twenty things i learned about storytelling photography

Sunday, March 2:  Today, I attend a fantastic day-long seminar hosted by National Geographic on “Storytelling Photography.”  The two speakers are Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow, photojournalists who tell emotionally powerful stories through photography.

at National Geographic
at National Geographic
at National Geographic
at National Geographic

Ami Vitale’s work as a photojournalist has taken her to 85 countries.  According to her website, Ami Vitale Photography, she has “exhibited around the world in museums and galleries and published in international magazines including National Geographic, Adventure, Geo, Newsweek, Time, and Smithsonian.”  She’s done photo stories about protecting rhinos in Africa, rickshaw drivers in India and the conflict in Kashmir.  She knows it’s important to show the darker stories of life, but it’s also vital that she tells the story our humanity and the things that unite us.

Melissa Farlow has worked extensively in the American West for National Geographic and more recently, documenting mustang herds. According to the website she shares with her photographer husband, Olson & Farlow, Melissa chronicled “life along the Pan American highway for a National Geographic book titled The Long Road South. Other National Geographic Magazine stories of hers feature varied subjects—culture and climate change in the Alps and West Virginia’s mountaintop removal mining.  Themes of land and people are chronicled in Alaska’s Tongass Forest, Okefenokee Swamp, Hudson Valley, Meadowlands, National Road, Kentucky Horse Country, Invasive Species, and a photo-biography of landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. One story required four months traveling to many of the national parks for the magazine, and a separate piece on Olympic National Park.”

Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow
Ami Vitale and Melissa Farlow

As the seminar lasts all day, a wealth of knowledge is shared, but for this post, I’ll distill into 20 points what I learned from these talented photojournalists about creating a visual narrative.

  1. Take your time to tell a story and probe beneath the headlines.  Every story has varied and sometimes contradictory stakeholders, as well as people who are impacted.  Sometimes, no matter how much research you do, you don’t know all the aspects and angles until you’re in the middle of the story, so be flexible and open to whatever angles present themselves.
  2. Gain the subjects’ trust.  Be forthright and tell them who you are and what you’re doing, in order to gain intimacy and spend time in the midst of the involved parties.
  3. Weather is your friend.  Make the most of any weather condition;  rain and fog, snow and dust storms can create great atmospheric photos.
  4. Light creates mood.  When the light is bad outside, go inside.  Use the manual settings on your camera to capture light streaming in through windows, or mold the light by using headlights of trucks or taking the flash off the camera and handing it off to someone on the side.
  5. Learn how to use action, motion and timing to your benefit.  Master the manual modes of your camera and think about the effects you want.
  6. Pay attention to perspective and layering.  What’s in the background is as important as what’s in the foreground.  Think of adding value and understanding by layering or by getting up high or down low.  Sit in a place for a long time and wait until the elements come together.  If you’re in a place for a long time, people accept that you’re just a part of the background and they start to ignore you.
  7. Be attuned to relationships and emotions.  Spend time with people so they trust you and allow you to be there for their intimate moments.  Be aware not only of relationships between people but also between people and animals or the natural world.
  8. Go early and stay late.  If you wake before dawn you get not only great light but people who are busy preparing for their day.  If you’re out on the street before other people, then you blend in with the landscape and people don’t take note of your arrival on the scene.  If you arrive early at an event, you can often go backstage and photograph performers preparing for the performance.  At the other end of the day, late at night, things come alive.
  9. Think about the image you will use that distills the story.  Make this your story opener.
  10. Capture subtle changes in time.  Photograph one person at different stages in life.  Go to a place in different seasons or at different times of day.
  11. Create a sense of place.  Photograph sweeping landscapes, people in landscapes, closeups and details, views from above and below.
  12. For portraits, focus tightly on the details that make the person.  Include the environment in the photo.  Include meaningful objects that the person is holding or wearing.
  13. As for details, notice what you notice.  Look for anything that triggers the imagination.  Mystery is good.  Hands and feet, beams of light, bottle caps used as game pieces.
  14. Find storytelling moments.  Mix the quiet with the dramatic.  Juxtapose a life event, like a wedding, with a conflict.  Wander and find moments that surprise you.  Humor is important.
  15. For the story’s ending, find an image that suggests closure: something moving away, a reflection, a time of rest, a person closing a door, frames within frames, images taken at dusk.  Have a visual story that starts in the morning and ends in the evening.
  16. Edit tightly.  Take a lot of pictures and spend a lot of time, waiting for the elements to come together.  Then be ruthless in culling your photos for the final story.
  17. Save all your photos because time tells stories.  Ten years may pass and something may happen that makes the ordinary interesting.
  18. Photograph close to home.  You don’t always have to go to foreign lands to find interesting stories. Get close with people and spend time with them.  Practice your skills on something you have easy access to.  There are beautiful stories everywhere.
  19. Find a story that makes you happy and that you love.  The longer you spend with a subject, the more it reveals itself.
  20. Be authentic.  Find your own way.  Be secure in who you are and what you’re doing.  Follow your heart.

