Telling Tales

In my last article, Reading Photographs, we thought about photography as a language and considered how, as with any language, we need to learn how to read before we can hope to write. We tried an exercise that had us describing with words how certain images made us think or feel. A kind of visual reading.

What I want to do in this article is to turn that around and look at how to start ‘writing’ with photography.

Here’s the situation. You have a story to tell and you’re going to tell it through photographs. It could be documenting an event, a journey, the life of a person, or some aspect of society that fascinates you or that frustrates you. It might be an editorial commission or it might be a personal project. It doesn’t matter. The important thing is that you have something to communicate.


What I’m going to do is show you the building blocks that you’ll need in order to construct a story involving people. This is the traditional approach that photographers and magazine picture editors would have taken back in the heyday of photojournalism. It’s a method that’s still useful today and I would recommend any photographer to have a basic understanding of these things, even if in the end you decide to go for a more contemporary approach.




Back in the days before digital cameras came along I took a degree in Documentary Photography.  The first year was spent dealing with the elements, or types of image, that go into making a traditional picture story. I’ll go through each one in turn and then we’ll think about how to put them together to create a visual narrative. I’ll include some of my contact sheets from those early days to add a touch of nostalgia!


The first challenge they gave us was to go out into the world and photograph people working at different jobs. They called it Person at Work. Any job was fine, it didn’t matter. The only stipulation was to capture the person’s hands and eyes in the same shot. Hands and eyes, that’s all that mattered. I’m sure most ex-students like myself that have gone on to become professional photographers will still have the ‘hands and eyes’ thing in their head while photographing a person at work.

Contact sheets from the Person at Work assignment. The challenge was to show hands and eyes in each image.


It’s not that every shot of someone working needs to show their hands and eyes, but this is a useful exercise to get you thinking about, and taking control over, what’s in your frame. If you’re photographing a person doing something, whether building a wall, writing a letter or washing the dog, it’s important that the activity is described as completely as possible in a single shot. So there’s the first element in your picture story, activity.


The second element looks at the relationship between two people. You’ll need to get yourself into situations where you can observe a relationship and capture the brief moments that describe it. Again, it could be people talking, arguing, hugging or ignoring each other. It could be a relationship of superiority or of dependence. It’s not easy and you’ll need to become almost invisible before your subjects behaviour becomes natural, but give it a little patience. This is where you can make some really interesting images. So that’s the second element in your story, the relationship.

Contact sheets from an assignment looking to capture the relationship between two people. This kind of image requires a good deal of patience, spending enough time with the subject that they almost forget you’re there.


Next up is the portrait. Whatever you’re photographing there will always be at least one person that is important or that represents an aspect of your story. There are generally three types of portrait; formal, observed and environmental. In a formal portrait the person knowingly presents themselves to the camera and often engages with the viewer. In an observed portrait, the photograph is made while the subject is engaged with someone else or with something else. In the environmental portrait (see me article here) the subject’s surroundings describe something about who they are or what they do.


So that’s the third piece in our puzzle: the portrait. Shooting portraits lets you to slow down and get to know your subject. It will also help to give the series some depth. I suggest you try to gather different types of portrait while shooting a story, some formal, some observed and some environmental.


The last type of image you’ll need is the detail. This is seemingly the least challenging but it’s not as easy as it appears. Make sure the detail you’ve chosen actually adds to the story. It could be there to support another image, or to offer us an insight into the person, the place or the event that you’re dealing with. A detail doesn’t need to be a close-up. Think of it simply as an object or a space that has something to say.

A formal environmental portrait and two supporting details.


Ok, so you now have your four building blocks, activity, relationship, portrait and detail. When you’re out shooting a story try to keep these in mind and make a mental note of what you’ve got and what might be missing. The more you have of each element, the easier it will be to construct the story. I should mention that there is one more element to consider, especially for editorial assignments, and that’s the establishing shot, or opener. This is an image that set’s the scene at the beginning of a feature or that contains within it certain aspects of the story.




