Ask photographers (or God help you, the internet) what makes a good photograph and it won’t be long before someone says, “a good photograph tells a story.” I don’t think that’s true. Not always. I think there are spectacular photographs that tell no story at all. They leave an impression. They elicit an emotional response. Others provide information. And if you’re not one of those photographers with “visual storyteller” printed on your business card, you need to know that your work is no less important. A lot of poems don’t tell stories, but it would be absurd for all the poets out there to feel like they should instead be short story writers or novelists.
An article from CameraWorld U.K. asserts, “Photographs tell a story when they incite an emotional response.” But many photographs do this well without telling a story. Abstracts. Expressionism. Impressionism. The article went on to say, “the best photos tell stories by prompting viewers to question what happens next.” This is partly true; photos that prompt viewers to question what happens next can be powerful, but not all photographs are about a happening.
Good photographs don’t necessarily tell a story any more than good writing must always tell a story. But storytelling is powerful, and the photographer who understands what makes stories powerful can use those same elements in photographs that don’t necessarily tell a story but leverage some of the same powerful elements to create powerful responses in us.
The question worth asking is, “how do we experience stories?” and then applying that to the kind of photographs we make. So stop reading and take a moment to ask yourself what makes a good story for you. What hooks you?
It’s important because even if the best photographs told a story (which, to be clear, I believe is untrue), we have to remember not all stories are good stories. Not every story connects or resonates.
So what makes a good story for you? This matters because if you can’t say what makes a good story, then there’s no hope of putting those elements into a photograph. Even if you don’t make “storytelling photographs,” you owe it to yourself to understand why stories are so important to humans that we’ve been called “the storytelling animal” because if you know why we resonate with stories, you can make photographs that press the same buttons.
This is not about how to tell stories with your photographs; it’s about how to make photographs that press the same buttons as good stories. Though if you understand these ideas, you’ll probably tell better stories as well.
Stories Have a Point of View.
All stories are told from a point of view—most of them by a narrator—and there are all kinds of ways a narrator might tell that story. How interesting the story is can be strongly influenced by how interesting you find the narrator. Sure, they tell you what’s happening, but the choices they make—what they leave in, what they leave out, the order in which they tell the events, and more—help determine whether you like the narrator, trust them, connect with them, and ultimately whether you enjoy the story.
A photograph with an interesting point of view can also pull us in. That point of view might be conveyed by where the photographer stands, which lens they opt to use, or the moment they choose. It could be a choice of shutter speed or the careful use of depth of field. But there were choices made, and the more interesting those choices are, the more likely it is that a particular point of view is put forward, as in “look at this, and look at it in this way.”
Are you being intentional about your point of view? Not only where you place the camera (though that’s huge) but also in your other choices.
Stories Have Characters We Connect With.
Not every image has a person or an animal in it, but many do, and the photograph will connect better when you make choices that allow the person responding to the image to connect with the characters. That doesn’t mean we have to like them, but you have to tell us something about them. I don’t need to know their whole life story, but the details you choose matter. What do the clothes tell me about the life they live and where they live it? What are they holding in their hands that tells me what they do or what might be about to happen? What does the look on their face tell me about who they are and what’s important to them? Individually these might not “tell a story,” but they might hint at one and make me care or, better yet, make me wonder.
Stories Have Mystery.
Wonder comes from mystery, from not knowing everything. A good storyteller knows that if everything is buttoned up and nothing is left unresolved, then there’s no work left for the imagination—and the imagination is too powerful to ignore.
Leave me something to wonder about, and I’ll remain more engaged than if you tell me everything.
Generally speaking, the more you include in your photograph beyond what is absolutely necessary, the more diluted it becomes. More information does not mean more impact. Often, it’s the opposite. So let elements of your image remain in shadow, allow a hand to enter the frame with no suggestion of who it belongs to, choose moments when the person in the frame looks out of frame and make me wonder what they’re looking at. Will it “tell a better story?” Not necessarily, but the same technique used in good storytelling can work for the same reasons in good photographs: mystery hooks us. It engages the imagination.
Stories Have Setting.
Stories take place somewhere and usually somewhen, to coin a word; stories with a strong sense of place and time pull us in. Yes, they help the story make more sense in an informational way, but they can also establish mood. They can pique our interest because the way the narrator describes the place we feel like we’re there. We feel immersed in it or that we want to be immersed in it. A photograph of Venice might not tell a story, but it can still be powerful because we resonate with the way the photograph shows us the place. We feel it. We long for it. For those of us who have been there, you’ll be tapping into all the memories we have of the place, and memories, as science tells us, are just the stories we tell ourselves about events in our past.
