For Photographers, the Future Is Storytelling


Most still photographers say their best pictures tell stories. To a limited degree, this is true. But photographers need to start thinking about more complete and complex stories, not just the best story they can tell in a single frame. This is where the opportunities lie.

Currently, there is such an abundance of single-frame stories, created by amateurs as well as professionals, that the market is saturated. It has become difficult to compete. Amateurs are taking a significant share of the market for this type of imagery.

Telling Customers’ Stories

Some still photographers are reluctant to get into multimedia or video because they see amateurs producing videos for YouTube and expect the competition in that arena to be just as fierce as it is in the stills market. However, many of these videographers are either telling their own story, or not much of a story at all.

The key to success for the professional videographer — and there will be lots of growing demand for this — will be in finding customers who have a story they want told and telling that story effectively.

Here is one example of where demand will be: 80 percent of those who travel go online for travel information. Those who view a video online are 20 percent more likely to visit the destination. Will all types of vacation and travel facilities be anxious to tell their story with a video or multimedia presentation?

Multi-frame stories with sound, narration and sequence are much more complex to produce than a still image. Consequently, those who can produce such stories are likely to face less competition from amateurs.

The Evolution of the Picture Story

Fifty years ago a picture story was a 10- to 15-page epic in Life or Look, usually with brief captions, and maybe seven to 20 images. These stories gave the reader a larger understanding of a situation or event than any single image could convey.

Today, such still-photo picture stories have all but disappeared due to lack of space in print publications. Now, the pictures in magazines and newspapers are usually one shot supporting a long text piece.

There is a movement in the publishing business to show more still images related to a story on their websites, but the pictures and the text (other than captions) usually aren’t directly connected. Some publications are also putting videos on their sites.

In some instances still pictures are very powerful, but seldom, if ever, will a single still image supply as much information as a sequence of images supported by sound, music and an appropriate verbal story.

An Unmet Demand

The only thing that is holding back an explosive demand for multimedia and video content is the ability of creative people to think in terms of telling stories rather than producing single images.

It was clear from the seminar offerings at last month’s PhotoPlus Expo that many image producers are trying to learn more about video and multimedia. Most of the seminars on these subjects were packed.

By contrast, no one showed much interest in stock. There used to be a whole track on stock at PhotoPlus. This year there was one seminar and it was on microstock. On the trade show floor there was no evidence whatsoever of anything relating to stock photography.

One thing that came through loud and clear for anyone interested in getting into video was that it will not be an easy transition. It is not just a matter of buying new equipment. There is a lot to learn about storytelling that most of today’s photographers have either forgotten or never learned.

A Different Mindset

Producing a multimedia or video story requires a totally different approach and mindset from that used by most still shooters.

When shooting for print, photographers tend to assess a situation, determine the prime or most important angle and ignore photographing any other aspect of the situation. Their focus is to capture single, exciting, dramatic moments in time.

After they have captured their “moment,” someone else will write a story that may or may not closely relate to the photographer’s moment.

With a multimedia or video story, words and imagery must support each other and be harmonious. At the outset, the photographer needs to have a clear understanding of the story that needs to be told and how the images will relate to and support the words, and vice versa.

In her PhotoPlus Expo presentation, Paula Lerner pointed out that sound is at least as important as the images in any story. A story with so-so images and great sound will be fine. One with great images and so-so sound will likely lose viewers’ interest.

Words and Images in Harmony

Lerner often does her interviews first, edits the audio and on commercial jobs gets approval of the audio before she starts shooting. Then she illustrates the audio story.

To understand more about how this is done, and where future demand lies, look at some of the stories on the experiences of individual students that Paula produced and shot for Boston University Sargent College and BU Admissions.

Producing a story by doing the audio first isn’t always possible, although Paula finds it preferable. Often it is necessary to shoot as the story develops. When working in this way, it is important to shoot wide, medium and close-up shots of every situation in order to have visuals that will cut with the audio and cover every aspect of the story thoroughly.

In multimedia stories, most images will only be seen for two or three seconds — sometimes less. If a sentence or a paragraph goes on for 10 or 15 seconds to make a certain point, it is necessary to have a variety of related images that amplify the point in order to hold the viewer’s interest.

