Photo Essay Format

Like Chapnick’s wise and salient words in the previous post (link), we can learn from the classic photo essayists from the past. Many of the early photo stories in Life took a formulary approach. In the early days of the magazine, stories were often told chronologically, scripted and storyboarded. Photographers were given the formula and a laundry list of shots to take.

The blueprint for a typical Life magazine story required eight different types of pictures to ensure photographers came back with a variety of imagery. From an overall shot, to a medium view, close-up, portrait, a sequence, an action shot, a closer or end shot, and of course, the all-important signature image. Even today, if your photo story contained strong images from these categories, chances are it would be successful.

From The Country Doctor, Life Magazine. ©W. Eugene Smith Click on the image to see the entire photo essay.

By applying their simple framework to a story or essay, it can help give your theme some necessary direction and structure. Moving through the next few steps in The Passionate Photographer, you’ll learn to work your scenes and give yourself options from all the elements below, a shortened structure of the classic Life magazine photo essays.

  • Signature Image: This is often the strongest image, with visual impact that both tells a story itself, and invites the viewer into the story for further investigation. It’s the book cover, the storefront window display, the icon, and web page attention getter. We strive to make every image a signature image but in the end, it rises to the top from the following visual possible components that make up your essay.
  • Portrait: A picture of a key player in the story you are photographing. Make sure to use background and/or foreground elements to help bolster the narrative. Environmental portraits, where the subject is caught in a real moment, can be very compelling, but so too can a series of posed portraits.
  • TheOverall or Wide View: This photograph gives us a sense of the place or a part of the place where your story happens. Note that sometimes a sense of place can be communicated in a series of detail images.
  • The Detail: Look for a photograph that examines details rather than the larger picture. This photograph can often be abstract and particularly eye-catching, a nuance. This detail also can reveal to the viewer something that would otherwise be missed in a wider shot. A series of small details can be used as a mosaic in one image.
  • TheAction: Show us what is going on in your story. Look for dramatic and poignant images capturing people interacting with each other, moments and gestures that elevate and amplify the visual communication in some way.

The above is meant as a guide or starting point should you need it. There are always new, innovative, and creative ways to present your story.

Short-term projects become a powerful starting point for more comprehensive work, allowing you to delve deeper, showing new and different sides of an issue or theme. The more you shoot, the better you will get, but the Catch-22 is this: if you are not inspired, you probably won’t shoot much. You need to find the inspiration, then let your passion for the project motivate you to work and improve.

Today Christina Nichole Dickson looks at the topic of Photo Essays. Christina is a photojournalist for Revolutionary Media. She is also an instructor with the Institute in Photographic Studies. Her work may be found at Christina Nichole Photography.

In the last twenty years, video and film have become the predominant forms of modern storytelling. But before video, there was photography. And for the last one hundred years photography and storytelling went hand in hand.

Now more than ever, the power of storytelling ought to be harnessed. But telling a story with photos takes more than just a skillful photographer. An impacting photo story can only be developed by skillful photographers who understand the emotions and concepts behind ever-great story.

The form of such a story is called the photo essay.

What is a Photo Essay?

A photo essay is very simply a collection of images that are placed in a specific order to tell the progression of events, emotions, and concepts. Used by world class photojournalists such as Lauren Greenfield and James Nachtwey, and Joachim Ladefoged to name a few, the photo essay takes the same story telling techniques as a normal essay, translated into visual images.

5 Photo Essay Tips

A photo essay isn’t simply for photojournalists however. Every human being is drawn to stories. Whether you are an amateur or a professional, the photo essay is a brilliant way to bring your images to life and touch your family, friends, and coworkers.

1. Find a topic: Photo essays are most dynamic when you as the photographer care about the subject. Whether you choose to document the first month of a newborn in the family, the process of a school drama production, or even a birthday party, make your topic something in which you find interest.

2. Do your researchh: If you document a newborn’s first month, spend time with the family. Discover who the parents are, what culture they are from, whether they are upper or lower class. If you cover the process of a school’s drama production, talk with the teachers, actors and stage hands; investigate the general interest of the student body; find out how they are financing the production and keeping costs down. If you photograph a birthday party, check out the theme, the decorations they plan on using, what the birthday kid hopes to get for his or her gifts. All of these factors will help you in planning out the type of shots you set up for your story.

3. Find the “real story”: After your research, you can determine the angle you want to take your story. Is the newborn the first son of a wealthy family on whom the family legacy will continue? Or does the baby have a rare heart condition? Is the drama production an effort to bring the student body together? Or is it featuring a child star? Is the birthday party for an adolescent turning 13, or the last birthday of a dying cancer patient? Though each story idea is the same, the main factors of each story create an incredibly unique story.

4. Every dynamic story is built on a set of core values and emotions that touch the heart of its audience. Anger. Joy. Fear. Hurt. Excitement. The best way you can connect your photo essay with its audience is to draw out the emotions within the story and utilize them in your shots. This does not mean that you manipulate your audience’s emotions. You merely use emotion as a connecting point.

5.Plan your shots: Whether you decide to sit down and extensively visualize each shot of the story, or simply walk through the venue in your mind, you will want to think about the type of shots that will work best to tell your story. I recommend beginners first start out by creating a “shot list” for the story. Each shot will work like a sentence in a one-paragraph story. Typically, you can start with 10 shots. Each shot must emphasize a different concept or emotion that can be woven together with the other images for the final draft of the story.

Remember that story telling takes practice. You don’t have to be an incredible writer to pull off a powerful photo essay. All you need is a bit of photographic technique, some creativity, and a lot of heart. And once you begin taking pictures in stories, your images will never be the same.

In part II of this series on Photo Essays, I will give a practical example of how I apply these techniques in a photo essay of my own.

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