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The Ultimate Guide To

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    20 Ways to Tell a Story With a Single Image

    By May 2, 2019 October 13th, 2019 Photography

    The world abounds with captivating stories and today’s technology has made photography one of the most potent means of communicating them. With a camera, you can frame and capture narratives in a way that draws the viewer into your world. 

    That said, storytelling through photography is an art form. It takes skill, instinct, and preparation to take a photo that leaves viewers longing to step foot into the picture. Listed below are twenty tips to guide you on how to tell stories with your images.

    1. Focal Lengths

    Choosing a focal length is one of the critical decisions a photographer makes when it comes to visual storytelling. While this may appear as a simple compositional choice, it determines how your viewers will interact with your image.

    In general, the larger your subject appears in the picture, the more emotionally connected the viewer will feel towards it. Conversely, the smaller the subject is relative to the frame, the less attached your viewer will be to it.

    Use telephoto lenses to magnify distant objects; making faraway subjects feel within reach can evoke feelings of connection and intimacy with your audiences. 

    Sunset, Patagonia, Chile

    Contrarily, use a wide-angle lens to elevate objects that are closer to you. Wide-angle lenses make closer objects seem much larger while making distant objects appear smaller.

    Glacier National Park, USA

    Wide-angle lenses are also used to make a wider field of view, giving the viewer more information about the background of a scene. Most landscape photographers use these lenses to emphasize the vastness of a landscape.

    On the other hand, telephoto lenses create a narrower field of view, cropping the scene to only the most important. These lenses are typically used to highlight intricate details, giving the viewer both visual interest and a visual anchor.

    The choice of focal length will also determine the perceived depth of an image. Wide-angle lenses serve to exaggerate the distance between close and far objects in your photograph, while telephoto lenses tend to compress them.

    With this understanding, be sure to keep focal length in mind when deciding how to tell your visual story best. Go for telephoto lenses to generate feelings of intimacy. Or, use wide-angle lenses to emphasize vastness and stimulate senses of wonder.

    2. Focus

    As photographers, we often find ourselves obsessing about focus and with good reason. The character of every image is dependent on which elements are and aren’t in focus within the frame.

    Areas that are in focus will have more contrast and detail than areas that are out of focus; thus, the viewer’s eyes will naturally be drawn to areas that are in focus first.

    The photo below is known as “V-J Day in Times Square” by Alfred Eisenstaedt. Eisenstaedt took the image the day Japan surrendered to the United States in WWII. Many factors contribute to making this image successful; one of them was his choice of aperture.

    In the photo, Eisenstaedt used a wide aperture to keep the kissing couple in focus while throwing the background buildings out of focus. By using a shallow depth-of-field (wide aperture) he effectively to isolated his subjects while adding a picturesque softness to the scene.

    V-J Day in Time Square

    You can also go in the opposite direction and choose a deeper depth-of-field to reveal more details and emphasize definition within a scene. Your choice of depth of field depends on the story you want to tell your viewers. Blur out what you want to hide, and keep in focus what you consider significant.

    3. Contrast and Affinity 

    We can describe every visual element in terms of Contrast and Affinity. Contrast means a difference in lightness and darkness. Affinity means lack of contrast. It is the variations in contrast and affinity that enables us to see and understand objects.

    Both contrast and affinity influence the mood and visual story of images. Viewers react to a low contrast image with less intense emotion compared to a high contrast image.

    The higher the contrast, the more dynamic and visually stimulating the image will be. For example, the image below was shot during a foggy morning. The fog served to soften the contrast of the scene, giving it a more inviting and calmer atmosphere. 

    Taj Mahal, India

    Let’s look at another example. I took the image below during a colorful sunrise in Patagonia, Chile. Compared to the picture above, the image below is more intense and evokes stronger moods and tension due to its high contrast. 

    Patagonia, Chile

    Contrast and affinity influence how your audience will interact with your images. Using high contrast will create pictures that induce strong emotions while using low contrast will generate calmer moods.

    4. Surface Division

    A surface division exists when an object separates different elements within a photo. The divider can be anything that introduces separation within the frame, such as a pole, a bridge, or a shadow.

