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The Ultimate Narrative Photography Guide

10 min read

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creating a narrative through photography.

You may not think of your photography necessarily as containing its own story, but you might be surprised to read about the prevalence and importance of narrative photography!

In fact, narrative photography is far from an obscure niche – the most common photographs we encounter on a daily basis, from advertising to fine art, serve to tell a story.

Telling visual stories, then, is not just a cool trick worth having up your sleeve for rare occasions. It’s a crucial skill to hone and utilize throughout your career as a photographer!

That is why we will focus on understanding and creating narrative photography in today’s guide.

From the bare concepts of visual storytelling inherent in other forms of art to specific narrative constructs and techniques you can use to tell a story convincingly through photography, let’s find out how you can design and improve your own narrative photography portfolio.

The Visual Story and Why it Matters

You might not currently think of including a narrative arc within your photography as something that’s necessary. This is understandable, as the topic is seldom thoroughly covered in many basic photography courses.

Let’s take a look at what the visual story in narrative photography is, and why it could be one of the key elements your work needs to stand out.

Storytelling as a Universal Aspect of Art

Closeup of a hand writing in a small notebook with a pencil. Shallow depth of field.

In popular culture, we like to associate stories with written works. But the truth is that whether in painting, sculpture, written stories, or of course in photography, storytelling is a natural part of creative self-expression.

Rather than an explicit element you can consciously choose whether to make use of, it’s an inherent aspect of any work of art.

This might make it sound as if there’s nothing to learn. If we’re all natural-born storytellers anyway, then why bother trying to tell stories on purpose?

Not so fast. As any author will tell you, stories don’t write themselves, at least not without some momentum.

Creating a narrative takes more than just pointing your lens at something pretty. This is what distinguishes technically flawless photography from the kind of images that make history.

In other words, try to consciously conceive a world that your story can inhabit. Who are its characters? Where is the plot going? Are the very events unfolding before you a literal representation of the story, a figurative symbolism of its events, or an abstract reenactment in different colors or shapes?

This part of the creative process is really no different from that which anyone else working in the narrative arts would go through. In that sense, consider consulting resources intended for writers (such as writing prompt collections) for inspiration and world-building.

The bottom line: think of stories in the context of narrative photography as not just chains of events, but entire story worlds that are organic and lifelike. Populate them and flesh them out!

Techniques for Expressing Story Through a Single Moment

After designing your story world mentally, the next step is executing it in real life.

How you go about that is all up to you, of course. Storytelling methods in photography are as diverse as each picture and each photographer themselves.

In that sense, it can be really hard to map them all out within a short guide like this.

However, if we take ten steps back and look at the bigger picture, we can see how an idea can be expressed in the form of a story by the use of this technique.

For instance, let’s say you have a street scene in front of you. There are people scurrying about, going about their lives in one messy crowd.

A crowd of people on a pedestrian crossing. Out-of-focus exposure.

There’s technically nothing wrong with this scene. However, it doesn’t really give us anything meaningful in terms of narrative, does it? We can make the frame more topically interesting by honing in on one particular subject.

Let’s pick an imaginary cyclist rushing through the crowd. Where is he going, what’s he up to? These kinds of questions are the ones you want your viewer to have to form an engaging story.

But what if you made one tiny technical tweak – using a longer shutter speed to deliberately induce motion blur?

A lone cyclist riding through a dense crowd of pedestrians and vehicles. All the objects surrounding the cyclist are deliberately blurred.

This small change affects the perception of your subject and your whole photograph to a crazy extent. In the first example, we can infer that our subjects are in motion by just looking at the photo and seeing what’s going on in the foreground and background.

However, when we hone in on the cyclist and give him this fleeting appearance through our use of shutter speed, our understanding of the scene changes completely.

Instead of inferring motion, the viewer can see and feel it.

When your image displays some sense of chronology – things happening in a certain order, leading to some kind of conclusion or resolution – then you have the basics of a narrative figured out.

