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How to Tell a Story With Your Photos

Good storytellers don’t just randomly tell a tale, however. The narrative they share is carefully constructed and artfully told.

By Doug Diekema

Humans are storytellers, and capturing photos of outdoor adventures is one way to tell a story. A good photograph can capture an experience, event, mood, emotion, relationship, idea or message. Good storytellers don’t just randomly tell a tale, however. The narrative they share is carefully constructed and artfully told.

Stopping for a snack break. Photo by Doug Diekema.

  • The elements of a good story: Think of your photo as a short story, using an image or images to capture the essence of your experience in a special place or to send a message. With only a photo or two, an effective narrative requires careful planning and a clear sense of what you wish to communicate. A good photo story, like a written or oral story, will almost always incorporate character, plot and structure.
  • Character: Characters are central to any story. You want the viewer to identify with the main character or characters, wish to spend time with them and know what they think and feel. The most obvious way to introduce a main character is by placing that person in the photograph. But the main character can also be the photographer, in which case the photo needs to have sufficient drama or interest to convey what you were feeling or experiencing. Finally, your main character doesn’t need to be human. You can tell a great story with photos using a marmot, bear or pika as the main character!
  • Plot: A story requires a narrative arc. The plot often centers around a central message, conflict, challenge or dilemma. With only a single photo, your image will have to engage the viewer’s imagination, encouraging them to build a story based on your image. What led to this moment? What followed it? What’s next? Has the character accomplished their goal or are they facing a significant challenge? The answers don’t need to be in your photo, but it should inspire the viewer to build a narrative in their mind. Your photo may include an element of mystery — leaving the viewer to wonder. If, however, the goal of your photo is to send a message, be clear. What are you trying to communicate? Is your message about connecting with the outdoors, having fun in the wilderness or advocating for an endangered corner of our state?
  • Structure: All stories have structure. The structure of a photographic story will rest in its composition, the elements that appear in the scene and the use of proportion or location to emphasize what’s most important. A small figure in a grand landscape emphasizes the vastness of the wilderness. Filling the image with a person will focus attention on the character and what they are doing. Avoid distractions in your photo. Everything should provide information a careful viewer can use to construct a narrative. Is this the beginning or end of the trip? Does it capture the struggle of attaining a summit, or that climactic  moment of arriving at a destination?

Snowy exploration near Glacier Peak. Photo by Doug Diekema.

One or more

Depending on your audience, a photographic story may involve a single photo or multiple photos.

Single-photo storytelling: Single-photo storytelling requires careful composition and planning. The WTA Northwest Exposure photo contest is a great opportunity to test your skills at creating a single-photo story. For almost all categories, an image that tells a good story will represent a competitive entry!

Multi-photo storytelling: Multiple photos can be ordered to create a beginning, middle and end for your story. While most people tell their photo story chronologically, consider other creative ways to structure your story. Whether you are creating a book, a slideshow or a social media post, keep the number of photos down. Pick only those photos that are essential to the “plot,” and avoid multiple photos when a single will do. Finally, your last photo should capture the essence of the experience or sharpen your message.

Want even more tips? See our full suite of photography how to's.

This article originally appeared in the Nov+Dec 2018 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.