Whats The Story?

Always a student of photography and of psychology, I had an interesting realization as I look back over the year across numerous photographic outings.

During 2014, I spent a lot of time shooting by myself, but I also had the opportunity to assist Jack Graham in teaching a couple of photography workshops.  When I’m by myself, I don’t often think about what I am doing or why, I just do what I do and try to come away with a few pleasing images.  However, when working with others on their photography, I am forced to try and vocalize more of my approach to photography in the hopes of helping them develop their craft further.  This has in turn brought to light a thought about compositions and engaging the viewer that I’d like to share.

We often joke about photographic success is having someone view your image for longer than 5 seconds….it means that you’ve captured their attention.  What is it about an image that can engage a viewer for longer than 5 seconds?   And why would a different image from the same location barely garner a glance?  I believe there are many answers to this question and many factors to what makes an image compelling…..it’s an assemblage of all the components of an image as well as the viewers receptiveness to what your image portrays. But the answer is never so easy, nor is it formulaic.

If we take a step back away from photography and look at literature, stage, film or even music, what is the common thread that engages an audience?  What keeps them in their seat, entertained, for an hour or more?  The answer is, an engaging story!  A good story can make a visceral and cerebral connection with the audience and take them on a journey, or place them in a specific location, or move their emotions in ways to both entertain and please.

Now, taking this concept of a “story” back to photography, one theory I have about compelling photographs is that they also tell a very good story, one that engages the viewer and gives them reason to pause.  Something that will grab their attention and hold on to it.  Of course other things contribute to the photograph, such as technical details being executed well and favorable environmental conditions, but those things are not the main driver of storytelling, they are instead tools which the photographer uses to create a compelling story. The photographer is the driving force to envision and create a composition, using the available tools at hand, to influence and drive the “story” that a viewer might see in an image.

As I interacted with workshop students, they would ask me to look through their viewfinder at their chosen composition.  Depending on the experience level of the student, I had a variety of feedback about their composition.  As I helped more and more folks with their compositions, I began asking them a couple of questions over and over again….”what are you trying to say in this image?” “What is the story you are trying to tell here?”, “why are you taking this image?”  As they used words to describe what they were trying to capture, that helped me give them better feedback since many times the words they used did not match what I was seeing through the viewfinder.  So, I would help them make adjustments to the composition or camera settings to reflect what they wanted to capture in their minds eye.

Other times, the words they used to describe their intent was simply “I just want to capture the subject as best as I can so show people what this is like”, which is a fantastic answer as well.  Not every image needs to have a compelling story or be totally engaging to a viewer.

So, how do I tell a good story in my photograph?

When I use the word storytelling, it’s really just another word for the “artful composition” of the photograph.  It’s how you compose your image to tell the story that you want to tell, that you want the viewer to see/hear.

Before you click the shutter button, of course check the basics of your composition to see if the scene is well framed, nothing distracting poking into the image and overall you will capture what you intend to.

But on a deeper level, I might recommend to pause and ask yourself “why am I taking this picture?”  “What story do I want to tell about this location or subject” Is it solely a documentary image to show what it is like at a particular location?  Or, is it something more, something that is “speaking” to you about this scene?  If so, what is it about this scene that is compelling, or moving, or tells a great story?

Since the word “storytelling” is often associated with the written or spoken word, I will use that metaphor as I’m composing an image.  How would I use words to describe the image I want to take? If I cannot tell myself a good story, then how could I convey it in my imagery?

If you were standing in front of a large print of your image and someone was next to you, what would you say about it?  How would you describe what motivated you to take the picture?  How would you describe the scene? How would you weave a story together? How would you use words to engage the viewer?   Does your photograph match the words you used?

Now, imagine that you are not there to speak about your image to a viewer, would your story be clear to them?  Could they relate to  your story or even envision another story for your image?  Even if they couldn’t articulate it, could they understand the thoughts and feelings of your story to the point that they are engaged for more than 5 seconds?

Why call it a “story” and not a “subject”?

Great question!  I think it’s a fine line between “story” and “subject” and also open to definition and interpretation. I’m sure that some will scoff at my definition between the two, but if you’re with me so far in this article, then hang with me a little more and hear me out.

In my mind, a “subject” is a pretty straightforward concept….it’s typically a thing.  A waterfall, a tree, a winding river, a building, a person, a scenic overlook, etc.  Subjects are easy to spot and identify, they are usually the most prominent feature in front of you, it’s why you went to that specific location.  And many times, photographers strive to shoot the subject as best as they can to properly represent the reality of the subject….shoot it as completely and accurately as possible.  I’m not saying there is anything “wrong” or bad with these images, not at all!  I’m just trying to draw a distinction between subject and story.  Subject images can be incredibly compelling or awe inspiring and can convey a lot of feeling and emotion to a viewer.  They can also be documentary in their representation and not compelling to many viewers.  How many times have you seen well executed photographs of popular landmarks and moved on fairly quickly saying to yourself, “yep, nice picture. I’ve seen many nice pictures of this place.  Moving on….”