Using your existing understanding of photographic techniques to build these kinds of stories is what narrative photographers strive towards.

Why Telling Stories Requires Context

Even if it is part of a photo series of multiple images, most of your photographic work is going to stand alone. Each individual image will be viewed on its own and judged on its own merits.

This presents a fundamental challenge shared by all other visual arts. How do you express all of the compelling ideas you had in mind when creating your photograph within the limits of one still frame?

How do you condense the complex chronology of your narrative into one static event?

A vintage car left by the side of a dirt country road. An example of narrative photography using symbolism for context.

The magic word here is context. You cannot explicitly speak your mind and lay out all your thoughts in a single image. For that, you’d be better off switching careers and considering a future in literature!

However, by smartly using contextual elements in your narrative photography, you can express yourself almost as freely as any writer – without using a single word!

Context, of course, is a very broad concept. It appears in all forms of art, and no photograph can really lack context completely. However, context is also difficult to grasp and define.

This elusive nature of context requires visual storytellers to consider many factors.

Basic aspects of composition and use of techniques like depth of field and exposure settings, even the focal length of your lens or the time of day you shoot can be contextual.

All these and more can affect how the viewer perceives your photo’s aesthetic qualities and the story it tells. Remember that you can also use non-photographic elements to lend context. Many photographers include video, text, or other additional details to help lend their capture some kind of contextual background.

However, where things get really interesting in the field of narrative photography is when you start making use of symbolic contextual elements.

What Context and Symbolism Can Do for Your Narrative Photography

Let’s take a look at what makes context in symbolism so important, not exclusively but especially for narrative photography.

The easiest way to describe the use of symbolic elements is to examine the difference between explicit moments caught on camera and an abstract theme.

You are probably well familiar with the idea of a photograph or photo series having a defined “theme”, but do you know what defines the presence or absence of such a theme, or how to analyze it?

Themes are a storytelling element that are created by the subject matter and the context of the photographs they inhabit.

A crowd of people exiting a train on a foggy day, color narrative photography.

For example, if a photo series consistently features Dutch angle compositions, then you can say that the off-center framing constitutes a theme in those pictures.

It’s very similar to how you would analyze visual or aesthetic themes in a painting, for instance. Now, the really cool part is that narrative appears or at least can appear, organically out of the use of these kinds of themes and symbolism.

An Exercise in Symbolism Explained

To better understand, jot down some story ideas first before you get shooting. If you want to tell a story about loss, let’s say (emotional themes are always a good bet), then consider how you can express this in your own way.

Don’t get too bogged down in literal examples of your theme. On the one hand, these are fine and can be executed very well. Plenty of the world’s most impressive narrative photography comes from documentary-style artists and photojournalists!

However, they can also limit your expression.

In this case, that is to say: don’t try to express the idea of loss by just shooting a series of pictures of twenty different people staring very grimly into the camera.

Not only is this boring, but it also lacks a narrative element. The viewer does not gain anything beyond the first glance!

It is by playing with symbolic themes that you can create some really creative stories and compelling pictures. Think about non-literal, abstract scenes from life to capture that can communicate the same theme to your viewer.

A ladybug sitting at the edge of a flower, narrative macro photography.

This could be a child’s toy left behind on the side of the road (found objects like these are always a great opportunity). It could be the facade of a dilapidated building or a withering flower.

So on and so forth, countless amazing photos can emerge even from a single thematic subject!

How the Decisive Moment Creates Narratives

It’s hardly possible in this day and age to be a working photographer and not be familiar with the concept of the decisive moment.

Coined in its modern sense by Henri Cartier-Bresson, it’s an idea that describes how genuinely iconic images spring from the candid capture of moments of drama from everyday life.

Cartier-Bresson was all about genuine, heartfelt photography that gets the viewer involved and mentally present in the event it depicts. By maintaining situational awareness and timing shots perfectly, he argued, capturing these kinds of decisive moments is not just possible, but a skill that can be practiced.

portrait of an elderly man sitting on a public bench, photographed from behind.

