NARRATIVE PHOTOGRAPHY: THE COMPLETE GUIDE TO TELLING STORIES THROUGH A PHOTOGRAPH

What was the last photo that left you completely spellbound? Do you remember her? I bet that was a picture full of life, it conveyed things. It was not a simple composition of colors and shapes. There was something in that picture. If you have it on hand, please look again.

Every great photograph is a narrative photograph. The cool, impressive photos that take away your speech and leave you fascinated, they all tell you something. All keep a story inside.

In today’s article I will introduce you to the exciting and addictive world of telling stories through a photograph. I will explain to you the elements that you need to include in your photographic work so that it really “counts” something, and I will reveal some methods to take the viewer and conduct it through the plot of your story with total comfort. Throughout the text I will also show you some practical examples where you can see each of the aspects that we are commenting on.

Get comfortable and get ready because at the end of the article I am going to ask you to practice what you learned in this article.

Let’s get to the point.

Narrative Photography

THE MOST FASCINATING PART OF PHOTOGRAPHY IS THE LITTLE STORIES IT TELLS

Unlike a movie, which lasts an hour and a half or two, a play, or a novel that takes a day or a week to read, a photo is a momentary shot. With a photo you capture what is happening in a thousandth of a second, a “still photo” and never better said. This makes telling stories seem, at first, a task not easy. How are you going to tell a whole story in a still, inanimate photo that doesn’t move? If it is not even a series of photographs, or a sequence at least.

Precisely, what makes photography fascinating is the subtlety with which it catches us and immerses us in the emotion and in the history that it tries to convey to us. A movie may need 90 minutes, or 15 minutes even (if it’s a short film) to take you to an emotional point. A photo becomes a very emotional emotional chute, a microhistory told, from beginning to end, with great detail, in what it takes to blink.

Here are some elements that you need to include in your picture to make sure it conveys a story. Take good note.

ESSENTIAL ELEMENTS IN A NARRATIVE PHOTOGRAPH

For your photo to tell a story, you do not necessarily have to include all these points, but they are “air fresheners” elements that, the more they are, the easier it will be for the viewer to perceive the story you tell him.

  • A physical context: A location, the place where the photo happens, where the little story we are telling happens. It can be a city, a street, the living room of a house, or the inside of the petal of a flower if what you tell is the story of a ladybug. It has to be relatively easy to deduce from your photo the nature of the place where it was taken. Not that the city is known specifically, or the name of the street or anything like that. Simply understand that it is a photo taken on a street, on the beach, next to a tree or inside a cafeteria. This is a physical reference that will undoubtedly help the viewer recreate the story.
  • A temporary context: Can you, visually, convey a reference of the moment in which the photograph was taken? Photographs that express a moment of the day such as sunrise, sunset, or that carry some type of time reference, year, etc., usually transmit greater narrative load than a photo in which, no matter how much you look, you do not find any temporary indication . Be sure to always include a temporary reference in your photo.
    Watch out:Although you have to indicate the moment in which the photo is developed, you choose if you want to indicate it explicitly or implicitly. That is not too implicit because not everyone will “feel”, but for example a boy delivering newspapers by bike is a clear temporary indication of the morning. The long shadows on the floor would also indicate moments such as morning or afternoon. A wet ground is a magnificent temporary indication: a rainy day.