I’m drawn to storytelling like a bee to nectar.  I always have stories brewing in my head, true stories about my experiences in Oman and Korea, about my travels.  Fictional stories about tree-huggers, stamp collectors, people whose dreams are thwarted and whose yearnings pull them to do outrageous things.  Having written numerous short stories ever since I was a girl, and now revising my novel, I can’t deny that I’m drawn to storytelling.  I also love the idea of telling stories with photography.

Inspiration.  I’m inspired to keep working on my novel, trying to make it the best it can be.  In addition I’m inspired to improve my photography skills by taking seminars and learning how to use the manual settings on my camera.  Practice, practice, practice.

Ultimately, I hope to find the way to my heart.

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29 thoughts on “twenty things i learned about storytelling photography

    1. Thanks so much for your comment. I really appreciate your technical advice. The speakers didn’t really speak too much about the technical side, though they did touch on it. I just took another photography seminar last weekend that was about moving past automatic settings, and it was very technical. I need to practice using those! Thanks so much for visiting and commenting. 🙂

  1. Sounds like a wonderful seminar, Cathy. I think you already tell stories with your photos. It will be interesting to see what you do with what you learn. 🙂

  2. Gosh, would I LOVE to attend this event, but my partner Sara would love it even more. Thanks for sharing these tips, Cathy. Going to send your post to Sara. Hope you have an awesome day!

    Hugs from Ecuador,

  3. Great post. I like the advice to go early and sit quietly so the people (and animals) forget you are there.
    I’ve always admired your photos Cathy. I also look forward to seeing what you’re going to share with us now

    1. I liked that advice too, Rosie. I’m working on so many things, getting ready to participate this weekend in an amateur photo competition. Of course I have to spend much of my time applying for jobs, which I hate doing, and which seems to be a total waste of time. 🙂

  4. Find a story that makes you happy resonates with me, Cathy. I really couldn’t do journalistic stuff but making a living doing what these ladies do must be amazing.
    I love the way your head is full of stories 🙂 Good luck with the photography contest!

    1. I would love to do this for a living, Jo, but I would have to get a lot better at photography first! Oh well, one day and one step at a time. I love the idea of telling stories no matter which way I do it. Yes, I like the part about focusing on what makes me happy. It’s really all about that, isn’t it, Jo?

      I’m sure I won’t win anything at the competition, but at least it’s a way to get my work out and to think about what makes a good picture. 🙂

  5. Such valuable advice, Cathy. Thanks for sharing. I’m saving this. My favorite is 17 “Save all your photos because time tells stories. Ten years may pass and something may happen that makes the ordinary interesting” – 100% Truth from experience.

    1. Thanks, Tahira. I learned a lot from this seminar. Of course the great thing was seeing the photos these photographers took and then hearing the stories behind them. That I couldn’t convey in the post. 🙂

      1. This is the problem, I don’t have really anything interesting to say about my trip to Abu Dhabi. As with many of my travels. I wish I had taken more notes instead of photos. 🙂

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