These 4 Photo Essay Ideas and Examples Will Get Your Creativity Pumping


Photo projects always sound like a lot of fun, but there are times when the weight of a project eventually becomes too much to bear. This is particularly true of 365 projects.

While making a photo everyday for a year can be fun and educational and tremendously rewarding, it can also grow burdensome and not everyone who starts down this path will arrive at their intended destination. The reasons are varied, from personal and professional commitments and their associated time constraints, to a loss of motivation for such a lengthy undertaking.

None of this means that you’re forever left to stand on the outside looking in at the fun everyone else is having as they start and finish their photo projects. You just need a photo project more suited to your personality, one less taxing on your precious time.

elderly in black longsleeves
Image by Janko Ferlic

There has to be some sort of photography project that won’t tie you down for an extended period — not 365 days, not 52 weeks. Something that you could even, in theory, complete in one day. There are actually several projects that fit this bill, but today we’ll take a quick look at the photo essay.

What Is A Photo Essay?

A photo essay consists of a series of images related specifically to a topic or subject that interests you. Whether you want to include text (captions, background info) is entirely up to you, but in any case you should try to make sure your photos are strong enough to stand alone.

grayscale photography of man cutting hair of woman
Image by Jeff Sof

What Is The Purpose Of A Photo Essay?

A photo essay's purpose is to tell a story, evoke emotions in the viewers – so, you photograph with the sole intent of telling a story (either narratively or thematically) that takes shape over a number of shots. A photo story allows you to be creative and become a better storyteller, explore a particular topic in detail and look for new ways to connect with your viewers thereby becoming a better photographer.

How Do You Create A Photo Essay?

Here are some steps that you can follow to create a photo essay:

Choose A Topic:

Theere are many topics to choose from to create a photo essay. So depending on your interests, level of reach and photography skills, choose a good topic for your photo essay.

Research The Topic:

Once you have a topic in mind, you will need to jump into the research part. Choose a right location, event or candidate for the essay. Find out what they can and how they can contribute to your photo essay. Check for information on how long it will take from start to completion.

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Image by Helloquence

Lay Down A Workflow:

Once you know what you are going to cover, lay a chart or a workflow where you put together an outline of what needs to be done from start to finish. This is important because you do not want to miss out on any details that may ruin your photo essay. This will need to include timeframes, appointments, permissions, props, dress, accessories, etc. if any required.

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Image by William Iven

Shooting The Story:

During this time, take as much shots as possible using different settings, perspectives, techniques and if required, at different locations and times of the day/year.You need to come out with some decent shots for the essay, so make best use of the available time and scenario to get as many photos possible. There may be some moments that happen which you least expected or was not aware of – go ahead and capture them.

Organise, Edit And Create The Essay:

After the shoot, you will need to organise your images and then cull them to sort out the best images out of the set. You could even set aside a few images that you feel would need to be included, go back and look at them with fresh eyes after a few days and then finalise the final set. Ask for help with selecting images, but be sure they are someone who are knowledgeable and interested in the project.

Make use of your favourite post processing software to colour grade your images and for other adjustments that are required. If you have an editing workflow, follow it.

Export the final images and create a photo essay in the form of an online version or if required in the form of a book. There are so many social media platforms where you can share, bit also try the local council or local newsletter people to get your story out to a greater audience. Share in whatever ways you planned when you were creating the story.

If you think a photo essay is something you might want to try, consider some ideas below to get going.

Here Are A Few Photo Essay Ideas:

Capture a Day in the Life of…

There are many jobs and careers that people around you may do and you may either want to introduce someone to a career or you may want to introduce that person to the outer world. So, capturing a day in the life of those people is a fantastic way to understand their lifestyle and know what they do on a day-to-day basis on their job. This could be absolutely anyone.

Capturing the daily life could particularly be an interesting photo essay topic as many people are generally interested in knowing about the lives of certain professionals or other trained workers and what they do daily on their job. Even someone you perceive to lead the most mundane life might present more than a few surprises once you’ve spent a day with them.

Or you could go a more traditional route and document the day of someone you feel has an interesting job — a firefighter, personal trainer, chef, teacher, attorney, stand up comedian, lifeguard, nurse…there are really no bad choices here and the end result will be captivating.

