The Art of Visual Storytelling

What does it take to tell a story?  A talented writer might tell you that all it requires is a pen and a piece of paper, but storytelling doesn’t come the same way to all of us.  

For me, as for many photographers, I like to have all of the elements of a story in front of me — visible, in front of my eyes.  Then I can assemble them to make the story I’m telling come to life.

I’ll give you an example of this. One day I found my father sitting at the kitchen table (one of the most creative places in any house) putting together a mood board of family photographs, carefully selected from a pile of old photos rescued from a closet. This little masterpiece, measuring 70 x 50 cm, now hangs on the kitchen wall.


When a guest visits the home, the host has all of the visual elements in front of him to tell the family’s story. The host is free to assemble, disassemble and reassemble the events and individuals pictured in whatever manner he chooses.

He might do this in a pedestrian way with no narrative thread: “This is my father Simon, and this is my grandfather Haroutyun, and this is my mother…”

Or he might, instead, introduce the images in a way that is compelling: “This is the visual story of a family that survived two genocides during the last century.”

As a photographer, you want to make and assemble your images in a way that achieves the latter.

The Importance of Preparation


You might think it would be easy, with digital cameras, to shoot all the elements you need to tell the story of an event. Certainly, overshooting has its appeal; after all, memory cards are cheap and batteries last a lot longer today.

The downside of overshooting, however, is that you have to spend a lot more time editing, trying to pick the right image out of gigabytes. And no matter how much you shoot, you can still miss something important — perhaps the crucial moment that summarizes it all, the keystone of your narrative arch.

That’s why the best storytellers plan their shoots carefully. Planning will prevent you from missing the climax: the exchange of the rings at a wedding, for example. It happens more often than you might imagine.

To prepare for an event and learn what narrative elements you will need to capture, and when and where they will happen, you should do whatever research you can on the Web in advance, as well as ask those familiar with the event and, of course, your client.

Becoming a Storyteller


When you create material for magazines, advertising campaigns or catalogues — or for your own portfolio — storytelling is vital to making compelling images. In my experience, there are five elements to creating a visual story:

1. The Message. Before you start, you must define what you wish to communicate. What does your client wish to achieve, and how do you plan to accomplish this?

2. The Plot. Now it’s time to write down your story, step by step, scene by scene. Whether in words, sketches or a storyboard, you don’t have to be Leonardo; what you write only has to be understood by you. A good story often can be told in three simple steps.

3. The Color Palette. Which colors best serve the story? Or would black and white be more appropriate?

4. The Photography. Here is where you paint with light to pull your vision together.

5. The Effectiveness. At the editing stage, sit down with your client to verify that the story is communicating the message intended. Now you have accomplished your mission.

We all live among stories. We listen to the news, read an article or a book, watch a movie. But we sometimes forget that we are storytellers, too — and that we must continually hone our ability to tell stories with images.

2 Responses to “The Art of Visual Storytelling”

  1. I always try and at least tell a little bit of story in my photo's something that can be very hard to do with a simple headshot, and not a collage of images. Lighting framing, and composition all play an important role in doing that.

  2. @ Denver Fashion Photographer
    The story telling is what we all have to grow into, it's what I usually tell my students. Everyone can take a great picture, but the consistency of the work throughout the sequence is what makes your work stand up from the crowd.

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