Home Feature Articles Telling Stories: What I learned to help take better photos—Part Two

Telling Stories: What I learned to help take better photos—Part Two

Part Two of Erwin Hartenberg's series on what he learned to become a better photographer


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.

The height

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.

Leica SL – Zeiss ZM 35mm F1.4

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.

Leica SL – Zeiss ZM 35mm F1.4

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.

Leica SL – Zeiss ZM 35mm F1.4

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.

The harbour

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.

Leica SL – Zeiss ZM 35mm F1.4

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.

Leica SL – Zeiss ZM 35mm F1.4

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.

The geese

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.

Nikon Df – Samyang 135mm F2

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.

Nikon Df – Samyang 135mm F2

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.

Nikon Df – Samyang 135mm F2

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.

The beach

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.

Leica M240 – Leica Summicron M 50mm F2

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.

Leica M240 – Leica Summicron M 50mm F2

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.

Leica M240 – Leica Summicron M 50mm F2

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 fountain

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.

Sony A7 – Zeiss Batis 135mm F2.8

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.

The cow

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.


The village

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.

Leica SL – Leica 75mm SL Summicron F2

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.

Leica Q

The cosplay

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.

Fujifilm X100S

Check out Erwin’s blog

More articles by Erwin Hartenberg including the parts of this series

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  1. Ducks shot walking away and up the stairs works very well! I like how it’s so anthropomorphic, I think that was the best of the bunch. They’re like a mass of commuters, off to work in orderly lines. Was going to say New York, but too organized, more like Tokyo commuters boarding the bullet train. Now if you had Captain America waddling towards you…

  2. Thank you for the fascinating article and insight. I think this is the first time I have read an article that hits on three disparate interest of mine – photography, wine and ducks… the geese are in fact Indian Runner ducks. I have about 40 ducks in my garden, and up until now I have been keeping them away from my grape vines. Looks like I’ll have to let them at them after all!

  3. Thanks so much for this article. This addresses exactly something in photos I’ve taken that just didn’t satisfy me. i learned alot!

  4. I loved the narrative using your image building process, and then comparing it to the images. I think the lone palm tree would look divine in monochrome, with a bit of deep contrast and silvery tones around the beach.

    Ending with cosplay reminded me of how much I am missing street events, and having my camera to hand and being engaged with my subjects.

    And then on my second read through, it dawned on me, what an impressive array of camera’s you have. That is a wonderful collection, and the images extol each camera.

    Thank you for sharing with us.

    • Funny you picked up on the different cameras used. I guess the correct term here would be ‘array of camera’s I have….had’. I have a tendency of growing weary and restless with a setup and then end up switching far too often. Even including selling and re-buying the same camera or lens. I have accepted that using different gear and getting to know it, is part of of the photography experience for me. And with some smart observation and patience, when you use the second hand market, the costs of switching are somewhat acceptable. (To me). Having used so many camera’s and lenses, I can truly state that the quality of all of them is hardly the issue. It’s the user experience, the small things that matter. And for me lately…..weight.

  5. Actually I think most of your shots are interesting – except the one with the lonely palm tree! think the one with the surf boards tells much more of a story, but I see what you mean. It was very good to be allowed to share your thinking – many thanks,

    • Thanks John. That’s exactly why I wanted to write this post, to show my decision making process based on what I wanted to capture. I always find it fascinating that if you go on a photo walk with others, you end up with so many different interpretations of the surroundings. One of the things I like so much about photography. The possibilities are endless and then it just comes down to what we see, with our eyes as much as with our emotions.

  6. Great work, Erwin. I always feel that when you are visiting new places, a camera can tell more than a thousand words.

    I recognised Bergen immediately. You mentioned that it has the reputation for being the wettest place in Europe and we saw plenty of rain on our boat and rail trip to Bergen from Flam, but then it turned bitterly cold and when we got to the mountain top after ascending on the Floibanen it felt like the coldest place I had ever been in. Being me, I had, however, discovered a vintage camera shop near the station at the bottom and bought a 90mm Elmar and a Leicameter there when I got back down. I’ve since broken the Leicameter, but the lens is still working

    I also stayed in Stellenbosch one time and I had dinner in the bar belonging to the well known South African golfer Ernie Els. As ‘luck’ would have it Ireland were playing South Africa at rugby in Dublin on the same night. I checked in the bar at half-time and I found that South Africa were hammering Ireland and I said to my wife we’ll go back to our hotel. However, by the time we got back there and got the TV working, Ireland were just a couple of points behind South Africa and could have won it only for a missed kick in the last minute.

    That village in Scotland looks just like one in Galway in the West of Ireland even down to the ‘lobster pots’, as we call them.

    Thanks for the nice article , but thanks even more for bringing back some great memories. That is the kind of thing that photography can do. I will send some examples of my own photos to Mike so that he can share them with you.



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