When I got into this business in the 1960s, the dream of every photographer was to do a comprehensive picture story and get a 10-page or longer display in Life, Look or National Geographic.
As time passed and the space to publish stories got tighter, more and more picture editors started looking for the one great image to illustrate a text piece, because they only had space for a single image. Often the pictures were designed more to catch the reader’s attention than to give an accurate depiction of the story.
Gradually, most professional photographers gave up the idea of doing picture stories. The vast majority started thinking in terms of getting that single, powerful image.
Back to the Future — with a Twist
Now, the market for single images is under intense pressure. Advancements in digital camera technology and the Internet have opened the door to microstock. Part-timers and hobbyists are providing, at extremely low prices, much of the imagery that is needed for single illustrations.
In 2009, more than 95 percent of the images used as single generic illustrations were licensed at microstock prices. As a result, many professional photographers are finding it difficult to sustain their businesses by licensing single illustrations.
Fortunately, the picture story is making a comeback. With the cost of paper and other traditional limitations made irrelevant by the Web, the demand for imagery that hangs together as a narrative is on the rise.
And the greatest need is for multimedia storytelling, the direction professional photography will likely take in the future.
Storytelling with Multimedia
Producing picture stories — whether with still images or video — is more complex than shooting single illustrations. Stories require more thought and, at the very least, a different type of planning.
Today’s multimedia projects may use stills, video or a combination of both. While it is possible to tell multimedia stories with stills alone, editors increasingly want presentations to include video or be done entirely with video.
During the heyday of Life magazine, every editorial photographer wanted to shoot picture stories that visually explored issues in depth. Life died, and photographers became illustrators. With short-form video, photographers can become storytellers again.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.