    Surface divisions have the impact of emphasizing contrasting features of objects in a photo. The dividing element will naturally compel the viewer to compare the objects in the separate sections. The line dividing an image makes the viewer start looking for similarities and differences between them, instead of regarding them as a single unit.

    “The Steerage,” shown below, was taken by American photographer Alfred Stieglitz in 1907 on a ship traveling to Europe.

    In the photo, Stiglitz uses surface division in the form of a bridge to differentiate the top deck and the bottom deck of the ship.

    Doing so emphasizes the differences between each deck. The people on the top floor are organized, well dressed and appear to be from a higher social class.

    On the other hand, the people on the bottom deck are engaged in their daily lives and appear to be from a lower social class. The division forces the viewers to look at each section of the image more intently and see details that would otherwise go unnoticed.

    Streerage by Alfred Stieglitz

    Also, a surface division is one of the most effective ways to guide your audience to your subject. It is especially useful in cases where you want to take a wide shot without risking to have the audiences’ attention wander loosely around the frame.  

    Using surface division creates an immediate point of interest within the frame, making the audience naturally rivet to that point when looking at your photo.

    So, while thinking about composition, you may want to keep an eye out for any divisions that might impact how the viewer interacts with your subject(s). Such divisions can help convey your message by highlighting differences between your subjects.

    Also, if the intention is to direct and keep the viewer’s eye on a particular area of the frame, then adding a surface division would be a natural framing option.

    5.  Vignette 

    Monkeys, Japan

    The other way to isolate your subject is through the use of vignette. A vignette is characterized by a dark ring around the periphery of your frame. This has the effect of making the center of the image brighter, drawing more attention to it.

    You can darken the periphery of your image during post-processing. Various software and apps can do this. Note that, the darker the edge, the more effectively you will direct the viewer’s attention to the center of the frame.

    6.  Leading Lines

    Wadi Rum, Jordan

    Leading Lines are compositional tools that guide the viewers toward the focal point of an image. Our eyes naturally follow these lines to where they converge, making them useful navigational components within photos.

    You can use any elements within a scene that form a visual line as a leading line. These lines can be real, such as paths, rivers, and bridges. Or, they can be implied, such as light, stones, and wakes in the water. 

    With leading lines, you’ll be creating a visual journey throughout your image. Placing the subject where the lines converge helps give it more importance and draw the viewer’s attention to it.  

    7.  S-Curves 

    Candy Land, USA

    S-curves, like leading lines, are used to help guide viewers towards your focal point.

    Such curves have an inherent sense of movement that makes the viewers’ eyes sweep back and forth around the frame. Because of its natural flow, objects placed along the curve are likely to get the desired attention as well.

    The shape of the s-curve makes an image more dynamic and encourages the viewer to navigate through it intently.

    To introduce s-curves in your photographs, look for the natural meandering flow of a river, winding pathway or road and include them in your scene. You can then place your subject at the end of the curve or somewhere within the looping sections along the s-curve.

    8. Visual Paths 

    Visual paths guide the order in which the viewer will see the elements in your photo. These pathways take the audience through a systematic visual journey by connecting elements within an image.

    A visual path helps an image to have a beginning, middle and an ending, similar to telling a story. We already discussed one type of visual path–the s-curve. But such paths come in many forms, such as color, light, and shapes.

    These pathways are particularly useful when your subject is in the foreground of your image.

    For example, I composed the image below with my main focal point close to my camera. However, because I utilized a visual pathway, the viewers are likely to stroll around the image despite having already seen my main subject.

    With this backdrop, you can arrange your composition in a manner to establish visual paths that seamlessly guide the eyes of the viewer throughout your image.

    Okunoin Cemetery, Japan

    It is important not to confuse visual paths with leading lines. Although these two are similar, they are not the same. 

    Leading lines and visual path differ in one important aspect. When used correctly, leading lines should guide your viewers towards the focal point of your photo.

    Visual paths, on the other hand, should entice your viewer into exploring your entire photo. While it’s ideal that they eventually lead to the focal point, this is not their main purpose.

    Visual paths ensure that no aspect of the picture is ignored and that each element is equally appreciated and acknowledged: this is one clear advantage visual paths have over leading lines.

    Whether they are physical or implied, visual paths can succeed in keeping viewers hooked to your photo for longer. 