Now we get to the hardest part.. the editing. You’ve come home with a card full of images which you’re probably going to load up onto your computer and pick out your favourite shots. Stop right there! In this exercise we’re not interested in favourite shots. We’re interested in the ones that tell a story. I’ve worked as an editor for a number of photographers and it always surprises me how hard this part of the job is for them. If you’re editing your work alone you’ll need to be really hard on yourself. There’s always a picture that you love – amazing light, great expression – but it’s kind of similar to another shot which you also love. So what do you do? You keep them both, right? Wrong. That way a story that works perfectly with ten pictures ends up with thirty or forty pictures and just falls apart.


Less is more, as they say.


If you want to improve your editing skills, here’s the trick. First try and edit the whole thing down to just three pictures. Yes, three pictures. You might choose a portrait together with an activity and a relationship, for example. Or a relationship and two details. It doesn’t really matter as long as the basic story comes through. You’ll need to leave out many of your favourite images, but be strict with yourself. If you find that it’s simply not possible to tell the story in three pictures then you’ve learnt something really important. You’ve learnt that you haven’t taken the right pictures. In that case work out what’s missing then go back and shoot it again.


A religious festival edited as a three-picture story; establishing shot, activity and observed portrait.


Once you’ve mastered the three-picture edit then you can relax a little and add a couple of more images to make it a five-picture story. You’ll see that it will breathe a little better. You might need to take out one of the original three and replace it with another. In any case, remember to use a variety of elements to give the story a structure and depth.


From here I’ll let you take it on further.. up to 12 or 15 pictures if you like.  The idea is to keep within a certain limit. It’s the best way to learn which images are really meaningful and which ones are just pretty pictures. You’ll soon become a better editor and as such, a better photographer.

Contact sheets from an end-of-first-year assignment looking at an alternative community living in the south of England. Notice the variety of images, including establishing shots, details, formal and observed portraits, relationships and activities. That kind of variety will help you (or a photo editor) to construct the story in different ways.

The same story was published in the Observer Life Magazine and edited down to seven pictures for their Interiors section.


While editing I strongly suggest that you print out your photos. It’s hard to edit on a computer screen. Make a rough selection and run off some small, basic quality prints. Lay them out on a table and see how they work together. Change the sequence, stand back and look again. Think about how one image leads to the next. You don’t necessarily need to create a beginning an and end and you don’t need to follow a timeline.. that would be too predictable. Break it up. Consider the flow and pace of the sequence, letting the viewer move in closer, then further away, slow down with a portrait or a detail and then pick up the pace again with some activity. Next time you watch a movie, take note of how the director uses similar tricks. It’s all about keeping the viewer engaged with your work.


You can also try to position images together on a page. You’ll find your eye moves around the images differently depending on where they are placed in relation to each other. Even the reading of a single image can change when placed alongside another. Play with these things and use them to make the narrative stronger.

From a series documenting the post-war Vukovar, Croatia. These are simple work-prints laid out on a table for editing. On the left, sketches from my note-book made at the end of each day to keep track of the images I was making. Nowadays we can just download to a lap-top every evening to see how things are going but in the days of film that wasn’t possible.




For now, I’ll stop here. If you want to try putting a picture story together yourself I suggest starting with a really simple idea like ‘walking the dog’ or ‘making a cup of tea’. The story itself is not important, it’s all about trying, and persisting, until you get the right elements to tell that story clearly.


As I mentioned earlier, this is a traditional approach to storytelling. In a future article I’ll look at how we might throw all these ideas out of the window and try something completely different!

Colin DuttonOther articles by author

Born in London, 1966. After taking a Degree in Documentary Photography at the University of Wales, Colin moved to Italy in 2002 where he lives with his wife and children. A professional photographer with clients worldwide, he is specialised in interiors, editorial and advertising on-location. Beyond his commercial work, Colin continues to develop his own personal projects for books and exhibitions and he presents talks and workshops on photography.

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