This post is mostly about compositional techniques and situational awareness to help you tell better stories with your photos. It’s part of a series on photographic principles I’ve learned over the years: From one amateur to another. Check out the blog for the full series (work in progress). You can tell better stories with any camera or with any smartphone. All you need is to be a little more deliberate in what you want to capture and how a photo can tell that story. Let’s dig in.
Sometimes you take a photo to capture a beautiful scene, or a portrait, that stands on its own. But very often, you will take a photo that is meant to frame an experience, something more than just a static representation. To tell a story with just a single photo starts before you even touch your camera or smartphone. It starts with you seeing what ingredients you have in your visual field to express the experience you are having at that moment. Hints that help you capture location, mood, timeline, people and more.
Here is an example from a trip to Norway. We were staying in Bergen, which happens to be one of the wettest places in Europe. Without knowing that, we were fortunate that on our first day when we went up on of the hills that enclose this city, it wasn’t raining. A narrow-track funicular, the Fløibanen, gets you to the top of the hill to view the bay. We went up, and it was indeed a very nice view, highlighting how the different strips of land grab into the sea like fingers. I took this shot below.
It is not a bad shot, given the weather conditions. You get a good overview of the city, and you get a glimpse of the woods. But there was a lot more to the scene than you get from this photograph. The hill is a lot steeper than comes across on the photo and quite a bit higher too. For my next shot, I took one of my wife with the city in the background for a better perspective.
This is already a bit better. By bringing the platform in the frame, you get a good sense of the altitude. But I wasn’t quite happy yet because I missed a part of the story; how we got up the hill with the funicular. Before the weather turned everything in a grey mush, I was able to take a photo when we were on the way down, which is my best iteration in capturing the story of how we spent this afternoon.
Now, this has the whole package. We are in the car, so you get that aspect of the experience, you still see the city as we were still high enough on the descent, and the people in the cart give a nice perspective to the scene. If I had to share one photo with friends and family that day, it would probably have been this one. The key thing here is to be aware of what you want to make part of your story and then frame the ingredients you need.
Let’s discuss another example from the same trip. The harbour of Bergen is undoubtedly charming with its wooden houses in Scandinavian style along the shoreline. The first night out, we went for a walk in the light rain. I took a long exposure photo from the other side of the harbour, and it delivered a nice view of the scene. The water is softened due to the long exposure, and the houses sit nicely against the background of one of Bergen’s hills.
I quite like this photo, but it misses an extra element. The next day, we booked a fjord cruise, and when we stood on the outer deck as the boat set off, I realised it was almost an identical scene compared to the photo above. I then saw that one element that I felt would tell a better story, the Norwegian flag at the ship’s stern. I framed an identical shot, albeit not in long exposure this time as it was during the day. The flag gives it just a bit more context and brings in more of the experience as we had it. Both are fine photos, but for me, the second one tells a better story.
Storytelling is all about intent and awareness. I like to watch background interviews with cinematographers on YouTube. Their thought process can teach you a lot about intent, how to tell a visual story.
As a casual photographer, I will never get to that level of deliberate intent and setting up a shot exactly right, but taking in a scene with just a little more focus on the story I want to tell gives me great pleasure. And ultimately, better photos.
In contrast with a cinematographer, I work with what comes into my path when travelling and taking photos. The next set of shots is another example of quickly responding to something that appears and process it with intent. The shots below come from a trip to South Africa a few years back. We had lunch on one of the wine farms in the Stellenbosch area.
This particular farm uses geese to pick out insects between the vines. As we were enjoying the wonderful food and views, all of a sudden, the groundskeeper came around the corner with a massive flock of geese following him. I quickly grabbed my camera and took a few photos. Since there were so many, I wanted to capture many geese in a shot. My first attempt was this shot below.
You definitely get a good sense of the number of geese, but I kind of felt this was not the best way to capture what was happening in front of us as I took the shot. For my second attempt, I framed the geese even tighter so that the flock filled the whole frame.
The shot works well. I am on my knees, and shooting at their eye level compresses it even more. But then I realised that this shot could be taken anywhere, and it missed the situational information of where we were.
That this happened on a wine farm was why it was such an interesting scene to capture. The flock was on its way to disappearing again behind the main building, and that was my opportunity to bring in more context.
I took the next shot trying to capture some of the building. The colonial Dutch Cape architecture would bring more background to the shot. Here is what I ended up with.