    9. Light 

    The other way to direct your viewers’ eyes through your photograph is by the use of light. Light, when placed strategically, can be a powerful way to convey your visual story.  

    The viewers’ attention will generally go to the brightest part of the image first. By making your subject brighter than other elements within the image, you can ensure that viewers will notice it before anything else.

    As such, you can use light to illuminate your subject to draw attention to it. To further enhance this effect, you can increase the contrast between your subject and the background. That is, by making the background darker and the subject lighter.

    Photographer Gertrude Kasebier took the picture below in 1910. In this photo, Kasebier skillfully placed the light directly on her subjects.

    In doing so, she’s able to direct the viewer’s attention to the children eating lollipops first. Only afterward will the viewers notice the suspicious mother watching her children from the background.

    Using light, Kasebier successfully guides the viewers through her image. 

    Lollipops, GERTRUDE KÄSEBIER

    You can also go in the opposite direction and place a darker object in front of a bright background. In this case, the viewer’s attention will go to the bright background first, and then eventually settle on the darker subject. This effect is called backlighting.

    10.  Backlighting

    Sahara Desert, Morocco

    Backlighting exists when there is light behind a subject. Using backlighting is a great way to infuse drama in your images.

    The backlit subject is often reduced to a silhouette which can be visually stunning. Typically, a rim light will highlight the outlines of the subject from behind leaving it as a dark solid figure with a beautiful glow all around it.

    Such light serves to accentuate the shape of an object, creating a great deal of spectacle. When backlit, even mundane objects come alive and stand out against the lit background. Looking at them, you can’t help but notice the intense sensations they exude.

    Perhaps the vital thing to note is that backlit subjects often become void of detail. Since the light comes from behind, the objects become solid shadows while the open spaces remain as light areas. It is this sharp contrast that makes these photos dramatic.

    11.  Low Vantage Point 

    Waterfall, Iceland

    One way to make subjects look powerful is to shoot them from a low angle. Doing so will make your subjects tower above the other elements around making them appear more prominent and authoritative.

    The low angle shots also help eliminate much of the distracting elements that usually characterize most environments. The subject often becomes standalone, making it look unusually distinctive.

    Low angle shots make objects look taller than they are. You could shoot landscape objects such as tall metropolitan buildings from this angle to bring out its grandeur of the city environment. Or, shoot people from this angle to make them appear dominant or intimidating.

    On the whole, low angle shots allow viewers to get a glimpse of various scenes from a low perspective. Shooting from this angle can help accentuate your subjects power and create an image that has a sense of awe to it.

    12. High Vantage Point 

    Neuschwanstein Castle, Germany

    Treat your audience to a more privileged point of view by photographing from a high vantage point. With high angle shots, the viewer can observe a scene in its entirety and make sense of it more holistically.

    Landscape:

    Pictures shot from a high vantage point exude the feeling of being separated from the rest of the world. Shooting from this angle creates an atmosphere of transcendence and give the viewer sensations of freedom and power over the photographed object.

    Further, this privileged viewpoint allows the viewer to see what’s in the middle distance, frequently obscured in low angle shots. The high angle places the camera high above any obstructions and more clearly displays the space between the foreground and the background.

    Portrait:

    Away from landscape photography, portrait photography also benefits from high angle shots.

    Portraiture photographers generally this angle to make their subject’s eyes appear larger and more beautiful while making the rest of the body look slimmer. 

    This perspective also offers a view that can make your subject appear smaller and subdued giving the viewer the feeling of authority over the subject. Shooting from a high angle tend to make subjects in portrait photography appear submissive, vulnerable, or powerless.

    One thing to keep in mind when using this angle is, depending on how high you are, you may not be able to to see the reactions on the faces of your subjects. When utilizing this angle, ensure that it succeeds in telling the story you intend for the audience.

    13. Tilted Angles 

    Petra, Jordan

    A Dutch angle is an orientation you achieve when you shoot your subject in a tilted position.

    Shooting with a tilted angle introduces a sense of drama in your visual story. The Dutch angle makes the horizon cross the frame diagonally, breaking the natural order of framing in photography. Since it is quite unnatural in its effect, the audience will always notice if you use the Dutch angle in your shots.

