What are the "rules" of photographic story-telling?

Discussion in 'Photographic Discussions' started by Iron Flatline, Apr 11, 2008.

  1. I am wondering about what some of the traditional guidelines are to telling a story photographically. As some of you know I've been on some recent trips, and even though I like my images I'm finding it hard to "tell a story." In part, I'm missing key shots, and now I find myself wondering what the "rules" are.

    I remember reading that in the hey-day of magazine coverage (late 1960s through the late 1980s) a typical editor would seek an average of six shots to cover a story. Exotic travel magazines like National Geographic used 12 to 15 images.

    Are there guidelines? Are there "templates"? Are there rules? What is the outline for a photo-reportage?

    I would love to know them, in part to acquire the discipline of "getting the shot." I find myself overwhelmed by a location and the subjects within it sometimes, and am disappointed when I get back home, only to find I never shot the door, or the stage, or something else that's actually vital to the story.
     
  2. TheLostPhotographer

    TheLostPhotographer TPF Noob!

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    I have no idea about rules, or guidelines, but you may well find some ideas here: http://www.rethink-dispatches.com/

    A very bold move to bring photographic story telling back to where it belongs. Hope it works out for them. I'll certainly be subscribing.

    They may even offer you some advice.
     
  3. skieur

    skieur TPF Noob!

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    Actually you will find them in a probably unexpected place. Scriptwriting and story boarding for television. Both skills require the writer to specifically detail using stills the story that will be produced in motion using film or video. Television production also deals with shooting to create drama and effect in storytelling. Establishing scenes, transitional scenes, camera angles and their effect, etc., everything in this area can easily be applied to still photography and story telling.

    skieur
     
  4. RMThompson

    RMThompson the TPF moderators rock my world!

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    Exactly. As a part-time writer, I can say the biggest thing to remember when telling a story is to have a beginning, a middle and an end. That goes for picture storytelling as well.

    I met a casting director for the movie "Splash" once when I was acting in highschool. He passed along some advice Ron Howard (supposedly) passed along to him. He said that they key to a really good scene is to "get in" after the action has already started, and "get out" before it's over.

    So let's say the story is a woman eating icecream and dropping the icecream, only to lick it up off the ground (no idea where that came from, just popped into my head).

    We don't need to see the woman get up, go to the park, and actually purchase the icecream. We can start the scene when she is eating the icecream. Then we can move on to the climax, the moment right before the action, and then the we see the action, and finally the resolution.

    If you were photographing this event, I would say this would suffice:

    1. The woman walking away from the ice cream stand.
    2. The woman eating the icecream, greedily.
    3. The woman eating so much she doesn't see the top scoop leaning to the left.
    4. Closeup on the top scoop, as it's about to fall.
    5. PLOP! The scoop has landed on the ground.
    6. A reaction look from the woman, dismay.
    7. Now she's on all fours, eating the icecream.

    We don't need to see the ending of the scene, her finishing the icecream, we got the gist of the (really bad) story from those 6 shots.

    Use that when setting the tone of your photography, or at least when presenting the shots you want to use to tell the story.
     
  5. usayit

    usayit No longer a newbie, moving up!

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    Wow.. Good explaination RM! thanks for the insight...

    Get in after the action sequence..
    Get out before it's over...

    :thumbup:
     
  6. TheLostPhotographer

    TheLostPhotographer TPF Noob!

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    I can see how the storyboarding technique would work for a preconceived, or designed story, but what about a more spontaneous photojournalistic story? What if you're sent out to find a story rather than visually represent a written story?

    Audio slide shows are becoming very popular on the web. Most I see are obviously constructed as a story in editing and held together by the sound track rather than a chronological sequence of events.

    As a photojournalist I guess it depends from which side you're telling the story.

    I'm not entirely sure what sort of story Iron Flatline is trying to tell, but hazzard a guess that it's some sort of travel story. Road trips work very well as photo stories with an obvious start and end. I recorded a journey from the heart of traditional Andalucia in a mountain village and simply worked my way down to the coast recording everything as I went. The edited sequence of photographs are displayed in chronological order and show the slow degradation of old values as they're replaced by a disposable culture with a very temporary foresight. On that level photographic story telling is very easy.

