The Secret to Telling a Story with a Photo

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By Devon Higgins

Keep these simple tips in mind when you’re looking to make your photos tell a story.


Photo Credit: Victor Lax

Humans crave meaning. Every time we see an image, our brains immediately begin the task of decoding it, filling in the blanks, and telling the story behind the picture. Our ability to tell stories and make sense of the world is what makes us human.

As a photographer, one of your goals should be to tell a story through your images. Naturally, you want your pictures to be technically strong, well composed, and pleasing to the eye. But that’s not enough – in order to really engage the viewer, your photo must make them look twice and work to understand what they are seeing.

If you can create a moment of surprise, or revelation, then you’re succeeding as a photographer.

Emotion is an invaluable tool for the storyteller – and the photographer. When you can express emotion in a picture, the viewer begins to create a storyline. Look for the raw emotion in a scene that you are shooting: the body language of the subject, the expression in their eyes – that’s where the stories live, and that’s what people relate to.


Photo credit: Sabina Mladin

Expressing Emotion

Both of the images in this blog post are from weddings, although they are far from your typical wedding shots. The first is a story of anticipation. As the bride descends the spiral staircase, the photographer builds a feeling of suspense. The viewer knows something that the subject does not – that the groom is about to see his bride for the first time, and that’s exciting. How does she look? What will he think? His body language is serene at the moment, but we know that’s all about to change… As the viewer, we’re intrigued and want to know more. That’s great storytelling with a single shot.

The second image is driven by emotion. The elderly woman is clearly feeling something profound, but what does it have to do with weddings? It takes us a moment to spot the reflection of a bride being fitted for a dress in her glasses – and then we fill in the rest.

Great photos make the viewer do some of the work. They give us the space to project our own feelings and stories onto whatever it is that we’re seeing. They leave us wanting more and filling in the gaps.

How Can You Achieve This?

Try and look at your subject with fresh eyes. Do your research and know your characters so that, when an opportunity presents itself, you know what you are looking for. Get in close. Don’t be afraid to be intimate with your subjects. Help them share what they are feeling with you. Take chances; with your angle and your viewpoint. If you make it unusual, you’ll force the viewer to see in a different way and be open to some new information.

Most of all, telling stories with photographs is a way of thinking. You never know when an opportunity will present itself, but you can train yourself to look for the moments that count and be ready for them when they arrive.

Devon Higgins

Devon came to FolioWebsites with a background in digital marketing and communications. With a BA in Marketing from Michigan State University and previous experience working with both big business and non-profits, Devon brings a well-rounded perspective to the team. Outside of FolioWebsites, you can find Devon coaching and playing soccer, socializing in downtown Grand Rapids, or going on adventures throughout the great state of Michigan.

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