    For some viewers, the slanted angle might appear as an issue with the image. As a result, they are likely to spend time trying to figure it out. As such, this style can help you keep the audience engaged with your photo longer.

    Keep in mind not to tilt the angle too steep. Opt instead for something relatively moderate to the observing eye. Unless you intend to create excessive visual tension, it will help to find an appropriately acute or obtuse angle. This should sit well with the viewer and help bring out not only your message but some sense of imagination as well.

    Using the Dutch angle effectively requires a great deal of care and prudence to avoid shooting a contrived image. How does the slant impact your composition? How does it affect (or help) your story? Once you put in the necessary amount of thought and get the proper answer, proceed to take the shot.

    Portrait:

    Different people incorporate the Dutch angle for various reasons. The common one is often to bring out a feeling of instability in the frame. A more witty, thematic use of the Dutch angle is, however, to show the party with the relative advantage in a situation.

    Placing one party on the lower end of the slant will naturally make them appear to be on the disadvantaged end. Subjects captured on the upper end of the plane tend to appear dominant and in control. This effect can be such a subtle but effective way to communicate a message of power dynamics in a photographed scene.

    Landscape:

    If you are a landscape photographer, you’ll be less involved with themes of power and more with the beauty of the outdoors.

    Most of the time you’ll use the slant technique in your shots to create dynamic images that capture the viewers’ attention. The visual tension created by the intense alteration in perspective is useful for drawing the viewers to your image. 

    14. Lines

    Lines are inherent in every photo. Their presence is often referred to as a linear motif. The linear motif of a picture can consist of different orientations of line such as horizontal, curved, diagonal or vertical lines.

    Different lines will convey different emotions. Thin lines tend to feel unstable and vulnerable. Thick lines, on the other hand, are viewed as dominating and stern.

    Curvilinear lines tend to suggest softness, harmony, and friendliness. Straight lines, on the other hand, are attributed to aggressiveness, directness, and rigidity.

     

    Also, different lines tend to have different levels of intensity, with the diagonal line being the most intense, and horizontal line the least intense.

    Diagonal lines are the most dynamic of all lines. Capturing a photo with a diagonal orientation will, therefore, convey a sense of motion, speed, and tension. Diagonal lines can introduce a sense of action even for a scene that is otherwise dull or static.

    The exact opposite of diagonal lines are the horizontal ones. Horizontal lines are associated with feelings of peace and serenity. They are reminiscent of large landmasses and peaceful horizons which brings visual comfort.

    When going out to shoot, incorporate these lines and ideas in your scenes to compose shots that properly bring out the message you wish to pass across.

    15. Size 

    Monkeys, Japan

    Large objects attract more attention than smaller ones. By making an element within your scene appear larger than other features you enhance its significance and make it the natural focal point.

    Also, viewers tend to equate larger objects to strength. This means that if you have two focus objects in your composition, the larger one is likely to be perceived as stronger compared to the smaller one.

    When composing photos, pay attention to the relationship between the objects in the scene and how you want them to be portrayed. Smaller objects will come across as weak and vulnerable. Larger objects, on the other hand, will appear as reliable and safe within the frame.

    Remember that the perceived size of an object can be manipulated. You can choose to angle your camera accordingly to bring out the message you want. It is your prerogative as a photographer to shape reality for your audiences from your perspective, not just show it the way it exists in nature.

    16. Color 

    People feel or react differently to different colors. The color blue, for instance, is associated with calm and tend to induce moods of tranquility on those who interact with your photo. Meanwhile, the color red is usually associated with fire and can elicit strong emotions on the viewer.

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

    The color blue, for example, can remind us of clear blue skies which can make us feel calm and relaxed. However, depending on our state of mind, the same color blue can also remind us of dreary weather and make us feel alone and isolated.

    Waterfall, Iceland

    In the same way,  the colors red and yellow, can remind us of fire and blood and arouse feelings of passion; at the same time, they can also tell us of a bright sunny day and make us feel warmth and comfort.

    To be sure, some people may assign different meanings to different colors based on their cultural biases. Some cultures may see the color red and interpret it as a danger, while others will understand it as happiness. This, however, does not make the traditional ideas associated with various colors ineffective.

