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.


Will the Zombie Apocalypse Ever End?

Image by Scott Beale

Zombies are  a common movie and entertainment theme, from the TV series Walking Dead to regular movies like Shaun of the Dead.  Now that Arnold Schwarzenegger will make his zombie movie debut in Maggie, I am wondering if the zombie apocalypse will ever end.

You know Hollywood has jumped the shark when 65 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger is the hero of the next big zombie movie.

It’s not that I dislike zombie stories.  The Walking Dead is one of my favorite TV shows ever. Warm Bodies has a new take on zombies (and Romeo and Juliet), people could be revived by love.  Zombieland was fricking hilarious! I even liked World War Z. Not as much as Max Brooks’ original story, but it was much better than anticipated.

Yet the zombie apocalypse is a tired card when it comes to storytelling. It’s popularity is joined by the vampire craze, both of which highlight human concerns played out in the extreme; eating our own, seduction, sexual tension, environmental abuses, etc.


The apocalypse as a storytelling method provides clean drastic canvases for authors. I know, because Exodus takes place in a post apocalyptic United States.  When you have a clean slate, you can world build and wrestle with ideas, concepts, character development and other critical story arcs.

The zombie version of the apocalypse is pretty limiting, though. It’s always about survival in the face of impossible odds, and watching your friends turn into cannibalistic undead freaks from hell. Sounds like Facebook!

All jokes aside, as cool as it is to watch/read a good zombie story, in the literary sense, the zombie apocalypse story has been told. Now we’re just dealing with new wrinkles.  I may pass on Maggie and other new zombie stories, but eagerly await the next season of The Walking Dead.

What do you think about the zombie trend?

Four Storytelling Methods

Uig Locational Storytelling Press Launch
Image by Gaelic Arts

Moving from marketing to an entertaining delivery of useful information creates a much higher likelihood of successful communications between an organization and its stakeholders. Like gamification, storytelling entertains the online reader/viewer/listener, earning their interest. Compelling stories convert dry boring content into worthwhile time expenditures.

Success assumes a few of things: 1) That the storyteller understands what compels its stakeholders; 2) the information presented in the story is useful; and 3) the return on investment for an organization is asked for in a tasteful manner. Meeting those three fundamental building blocks empowers an organization to make storytelling work.

There are many approaches towards storytelling. Personification, third person storytelling, embedded journalism, and metaphors are just four ways to enliven content. Here’s a deeper look:

Personification: The old blogging method of personal storytelling can drive great interest. Well executed, the person and their audience can share experiences together (Example: Beth’s Blog). People want to understand how attending that event made you feel, or how that new technology changed your perspective. By sharing an event, an idea, or reflection, we identify with or at least imagine commonality about conceptual material, and content becomes interesting. There are certainly dangers to personification, including nihilism, over-reliance on opining, and personal branding that negatively impacts the organization.

Third Person Storytelling: This gets back to the basic elements of storytelling a la the original oral tradition of tales like Beowulf and the Odyssey. Third person storytelling is really good for causes and consumer facing companies that resolve problems. Showing how people’s lives have become better or enriched as a result of touching an organization is powerful. For many organizations, this is told via case studies, but there is nothing wrong with enlivening a story by weaving narrative elements into it or discussing trends (Example: Shel Israel).

Embedded Journalism: This approach seeks to provide a journalistic view into an organization or related external events and happenings. Similar to trade reporting, embedded journalism relies on facts, the ability to answer the 5 Ws in any good story (who, what, when, etc.), pyramid style structure, and a general tone that instills objective view points (Example: Invisible People). Of course this is the weakness of embedded journalism: By acting as a member of the Fifth Estate, companies and nonprofits immediately are suspected for pushing their wares and solutions. This means fact telling and objectivism has to be held to a higher standard.

Metaphors: Infusing metaphors into content empowers people to more easily imagine data and hard concepts. By using common metaphors that almost everyone has experienced, the ability to identify with the concepts behind a story become much more personalized. The long journey to successful metaphorical writing can involve wrong turns, potholes and flat tires, over-complication of storytelling route (plot), and more. But with practice, this can become one of the most powerful methods of communicating complicated concepts (example: Copyblogger).

What are some of your favorite storytelling methods?

Article first published as How Storytelling Betters Content on Technorati.