Basics of a Good Story

Canon beach 1 Canon beach 2      Canon beach 3

A discussion with friends about doing photo-essays reminded me of an article I wrote a few years ago entitled, “Telling a Story”. My thoughts on that, and visual story telling, are worth revisiting this week.

When I was in high school I gave an oral report in class about a story I was supposed to have read called the “Sentinel”. I hadn’t actually read that story, but really, I was taking on a dare by some of my friends that I could successfully get away with making up a story in the minutes before class started, and give a report that would have our teacher thinking I actually read it.

My friends and I waited outside the classroom door till just before the room change school bell rang.  One guy suggested the title of  “The Sentinel,” and being young guys they also thought it should be about a deer.

Even at that young age I knew that the basics of a good story was to make it interesting enough to engage the audience, that it needed an original perspective, and I knew I needed to create a mood right away. The story I made up as I talked was about a big deer that lived on a mountaintop, and I also got a good grade.

That was a long time ago. a story is similar to putting together a series of photographs. Whether one is consciously building a photo essay or, as an example, photographing a wedding; the process, start to finish is the same.

Photographs of people can visually stand alone, or might need several photographs to tell a complete story. As I perused a wedding I recently photographed, I looked for those that worked the best to explain a particular moment. I like images that show people interacting and I thought how weddings are perfect venues for creating interest, capturing moods, and experimenting with visual perspective.

Creating a photograph that is strong enough to stand on it’s own goes beyond just being a good visual image because it is filled with nice colours, or pretty people. It needs to give the viewers information that they can make into a story. I think a good photograph is one that makes us have a connection with, or think about, the subject. And just as in any good story one must engage the audience, have an interesting perspective, and, of course, create a mood.

At any event the photographer’s first goal is to successfully document everything that happens. The second is to compile enough images to be a narrative of the occasion. Third, and maybe most importantly, to create photographs that by themselves tell individual stories of those that attended, or are the main focus of the function.

Telling a story with photography, then, becomes more than putting the high-tech camera on program mode and randomly aiming around. It involves light, not just metering correctly, but adding light when it is needed so the main subjects are highlighted. Then selective focus is taken into consideration to isolate the subject, or include the subject of the photograph with other features, or the background; and then, positioning oneself so as to be at the right place at the right time.

Adding light might be from a reflector, or from an on-camera flash; selective focus is about just understanding and applying depth-of-field; and being at the right place at the right time takes some forethought, and the willingness to place oneself in front of the action. Sometimes, that means asking people to move out of the way, or (I know it may seem rude) stepping in front of others.

Successful storytellers are after fleeting moments that say something to the viewer, and sometimes depend on luck for that perfect camera angle. As I wrote, the story might be a succession of photographs or it might be that one picture, it’s really not that much different than the basics of a well-written story. Make it interesting enough to engage the audience, try for an interesting perspective, and create, or photographically capture, a mood.

I always appreciate comments, John

My website is at

2 responses to “Basics of a Good Story

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