    Besides culture, we assign associations to colors based on our biology as well. For instance, we’ll always relate red to fire, blue to water, and green to grass.

    Every different color will have some mood to it. Therefore, it is essential to pay attention to the color that dominates your photo and the atmosphere that it is likely to induce.

    Shoot at Different Times of Day

    There are several ways you can influence the color in your image. One of the most common and perhaps most natural ways to do it is to find specific subjects with the color you want. Another way you can change the overall color of your image is through light.

    As the sun moves across the sky, the color palette of our surroundings can vary, from cool blues to warm reds. Every slight change brings a different mood altogether.

    A photo shot a few minutes before sunset will have a completely different feel to it compared to one-shot just a few minutes after sundown.

    Use this to your advantage. Try shooting the same scene at different times of the day. Then observe the various shots and see how the mood changes.

    Weather conditions also play a huge role in determining the mood of a photo. Misty weather, for instance, is likely to create a gloomy picture, unlike clear skies which would result in a bright atmosphere. Even simple sunlight poking through the clouds can dramatically alter the mood and visual story of your composition.

    So when you’re going shooting, keep in mind that different aspects of light affect your subjects differently. Observe the scene and consciously decide how you want to tell your visual story, then choose the weather condition that will best support that message.

    17. Shutter Speed 

    The shutter speed can be slow or fast. Each of these will affect the outcome of your image differently.

    Use slow shutter speeds if you want to capture the passing of time. Slow shutter speeds expose the camera sensor to the scene longer during the shot. This allows the sensor to record any motion of the subject.

    The resulting image will have the subject captured at different positions across the frame, creating soft and blurry details. Switching to a slower shutter speed can create beautiful smears of colors and textures within your image.

    Fast shutter speeds give you the ability to immobilize your subjects. This usually reveals narratives that are otherwise impossible to observe. When using fast shutter speeds, the camera’s shutter opens and closes swiftly, freezing objects in place with crip details.

    Kauai, Hawaii

    With knowledge of how to control your shutter speeds, you can shape and present reality to your audiences in your own way.

    18. Exposure

    Photographers sometimes choose to deliberately underexpose or overexpose their images for a more creative outcome.

    An overexposed image can be fascinating if done correctly. The excessive amount of light creates an interesting burnt-out effect on parts of the image. This effect will naturally draw the viewer in as they mentally construct the missing details.

    Winter, Sunrise

    On the other side of overexposed images are underexposed images. The image below was taken in New York by Edward Steichen in 1904. In this picture was purposely underexposed by  Steichen to give it a mysterious and eerie mood.

    Images that are purposely underexposed can be hauntingly beautiful. Most of these images are dark enough to where much of the detail remains hidden or recedes into darkness. These pictures tend to be very moody and evocative.

    19.  Gut Instincts

    When it comes to telling a story with photography, sometimes the best advice comes from your gut instinct.

    In most cases, this feeling is right; listening to it may help you know when whether to take a shot or to recompose for a better outcome.

    Remember that photography can be involved. How well you do depends on many variables such as composition, light, and camera settings.

    A small variation in any of these elements could completely alter the visual story of your image. There is no formula for capturing fleeting moments. It is mostly just the doing of your gut instinct.

    How do you feel about the scene in front of you? Should you stay with the same composition or recompose to capture the scene better? By paying attention to your gut, you can instinctively know how to capture and tell better stories with your images.

    20. Don’t Overthink

    Take care not to overthink things when deciding how to best tell stories with your images.

    Whether you are deciding on the gear you need, the subjects to shoot, the lighting to use or the amount of post-processing for your images, always keep it simple.

    Your images don’t always have to be premeditated. The most successful photos usually aren’t. Always remain realistic with your goals and practical with your decisions. That way, your photography should get more straightforward, enjoyable and free of unnecessary complications.  

    Conclusion

    All said and done; photography is one of the most fun activities out there. To keep it as such, always have a nose for new compositions and keep an eye out for new ways of telling your visual story. Do this, and nothing will stand in your way to becoming the best storyteller you can be.

    About The Author

    Photographer. Explorer. Story Teller. For the past 5 years, I’ve voyaged across the world seeking the next great photograph. If you’re anything like me, you love to travel, capture beautiful moments, and live life to the fullest.