The photographer who can wrap their mind around the idea of showing a sense of place or time in a way that has mood, in a way that feels a certain way (which might be as simple as getting out of bed a little earlier to photograph in beautiful light or seeking fog or rain) will not necessarily tell a full story but can create an image that resonates with the viewer in ways that great stories do.
Stories Have Conflict.
Something happens in a story. It’s one reason still photographs are so limited in what they tell in one frame, and it’s why I’m more comfortable saying a single frame can probably imply (or suggest) a story than really tell it. A story has a beginning, middle, and end, and most still photographs do not. But it’s more than just “something happens.” No one makes a movie of a person walking across the street. But make it hard for that person to cross the street, give them a challenge or an obstacle, and might become a story. Make it a challenge we identify with, make the stakes high enough, and we’ll really get into it.
Most still photographs don’t have conflict. But they do have contrast. Or, rather, they can. And when you make that contrast clear enough, we lean into the image in the same way we do with conflict in a movie. We notice contrasts and juxtapositions. They imply something. And if you make choices that amplify those juxtapositions—really make them clear, perhaps with your framing or choice of moment or a lens that makes background elements seem as large as foreground elements against which you are comparing them—then you’ll engage my attention.
Human beings notice differences. We compare and contrast, so do this well in your photograph, and though you may not tell a full story, you’ll be using a tool that storytellers have used for thousands of years.
There’s a reason so many stories are about opposites: love and solitude, rich and poor, good and evil. We know that something’s gotta give, and one will prevail. But which one?
Storytelling is powerful, not only for the photographer hoping to “tell stories” but for any picture-maker. If you want your work to connect to the human being who will experience it, then you need to be aware of how that human being might experience it and which tools you might use to make that experience stronger. Choose a bolder point of view. Give us stronger characters, better yet give us characters with character. Don’t only give us a setting, give us a real feeling of place and time. Resist the urge to show us everything, leave something to the imagination. And become more aware of contrasts and juxtapositions. We resonate with these elements of storytelling. They aren’t the only things we resonate with, but they are powerful.
For the Love of the Photograph,
I got your book few years ago when I was starting my career as a photographer and it changed my way of looking to the business of photography, I am happy to discover now your blog and read more interesting stories, thank you
Welcome here, Felix!
I read and think a lot about story and this is the BEST piece I’ve ever read that relates to photography. I’m not surprised–you are an excellent teacher, writer, and photographer. However, I am so grateful that you wrote this article. It’s so clear and easy to grok! Thank you for this (and for all that you do and share with us and the world).
Thanks for that, Liz. Anyone who can use grok in a sentence always gets bonus point. 😉
As usual David, great blog today, Like many ,I see untold number of pictures; all of them are very nice, but because so many images are nice, I don’t often hit the like button or make comments. I save those clicks for images that elicit some sort emotional response , tell a story, or arouses my curiosity. But that also raises the question of how to create a image that does those things? Which in turn also raises the conflict of trying too hard….sigh….But hey attaining enlightenment is a journey right? Again this is a great blog keep up the great work.
Best article yet! Great photos to express your point.
Excellent post pointing out what makes a good photograph! Love the … ‘Leave .something out …’ quote. A good portfolio depends on the photographer understanding these concepts!
Thank you for another really relevant post.
I know that you have in the past generously allowed re-publication of your blog articles in club magazines.
I don’t see the permission now.
May I please use the above article in my club newsletter?( Knysna Photographic Society – https://www.knysnaphotosociety.com/ )
As a sometime judge I find that photographs are often not taken at face value e.g. nature, still life etc., but that the photographer is always expected to “tell a story” and that in some cases the absence of a “story” causes some judges to assign a lower score.
Hello. Merci 🙏🏻 pour le texte. Thanks. It reminds me one of the best compliment I receive from one of my friend after seeing one of my photography in Facebook. She said:
« I don’t know why I like your photo but it brings me a great emotion ».
That is stronger than a good story 😉
Thanks for sharing this. I’ve long been of the opinion
not every photograph has to have a story though it should impact the viewer in some way as you talked about.
My pleasure, Steve – as always so nice to see your name in the comments!
Hi David. The blog brings up lots of ideas for better photographs. Were you under the vehicle shooting the rhino like you did the elephant? I want to do that when we go to Kenya. Amazing point of view. I zoomed in and it actually looks like the rhino is watching you. It ups the tension level. Nicely done Jim
David, I found this one really struck home. The storytelling label has become such a buzzword. I love how you have expanded this idea . I will reread this many times as I try continuously to improve my work. thank you!