    Many different approaches for different stories and different aims.


    An Andalucian Road Trip: http://www.thelostphotographer.co.uk/website/gracias/index.htm

    The navigation isn't obvious. You need to click on the negative image to see the photograph as intended. I'd be interested to know how many people see the set of photographs as telling a story, or just a random set of photographs.
     
  7. Helen B

    Helen B TPF Noob!

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    The first thing that came into my mind was The Photo Essay: Paul Fusco and Will McBride by Tom Moran. I haven't read it since it was published back in '74, but I do remember it as being a useful book at a time when I was starting to look at how to approach essays, not necessarily stories, in both still and motion pictures. That's one of the decisions. Are you doing a story, or an essay?

    Just looking at photo stories and essays, whether overt essays or not (eg contrast Hamish Fulton's journey books with a Nat Geo article on an expedition), is a good thing to do.

    As TheLostPhotographer says, it depends a lot on which story you are telling. Is it the story outside you - and if so, how much do you already know? How much preparation have you done?

    Is it the story of your experience, your actions?

    There are a few other things I'm trying to say, but not managing to get into a concise, written form. Something about it being an approach, a mindset. A search for evidence. I think that's it. It's not about pretty pictures, it's about evidence. Is this a piece of evidence?

    Best,
    Helen
     
  8. skieur

    skieur TPF Noob!

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    I was not suggesting using a story board. The "how to" part and the skills are the same. Assembling stills for a storyboard in quite similar to creating a visual story. Learn storyboarding and apply it to creating a photo story.

    skieur
     
  9. TheLostPhotographer

    TheLostPhotographer TPF Noob!

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    OK. I understand what you mean now.

    Thinking more in terms of the 60's and 80's magazines referred to in the opening post; I wonder how often feature writers and photographers worked together to create the story, or whether the words were simply handed over to the photographer for illustration.

    A couple of years ago I took a Federico Garcia Lorca poem (poetry that very much tells a story) and took photographs to illustrate each verse. I guess that is pretty much applying the 'story board' theory to a set of stills photographs?

    On an even more basic level, a few weeks ago I met someone in a bar who happened to be a photographer/artist. After a few drinks together we decided to document a very merry night in the fashion of a 70's style 'photo love' essay along the theme of the dangers of drinking with strangers in strange cities. All light hearted jokey stuff, but the end results are definitely a story that happened spontaneously without any planning whatsoever. Crap photographs (we had both drunk far to much), but great fun and great souvenirs of a fun night out. Another example of applying the story board theory in retrospect rather than planning in advance?

    I guess there are many ways of approaching the production depending on many different aspects and goals.

    Also worth appreciating that the features we see in National Geographic are photographs accompanied by extremely good writing. The pictures alone may not even tell a story.
     
  10. FitzTML

    FitzTML TPF Noob!

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    Not being proficient in either storytelling or photography, I can't say much other then I like the ideas and concepts of what is being said. I would also like to point out out the common strategy of knowing the rules, then bending or breaking the rules to enhance what you are doing.

    Take a look at photo.net's travel section and see what's others have done. "Travels with Samantha" is a personal fav.

    -Fitz
     
  11. Right, but I can't storyboard if I'm missing shots. In movies, we used to do Establishing Shot -> Two Shot -> Close-Up... I wouldn't propose that for an image sequence, that would be boring.

    I'm finding that I'm irked by my inability to show a wide shot of the market place as a quasi Establishing shot. I've got lots of stands and people within them, but none of the surrounding area. Does that just bother me? I guess landscape photographers are less concerned with such issues, but I primarily shoot people... and then I can't establish context. At least not with images, I can describe it no problem.

    Does that matter? Do I even need a context shot, or do most people just want to see people? Am I spinning myself out over something that only matters to me?
     
  12. skieur

    skieur TPF Noob!

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    OK, why can't you get an establishing shot of a market place? I have got permission to go up on roofs to get aerial shots or to use cat walks etc. Wide angle lenses as you know are very flexible. Even a shot of a sign that establishes the scene might fit.

    skieur
     

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