Building Visual Narratives with Photographs

Melissa Farlow and Ami Vitale taught a National Geographic Traveler Seminar on storytelling through photography this past Sunday here in Washington, DC. It was a wide ranging seminar that covered basic tips on photography, storytelling, editing, photographing people, and gear.

Creating stories through photographs requires more than the rule of thirds, or f-stop, ISO, and shutter speed balance. For most of us, photographs are personal, capturing a moment in that we can’t ever recapture. When we show people the beauty of the world, we may care about it more. That being said, technical things do matter in telling a visual story.

Here are my notes from the event. Wherever possible, I tried to illustrate certain points by following them with some of my own photographs.

Basic Tips

Mid-day light is a photographers bane. But avoiding the sunlight can be a good rule to break, too. Shooting into the light can offer fantastic contrasts. High noon offers fantastic light inside, it streams inside. Take advantage of window light.


Flash can be great, but avoid metering the whole photograph. While this is standard procedure for a pro portrait, telling a story can often best be told using highlights.


Digital cameras today can pick up the subtlety of gentle light. A singular remote flash and reflector can do more than you might think. Less is more. Take your flash off the camera, it destroys the mood (and trust) with your subject. A remote flash creates much more drama.


Light creates mood with landscapes. We shoot based on where the sun is. Light drives what the primary subject is, so pay attention. Dusk is a great time to shoot, creating dramatic nightscapes. At night you can use a slow capture on a tripod and the. One cool tip is to use a flashlight to illuminate a subject as you take the slow capture.



Bad weather and clouds create drama. Embrace it as an opportunity. You can get a rain jacket for your camera, and also bring a shammy. Morning shots allow for additional drama with fog, mist, frozen breath, and the light quality.


Motion with people may actually work with slower shutter speeds, particular when there is fire, water and smoke present. Panning works and creates a different take on action. Blurs add motion if it is done right. Take some time and shoot for a while. Experiment. This is true for long exposures, too.


Look for layers: Back drops, foreground, people, buildings, trees, light can all add layers. Water creates mirroring and mood. Think about the rule of thirds differently. Are there layers in the thirds? Change your perspective, get high, get low on the ground.


Don’t shoot constantly. Give people time to stop posing, and take more natural images. Be there for a while and become a part of the scene. Allow people to come to their natural rhythm and be themselves.


Moments matter. Try to capture people together because relationships make for great contrast on camera. Animals and people together can show you some great natural shots. If you are aware you can capture moments as they happen.


Telling Simple Stories


With photographs you can tell a complete story. Photograph one person, and show their life. By taking photos over time, you can tell a complete story. This applies to any subject, even a forest or a landscape. Seasons and time show different aspects of a person or a place. That tells a simple complete story.

Elements include a story opener, sense of place, portraits, moments, details for context, and a mystery or a surprise. You want closure to end the story.

Putting photographs together to tell a narrative is extremely difficult. Singular shots are easy, but a visual story is very difficult. This is what separates great photographers. Photo journalists help people imagine how important a story is.

When you read a story in a newspaper you only get one angle. A photo journalist goes further to show more elements.

You provide a sense of place, a picture a landscape that opens up the whole scene. You can provide a sweeping view or be in the middle of it.


Portraits can be tight and up close, or you can provide context with a sense of place. That helps tell the story. Portraits can be more. They help us relate to people.


Pay attention to little details, they make a huge difference. Showing a bunch of hands together can show more unity than a group of people. Feet and hands can tell a lot.

Storytelling moments are probably the most important part of a story. You have to show people’s moods. Capture emotion. For example, joy in dire straits is powerful. Humor is so important, because it allows people seeing the story relate to the people no matter what the situation.


Quiet images make as much of an impact as a busy one. There are always quiet moments that contrast action. Together you have a powerful story.


Ending your story has a traditional cliche, people walking away or leaving. But it can also be a moment. If you go early and stay late, you capture moments that can serve the end of a story; the closing of a door, the room emptying (or just beginning to fill) or a nicely layered image. The classic window shot can work well as a closure. Dusk also offers a great opportunity to take shots that empty stories.


If you would like an example of a complete story told in this fashion, I applied the National Geographic story rubric to my xPotomac post on Monday.