Storytelling Essential – Part two

Storytelling is entertainment

Most of what I described in the first article on storytelling was been about what photography arguably does best—or at least does the most easily—which is showing things how they are. In other words, delivering information, in as visually interesting way as possible. Storytelling of any kind, however, has a more important job, and that is to be entertaining. If you can’t keep the audience interested, you’ve lost the plot, literally. Storytelling is not always about explanation, and there’s some justification for stories-in-a-single-picture that just hint or intrigue, and invite the viewer to wonder what the full story might be. For instance, in the picture below of the bull standing over the man, the situation is striking, and obviously urgent. How has the man got himself into trouble like this ? And why? He and we can only guess what’s going to happen next. Like the photograph of the Cambodian dancers, the audience has been dropped into the middle of a story. Arguably, the puzzlement over what this is all about may make the image more powerful than if we had been given all the information.

Man beneath bull during a corraleja in a town nr. Cartagena, Colombia, South America.

A traditional annual event at which bulls are released into a simply constructed stadium where men try their luck at out-running them—one man has found himself in a precarious situation.

As viewers we have to infer, make some guesses, wonder about the personalities—that is, if our imagination has been caught. But is this real storytelling? Maybe not on its own, but it does engage the audience, and this has always been one of the ultimate goals of telling stories. And it’s worth bearing in mind that even within a full-size, multi-photograph picture story, the individual images can carry the suggestions of mini-stories within them, like this.

Decide your theme

To turn a collection of images about one particular subject into a story, there needs to be a line of interest for the viewer and reader. A storyline, in other words. Basically, a story needs a ‘hook’—some clear theme that is not so obvious that the audience can guess the story, and which will hold their interest. One of the strongest approaches is to find a subject that is really unusual, and new for the audience (and also sounds interesting!), but as most of us find out pretty quickly when we sit down to think of one, in the modern media-dominated world, original stories are hard to come by.

More likely is a story or them that has been done before, but which you fell you could do better. In this case, it may take some imagination to find a compelling theme or ‘hook’. You usually need to look for a new ‘angle’ on the subject. In the professional publishing world, it’s not unusual for an editor to say, “Let’s do a story on this particular well-known subject….but we need to find something new to say about it.” Even without an assignment being given, photographers themselves have to go through a similar process independently. Let’s say that you want to do a photo story on some place or event simply because you feel like it, because it attracts you as a subject. From that point you then have to find your own particular ‘take’ on the subject that will set it apart from anyone else’s. Otherwise you are not giving your hoped-for audience any special reason to look. If they know the subject already, why should they bother?

I’ll illustrate this with a photobook I’m working on, The location is the city of Cartagena in Colombia,  somewhere I know well and visit for more than a month each year. I want the theme to be different from the many other books published (all in South America) on this well-known tourist city. Typically, they concentrate on the monuments, fortifications and buildings, which are admittedly fine, but over-photographed. What has been ignored is the vibrant and idiosyncratic life of the people in this Caribbean city, where much of life is lived on the street and in the open, with a lot of social interaction. Behaviour is very Latin—animated, excited, noisy and colourful. Photographically this is much more of a challenge than shooting buildings, of course, and up to now has not been done in a book. So, that’s the ‘hook’ for this story.

Shoot for visual variety

At the end of the last article (Part 1), I mentioned the need to plan for variety, and for shooting this means staying aware to look for different treatments. The following are the simplest to remember:

  • Variety of subject
  • Variety of scale
  • Variety of camera angle
  • Variety of lighting

The following pairs of pictures, taken from the Cartagena shooting, illustrate something of the range of possibilities. First, variety of subject….

Regatta on board the Kolé Seré, Bahia, Cartagena, Colombia


Finca Santa Fe, near Clemencia, Cartagena, Colombia. Turkeys

Next, variety of scale. When a story gets laid out, whether in print or on the screen, the images are in sequence, so variety like this helps the pace and rhythm by providing a slight visual jolt…

Centro, Cartagena, Colombia


Granitos de Paz school, Barrio Rafael Nu–ez, Cartagena, Colombia

Then variety of camera angle, meaning your viewpoint. The default is eye-level as you walk, so anything that differs from this will get attention…

Cartagena, Colombia at night. The Cathedral and typical balcony. Cartagena de Indias was founded by the Spanish in 1533, and the old walled city, shown here, remains the best preserved Spanish colonil port in the Caribbean. It was designated a UNESCO Wolrd Heritage Site in 1980


BonGas factory, Mamonal, Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia

And variety of lighting. Again, the following two images should be self-explanatory…

Roble de Sabana (Savannah oak) Tabebuia rosea, near Bayunca, near Cartagena, Colombia


Welder, BonGas factory, Mamonal, Cartagena, Bolivar, Colombia

Editing a story

Editing images for whatever purpose is—or at least should be—far more than a mechanical process of just organising and selecting. It’s a creative activity, and in two ways. The first is that it ought to be a seamless extension of the shooting, for the simple reason that when you shoot several or many images of a single scene or extended moment, you are almost always shooting to achieve one best image out of the sequence. In other words, at the moment of photographing you are anticipating which of these might be the best, which means that you are automatically thinking ahead to the edit, possibly even without realising it.

