The 6 Fundamentals Of Storytelling Through Photography

Last Updated on by

In photography, storytelling is usually called a photo essay or photo story and it’s a rather common practice. If you read magazines like National Geographic, you’ve surely seen some great examples of storytelling many times.
To put it simply, it’s a way for a photographer to tell a story with a series of photographs or even single photograph sometimes. In case of a series of photographs, images are ordered in a specific way with the aim of affecting the viewer’s emotions and intellect.
The following 6 fundamentals of storytelling through photography can be very useful especially if you’re still new to the concept of storytelling in photography:

1. Careful Planning

Planning is one of the most important parts of visual storytelling. You must plan in advance how are you going to visualize the story you have in your mind. The planning process should include selecting the topic, doing a research on the topic and planning your shots – they should be very diverse and visually appealing. You should also consider using some symbols in your images in order to convey your message more clearly.
Often during a shoot, you might not be able to capture the photos in the exact order you planned. However, keeping this order in mind can help you avoid chaos and edit the story in less time.

  • Claim Your Free Camera Craft Cheat Sheet

Print it out and keep it for when you really need it - when you're out shooting!

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

2. Single Shot VS Photo Series

Can a photographer narrate better stories with a single image or with a series of images? While it’s not easy to answer this question since it depends on the topic of storytelling, it’s still important to remember that a single image is only a “semi-truth”  because it’s impossible to tell everything in just one photograph. A single image might be very powerful but it’s still only a part of the bigger picture.
On the other hand, a series of photographs allows a viewer to process each image independently and then connect multiple images into a cohesive storyline. The first and last images in a series are the most important because they have to be strong enough to grab a viewer’s undivided attention.

Photo by Ye Fung Tchen on Unsplash

3. Strong Emotions

No matter how brilliant your storytelling pictures are in terms of their technical properties, they also have to have a strong emotional impact on your viewers.
Not all images must contain a human figure or human interaction to be emotionally strong. In fact, they can contain anything from a landscape to abstract visuals – the only thing that matters is that they can evoke strong emotions in the viewer’s heart.
In addition to evoking strong emotions, storytelling images should be carefully layered with meaning. This is usually the most difficult process in storytelling because it doesn’t allow us to take just random pretty images. These intentional layers of meaning should be the main criteria when selecting and arranging the images for the story.

Photo by Harli Marten on Unsplash

4. Aiming For Variety In Your Storytelling

Everyone likes variety! Since you certainly don’t want your viewers to get bored and consider your storytelling skills weak, you need to challenge their imagination by offering them a variety of shots. Just focusing on one kind of photograph won’t tell a whole story – you need to pay attention to details and become flexible when it comes to your shooting style and aesthetic preferences.
You need to shoot portraits, landscapes, abstract images, wide-angle shots, action shots, zoomed-in details and so on in order to tell a whole story.

Photo by Marc Kleen on Unsplash

5. Being Original

Originality might seem like an overrated concept, but it’s quite important especially in storytelling photography. It’s hard to come up with an original scenario that can truly entertain your viewers. It’s challenging to create something unique with billions of images that can be seen everywhere these days.
However, it’s a great practice to strive for originality and stand out from the crowd whenever possible.

Photo by Andrey Larin on Unsplash

6. Narrative Structures

Stories must have beginnings, middles, and ends and the same principle holds true for visual storytelling too. If you’re just starting out a series of pictures, you can practice storytelling by trying to form a chronological narrative structure. Just like a movie, your photo essay should have an opening shot, establishing shot, interactive and sequential shots, and a closing shot.
In case you want to make something more experimental, you don’t have to stick to these rules but you should still have some kind of minimal narrative structure to guide your viewers.

Photo by Philipp Berndt on Unsplash
The idea of storytelling becomes even more interesting when there are illustrations and this is the exact reason why everyone likes photo essays.
The illustrations somehow make the stories alive and more memorable and because of this, it’s definitely worth the effort to learn to tell stories with photographs.

Further Resources

About the author


Jasenka is a passionate photographer with a background in design. You can find out more about her on her website, see some of her stock images at Shutterstock or get to know her better here.


Leave a comment: