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Visual Storytelling: Tips from Photographer Laura Cook

Visual storyteller Laura Cook can capture a story in one powerful snapshot. Here, she shares tips for taking pictures that are worth a thousand words.

There’s a difference between photography and visual storytelling. You can easily take a photograph, but not all photographs tell rich stories.

You’ve heard the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” many times, right? As a photographer, I believe this is true when we dedicate ourselves to seeking out images that really tell a story.

We often take images that are part of a set or portfolio, but it’s also important to seek out pictures that can stand alone — that invite you in and make you feel like part of one particular story. Our camera is a tool we use to tell that story, to capture not only a moment in time but also something bigger.

Laura Cook is a humanitarian and travel photographer who spends most of her year in Sierra Leone, West Africa. She loves meeting new people, and through her work, strives to highlight human dignity amid life’s struggles.

Laura blogs at The Thing with Feathers, and in the next twelve months hopes to travel to Benin, Myanmar, and throughout Sierra Leone to tell more visual stories.

Want to become better visual storyteller? Here are ten things to think about when you’re behind the lens:

Find a subject you’re passionate about

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All good storytellers create stories that matter to them. What excites you? For some people, it’s the story of the land; for others, the story of the natural world. Find the thing that stirs the storyteller in you. For me, it’s interacting with people and trying to capture their humanity.

Photographing people: pay attention to facial expressions, quick movements, and subtleties. Read more on photographing people from Russ Taylor and Stephanie Dandan.

The image above, of a young girl between train seats in Sri Lanka, was one of the first images I took as a photographer. But it’s still special to me, as I knew I’d captured a bit of who she was. She was curious, cheeky, and a bit shy, and in this image I felt I caught not only the moment but also a glimpse into her personality.

Use the light around you

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A good photographer — and other visual storytellers, like cinematographers — uses surrounding light to capture a story. Using light in a creative way can bring an otherwise unassuming scene to life.

Different types of light. Consider the direction of light: read about frontlight, sidelight, and backlight. Also consider the time of day that you shoot, like the golden hour.

In this image, I focused on the concentration of an adult learner in a classroom in Kamakwie, Sierra Leone. I anticipated that the light coming through the window would fall on her, so I found a position at the front of the classroom where I could wait for it to happen. As the light fell upon her, it highlighted the intensity on her face, as well as subtle details in the frame.

Keep it simple

Simplicity in photography: Read more tips from Andrew Gibson and Ron Craig. Some highlights:

    • Zoom in and include only essential elements in your shot.
    • Crop out clutter and distractions.
    • Be mindful of color.
    • Use selective focus (or in Instagram speak, the tilt-shift effect.)

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Sometimes the best stories are the simple ones. This image shows wooden crosses hanging in a shop window in Malawi. Without overcomplicating things, I wanted to capture the faith and culture of the country. Look for symbols and signs that might help you illustrate complex ideas in one click.

Paint a scene with a photograph

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Show context in your image.

Much of my photography focuses on people. But simply taking a photo of a person is often not enough to tell a story. When possible, show context in your image. The photograph above shows a breakfast chef in Serrekunde Market in the Gambia; without showing the tools of his trade and the colorful market backdrop, we’d only get half the story. Include your subject’s environment to add not only perspective, but meaning.

Look out for details

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I realized I didn’t need to show her face to tell the story.

Sometimes your story is in the details. When I photographed a woman creating a kolam (or powder painting) in Puducherry, India, I realized I didn’t need to show her face to tell the story. Ultimately, I wanted to focus on this intricate process, and all the action was taking place at her feet. To capture the story, I needed to focus on the ground.

Ask yourself: what is the story you want to tell? Find the physical angle that best suits the telling of that story. In this case, I had to get low rather than take a wide-angle shot.

Find your niche

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Not many children’s authors also write for adults. Not many writers who pen murder mysteries also write romance stories. Most writers find their niche, and then get really good at telling those tales. The same rule can apply in photography.