The second way in which editing is a creative process happens because of how photographs are used. The presentation of photographs together is very much a creative act, and whether it’s a book, a gallery show, a slideshow or even a movie made from stills, it takes on a new creative life, which can be greater than just the sum of its parts. So, when editing has the purpose of choosing images to tell a story, you have to start thinking of new techniques and new ways of having an impact on your audience.


Inevitably, then, there’s a sequence of editing that starts at the time you download, and continues into the completely editorial activities of laying out a photo book or constructing a slideshow. It’s convenient to break it down into separate stages, but in reality they all flow into each other, and become one continuous process of turning photographs into stories.


The very first step in editing, however, is selecting a base of usable images from however many were shot, over whatever period of time. This is essentially the Photographer’s Edit, rather different from the Designer’s Edit that follows. In the first, the selection is for the best of what was shot; in the second it’s for the best to use in a layout. First, then, the Photographer’s Edit, and there are a number of techniques for doing this, but one very valuable balance is to look at the total take in two ways, possibly on different occasions. The first way is to ‘re-live’ the shoot, remembering the decisions you were taking at the time and what you thought at the time were the best shots. In particular this applies to the shooting ‘blocks’ when you’re aiming for one final frame, but in order to get it you may have to shoot several or many, gradually trying to improve on a situation when it lasts for more than a few seconds. The second way is to objectify: to try and distance yourself from the heat of the shooting, and take a longer, cooler look.

The shoot ended with my having about 400 images that I judged worth including, and I’ll reduce these to about 200, partly for practical printing reasons and for cost,. Also, some images are just useable as opposed to very good, and it’s always better for quality to reduce than to expand, to eliminate rather than to add.

I try and make these two different editing attempts on two occasions. As much as possible, I download and do a preliminary edit every day, while the shooting is still very fresh in my mind, and I concentrate on the images that I expect to be good from the day’s shooting. My end-of-day sequence starts with downloading from the memory card, using a dedicated browser (PhotoMechanic), renaming and putting the files into folders, deleting any obvious mistakes, and adding captions. I immediately flag what I remember as the best shots, using a star rating method. I then go through each shooting ‘block’, recalling the decisions I was taking from one shot to the next, finally making one (possibly two) select from each ‘block’, flagging it with a star. From the starred shots, I then rank them, with the idea of having one group of ‘1st Selects’ and a second, usually larger group of ‘2nd Selects’.

The second edit is often a few weeks later, when I’ve returned home from the trip, and this is more methodical and cooler — I go through everything as objectively as possible, trying to keep my mind open and trying not to be influenced by how much effort went into each image. Effort does not always equate to success! The time separation between the shoot and this edit is valuable, as long as you stay open to consider images that at the time you may have dismissed, and also don’t get fixated on images that you believed at the time were the winners. By the time of the second edit I’ve forgotten many of the decisions behind moving from one type of shot to another.

Next comes the Designer’s Edit, and this can very well be with you as the designer as well as being the photographer, if, for instance, you are putting together your own book or slideshow. The important thing here is to distance yourself from the shooting and take on the different persona of a designer—a more editorial point of view. The critical pragmatic issue is sequencing the images. In the case of the example I’m using here, which is basically an extended portrait of a city, there’s no narrative, so the obvious structure is to go through categories such as institutions, education, industry, small trades, the sea, churches, dress and fashion, and so on. The next step is to order these so that there’s some natural connection. For instance, institutions like City Hall and the police could flow into schools, university, then books, then sports, and so on. Ideally, the natural flow from one to the next will be enough, so that there’s no need to clumsily add titles. This is where the art of editing comes into play, and the skill lies in finding a way to sequence the photographs so that they seem to flow naturally from one subject to another. For example, I can group arts so that we go from a conceptual/community artist to a famous painter, to a theatre decorated by him, to a music concert in that theatre, to music in general and to folk music. Of course, there are going to be complete breaks, but by taking this approach I can keep them to a minimum. This broad grouping is useful also as a first step in dealing with 400 images, half of which will have to be rejected. By the end of it, I have 23 groups of images, ranging from 8 to 20. Now I can more easily whittle down the numbers, in particular choosing between shots that are very similar, until I have about 260 photographs.


After this broad editing comes the detailed sequencing, and there are two distinct kinds of selection that I need to make. The first is to choose the first and last photographs in each of the groups, and this is important because these are the images that will actually carry the transition from one subject group to another. Here, I use a system that I call the ‘domino link’.

In the game of dominoes, the tiles are placed in a line, with the number of spots at one end matching the next tile. Applied to sequencing images to change from one ‘set’ to another, the ideal is to find one image that bridges the gap (in some visual way) between sets of images. In other words, finding a connection. The illustration above shows how.There’s quite a lot of luck involved, but it also calls for some imagination in spotting a connection. For instance, I have one shot of a girl in a bikini on the beach, which naturally is the the ‘beaches and water’ group. But in ‘fashion and dress’ I have some behind-the-scenes pictures of a fashion show, including bikinis. That’s enough to justify running ‘fashion and dress’ immediately after ‘beaches and water’.

The second kind of selection that I must do is forced by the type of layout we decided on from the beginning. This is quite typical for a purely photographic book—one picture per page with a very short caption, punctuated every so often by one larger image across two pages (which is useful for the few panoramas I have). The format, which in book publishing means the proportions or shape, is square, and again, this is fairly common for photography books because it can accept vertical, horizontal or square images with little waste of space. It also means that on each double-page spread there will be a relationship between the two photographs facing each other, like it or not. The two become a pair in the reader’s eyes, even though it’s likely that each was shot with no thought of the other. This can be both a liability and an opportunity. You could make unintentional, and even inappropriate suggestions that the two are linked. But treating it positively and creatively, this becomes a fascinating exercise in juxtaposition.

This is a different kind of juxtaposition than we’re all used to in shooting, where you find a viewpoint that combines two subjects in the same frame and so give them a relationship in the way you see them. Which may not be any kind of real, actual relationship. That same idea of imposing your ideas on the shifting world in front of the camera still persists in editing, but what we’re now working with is two complete images, placed side by side. And in a brief way, this is entirely to do with visual storytelling, We’re making connections, promoting ideas and judgments to the audience. Wilson Hicks, the great picture editor of Life magazine in its heyday from 1937 to 1950, coined the term ‘The Third Effect’ for the extra, unexpected meaning that can happen when you put two images together from different shoots, but which seem to suggest something in common. The way he expressed it was where “their individual effects are combined and enhanced by the readers’ interpretative and evaluative reaction.” Which means that when there are coincidences or correspondences, there viewer picks up on them and begins to think more about the two images and their relationship.

An unexpected, and very happy coincidence. The distinctive broad-rimmed hat is typical of the Caribbean coast of Colombia, and so occasionally found in the city. I already had the image at right, painted on the back of a horse carriage in the national colours of Colombia as they appear on the national flag. Much later, I coincidentally found a construction worker who had decided to wear his safety helmet on top of his hat—unusual in itself to be worth a shot, but there was the added bonus of later discovering the graphic coincidence of ‘yellow on top’.


With all the images grouped in front of me, I’m now looking for comparisons, contrasts and rhythms that play on a variety of qualities: subject, scale, activity, light, colour, key—anything that creates a visual relationship between each pair. This is possibly the major editing act for this particular book, and will have the biggest influence on how it will be received by the readers. It’s also enjoyable, at least when I find an unexpectedly matching pair of images, and if connecting the major groups has some similarity to dominoes, this is more like playing cards.


Wang family baicha (white tea) tea growers, Gunning village, Fuding, Fujian

A very obvious pairing once selected, but it was purely by chance that I found a soft drinks seller with a cart painted with a soccer player in almost the same position as the boy whom I’d shot much earlier.

Points of coincidence:

  • Two girls, same colour, same size of face, white eyes looking inward
  • Both images about food (street stall and local restaurant



Wang family baicha (white tea) tea growers, Gunning village, Fuding, Fujian

Points of coincidence:

  • Same subject: hairdressing
  • Great contrast between fashion show and street haircut


Wang family baicha (white tea) tea growers, Gunning village, Fuding, Fujian

Points of coincidence:

  • Same subject: street life
  • Wide-angle
  • Two blue figures at right walking/running away


And finally, to show that pairing can go beyond the purely visual, here are two images that make a social commentary. On the left is a white prize bull belonging to a wealthy rancher — wealthy enough for the ranch house to have its own swimming pool, while on the right villagers taking cattle to pasture on a nearby island by the only way possible. The comparisons heighten the social contrast


Wang family baicha (white tea) tea growers, Gunning village, Fuding, Fujian

Points of coincidence:

  • Two white cattle
  • Blue water
  • Very different social circumstances
Michael FreemanOther articles by author

In a 40 year career, internationally renowned photographer and author Michael Freeman has focused on documentary travel reportage, and has been published in all major publications worldwide, including Time-Life, GEO and a 30-year relationship with the Smithsonian magazine. He is also the world’s top author of photography books, drawing on his long experience.
In total, he has published 133 books, with 4 million copies sold, including 66 on the craft of photography, published in 27 languages. With an MA in Geography from Oxford University, Freeman went first into advertising before launching his career in editorial photography with a journey up the Amazon.

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