A story on the other hand is a much more subtle concept and open to interpretation.  When I say “story” I’m not speaking of a literal story with a beginning, middle and end, but more of a collection of words that you would use to describe your image about what you want your viewer to take away from the image, to capture their attention and perhaps tickle their imagination.  A story can involve subjects, either in whole or part, but the subject could be represented in more than just a factual manner, there could be an artistic interpretation of the subject to convey specific feelings or words that you want the viewer to feel about the subject.  Or, there may not be a clear subject that easily identified, yet you could still tell a story about the elements that are in the image.  Stories can convey meaning, they can convey emotion, they can represent struggles, they can cause a reaction in the viewer….any manner of possibilities when you think about “stories” instead of “subjects”

One other very important thought….not all images have to have a story to be engaging!  Don’t try too hard to tell a story if one isn’t there.

Maybe a few examples might help…….

In this image, the waterfall is the obvious subject.  Yes there is color in the trees and some atmospheric interest, but it’s the waterfall that’s the main subject of this image.

1 Elowah full

Now, here’s a picture of the same falls but from a different perspective and only of a small portion of the falls.  A completely different feel and potential interpretation of the same location.  What is the subject?  The waterfall is pretty obvious, but since it’s not represented completely, I would say that’s not the subject.  What is the story?  Well, to me and what I tried to convey, it is the rushing water, the power of the falls and the resilience of the rocks being pummeled constantly by the water.  It’s the beauty of motion and the solid foundations that it’s pushing against.  With this interpretation, the water and the rocks are the “subject” or the “things” in the image, but it’s the interplay between the elements that is telling a story.

2 Elowah close

For another example, the below image was shot in Hayden Meadows in Yellowstone N.P.  It was a nice sunrise in a very iconic location.  There were many ultra wide angle shots to be had in this location to encompass the whole scene, but I chose to put on a zoom lens and only capture a portion of it to try and convey what it was like being there on a more subliminal level.  Yes, there are trees and water and a nice curve, but what really made this morning special was the rising fog and the way the light illuminated it.  THAT to me was the story, the fog and the new days sunlight.  So, I sought to capture that “feeling” as best I could and really accentuate it for the viewer.

3 Hayden

In this next image, the story I’m trying to convey to the user is more about the feelings and imagination that I’m trying to invoke in them.  The key parts of this image to me is the texture of the sand and the golden quality of the light.  Since it’s not showing the whole beach, the viewer is free to imagine a time when they were on a beach, any beach, and they saw light like this or walked barefoot across sand ridges.  Yes, sand and water could be the simple “subjects” in this image, but the “story” is about light and texture. I worked my composition to accentuate the light and how it highlighted the sand ridges, while also balancing the image between the water and the sand.

4 Beach textures

In this example, I think it has both a subject and a story that I’m trying to impart to the viewer. The light beam is the obvious subject and I tried to capture that as best as possible.  Underneath this subject though, is a more interesting story that viewers are drawn to…the motion of the sand in the light beam.  Once the initial wow factor wears off and they look more closely, it’s the motion in the light that really captures their attention.  This was an intentional decision on my part as I was shooting this.  I could see the motion of the sand falling to the floor of the canyon and I wanted to capture that underlying story of fluidity (since water & wind shaped the walls), so I adjusted my shutter speeds to bring the right amount of definition and blur into the image.

Lightbeam Upper Antelope

And to me, any image of a slot canyon regardless of overall subject or composition is about shape, color, texture and light. That is the real “story” that I try and accentuate in any image in the canyons.  There are endless ways to capture different stories about the shape of the rock, how the light plays across its twists and turns, how vibrant the color can be or how you can see countless layers in the rock telling a story of time. 

6 canyon abstract

And don’t forget how color, or the lack of color, could greatly change the interpretation, or story, you are trying to convey in an image.

Here is a color version of an image.  What do you feel/think when you see this?

7 Tendons color.jpg

Now, here is the same image represented in black and white.  What thoughts/feelings do you have about this one?  Does it tell a different type of story to you?  Is it more powerful visually or less so? 

8 Tendon BW

In Summary…

As we evolve artistically, we move through different stages of discovery and hopefully our art changes and reflects where we are technically, emotionally and artistically.   As I’ve moved through different stages of development, I continue to look for ways to engage both myself in the creation of art and my viewer in how they receive and interpret my art.  I continuously strive to build a connection, through my images, with viewers and one way I feel I can do that is to consciously evaluate my compositions and ask myself, “what am I trying to say” in this image and ensure that I do all that I can to capture my story so it can be conveyed to the viewer.

(originally posted 1/12/15)


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