One of my skills is interacting with people and putting them at ease. I like nothing more than sitting and sharing stories with strangers over a cup of tea before I photograph them. But not everyone is comfortable doing this. I use my love of interacting with people to create intimate portraits. This, I feel, is a strength and unique trait.

What is your niche? What kind of story can you tell well? Do you have the patience to spend hours waiting for the perfect wildlife shot? (I certainly don’t!) Do you have an eye for colors in nature or in an urban setting? Are you interested in doors or stairwells, or still-life shots of antiques?

Zoom in on something specific and see where that takes you.

Find your niche — but also leave your comfort zone

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Want to try something different? Search for free photography tutorials and courses, like MIT’s course on documentary photography. Or a tuts black-and-white tutorial. Or a three-part mini-course on food photography. Read a few tips. Be curious. Try it out.

I’m not a wildlife photographer, but I’ll still try and tell stories about wildlife. I know that going out and taking photos of challenging subjects in the wild will stretch me as a photographer and improve my storytelling skills in the long run.

Identify a type of photography you’d like to try — or view as difficult or something you’d never do — and then get out there and give it a go.

Frame your stories

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Door frames. Windows. Tree branches. The world has many natural frames, waiting for you to use. Just as an author builds an atmosphere by describing the environment around the main character, a good visual storyteller thinks about the composition and framing around a subject as well.

Consider backgrounds and select locations that will add interesting visual lines, shapes, and frames within your images.

Break the rules

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Shoot the same scene from many angles.

I’ve read many great posts on the rules of photography. But sometimes, breaking these rules tells a better story. Never be afraid to try different things. Shoot the same scene from many angles, look for unusual perspectives, and take lots of photographs. There is nothing wrong with experimenting; it is how we learn to take better images.

Snapshots from new, fresh angles: Your subject, off-center and partially out of the frame. A portrait, blurred by the sun. A shot of a crowd, taken while you’re lying on the ground. A cityscape, through a fence or peephole.

The photograph above was shot almost directly into the sun — as a result, it’s hazy and a bit pixelated. But it works. More importantly, it captures the atmosphere in the classroom that day, and tells the story of these inspired young women. I took other shots from more traditional angles, but they didn’t tell the story as well as this image did. 

Find the best POV for your story

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For more on POV, revisit Lynn Wohlers’ insights on establishing a point of view — and showing your unique way of looking at the world.

When you have a specific story you want to tell, it becomes easier to place yourself in the best position to capture a shot. Think about what you want to say — and who or what you want to highlight — which will help you decide what physical POV (point of view) is best.

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  1. Thank you so much for this! When I started The Iggy Dialogues, I figured the text would provide the humor, and the pictures would complement the text. As I’ve gone on, though, I’ve found that the text relies heavily on the photos to set each scene and drive home the absurdity of each situation; so in fact, I’m accidentally becoming a kind of visual storyteller. I’d like as many of the pictures as possible to look as good as possible, so I really appreciate this.

    Of course, sometimes I just take what I can get, because hey, getting my dog and a cat in the same frame at all is a miracle — you want lighting too? :)

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  2. Great insight! I’m a writer myself, but I like to think of myself as a storyteller first. From that perspective you can learn a lot from other folks who are infatuated with storytelling as well. I looks like you are one, so thanks again for the insight! 😁

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  3. Thank you for an excellent article! I am inspired by your commitment to visual storytelling and capturing the dignity of the human soul. This piece gives me a lot of new ideas as I start to dabble in photography. Thanks!

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  4. It’s so refreshing to read photography posts that emphasize something other than just camera settings and post-processing techniques. I enjoy reading your perspectives and viewing your subject-, story-, vision-, and composition-rich photographs. Thank you for sharing.

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  5. As a photographer who has had very little professional training, I’ve relied on websites and blogs like yours to gain tips on my craft. I find that I too have become a storyteller with my blog. Your tips have helped solidify some of the techniques I’m already using, thanks for the confidence booster.

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