Because each image is viewed for such a short period of time, every image must be easy to read. Sequence becomes much more important than having an image that someone might examine in all its subtleties if it were displayed in print or on an art gallery wall.

This often means simpler images, each one showing a different aspect of the overall situation. When strung together properly, such a sequence can have more information-conveying power than any single still image. Appropriate images will also be needed when transitioning from one point to another in the audio.

Getting Started

Lerner suggests that still photographers start out by learning sound and editing and using stills for the visuals before moving to video. Shooting video with pans, dollies, follow focus and maybe a whole different type of lighting adds another whole level of complexity to the production that can easily overwhelm those just starting out.

Learning to put together a story, get quality sound and learning to use Final Cut Pro or other editing software is more than enough of a challenge for the beginning storyteller. Once you’re comfortable with these skills, start adding video to your repertoire.

Some other sites that can provide insights into how stills can be used effectively in multimedia projects include:

  1. The work of Brian Storm’s MediaStorm. Be sure to look at the “Intended Consequences” and “Common Ground” pieces. Many of these pieces were done for non-profit organizations. Some people think that “non-profit” means doing the work for little or no money. However, many non-profits are prepared to pay competitive rates and find that good multimedia presentations are very helpful in their fundraising efforts.
  2. The New York Times is doing an extended series of multimedia presentations called “1 in 8 Million,” which chronicles the lives of individual New Yorkers in their everyday jobs.
  3. Also be sure to look at Lerner’s series on “The Women of Kabul.” Lerner says that editorial work is no longer a way to make money, but she does it to tell stories she feels strongly about. Having these pieces in her portfolio has also helped her get the more lucrative commercial and non-profit work.

7 Responses to “For Photographers, the Future Is Storytelling”

  1. INSPIRING! Thank you for clear direction and challenging ideas.

  2. I'm terribly disappointed at another article that is trying to trick photographers into believe that multimedia storytelling is currently a way to make money, as opposed to good ol' fashioned still photography. The very last paragraph says it all --- "Lerner says that editorial work is no longer a way to make money, but she does it to tell stories she feels strongly about."
    Multimedia work is great, but editing and production add time and expense to what is already a difficult and expensive skill. I've been hearing for years that multimedia is the next big thing. Editors and salaried staff are all agog, but when asked what they would pay for a piece, I've been offered truly insulting rates across the board.
    Mr. Pickerell, write us when you learn of someone who will pay a living rate for good editorial/documentary photography, in any form. Telling us to work even harder for nothing borders on insult.

  3. David....It's hardly Jim's job to inform you how to make a living. Lerner obviously does this stuff because she enjoys getting her teeth into long term projects. Multi-media will obviously pay in the commercial arena. Personally I would sell to editorial outlets but create my own.

  4. Excellent post Jim. You have hit the nail on the head. So much has been written on the demise of photojournalism. But its time for people to stop complaining and look for the positive in what is happening. These are exciting times. New technologies are opening up many new avenues for photojournalists to make a living. I believe multimedia is a big part of this. Check out http://duckrabbit.info/ in the UK. They produce some amazing work in this area and have a very popular blog showcasing what is happening in this field.

  5. Pickerell and Beatte Latte - what's the opposite of prescient?

  6. Moreover, I do see iPad books and electronic distribution as possible outlets, so my cynicism is not complete. As someone who has been working on photo-audio pieces for a long time, purely because I like the form, I do agree with the spirit of Jim's post, even if I did choose to whinge about the marketability of the product.

  7. The most difficult photograph to make is the single frame that accomplishes a successful narrative. With the glut of BFA/MFA wanna-bees that are generated by the "education" mills there are more shooters, and far less talent. All this playing into the hands of the destructive post modern influence, the Decisive Moment is rarely achieved.

    Having said that photography is evolving into a different method of visual expression and ultimately the market place more involved and interested in profit than excellence snags whatever image is available and undermines the financial value of professional photojournalists. So, we want reality tv photojournalism. It is cheaper.

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