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Image by Matt Chesin

Depending on their job and job location, you may want to take the required permissions, choose the best time to document them, plan well ahead on what shots need to be taken , etc. For example, if you are photographing an artist, a farmer or other skilled workers, you will want photograph them including the environment they are in.

This photo essay by Chia Loy Chuan captures Indian and Bangladeshi migrant workers enjoying a day off.

Document Do-Gooders

A photo essay is an excellent way to raise awareness of an important cause. In all likelihood, any not-for-profit organization near you will be happy to have you bring attention their work. Show the staff member’s daily routine, with special emphasis on who (if possible) or what they are dedicated to helping and why it is important.

When people have strong feelings about a cause, they will often go to any length to support it — even so far as dressing up in panda suits, as portrayed in this photo essay about conservationists.

Some topics to consider for documentation of good causes or things to create awareness would be, climate change, pollution, preserving culture and traditions, saving wildlife and forests, charity, social issues, protests, etc.

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Image by John Cameron

Go to a Local Event

Whether you live in a big city or a small town, there’s probably some local event worth photographing. It could be a food festival or a parade or a 10k run or other sports events. Research and find out the local event near you and choose what interests you.

You will want to photograph a lot of candids, displays and other activities going on there. You will also need to research beforehand to find out the schedule for the events so you can plan well ahead and be there prepared to grab the moments. You could talk to the event organiser about this and even share your photos with them so you can gain exposure.

One way to approaching shooting an event is to capture scenes before, during, and after; get there early to shoot setup and preparations, then put yourself in the midst of the action once the event officially commences. Make sure you have a backdrop of the event in candid shots so you maintain the mood, your viewers know where the image was taken and what things happened in the event. Finally, stick around for post-event happenings: clean up, disassembly, participants and audience departing, etc.

action adults celebration clouds
Image by Pixabay on Pexels

Here is a brilliant and fun example of how to cover a “fun run” — specifically a 5k zombie run.

Follow the Change

Change is one of life’s inevitabilities and lends itself to a photo essay. While an essay covering change or transformation could certainly take place over an extended period of months or years — think of documenting a pregnancy, a child's growth, civilisation in a new urban area or a construction project — it doesn’t require a daily commitment like a 365 project does.

Or you could go for essays relating to extended changes like seasonal changes which may require documenting over a year. It could be how a place transforms over a period of time or how climate and other factors affect a particular location over a period of time under various circumstances.

From 2005 to 2010, Romain Meffre and Yves Marchand periodically visited Detroit to document the once thriving city’s “fall from grace.”

Here Are Some Tips Before You Start Working On A Photo Essay:

  • Choose an essay topic that is doable for you and one that suits your photography skills.
  • Think about the purpose of the photo essay and create a workflow based on it (what needs to be photographed, when, where and what time and location, etc.) so you do not miss out on little but important details.
  • When working on social issues, make sure you have the rights and permission to be there and photograph as you do not want to photograph and publish sensitive information that are against the guidelines.

It's not that photo essays don't require your time and dedication, but some photographers find them to be less demanding since, depending on the topic, they can be completed in a day or two. If you're looking for a project that doesn't have to drag on for too long, a photo essay may be perfect for you.

Further Resources:

About Author

Jason Little is a photographer, author and stock shooter. You can see Jason’s photography on his Website or his Instagram feed.

Thanks for posting the link, Herman. I loved your photos and the captions are great. Some day I’ll be there, too, and see if I can do half as well as you did!

Thanks John, I still use a roll film camera for the photos. With 8-10 shots per roll, I take time to view a scene before making a photo. It saves a lot of
editing time.

Thanks for this article! I’m pretty new to photography….my husbands job takes us to a different city in this country almost everyday (365 days a year), so I picked up a camera and started going with him While many of my shots are taken from a pick up truck driving 85 mph, but I get to take them standing still once in a while lol. I am planning a family reunion in June and of course I plan to document the event in photos and your article brought somethings to my attention that I otherwise would probably have missed! Thanks to you, I now plan to meet people in the parking lot when they arrive to document time from the beginning and I will get pictures of people heading out also.. I think the story will be more interesting and complete showing people walking towards and away from the reunion. I also plan to keep my camera working during the clean up!! So thank you!!!!

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