Did you ever shoot an entire series of images that seemed good while you were shooting, but when viewed later as a series, they just didn’t convey the feeling of the day?
You remembered the way the flowers perfumed the air, the slight breeze pulling at your daughter’s hair, the way the light was breaking through the leaves. In that moment, you had that soul-filling, life-is-good feeling, but your pictures? Not so much.
The problem is that our hearts and brains take in the world around us with all five of our senses, but our art only works in one. If we want to transport our viewer, if we want to make them feel what we felt, we have to be thoughtful about the ways in which we communicate smells, sounds, and textures, as well as even more intangible elements such as mood and tone. And that isn’t accomplished by rapid fire, shooting all the action and only the action, type of shooting. On the contrary, it’s accomplished by breathing, feeling, and clicking with intention.
If that sounds like too large a task, start with these four storytelling tips.
1. Get wide
In terms of literature, this shot establishes the setting of your story. You could even think of it as your “once upon a time” shot. “Once upon a time, in a little blue house…” “Once upon a time, on a tree lined street in suburbia…” “Once upon a time, in a dark cozy nursery…” It sets the viewer up to come closer, to bounce from person to person, episode to episode, while still giving your viewer an understanding how each image fits together. It puts the story on the map, so to speak. Leaving out this shot would be like a story that begins in the middle in a sort of vacuum, leaving the reader confused and ready to give up. So go ahead, don’t be afraid to back up – a little more… a little more.
2. Shoot through
This one is all about depth, multiple storylines, and point of view. It’s not just another image on your shot list. Shooting through tree branches with a shallow depth of field has become a favorite way to frame subjects in portrait photography, but in documentary photography, think: “why am I framing this shot in this way?” If the answer is to better tell the story or to add another story element, then you’re on to something. In the world of literature, shooting through might be akin to hiding in the bushes with the narrator as he or she sneaks a peek at the action. Or used in the way that shows two storylines happening at once like literature’s version of “meanwhile…”
Still having trouble? Try putting down your camera for a few minutes and grounding yourself in the moment. As a participant in the story that is unfolding in front of your eyes, what are all the different planes you might utilize? Notice how different players are stacked, who is closer to you, who or what is partially obstructing your view, and what objects, buildings, or other elements mean something to you or to the story you are telling.
3. Get close
Many photographers who shoot documentary work use a fixed, wide lens, such as a 35mm. This is great for shooting that wide, establishing shot. And (perhaps the reason it’s such a beloved focal length) it’s also great for getting close! But here’s the rub: you have to physically GET CLOSE. And that takes some assertion and a little bit of bravery, especially if it’s not your own family you are shooting. If you want your viewer to smell the sunscreen or feel the sand between her toes, you have to exaggerate those things, and one way to do that is by getting in there – no apologies!
4. Think with your senses
This one is often cited as an important skill for the documentary photographer, but it’s not as easy as it sounds. We’ve all recited our five senses since kindergarten. If we had to describe a flower through our five senses using words, we could. But stick a visual tool in our hands and all we seem to see is the visual. So how can you bring to life smells, textures, sounds, and tastes with a visual tool like a camera?
Well, for starters, put your camera down again. Open up all your senses and try to observe the scene from outside yourself. If you need to, recite what you are smelling, tasting, hearing, and feeling aloud or in your head. Once you’ve done that, it’s time to zero in on what’s important. You might hear birds and cars, but they don’t make the cut if they aren’t important to the story. All storytellers must filter in this way. The writer, as he or she writes, is purposefully showing a distilled version of the story from their own perspective and you must do the same. Find the one or two sounds, textures, smells, or tastes that define the story for you and make images that bring them to life.
What happens is of little significance compared with the stories we tell ourselves about what happens. Events matter little, only stories of events affect us.
Storytelling is a noble challenge. Even more so when you consider the idea that by telling stories we are creating a history for ourselves and our children. It is, indeed, the stories (not the events) that will one day inform what happened and how it felt to be alive that day.