    Complicity, at 7 in the morning
  • An emotional context: In your photo, make sure you have a well-defined emotion. There may be several emotions in the same photo, but one has to dominate and remain embodied in the viewer’s retina.
    The visual direction you have chosen for your photo has to accompany this dominant emotion. It would be difficult to reflect feelings such as fear or loneliness with a photo of warm and vivid colors, in the same way that a photo of predominantly gray color, with a composition full of negative spaces, it is difficult to tell stories of joy (impossible in photography there is nothing, I say difficult).
  • A leading element: And I say “element” because it can be a person, it can be an object, a landscape, an animal, anything is likely to become a good protagonist of a photo, but define yourself as a protagonist. Say “the person or thing protagonist of my photo is this, or that . ” Do not leave it at random, do not shoot for shooting, to see what comes out.
    Little trick:Humans, by nature, are more empathic with other humans than with an object. As a result, you will find it much easier to tell stories starring a person than a baseball. This does not mean that you cannot tell a story through a photo without people appearing. Not at all. But to humans, the stories that captivate us and emotionally overwhelm us are those in which we see, feel or notice other people. I do not care if people do not appear in the photo, the main element may be a simple shoe, but a shoe that will tell the story of a person. The presence of people, directly or indirectly, is key in a story. The person does not necessarily have to appear in the photo, but it can be deduced in the context of the story.
    The same goes for any other kind of animated living beings. Pets are an excellent character to build a story.
    When you look at the photo of this lonely bike, it is difficult for you to avoid automatically thinking about its owner.

    The absent bike owner

HOW TO PUT IT ALL TOGETHER: THE SCRIPT

As I said before, unlike a movie or novel, where there is a script that progresses chronologically, and that the reader or viewer consumes little by little, a photo is a microhistory told in a fraction of a second. No, that’s why he won’t have a script. The photos have their own script too. A script that the viewer consumes in a fraction of a second too.

In a photo you put all the elements of the story available to the viewer, but you keep all control over where you have to start reading the photograph and where it has to end. You have plenty of resources and techniques that allow you to guide the viewer into the frame and transport them from one element to another, focusing their attention on an element of greater prominence, or letting you notice a background detail only after a few seconds. Here are just a few examples of resources that you can use to trace the path that the viewer will unconsciously follow when he sees your photo:

  1. The light: The most illuminated areas within the frame will be where the spectator’s gaze first lands, then go to explore the areas with less light.
  2. Curves, lines and vanishing points: Within a composition, vanishing points and linear elements are a perfect way to lead the viewer in the “reading” of the photograph.
  3. Shallow depth of field:  Approaches and blurring are another resource that makes it easier to drive the gaze and attention of those who contemplate the photo. By the wisdom of nature, our brain directs our gaze first to the most focused area, then go through the other areas with less focus.
  4. The look:  If you want to direct attention in a certain direction, make the subject look there. By nature, we are curious. When looking at a picture, it is normal for us to direct our gaze to what the subject seems to look at. As for the order, we first look at the subject’s eyes, and secondly we look for what he is looking at.
    A group of 4 subjects, 3 of them looking at the room: we automatically focus our attention on the fourth character. We assume that it is the main subject.
  5. Natural direction:  Unless the photographer contributes elements that modify the trajectory of the viewer’s gaze (like the previous points), the natural thing is that we go through a photograph from the bottom up, and from left to right. Keep this in mind when assembling your composition.

THE COTTON TEST: THE TITLE

You just took a picture. You have embodied in it a magnificent story, according to you. But you are not sure if others will be able to find it.
A little trick that you can use to make sure you have good narrative content in your photo is to assign it a title. It seems silly, but if you are able to verbalize, through words, the little story of your photo, then you will have hit the spot.

Mind you, the title cannot be a simple visual description of the photo. “Child sitting in a chair, with a lollipop in his right hand” is no use as a title. We are looking for a title that touches the emotion as the photo itself would. If it is impossible for us to find a minimally deep title, if all the titles that occur to us are mere descriptions of what we see in the photo, there is a high probability that the photo does not contain anything deep.

PRACTICAL EXAMPLES OF A GOOD NARRATIVE PHOTOGRAPH

There is nothing better than a few examples to illustrate what a good narrative photograph is.

YOUR TURN

It does not make you better photographer the amount of words you read but the photos you take. I want you to practice narrative photography in your next photos. Shooting with a little story in mind will open new photographic possibilities. As soon as you get your first real narrative photo, you will realize that your other photos, lacking in history or emotion, in the background lacked soul.

Including a story, message, idea or emotion will make you great.

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