Thanks, Alison! “Buzzword” is exactly right. Vis a vis the use of the word “storytelling” and the photographic community I’m reminded of The Princess Bride. If you know the movie you’ll know the quote: “You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.” LOL
Thank, Jim. I’m counting the days until Kenya. Can’t wait. We’ll be on the ground with elephants if that’s something you want, but rhinos are a whole other thing. Don’t hold your breath! 🙂
As with poems and photos I absorb the words or visual images as I scan, experience the thoughts and/or emotions invoked. I bring my own knowledge and experience to the moment and wonder if I am grasping the author/maker’s intent.
Regardless, I still examine my own reaction. Perhaps I do not realize the author/maker’s intent. How much do I understand about the medium? I wonder and hope. Over time I find my confidence grows.
The darkness of the foreground grabs my attention; the silhouette of the rhinos holds my attention. I feel wonder, gladness and hope. I am drawn to the mountains and their high point in contrast with the sky. Sunrise? Sunset? I dwell on the rhinos and wish them long lives. I enjoy the minimalism and relax, thankful for the moment. Thank you David.
Hi Dana – What a thoughtful comment. Don’t get too hung up about the intent of the creator. Certainly thinking about what it might have been can be helpful but we don’t need to understand it. We experience art based on our own encounter with it. Sometimes our reaction and what the artist intended align well, sometimes not so much. Part of the beauty of art. The artist gets to ask questions about the creation of something, but the reception of it is out of their hands. Let that confidence grow!
Thanks David – this is sufficiently positive to me that I shan’t sell the kit for now! Joking, but we all need a pick-me-up in our interests occasionally, and this did it for me.
So glad to hear it. Keep the gear, you’re going to need it to do the work. 🙂
I really appreciated this article. I’ve read so many times that a photograph should tell a story but mine seldom do. I’m a hobbyist who photographs things of beauty, things that interest me and draw me to photograph them, or things that stop me in my tracks and take my breath away. So I’ve often felt like I wasn’t much of a photographer, not a serious photographer. Your article legitimized my approach and showed me new ways to make stills draw others in. Thank you.
Janice, don’t let anyone tell you what it means to be a “serious” photographer. I’m pleased to hear you feel my writing validates your approach, but really that’s you. You doing the work and finding joy in it legitimizes what you make. Don’t wait for anyone else to do that for you, friend. Certainly learn from the approach of others, but don’t mistake it for being “the right way” 🙂
Thank you so much for this article…….I have SO many articles on Tell a Story , you photo MUST tell a story……I am an amateur photographer in every sense of the word……I love to photograph flowers…. and I choose my best…in my evaluation, and I love my photographs…..but tell a story? sometimes yes, sometimes, no……but I still see a beautiful photo, or I delete it…….but after an article read about telling a story…..I sometimes feel they are telling me I am doing trite work…… You ask about what do I like in books…..I am an avid mystery reader…….so I see the mystery in my photos…….flowers, a bud and a bloom….mother and child……bird at a birdbath in snow….survival. My website is kamccphotos.com if you ever care to take a look…… I believe and will continue togrow in perspective, taking time, critiquing my photos, viewing other photographers’ photos etc , including thru your books and articles. Anyway, this article I am going to print and read often, to reassure me, that my photos count. Thank you so much!
You are welcome, Kathy. For now let your photographs by poems, not stories. That’s more than enough.
Wonderful post, David, but I think there’s another element to story telling missing, which for me is the thing that draws me in to stories told in words, and that’s the rhythm of the language.
I wonder if this would find an analogy in the composition of a photogrpah, the rhythm of the lines/elements and the way they lead us through the frame?
Hi Janika – Certainly language is used in some forms of storytelling. There are probably several elements I’ve not discussed. Language and rhythm are also used in poetry so I think what you’re touching on is even bigger than the storytelling we’re discussing, but yes, they are vital and the photographer that has a growing sensitivity to the rhythm of elements probably has a much better ability to make elegant compositions – whether they are more like stories or poems.
Thanks for your post, David! I always struggle with word storytelling. However, I helps me a lot to talk/question/think about showing a sense of place or time considering about the mood and a way how the situation feels for me. Thereby using all possibilities to highlight this in the best way until my photograph deeply resonates with me (and hopefully with some viewers, too). I really appreciate that you share your thoughts with others.
I wish you an enjoyable Easter time and
greetings from the Palatinate, Michael