Storytelling & Literary Techniques

Just like a good story has a clear beginning, middle, and end, with plot points, a setting and characters, so should the collection of images that tell the story of family in every day life. Some moments can be expressed in a single frame; others need a series of images to really express the emotions. The beginning, middle, and end imply a timeline approach to a story, which makes sense if you are using words. But when using photographs, that timeline blurs, becoming more about how your eye travels through the image (or images), and how it answers the basic information gathering questions of who, what, where, when, and why. These questions are called the “5 W’s” and help insure that all relevant information is included. The 5 W’s can be a little too factual when it comes to creating an emotion-driven story because they may translate into a full spectrum of information. But when you are seeking to create more emotional photographs, it’s often what is left out that creates a stronger sense of engagement for the viewer. When you ask someone to look at a photograph, it’s often the hidden or anonymous details that draw them in and captures their emotions and interest.


A Single Frame

Stories that are contained within a single frame rely on how an image is read to create the sense of a beginning, middle, and end, and help the viewer find whichever of the 5 W’s you’ve included. In Western cultures, we tend to read images from left to right, the same way we read a book. That means that the story within a single frame begins with the first thing that the eye lands on as it enters the frame. Usually this is the main subject or primary point of action, and it’s often guided by compositional elements such as light and line. I go into more detail on how to use those elements in later chapters, but for now, think of them as tools for either revealing or hiding emotional details.

The “middle” part of the story in a single frame is often the space between the main subject and the element that drives the reaction to that subject. It’s often represented with negative space or sightlines, and is usually the most implied of the three literary elements. The “end” of the story is where the eye leaves the frame. It can also be guided by light and line, and it tends to be what makes the frame feel complete or the thing that makes the story arc feel finished.

A Series of Images

When telling a story with a series of images—be it two or three or a series of many more—the same basic principles apply. Use the 5 W’s to help set the stage and tell the viewer what they are witnessing, and why they should care. You have a lot more leeway, however, in each individual frame. This allows the plot to unfold a bit more slowly, and offers opportunities to create a rising and falling storyline.

The best advice I have for creating a series of images that tell a story is that less is more. Too often photographers try to include too much information, or too many images that aren’t moving the story along. Like an author repeating a line, even if the sentence structure has been altered, it’s something to be avoided.

Don’t be afraid to leave your audience wanting a little more. Allow them to put themselves in the moment. Give them something to think about and hold onto by holding back a bit of information.

A Unique Perspective

I can tell you over and over that your  story—and that of your clients—has meaning and is worth telling, and still know that you struggle with the same thing that I do at times: how to make it feel different. How to make it stand out. How to make it uniquely, undeniably yours. Or even just how to make each new day’s story feel different. We each have a unique way of seeing the world, and translating that vision through our cameras. Whether you call it voice, or style, it’s unique to each of us. There are, however, common themes we are drawn to like love, childhood, holding on, and letting go, but how you approach those themes is unlike how anyone else will.

Logically, you probably already know those things. It’s believing in them that’s hard. Trusting in the process and in your voice isn’t an easy thing to do. But no one will ever believe in you the way you believe in yourself, and once you get to that point, you’ll see huge leaps in the authenticity of your work. Your perspective is unique because it is yours. It’s that simple. It’s the sum of all the tiny choices you make, from the lens you prefer to the settings you use to the moments you are drawn to. It’s not one single thing that will make your images feel authentic: it’s the sum of every choice you make that creates a sense of voice that is uniquely yours.

When you use your camera to tell a family story, that unique perspective is even more important and powerful. A good storyteller needs to be an expert on the topic they are exploring in order to best convey the nuances of the moment to the viewer. And you are undeniably an expert on your own family, and therefore have a deep understanding of how families work. Trust that you know family life, and are exceptionally equipped to share a unique perspective because of that.

I'll be back in a few weeks talking about a sense of moment and how you can hone it for documentary family sessions, but if you don't want to wait you can purchase your own copy of my ebook for documentary family photographers, Stories of Home, right here.