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Set the Scene with a Three-Picture Story

I upload sets of photos to my photoblog and use images to liven up posts here all the time, but…

I upload sets of photos to my photoblog and use images to liven up posts here all the time, but until this year I never thought much about the overarching stories my choices of images tell. I used images as decoration and illustration, not as real elements of my content.

That is, until I spent a morning last fall exploring a sunrise market in Hanoi with photographer Colm Pierce, learning to improve my photography and how I present it. Introducing: the three-picture story.

Can’t I just take pictures of pretty things?

I often wander around with camera (or smartphone) in hand. Here’s what I normally do: take pictures of things I think look interesting, or picturesque scenes I think I’ll want to remember.

Here’s what I don’t normally do: think about the totality of the pictures I’m taking and what they’ll communicate, or how they’ll actually help me remember the experience of the places/things/people I’m shooting.

Thinking in terms of a three-picture story helps fix that. It encourages you to think about the connection between your photos and subjects in a different way, and helps you create context that allows your photos to create a complete scene. Some of you probably do this instinctively already — I didn’t, and keeping the three-picture framework in mind has markedly improved my still-nascent ability to tell a story photographically.

What is a Three-Picture Story?

In simple and completely unhelpful terms, it’s a story told through three related images. (You’re welcome.)

Not just any three images, though — three related images designed to create a more complete sense of your subject than a single picture. Together, they capture both visuals and feel:

Picture One: The Establishing Shot

This is the big picture — where are we? For this shot, step back from the subject and put it in context. Think wide-angle.

Picture Two: The Relationship

This shot starts to get at what it’s like to be in the place you’re shooting by showing subjects interacting. Often, this means people connecting with one another — talking, involved in an activity together, or just looking at the same thing — but it doesn’t need to be. Inanimate items and scenery elements can interact, too (as we’ll see below).

Picture Three: The Details

The third image completes the scene by zeroing in on a detail, something you might not notice (or even be able to see) in the broader photos.

As we wandered through the market, I created this story (click any image to see it full-size):

I wanted to capture the experience of the marketplace — the mix of frenetic movement, one-on-one chatter, and quiet moments that create the overall atmosphere. I took a photo of the main thoroughfare from a bridge overlooking the market, found a vendor and shopper haggling over some meat, and was transfixed by an older woman sitting quietly in a side-stall, meditatively cutting corn off the cob.

Walking through the alleys around the market, I noticed the shops and breakfast stands beginning to hum and found another story:

First, I took a picture of the street waking up. For photo two, I snapped a photo of a woman sitting down at a noodle stall for breakfast — here, you only see the person preparing the bowl of soup, and the recipient isn’t actually in the frame. Finally, I peered over the shoulder of a vendor countering her earnings and grabbed a quick shot of the notes.

Adapting it

It’s easy to see how the three-picture story is great for street photography. What if you’re in a different situation, or street photography isn’t your thing? You can use this structure and idea — broad strokes, a relationship, details — and adapt it for your subject:

Here, I’ve grouped three shots from Angkor Wat that interpret the three-picture story in a slightly different way: first the panorama. Second, a person who has a relationship with the place. Third, a detail of the structure you wouldn’t see otherwise. (They’re small stupas, rock formations made by visitors to honor a lost loved one, found in one of the courtyards of Angkor Wat.)

And here’s my nephew graduating from college last spring (hi, James!):

We’ve got an establishing shot of the ceremony, a photo of him in relation to his classmates, and a detailed shot focused on his mortarboard.

Really, though, you don’t need people at all. Here’s a dinner I made last summer:

I used the three-picture ideas, but adapted them for my lack of people and the story I wanted to tell.  I flipped the order, to take you from inside of a melon (the detail), to the melon with other items in a blender (the relationship), to a finished dish (the establishing shot).

This framework can be re-imagined for all kinds of photography. Think of a three-picture nature story (a forest panorama, a few entangled trees, a close-up of some lichen on bark), or  a building (a shot of the whole structure, a few perfectly-spaced windows, a detail of some floor tile). Show off your images side-by-side, as I have here, by displaying them as a tiled gallery — use the “square tiles” setting for this look.

It might seem like more than you want to think about while you’re snapping images. That’s fine, too! Even if you don’t have the three-picture story in mind while shooting — I didn’t, while photographing the graduation or dinner — you can use it to decide what images you want to share on your blog, and the order in which you want to present them.

If you want to give the three-picture story a try, wait for this Friday’s photo challenge (hint, hint). In the meantime, we’d love to hear any other guidelines you use for taking and curating photos. What do you think about when telling a story with photos, or adding them to your posts?

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All photos by Michelle Weber, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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  1. Thanks Michelle….my blogging has taken a bit of a hit since ZTH ended…this is the first post in a long time that has me excited about some new possibilities …loved all your shots. And also your photoblog.

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    1. @writewireless, you can’t subscribe specifically to writing challenge, but if you follow The Daily Post on WordPress.com or on Twitter, you’ll get notifications of our new posts.

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  2. This is invaluable information to a novice like myself. Thank you very much, this will no doubt help me tremendously as I am learning to explore with my camera new and unique scenery and topics. And I am a new blogger wanna be.

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  3. This is really helpful and something that I hope I can remember to start doing. It’s usually easy to take the big picture photos, but the detailed photos really do help capture the scene!

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  4. As a writer, I would put a twist on it. Construct a 3 or more paragraph story, using the photos, and zoom in and out of the details by shifting emphasis from surroundings, to characters, to objects. Good piece!

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  5. Thank you for sharing this. I sent the link to my daughter, she’s dabbling with photography, had a technical question for me yesterday for her school assignment, I’m hoping this will be helpful.

    For me, I enjoyed reading about your exploration of the technique, and I enjoyed the photos as well.

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  6. This is such a useful post! I always have trouble trying to tell my story and deciding on which photos to use cause i become so attached to them all. But i’ll run out of space doing that! I’m gonna try thinking about the story from now on! Thanks!

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  7. This makes so much sense. This technique is kind of along the lines of some things I already do instinctively, but this definitely simplifies what I am going for in some of my stories where pictures are used. Thanks.

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  8. That’s a very interesting perspective. While I don’t take pictures for blogging purposes, generally, but i do find myself capturing whatever I can. I’ll try and be conscious of this idea next time I find myself snapping away :)

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