Improve your photos with storytelling and composition

Does it seem like your pictures are only worth a dozen words?!

I've always liked taking photographs, but until the last several years I usually felt that they were missing something. And when I liked a photo I had taken, I was usually the only one who felt that way. That started to change the day that a friend of mine showed me a couple of photos she had taken of her 1-year-old child.

I hope that my jaw didn't drop when I saw the pictures, because I was flabbergasted! I knew immediately that there was something more powerful and more meaningful about the photos she was showing me, than any of the photos I had ever taken.

To be honest, I felt a little jealous. My friend is not a professional photographer, and the snapshots I saw were not taken in a studio, nor with professional equipment. In fact, she used the cheap, disposable film cameras that were popular before digital cameras became widely affordable.

The key was that she had learned a few things about how visual media work, and applied those things to her photography.

I decided right then that I was also going to learn how to make my photos more powerful and meaningful. And the good news for all of us that it's less difficult to do than you might imagine! In this and following nutshells, you will learn about using photos to tell a story.

Photos that need explanation


Have you ever taken a look at the "Most Recent Uploads" stream on Flickr? At right is a photo you might catch on the unfiltered upload stream on any given day.

I happen to like a whole lot of the photos on this photographer's Flickr photostream, but this one is hard for me to relate to:

  • Like many people, I would spend about 1/2 a second glancing at it, if my attention stopped on it at all.
  • If I did look much at the photograph, it would likely leave no real impression.
  • I could point out several reasons why this is so…

…but let's not get ahead of ourselves. Let's talk about something else: There is NOTHING wrong with this photo, or any other photo on Flickr - or anywhere else.

Huh? After stating that photos like this are not great, why do I say that there's nothing wrong with this or any other photo?

Well, it's because there's no law of the universe that says that a photo must look any particular way. And every photo, no matter how good or bad in the beholder's eyes, tells a story. The question is whether it's speaking out loud or thinking to itself!

Something motivated the photographer to snap this photograph, and there's a story in that. The photographer's story may be interesting to one person but boring to the next. Depending on who's interpreting it,
it might be exciting, offensive, unique, highly emotional, or any of a …… "a year at the table (catch up) - day 179" by slightly everything, on Flickr (Note: this photo
number of other things. …………………………………………………….. - as do all the Flickr photos I use except my own - has a Creative Commons license, which
………………………………………………………………………………….allows sharing and commercial use with attribution)

So what is the real story of "a year at the table (catch up) - day 179"? Sorry, we don't know what the person who took this photo was trying to capture, because the photo doesn't broadcast a clear story about itself. And that is why most people would not rate this a great photograph. Going back to my position that every photo is equal in some way to every other photo, let me explain.

  • For all we know, this was the first homestyle meal that the person who's eating it has had since recovering from a serious illness, or since coming home from the hospital. In that case, this photo captures an exciting moment.
  • Maybe it's a reunion of two people who haven't seen each other for 25 years, and every captured moment of the event is a precious jewel.
  • Or maybe none of those things is true, and this is just a photo of someone eating beans and cheese and nothing special happened.

But whatever the case may be, it is still telling a story: without this photo there would be no record of this moment. And to the person eating, the photographer, and people who care about them, that may well be enough to make it a valuable photo.

OK, I'm sorry - I fibbed. Actually, I do know something about this photograph because the author wrote a caption for it: "lunch in a cute little seaside cafe. The not so little one would eat Jacket Potato with baked beans, cheese and salad every day if he had his way!" How nice! A sweet story of what must have been a lovely lunch. Doesn't it make the photo more meaningful to know this? It does for me…now I have a warm feeling about this family, a sense that I know them somehow…almost like I was there for lunch.

Let me repeat that there's no reason that this photo needs to be any different than it currently is. Among the zillions of reasons not to need or want it to be different is that it does convey a certain flavor - a tad bit of mystery and intrigue - that is appealing, and for some people it's characteristic of their personal style. Sometimes you can look at a photographer's body of work, or a group of photos, done in this style and together they tell a very compelling story.