I would have loved to have been able to create a shot like this with the geese walking towards me, but as I said before, as an amateur photographer, you work with what you get. The two other shots are fine on their own, but this last one brings more information across and in this case, that tells a better story. More information is not always the route to tell a better story with your photo but here, in the wonderful area of Stellenbosch, I felt it was.
Unless you work for someone else to capture their experience, no one else but you can decide what story want to tell and how to tell it. The examples below are a case in point that for this particular story, I went for the least amount of information I could get in a shot.
We were on vacation in Jamaica, and it was a tranquil week. We did a bit of sightseeing and found the island stunning and its people incredibly nice and friendly. But we also spent quite a bit of time resting on the beautiful beach in front of our hotel.
That beach and the downtime we enjoyed there was the story I wanted to tell. In this case, instead of adding context, I went down the path of reducing information. Here is the first photo I took.
You definitely get the vibe from this beach. I framed it, so the few people that we shared the beach with were not on it. The colours work well, and there are three layers of elements in the frame, which give it an interesting dynamic. First, the front rescue thingy, then the table and umbrella and finally the palm trees. But it wasn’t sending out the calm and empty vibe I was trying to capture. My next attempt was to keep the focus on the palm tree but include a few unused surfboards in the frame.
From a composition perspective, all the elements are there. A diagonal line created by the fins of the surfboards leads the eye to the palm tree. The boat in the background brings additional context. To capture the tranquillity I felt on that beach, I decided to reduce even more and include just a single palm tree. This is my final shot.
This shot oozes calm and quiet to me, and that is what I was going for. The beach, the sea and the sky all stack up nicely and the green from the palm tree stands out, but in a complementary way. Looking at it now, it takes me back to the quiet I experienced on that beach, and that is what a photo can do when framing the story properly.
Inclusion, exclusion, more or less information, there are no wrong or right choices here. You are in full control to frame the photo in such a way you see fit to tell that story. But as I said in the intro, it starts with a deliberation on what you want to capture.
The next shot is one I took in Porto during an autumn trip. As in Bergen, it turns out that Porto is quite a rainy place. Little did we know. There was a constant drizzle that day, with proper rain showers coming in every once in a while. The sky was completely grey, and I was struggling to get an interesting shot.
As we walked on one of the main squares in the city, near the university, I saw this fountain which had a lion emitting a stream of water from its mouth. In the corner of my eye, I spotted a gentleman with an umbrella walking and then I saw the story come together. I quickly positioned myself to take the photo where the stream from the fountain would frame up to the gentleman with the umbrella. The azulejos on the church in the background completed the story.
By now, I am sure you are starting to see where I am going. Think about what you are trying to capture, and open your mind to respond to what comes your way to help you tell the story. Sometimes it presents itself to you, as it did with the photo of the fountain and the umbrella, and sometimes you need to look a little harder.
A few weeks ago, I was hiking in the south of Germany, and it was a glorious autumn day. More on that in this post. We were on our way back from our hike, and I had taken some nice shots. As we made our way down the mountain, more and more cows appeared, and I thought that having a black and white cow in a photo would be nice to contrast with the brown/yellow/red autumn colours and the blue sky.
For this photo, I was a little bit more deliberate. I was scanning the horizon looking for a cow I could frame properly and, after a while, I found what I was looking for. A single cow was lying in the field, and there was even a little shed in the frame, which was nice.
Walking around and looking at a scene from different angles is good to do if you are just not getting that shot you are looking for to tell your story. I remember walking around a Scottish fishing village, and I took some shots of the colourful houses like the one below, but I didn’t feel like I did the town justice.
I walked around some more, and then my eye caught a pile of green fish traps. I could frame the shot so that the colourful houses across the bay would be stacked right on top of the fish traps. The contrast between the monotone green traps and the brightly painted houses was the shot that told the story of this village for me.
I will end this article with a story that also presented itself to me and all I had to do was press the shutter.
I was in Seattle on a business trip, and I was taking a walk downtown. First, I saw Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings step out of a Starbucks. No, I did not drink too much, it was because the Comic-Con event was taking place in the conference centre.
Soon enough, the streets were flooded with cosplay enthusiasts—a great opportunity to take photos. The one I liked the most is where Captain America walks towards the viewer, and most of the other people in the frame are not dressed in cosplay and are walking in the other direction.
This makes Captain America stand out visually even more than he already did in his cosplay outfit. The lines in this shot work very well here too. More on that in an upcoming post. Enjoy this photo, and good luck paying just a little bit more attention to the story you want to tell. It is fun to do, and I keep learning how to get better at it.
More articles by Erwin Hartenberg including the parts of this series
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