Photography tips: use emotion to tell a story

By Bill Hatcher April 9, 2014
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Look for the emotion in your scene to capture a story for your audience

WHAT MAKES A photo stick with you? Often the best photos, the ones that you think about well after you’ve first seen them, are the ones that tell a story. This is a guiding tactic for me on photo shoots.

When I come across a potentially great photo where good lighting and composition start taking shape, I figure I’ve got the basics covered for a good image. But for a memorable photo I also need to communicate a clear story. My background as a photojournalist is why I weave a visual narrative in my photos.

Always be aware of the stories that are waiting to be captured by your lens: watch and anticipate these storied moments. I’ve found that using the story-telling technique and the discreet hands-off tactics of the photojournalist to craft a photo is often a perfect fit for shooting outdoor adventure as a participant.

This is a technique that has helped direct my eye toward making some of my most memorable photos. It’s a process of using an unobtrusive approach and following a set of ethics for capturing real and undirected moments.

Photojournalism tecnniques are about trust

Photojournalism is a method of photography practiced by many news, sports, war and conflict photographers. Simply defined, photojournalism is a way of making images that tell a story, but a further distinction, and one that separates the work of a photojournalist from all other forms of photography, is trust. The public has to believe the photos are truthful and that the photographer follows a set of ethical guidelines so that the photos are accurate and aren’t manipulated.

Shooting an image that communicates a story takes practise, but a photo can be crafted in the camera’s viewfinder, the moment the shutter clicks, to be as expressive as the written word. To make this type of photo you need to be paying attention to how the various visual clues in the photo will be communicated to a viewer.

These may include the location, the people, and moments that can express the emotion about a particular scene. These details are what a photojournalist calls the layers of a photo. However, more visual layers don’t always tell a more complete story. Consider the iconic photo by photojournalist Kevin Carter of the starving child in Africa who is sitting alone with a vulture looking on. It’s simple, but incredibly powerful.

Photo tip: find an emotional connection

Finding an emotional connection between a photo and the viewer might be the hardest thing to capture. Professional sports photographers often will shoot athletes’ faces or dramatic body positions in tightly focused shots to capture the emotion between players.

You have to decide; if the scenery is average, maybe it’s time to move in for a tight shot of the determination on a climber’s face before a difficult route, the exhaustion on the face of a storm-bound mountaineer, or the mix of fear and will on a kayaker before she goes over the river’s horizon line. But often, when shooting adventure, the scenery is stunning, and half the work in creating story-telling photos is in the bag.

These wild places and actions can communicate emotion to the viewer, too. For example, a grand landscape with a tiny skier dropping off a cliff can tell a great story, packed with emotion and drama, best captured in a wide shot.

Having the time to wait for events to gel should not be underestimated. This was my approach when shooting this group of backcountry skiers, above, setting off into the mountains in a clearing storm above Ice Fall Creek in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

We had been skiing in the relative safety of the trees during the previous days due to the dangerous avalanche conditions. Finally, one morning the storm was clearing, and our team was eager to hit the treeless slopes.

I made sure I photographed the group from several vantages on the trail and it is this wide shot, where I let the mountain setting and dark sky dominate the image, that I liked the best. I angled off the skier’s track to capture this different angle of the group.

I think this view captures the story: the sense of the landscape’s enormity, the small skiers within it as they march toward the light on the beckoning slopes, and the still heavy skies with their potential for further menacing weather.