Lesson 62: The Rule of Telling a Story

“Every Picture Tells a Story” isn’t just a Rod Stewart song and album, it’s a rule that many photographers live by.  We’ve all heard the expression, “a picture speaks a thousand words.”  That said, sometimes, the story isn’t so obvious.  Sometimes, you could make up a lot of stories and they would all work and yet the photo is still compelling and/or beautiful.  But sometimes a photo works only because it tells a story.

Here’s an over-simplified example using my favorite chair.  Compare these two photos:

What story would you tell about the first one?  Is it a story about someone wasting electricity by leaving the light on for no apparent reason?  Is it just someone who wants to show a friend what their favorite chair looks like?  There’s not really any hint about what the photo is about besides that I seem to think the chair is interesting.

Now look at the second one.  What story would you tell about that?  The presence of the book and glasses suddenly explains why the light is on.  It implies someone has just walked away.  Do the old-fashioned paper book and old-fashioned glasses sitting on the modern lines of the chair give you a sense of irony?  Does it make you wonder what the book is about and where the person reading it has gone?

To me, the second photo is more of a cliff-hanger.  It asks us to wonder why the book and glasses have been left at the ready.  While, perhaps it’s not as exciting a story as, say, a hardcore photojournalist’s shots from the frontline of a war, it leaves more to the imagination.

Sometimes we catch a facial expression that says it all.  Here are a couple of recent dog photos that I think express what my dog is thinking pretty clearly:

Sports photos are compelling largely because of their elegance in expressing the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.  Sometimes, the story a photo tells is simply, “the world is beautiful.”  So much for a thousand words.

When it comes to photos of people, my personal opinion is that it’s best to avoid photos that say, “I posed these people uncomfortably so I could get a photo.”  I prefer awkward moments, ridiculous faces, raw emotion, all-out belly laughs, and loving looks given in moments when the subject thinks you’re not looking.  This explains why I’m not a portrait photographer–most people don’t want to see what they look like frozen in time with contorted expressions.

Your Assignment:  What’s your story?  Can you take a photo that says a thousand words?  How about 10 or 20?  Can you include everyday objects in a photo that changes it from a “record of what something looks like” to a story that draws people in?  Do you find these photos more interesting?