How To Tell A Story Through Photos

For years, photos have been used to tell stories in photojournalism and documentary-type photography. Newspaper and magazine editors have sometimes told their staff that they can only accept one image for a story. So there has to be one image that gets it all right. Here are a few different and important features that every photo essay should have.

Cover Shot

My mentor used to tell me that the strongest photo in your essay should be your cover shot. This photo should summarise the point of the entire story. It can encompass one or many elements of photojournalism-the newsworthy, the emotional, the intimate and the unusual.

Now, let’s put this into practice. If you’re shooting a 50th birthday gala, consider which items are the most important to capture. Images that come to mind are the birthday person cutting the cake, portraits with their family, etc. The cake will perhaps have a candle on it saying, “50”. A carefully composed image of the cake will be more than strong enough to serve as the cover shot for documenting a 50th birthday party that the family hires you to shoot.

Think back to Hurricane Katrina. What were the photos on the cover of every single newspaper? They showed the disaster, people in despair, aerial views of flooded areas, etc. These photos were strong enough to stand on their own, and tell us that there was a natural disaster in the area.

Photo by gundym

Establishing Shot

Photo by 1D-Photography

Think of any major motion picture. When a new scene begins, there is always an establishing shot telling us where we are and what time of day/night it is. When telling a story through photos, we’ll need to see where certain events are taking place. Are we at the church where a wedding is about to happen? Maybe we’re at the house of the bride.

These are typically wider photos, and combine apsects of architechtural and landscape photography. With that said, wide angle lenses are usually best for these types of photos. The key to these is that you’ll want to have much of the area in focus so that we can get a true feeling of where we are.

Detail Shot

Detail shots are photos that focus on a very specific detail that help to tell the story. They can be very difficult, as these details need to stick closely to the theme of the assignment.

One example of a detail shot is a photo of the wedding rings for someone’s special day. In more photojournalistic terms, a photo of steelworkers’ worn hands is a detail that shows just how hard they work.

Typically, these images are tightly composed. They also tend to focus a particular subject. Photo by Lone S


Fillers are the other photos that contribute to telling the story. Usually, filler shots are comprised of many candid photos. From shooting events, I can tell you that clients love seeing candids of everyone. Great examples of these are two relatives embracing one another after not seeing each other for a long time. Photo by NH Bob

Closing Shot

Your closing shot is the photo that ends your story. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the last photo that you take, but it does have to give the story a sense of closure. If you’re shooting a story on the recovery process of an abused dog taken into a shelter, then the final photo could be the photo where it is adopted and goes onto living with a new owner.Photo by gardengurl62

Top photo by Alli77.

Please note that all photos in this blog post are entries in the B&H Photo Flickr Group Cold contest. This post originally appeared at BHInsights. You can—and should—follow them here on Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr.

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