What Makes a Photo Tell a Story?

by David Miller Nov 15, 2009

Feature photo and photo above by the_toe_stubber.

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FULL DISCLOSURE: I’m a total beginner when it comes to photography. I have virtually no skills. I’m totally humbled when I see someone’s work like Trey Ratcliff or Matador’s own Lola Akinmade.

That being said, I feel like I do have an appreciation for form, composition, color, and a good idea of how to select an image for a story I’m writing or editing. Basically, I think like a writer. What I’m looking for are pictures that tell a story. This shot above is a good example. [Original photo link.]

In trying to learn more, I thought I’d share what I like about this picture, what its narrative elements are, and then hopefully people with more skill / knowledge can add their expertise.

1. The setting and the subject are both specific and universal.

Where is this photo taken? I’m not sure, but it’s obviously an urban environment. From the reflection in the glass it seems like the woman is in front of a store, which, if you look in the background, might be a sex shop?

What’s important is that she’s not just ‘anywhere’, but in a specific and immediately recognizable place. This is also a key tenet of good travel writing: no matter what the storyline, the place itself is always underpinning everything. You should get (and ideally, ‘feel’) where the characters are as soon as you start reading.

Similarly, the emotions conveyed are specific to this woman, to her style, but are also familiar and perceivable to anyone. The way she is sucking on her cigarette, the look in her eyes: all of it seems to exude lasciviousness, fearlessness (or maybe feigned fearlessness?), defiance. Because it is so universally recognizable it all invites our imagining a story.

2. Every element in the image is balanced to create an aesthetic unity.

From the colors (the warm red of her sweater and pink bra of the woman [mannequin?] behind her, the cooler blues and greens of the wall) to the way her face in the foreground balances with the woman’s body in the background, everything seems to reinforce the overall aesthetic.

Similarly with writing, the best stories seem to do everything at once. The description flows into the plot which flows into dialogue which flows into the narrator’s reflections. Everything is balanced.

3. Subtle details keep leading your eye around the picture.

Pictures that tell stories make you want to keep looking at them and imagining more. The more I look at this image, the more I notice things like:

  • She has one ear covered and one exposed.
  • You see almost none of her body in the picture, whereas the model in the background is almost all body but with no face.
  • Her hair looks like it hasn’t been combed very well, and she wears no makeup or jewelry.

The best stories have subtle and unexpected details throughout (and especially at the beginning and ending) that keep us moving along and leading us in new directions, ideally, adding more depth each time we go back and read.

*If your goal is to be a travel photographer, the MatadorU Travel Photography program will teach you the skills you’re looking for.

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