If you’re ready to understand the elements of a good story, learn strategies to find inspiration, consider pre-production tips, and get ideas for preparing your finished photography portfolio then you’ve come to the right spot.
Welcome to your ultimate guide on shooting narrative photography.
One of the most important things that distinguishes good photography from great photography is the ability to tell a unique story. It could be a single image short story, a simple black and white image series, or a robust photo essay. But, if you’re ready to take your portfolio to the next level, you’ve got to become an expert in capturing moments in photography to tell a story.
Be warned… this article isn’t going to give you specific topics for narrative photography. Instead we hope to inspire you to find your own unique idea to tell your own story using your photography and retouching skills.
First, let’s dissect and understand the components of an effective story. Then we’ll dive into some quick and relevant tips on how to generate ideas and get started on your own narrative photography project.
A Brief Lesson on the Elements of a Story
There will always be a discussion on how many narrative elements a story should consist of. A quick google search finds several results ranging from 4, 5, 6 and 7 elements or parts of a story. You’ll see that all of these boil down at the most basic level to create the Narrative Arc, which is what we’ll refer to for the sake of this article.
The Narrative Arc Includes 4 Parts
- The Introduction
- A Rising Tension
- The Climax
- The Resolution.
The introduction sets the stage for the characters, identifies the setting, and declares the mood. Here is where you’ll give your viewers insight to consider when your story is taking place by using props or styling in your photos that go along with the time period, location and weather. Consider how many characters are included and think about how they feel starting out.
In the rising tension, you begin to add drama or suspense to the story. Conflict begins to show through, which could take place in various forms. This is when the audience really starts to get involved in your storyline.
Like any good climax, the narrative arc climax is the height of the tension. Everything that has happened before this point adds up to answer any questions that the narrative has presented. In the majority of stories, typically a main character has to make a big decision or face the truth.
At the end, you need to give your viewers a resolution. Set their minds at ease and give them closure knowing that the rising tension from any previous conflict has been resolved.
Keep in mind that the resolution doesn’t always have to be a happy ending. Check out this example of “War Widow: Looking at Loss Through the Lens of Kate Woodman”.
A Somber Narrative Photography Example
In this video, Kate reflects on one of her earliest Narrative Photography collections. This story follows a character's life after she finds out that her husband died during the war. Learn how Kate developed and executed 12 emotional images in the video below.
Remember that you can have as many photos as you want for each phase of the narrative arc. Just because there are four phases, does not restrict you to only four images. So think creatively and uniquely when you bring your characters and plot to life.
Once you’re ready to get inspiration for your visual story, we suggest putting together a storyboard or moodboard.
Pre-Production Steps and Tools
Creating a storyboard or a moodboard may seem tedious - like just another time consuming step in the process of developing a Narrative, but hang with us here. Pre-production is a very important part of the creative process for narrative photography because it gives you the ability to start sketching out how you envision your plan.
Putting a rough outline into a visual format forces the creative part of your brain to morph into the execution phase. Not only that, by taking the time to address pre production thoroughly you can save yourself a lot of time and money by addressing potential problems. The resulting storyboards will help to both put your ideas into focus and also set up angles and shots when you move forward with shooting.
Storyboarding Apps and Tools
In a storyboard, you want to address all the major shots and angles you plan to take. When the storyboard is complete, you should be able to clearly see how your story flows from image to image. It helps to have a written idea before sketching out your ideas visually, but some people are more comfortable starting with visual elements.
There are plenty of apps and tools that can help you with this. We recommend Plot Device’s Storyboard Notebook. Although it is designed with cinematography instead of narrative photography in mind, it’s a valuable tool to help you get started with the creative storyboarding process if you haven’t done it before. Once you’ve done it a few times, a simple sketchbook could be the key to your success.
Keep in mind that your storyboard doesn’t have to be perfect. Stick figures and basic sketches are usually just fine the purpose of this exercise. These are a few examples from Kate Woodman’s sketchbook.
One often overlooked step is showing and narrating your storyboard aloud for a trusted individual. If you have one, give them a written version or outline to follow along with so they can let you know if anything is out of order or unclear. Getting feedback helps you identify what parts of your story might need extra detail, which parts are super engaging, and understand if it’s going to resonate well with your target audience.
Collect Inspiration through Moodboards
Contrary to storyboarding, moodboarding is a way to collect different creative information in order to prepare for a new project. This is a space where you can collect information relating to your narrative such as hairstyles, lighting, makeup, textures, flowers, backdrops, props, colors, shapes, compositions, seasons, layouts, typography, buildings, or anything else that you can dream up.
With all of the tools out there, it’s incredibly easy to create a digital moodboard. One of the most popular options is Pinterest, a website that allows you to "pin" images from all over the web directly from your browser. Check out PRO EDU’s Pinterest or Kate Woodman’s Pinterest for examples.
Pinterest has a nifty tool where you can make private boards so that they’re not shared with everyone - valuable for all of your top secret projects. 🙃
However, a moodboard for a particular project could also be as simple as copying and pasting images from a quick google search into a Pages or Word document.
By using these two pre-production strategies, you will find that your production time for narrative photography is streamlined, you’ll avoid potentially costly mistakes, clearly define your plot and story, and ensure your narrative stays on track when you begin shooting.
Once you think you’ve planned it all, you’re still not done. We know, we know… visual storytelling is a lot of work!
The idea that photographs can tell a story is a bit otherworldly to people who are usually readers. For those people, we have to add in a little extra “umph” to our stories. Here are a few thematic elements that will boost your story and hopefully spark your creativity.
Ideas for Adding Thematic Elements to Your Narrative Story
Adding a theme in combination with the narrative arc adds depth and layers to your stories. A theme could be major, for example only using black and white images. But, a theme can also be something subtle, an “easter egg”, if you will. A reoccuring prop, hairstyle, or a background character are theme examples.
Incorporating thematic elements to your story adds complexity to your images, making the viewer want to engage with it longer or come back to it again.
If you want more inspiration and guidance, check out Narrative Photography with Kate Woodman. You can get 2 excerpts from the tutorial AND a Photoshop action that Kate uses called ‘Mona Lisa’ absolutely free here.
Essential Tips to Put Together a Narrative Photography Portfolio
Once you’ve developed your story, captured and edited it you’ll be ready to share your work. In this video, Kate Woodman gives suggestions on how to knock people off their feet when they look at your portfolio. Learn about her strategy for developing her own portfolio and transition this into your own ideas for your images. Kate discusses the number of images, when to update, printed vs digital, and overall presentation.
If you want to tell a compelling narrative story with your photography you first have to start with an idea. Start getting inspired by taking a walk outside, watching a movie, listening to music, or visiting an art museum. Inspiration can come in many different forms, so don't focus on one specific method.
Next, consider the essential elements of a story and how you can take a reader along with you in your photographs to understand the characters, the climax, and the resolution. Embellish your story with thematic elements like emotion, color and styling.
Finalize your narrative photography portfolio, making it uniquely yours, with your favorite images. Then go out there and show it to the world and wow them with your best work.
Remember, nothing happens without an idea.
Start dreaming. ☁
Never stop learning.