But suppose you were the photographer and you wished that this photo could stand on its own without the accompanying text?

  • Say you want to print it and put it in an album in which there is no room for captions.
  • Or you want to publish it in some context in which it would be helpful for the photo not to require a caption.
  • Or you just like photos that are more self-sufficient and pack a more powerful message.

What could have been done in the capturing of this photo that would accomplish this?

Let's look at the caption. Sounds like the child really, really loves this meal. I'd bet if the photo caught not only the plate of food but also his face, at a moment when he is really savoring it or flashing a broad smile, that message would be loud and clear. Perhaps a glimpse of the ocean outside the restaurant's window might be visible as well.

And so we come to you, dear readers, who would like to improve your photography or be capable of doing different things photographically. But what does "improve" mean to you? And what else would you like to be able to do?

  • Does it mean learning to take photos like this, in which you are trying to capture a personal moment or feeling or event, and you want to be able to do it in a more powerful and clear way?
  • Does it mean learning to take photos that convey a powerful meaning to many other people; people who are not aware of your personal meaning but still take away something special from the photo?

Both are valid goals for improving your photos. And learning how to capture a story is going to help you achieve either objective. So will learning about "composition" - the placement or arrangement of visual elements in a photograph.

Good composition helps you tell a story well, and having good components of a story gives you the "visual elements or ingredients" to work with in the first place. A key point to improving your photos - and your photography - is being aware of this and using it to your advantage.

Photos that stand on their own

I don't want to leave our friend from Flickr without showing one of her photos that in my opinion does a better job of storytelling:


It's not a complicated story, nor is it a big story. But it's a complete one, and it leaves me with a happy feeling and a whole bunch of memories of oranges eaten and oranges enjoyed. It captures my attention and creates wonder about the bite marks and about the patterns on the blue plate (which I finally figured out were from the table below and are not part of the plate itself!). And a funny thing is that this picture has no caption (other than "catch up") - none is needed!

You don't have to be a professional photographer to know how to tell stories this well. You just have to understand a few things about how people see. How people process visual input and visual content - and I don't mean all of the technical neurological mumbo-jumbo, just some simple and really useful rules. And what's best is that you can use yourself as a subject for experimenting and learning about this, once you know how!

We'll get into that stuff in the next Nutshell.


"a year at the table - day 150" by slightly everything, on Flickr


A little of my own photography…

Yes, like anybody else I like to show my own stuff. :-) Hopefully, you'll conclude that I practice what I preach!!

flickr:4570205804 flickr:6174550753 flickr:2940835136 flickr:6294504723
Upper left: "Basil", Upper right: "NaSTARtium"; Lower left: "Bee back", Lower right: "October magic" All of the above by rasraster on Flickr

A great book

Let's close this nushell with a mention of a book that is a source of inspiration to me, and a great influence on my photography. The whole book is concerned with the ability to see where the "specialness" might be in any given scene you're planning on photographing. The book is called Learning to See Creatively by the amazing Bryan Peterson.

You can take a look inside this book on - check it out! Also, in the little slideshow below I've selected a few of Bryan's other books that I think you'll like - click on the image of the book to go to Amazon for a look inside:

Here's a really cool photography tip from Bryan Peterson, showing you how to make a really professional-looking, artistic photo with ordinary objects, and without a special location or studio. It should be useful to beginners and experts alike:

Free mini-course on photo composition -
Free ebooks and reports -
More nutshells!!

I buy great photo equipment and supplies at Adorama, an online photo supply house. In fact, when I wanted to upgrade from a nice point and shoot to a digital single lens reflex camera, I got an amazing deal on a used Olympus E-510 at Adorama. It was (and still is :-)) in excellent condition, and I'm fully satisfied with it.

And… after much research I've chosen Adoramapix for my photo printing. The photos they've printed for me are great.

Disclosure - many of the products I mention and link to on In a Nutshell are affiliate links, for which I receive compensation if you make a purchase. Please note that this does not cause you to pay extra for a product purchase, or cause me to give a favorable review or recommendation of a product that I don't believe is good or will deliver on its promises.

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