effective in adding drama to your narrative.

Resource: How to Use Your Camera: Understanding Exposure

17. Dynamic Poses

In most situations, dynamic subjects tend to be more interesting than stationary subjects. 

So, aim for dynamic, candid motion. The result will appear more natural and compelling. In narrative photography, this rings even truer. 

Stories are about change, progression, and movement. The motion will help you portray this through photography.

If you can’t capture motion, consider positioning your subject in a dynamic pose. You can do this by creating negative space between your subject’s body and limbs. 

Dynamic poses are even more important if you’re photographing silhouettes. Silhouettes lack important visual characteristics, such as color and texture. You can make up for these shortcomings by emphasizing shape through dynamic poses. 

Ideally, you should aim for candid movements in each shot. But, in times when capturing movement is unattainable, using dynamic poses can help you formulate a clear, compelling narrative.

18. Perspective

Low Vantage Point

Photographing subjects from a low angle makes them appear larger and more powerful. The subject will seem to have control over other aspects of the scene and hold great importance to your narrative.

Using a low vantage point can help you reduce distractions in the frame. Your main subject will seem to be the sole focus, making unimportant objects fade away.

No matter your subject, they’ll typically appear taller when you use a low vantage point. Think of shooting a skyscraper upward from the sidewalk; it will seem to tower over everything else in the frame by an enormous margin.

The same goes for people, trees, and virtually any subject that you choose.

A low vantage point can stir feelings of awe for your subject. They’ll appear strong and significant, which is an ideal perspective for the protagonist of your narrative.

High Vantage Point

Contrastingly, at a high vantage point, your viewer becomes a dominant presence over your subject. From a high angle, your viewer will feel like they’re overseeing the scene.

This perspective also gives your viewer a complete, unobstructed view of the scene, laying out your narrative in an easy-to-digest manner.

This can be an effective method for landscape photography, as the viewer will have a clear view of the middle ground, foreground, and background. A complete view of the scene gives your viewer free rein in the interpretation of your narrative.

Portrait photography can gain meaning from a high vantage point, as well.

The subject’s eyes, when shot from this angle, often appear smaller and more muted. This emphasizes a sense of power over the subject for the viewer. You can use this in your narrative to make a subject seem dejected, weak, or obedient.

If you opt for a high vantage point in portrait photography, consider the risk of obscuring your subject’s facial expressions. This could hinder the expression of your narrative and withhold information from your viewers.

Resource: 5 Types of Perspective in Photography

19. Don’t Overthink And Trust Your Instincts

Plan, but don’t overthink when taking your images. It’s usually far more effective to streamline the process. From your equipment to your subject to your post-processing, simplicity always wins.  

Also, remember to listen to your instincts.

While it’s important to consider accepted photographic techniques and methods, your gut instinct is incredibly essential when creating compelling narratives.

As photographers, we have to constantly make choices.

Photography is a complex process that involves coordinating numerous elements like the settings of your camera, composition, and lighting. Slightly shifting just one of these aspects may tell an entirely different story.

With so many elements to pay attention to, you need your gut instinct in decision making. It will guide you in the creative process so that the result is your narrative and no one else’s.

Always embrace spontaneity, as planning and preparation can only go so far in photography. 

Final Thoughts

Photography is one of the most enjoyable pastimes that you can engage in. So, don’t inhibit yourself from enjoying the process by overthinking and perfectionism. 

Remember, your compositions don’t always have to be premeditated. In fact, the most compelling images are usually not.

In narrative photography, pure, simple stories resonate far more with audiences than overly complex ones. 

You have a story to tell, so don’t get in your own way as you share it with the world. 

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