So how can this idea help narrative photographers? In short, use the idea of decisive moments to your advantage as much as you can.

Walk about with your camera and try to see how many genuine, candid scenes you can observe. Whether it’s the embrace of a young couple, the aerobatics of flocks of birds, or the moment of a balloon catching a flight from between an unlucky child’s fingers, these kinds of images are a perfect example of narratives that essentially create themselves.

Just make sure not to lose the moment.

Why You Shouldn’t Fill Your Narrative Photography With Too Much Storytelling

This kind of advice might sound confusing, but hear me out. There is a very fundamental mistake many budding narrative photographers make, which is overcompensating for the limitations of telling visual stories in a single image by giving too much information.

At the most fundamental level, narratives emerge in our heads. When we read a book, look at a photograph, or even when we experience an event in real life, our minds fill in certain blanks to tell a story.

We imagine characters, give them names and histories, and imbue them with purpose and a mission that includes a beginning and an endpoint. This is highly simplified, of course, but you get the idea.

a boy playing with marbles, close-up narrative photography.

Consider this picture above. The event portrayed here is definitely in motion and not fixed in time, so basic narrative elements are there. We have a main character, and the photographer even managed to expose everything very nicely. From a technical and aesthetic point of view, everything looks good!

Then why does this image just not look like a compelling story to us?

The simple answer is that there’s no mystery. There’s nothing or at least not very much here for us to explore in our imaginations.

The narrative starts successfully within the photograph – but it also ends there. This leaves us with no way to move the story ahead and create something that really sticks with us.

When you compare this to Cartier-Bresson’s photography, the difference is staggering and obvious.

What Makes a Good Story?

So, now we know at least one of the biggest mistakes to avoid when telling a story through images. But what actually makes a good narrative in photography?

Again, this is impossible to concisely and quickly narrow down within the scope of a guide like this. But consider the same elements that make for impressive narratives in books, movies, and even in music.

Beyond the mere existence of such things as characters, chronologies, settings, and context, good stories do one thing very well. They involve their reader, viewer, or whoever it is that is interacting with the work.

In the context of a photo, we already looked at this notion above, but let’s delve a bit deeper.

Why did Cartier-Bresson shake the world of photography so much when he wrote about decisive moments for the first time? Isn’t it obvious that you should time your shots well for maximum effect?

Yes, it is. But the decisive aspect of a moment caught on camera is about so much more than better-than-average timing. It’s about the idea of transporting the viewer mentally into an (imaginary) chain of events within the story world.

Two women waiting at a tram stop in the rain.

When we look at an image that was captured in a decisive manner, we see only a split-second moment, like in any other picture. But what we see extends in both directions: we imagine not only what might happen after the events of the shot (how the story keeps going), but also before.

We imagine backdrops and history, and we give the context of the event (there it is again!).

And that brings us back full circle because in the end, it is this process that happens entirely within the viewer’s imagination that creates story worlds.

The Art of Telling Stories Through Photos

Now you should have a good theoretical grasp on what it takes to experiment with narratives as a photographer. It’s at once one of the simplest aspects of our craft, yet one of the hardest to master!

It might take a long time for you to become comfortable with your role as a visual storyteller. That’s understandable – it’s a lot of material that deserves an equally significant amount of practice!

Remember the core concepts we covered. Creating story worlds, filling them with organic backdrops and genuine narratives, and letting your viewers engage with these worlds is your foundation.

Build upon that foundation by playing with context through technical and stylistic methods, which can be abstract or literal depending on your needs.

Take inspiration from your favorite narrative photographers to get ahead. Remember that narrative photographs can be found in any genre and time period – storytelling is universal!

Finally, remember that no good narrative photographer has attained their skill through study alone. The more photos you shoot, the more fluent you will become in the kind of self-expression that narrative photography requires!

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Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
Jonathan is a writer and photographer currently based in Poland. He has been traveling the world, taking pictures, and writing about his experiences for over five years. His favorite subjects include landscapes and street scenes.
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