Step Up Your Photography By Capturing Storytelling Images

September 05, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Storytelling is inherent to being human. Ever since we started to populate this planet, we told stories. Even before humans were able to speak, people told stories by drawing in caves, later by telling the tales of our ancestors to the next generation, in songs, in writing, in myths, fables and fairytales. Some stories were meant to remember things that were of great relevance, that were part of our history, that were part of our heritage. Stories to teach us right from wrong or to be guides so we knew how to behave and how not to. Other stories were meant to entertain us, to tell to children at bedtime. No matter what kind of stories, they give us some kind of reference, a context. If we don't see a context, a story, we tend to get bored with what we see or hear quite quickly.

Step Up Your Photography By Capturing Storytelling ImagesStep Up Your Photography By Capturing Storytelling Images6 Different kinds of storytelling you can use in your images to step up your photography dramatically

In photography we have the unique opportunity to capture very short-lived moments or moments that we have preconceived, but they always exist in that short time that our shutter stays open. This is when you need to capture the story you wish to tell in your pictures.

There are different kinds of storytelling in photography. There is storytelling in documentary pictures, in scenic pictures, in emotive images,  in the decisive moment, in preconceived conceptual images and in fine art photos. No matter what kind of pictures you take, make sure you give thought to what you are trying to say with your image.

1. In documentary photography you try to tell the story of a situation or location in the strongest possible way. You try to capture into one image (or a series) what the essence is of that situation or location. This is particularly true of course for sports photography and journalistic photography. A sports photographer will want to capture  the story of an entire game or contest in one picture. This picture is taken in a very short amount of time and you need to be able to preconceive when the elements will line up in a way that tells the story of this situation or location best. 

2. Scenic (landscape and travel) pictures can also be documenting, but in this case you want to ask yourself what the context of your subject is. If you are capturing a mountain scene, what will tell the story of this location best? What elements are essential in this scene? Let's assume you are on a mountain road in Switzerland, you get out of the car, because the view is so spectacular. In the case of you wanting to capture what you see, ask yourself what elements in this scene are essential in telling the story of this spot and your experience of it.

Red SeptemberRed SeptemberBirches on the moors of the Veluwe, Te Netherlands in the autumn of 2018. The drought turned the blueberry bushes into striking red colours whilst there are only paths of lilac heather showing.

Fine Art Photography by Ellen Borggreve

3. Emotive pictures tell a different story. Good portrait and wedding photographers are masters at this. I am going to give you an example. Let's say that you are photographing a shy and introverted girl, you would not be telling her story by making her jump in the air with her arms spread out. If you did, you would not have captured the essence of this child and when she grows up and finds this picture she will probably not recognise herself in it. This is something you definitely want to prevent. In the case of emotive pictures your story's source is the essence of the other person or the essence of a relationship between two people (or animals of course)

4. The decisive moment. This is where Henri Cartier-Bresson comes in. He was a brilliant photographer and a master in capturing the moment in which something happened in combination with the right elements (like shapes and lines and light) in a setting that would strengthen the story of what happened. He took pictures with fast shutter speeds, so he could freeze moments in time that were in every single way contributing to the story of the fleeting reality. His pictures told the stories of the essence of that one moment. This takes a great deal of skill, focus and intuition, because you need to anticipate when the moment lines up with the compositional elements of a scene. I can highly recommend looking up his work and thinking of the story of a split second. 

5. Preconceived and conceptual images start their lives in the imagination of the artist. They are built in the mind first and then captured with a camera. These are often pictures that are taken in a studio or a specific (rented) location. This kind of pictures tells the story that the artist wants to tell. For example an artist might want to capture the dark and the light side of human characters and plan a scene with the same person with two totally different expressions and outfits. The image is then built up in the exact way that the artist has preconceived

Moorland Path With BirchesFall ForetellerA enchanting path with birches through the moorland of the Veluwe, The Netherlands at sunrise. Fine art photography by Ellen Borggreve

6. Non-conceptual fine art pictures that have an artistic vision as their guiding light. In many kinds of photography you are dealing with elements you can't quite control, like in landscape photography for example. If you are a documenting photographer you ask yourself what the essence of the scene is and then you take the picture. In the case of a personal artistic vision being your guiding light, you ask yourself when the location will look the way that matches your vision and style. This is quite often a hit or miss approach, because many times you will find yourself in a location and the situation is not the way you had hoped for and sometimes this means not taking the picture, or trying to match the picture to your vision as good as possible. In this case the question is: How do I want this scene to look, when will it look the way I want it to, what elements do I need to have in this scene so it tells MY story? You see that the difference in documentary pictures and this kind of photography is that the first kind starts with the location and the question what will best convey the story of this location, in the second kind it starts with the photographer and his personal vision.


If you want to read more about this last type of storytelling in your photography, I can highly recommend these 4 blog posts: Let Your Photography Tell Your Story Part 1, Let Your Photography Tell Your Story Part 2, Let Your Photography Tell Your Story Part 3 , Let Your Photography Tell Your Story Part 4


Moor BirchesMoor BirchesFragile birches in a misty moorland scene. Fine art photography by Ellen Borggreve

This week I wanted to push myself a bit and try to capture the essence of September, this is also an approach of telling a story, but this falls in the last category. I ask myself what September means to me personally and then try to capture that in conditions that match my style. This September is different though. The moorlands that usually turn a wonderful deep purple suffered tremendously from the drought and the blueberry bushes are red instead of green. This makes the essence of this year's September quite different than I am used to. Not all of the pictures in this post will end up in my portfolio, but I found it a refreshing way to rekindle my inspiration. What is the story you are going to tell with your pictures this week?

PS If you sign up for my newsletter, you receive a free copy of my eBook : Let Your Photography Tell Your Story

Step Up Your Photography By Capturing Storytelling ImagesStep Up Your Photography By Capturing Storytelling ImagesThe different kinds of storytelling you can use to step up your photography dramatically


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