TAKING a photograph is one way to tell a story. Some photographs tell stories about specific moments in time, places, or events. Other photographs tell stories of a sequence of events.
To create a good photo, a photographer must decide what to photograph (the subject) and how to frame the subject(s) (composition). To give a broader view of a topic, a photographer might take a series of photographs (the story).
Below, you will learn more about the elements of a good photo. Follow the guide and learn how to plan and take great pictures. The steps were adapted from the Geography Action! Project Guide article “The Art of the Interview” written by Kirsten Elstner, Director of National Geographic Photocamp.
STEP 1: The Camera
Before you begin, become familiar with how your camera works. You should make sure that you do the following:
q Make sure that your camera has fresh batteries and film.
q Become familiar with the available features of your camera such as the flash and zoom.
q Learn and practice the art of taking pictures. One great guide is the National Geographic Path to Adventure Photography Tips http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pathtoadventure/phototips/
STEP 2: The Location
The location you choose is one of the most important considerations to make before you start taking pictures. Follow these tips to help you choose your location:
a. Do prep work! Plan your route; know the area. Brainstorm pictures that might best tell your story and convey a concrete sense of place.
b. Show an overview of the neighborhood from a high vantage point (a hill, the top floor of a building, etc.).
c. Take your time. Spend an entire morning in one location, if possible (a bakery, barbershop, café or park – find a location that represents the story you would like to capture).
d. Notice details! Find layers in the landscape. Take notes. Write down “cultural markers” you see.
STEP 3: The Subject
The first step to taking any photograph is choosing a worthy subject. Look for physical landscapes, cultural markers, and people that can help to tell a story.
a. Photograph large scenes (such as a river scene with buildings in the background) or small objects (such as a non-native flower) to tell one part of a larger story.
b. Look for subjects that represent culture—cultural markers—that tell a story about the people who live in a place:
o Restaurants, businesses, stores, etc. reflect the histories of those who constructed or occupy them.
o Architectural styles and signs point to the influence on our lives by certain groups of people.
q Put a “face” on the story. Find a person who can make a good photographic subject.
o Talk to people. Get to know them and your portraits will become more interesting.
o Be sure to get a signed release (permission) from any person you photograph.
c. Examine these subjects to find one which is “representative” of the story as a whole.
d. Take pictures that can convey the mood of the story. Don’t try to tell the entire story with one photograph.
STEP 4: The Composition
The composition, or arrangement of subjects in the picture, is a very important part of telling the story.
Use these photographers’ “tricks” to create interest and movement in a photograph, and help the picture come alive:
a. Capture a Moment—Look for an expression or gesture or quality of light that elevates an image beyond the ordinary.
b. Try Different Angles—Think about how you would normally photograph a scene. Then shoot it in an entirely different way.
c. Get Closer—Many photographers make the mistake of not getting close enough to their subjects. To get a cleaner shot, zoom in or move closer.
d. Frame the picture—As you photograph, be aware of how much of the subject appears in the photograph.
o You don’t need to take a picture of the entire object or person.
o Sometimes taking a picture of a door instead of the entire building, or a face instead of a whole body, will tell a different story.
e. Include foreground subjects and background subjects—Objects that are closer to the camera are in the foreground and those that are further from the camera are in the background.
o Show the importance of a subject by placing it either in the foreground or background. If you want so show that something is important, take a photograph of it in the foreground. If you want to show that something is less important, take a photograph with it in the background.
o Show context in the photograph by photographing more than one object. Placing a flower in the foreground with a factory in the background can tell a more powerful story than just the factory alone.
f. Contrast in the photograph—Showing two objects, or people, which are different from each other (old vs. new, happy vs. sad, active vs. still) can help to create interest and movement in the picture.
o For example, if you were taking a picture of a person in the window on a train, that might tell one story, but if you include in the foreground another person running for the train, that might tell another story.
STEP 5: The Story
A story can be told in a stand-alone photograph, but it can be told more fully by sequencing photographs.
a. Show several photographs in sequence. Think about photographs you have taken on a vacation. One photograph might give the viewer a small glimpse into the story of your trip, but several photographs taken on the same day will give the viewer a much fuller picture.
b. As you take photographs of your community, consider how several photographs can give a broader “snapshot” of the history of that community.
o You may want to include several types of subjects (landscape, cultural marker and portraits).
o Or, you might choose to show one type of subject (such as all portraits) which will tell a different story about your community.
National Geographic: Photo Guide:
National Geographic: Path to Adventure—Adventure Photography Tips http://www.nationalgeographic.com/pathtoadventure/phototips/
National Geographic Traveler: Photography Tips http://www.nationalgeographic.com/traveler/photos/phototips0507/pt.html
National Geographic: Photography Field Guide for Kids (hard copy book) http://shop.nationalgeographic.com/shopping/product/detailmain.jsp?itemID=64&itemType= PRODUCT&iMainCat=121&iSubCat=199&iProductID=64
National Geographic: Xpeditions—Jimmy Chin’s Extreme Photography: Both Sides of the Lens http://www.nationalgeographic.com/xpeditions/lessons/06/g912/jchin.html
ARTSEDGE: Kevin Bubriski, on Photography and Place http://www.artsedge.kennedy-center.org/content/3289/
ARTSEDGE: The Language of Photography http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/content/3531/