Narrative Photography | Telling a Story with a Single Image

Course Developer: Matthew Ryan Williams
Instructor: Felicia Kieselhorst
Layout and Production: Patricio Sarzosa, Joshua Trimmer
Editors: Gordon Drummond, Mark Waters

Matthew Ryan Williams

As an experienced staff photojournalist and freelance photographer, I am passionate about narrative photography. Please join me as we explore the concepts and techniques required to tell a story with images.

Telling a Story with a Single Image

Capturing a moment in time.
Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams

Photographs have a unique ability to convey a message and tell a story, whether that be something obvious, such as the beauty of a flower or the celebration of a holiday, or something more complex and abstract.

At first glance, the photograph is merely a way to document a single moment in time. First glances can be deceptive, however, as how a photograph is crafted has a significant impact on how a viewer interprets it.

The way a photographer chooses to use the tools in his or her camera and creative "toolbox" can dictate whether an image effectively tells a story and leaves the viewer with impression beyond the obvious. In this lesson, we'll begin to explore how it's done.

In this lecture, you can expect to:

Learn what narrative photography is and how it is created.
Learn the important differences between editorial and creative photography.
Learn how creative and technical controls can help you tell a story in your photos.
Learn how to achieve visual variety using different shots.

Narrative photography is the idea that an image or a series of images can be used to tell a story.

A good photographer wears many hats: visual storyteller, researcher, and editor.

Images that evoke a feeling such as happiness, shock, or humor tend to be the most memorable.

Editorial photography means shooting an event as it happens; creative photography requires setup.

Use your choice of camera settings, color format, and lenses to enhance the message in your photo.

Layers, lines, balance, and emphasis are all creative controls that can enhance your storytelling.

Use lines in your photos to guide the viewer's eye through your image.


Visual Storytelling

Human beings have been telling stories with images since the beginning of time. Our earliest significant events were recorded as cave paintings and petroglyphs. Even when we developed written languages, we continued to communicate visually, through drawings, paintings, and sculpture. And later, in the 19th century, we began telling stories with photography.

What is Narrative Photography?

Narrative photography is the idea that an image or a series of images can be used to tell a story or create a narrative. A narrative is an account of an event or a moment in time, which makes photography the perfect medium for constructing narratives.

As the acclaimed documentary photographer David Campbell once wrote, "In photography, narrative is related to the idea of context. No matter how complete or comprehensive a narrative appears, it will always be the product of including some elements and excluding others. Inclusion/exclusion is part of what construction is all about, but knowing what is best included or excluded requires an understanding of context. And an understanding of context requires visual storytellers to be highly proficient researchers."

Oracia McCurtis is prayed for and anointed on Sunday morning, June 12, 2005. She has just been diagnosed with cancer for the second time in five years and is waiting for the Lord to tell her what to do before she returns to the doctor. (Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams)

As a photographer, you must take on the role of visual storyteller, researcher, and editor as you begin to make choices that impact the narrative you are creating. By utilizing a variety of camera controls and creative tools, you as a storyteller can begin to craft a narrative through your imagery by highlighting what is important, what is not, and asking questions like "What is the story I want to tell?"

The Photographer's Toolbox

Just like a writer has a pen, a photographer has a camera. Understanding how to use your camera may seem pretty basic, but it's essential to know how your camera controls can include or exclude elements in your frame (or emphasize or de-emphasize them) when producing storytelling imagery.

The use of creative controls such as composition, light, color, contrast, focus, relative size of objects within a frame, lines, and layering are some examples of tools that you can use to consciously craft an image that tells the story that YOU want to tell.

This image demonstrates several "tools" the photographer used to execute this image. First, anticipating when the subject would be blocking the bright light behind him adds a nice back light that draws the eye to the dancer's face. Secondly, using a shallow depth of field and fast shutter speed allowed the photographer to stop the dancer's motion in the frame.

While having a "toolbox" full of technical and creative skills is important, one of the most effective ways to tell a story in your imagery is to have relevant content. This means putting yourself in situations where pictures will be happening in front of your camera. It may sound like a no-brainer, but if you consciously put yourself in the right place at the right time you will come back with more effective storytelling pictures.

Show up early and stay late to events while shooting. Look for exciting or revealing situations. The images that stick with people evoke a feeling, whether it be a feeling of happiness, shock, disgust, or humor.

About This Course

In this course, you will explore narrative photography by taking photographs and photo series that challenge your storytelling abilities. In each lecture, we will cover concepts that will prepare you for the assignments. Discussion assignments will provide some fun skill building exercises.

Here is a list of the assignments:

Week Three Two candid and two setup images that each tell a story
Week Five Choose two editorial photography categories and shoot two photos from each category.
Week Seven Two different environmental portraits with two contrasting subjects
Week Ten Photo essay
Week Twelve "36 Hours In..." style travel essay
Week Fourteen Pitch your narrative photography portfolio

You may be asking yourself, when can I set up a photograph and when is it not allowed? These are great questions with complex answers. Portrait photography, editorial photography, landscape photography, and corporate photography all have different rules and guidelines.

For this class we will break it down into editorial or candid photography, and creative or set up photography.

Editorial Photography

For this class and for future work with editorial clients (such as news magazines, newspapers, and wire services), "setting up" pictures is a big no no. Basically you must consider yourself a fly on the wall, only able to work with the scene unfolding in front of you.

That means you aren't allowed to change anything in the scene by directing your subjects or moving objects if they are in the way. In addition, only minor adjustments may be made in post production software such as Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom. These include adjusting brightness and contrast, white balance, saturation, and sharpness. These guidelines will be discussed in more detail in a later lesson.

Creative Photography

Creative photography for the purposes of this class includes creative portraiture, studio work, and corporate photography, to name a few. In this realm of photography, you have complete control of the situation. Feel free to manipulate the light, the setting, and the subject to create an image that you are striving for.

Important Note: For this course, you'll want to use a DSLR and a variety of lenses. If you're not sure about how to change these settings in your camera, a quick look at your camera's manual should clear things up.

Let's take a look at some technical aspects of photography that will provide you control over your storytelling.

Technical Controls

Shutter Speed and Aperture

Controlling your shutter speed and aperture is probably one of the first skills you learned to achieve a properly exposed image. As you should know, the correct combinations of shutter speed, aperture, and ISO are used every time we pick up our cameras, depending on the lighting situations. These controls can be changed to show motion (shutter speed) and depth (aperture).

How could these visual representations of aperture and shutter speed be used to create a narrative within your photography? What combinations of shutter speed and aperture were used in the image below?

Edmonds Community College head coach Jennifer Schooler reacts to a play during Wednesday night's game against Bellevue, Wash. (Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams/The Everett Herald)

The above image demonstrates the use of a slow shutter speed, which generally corresponds to a higher f-stop (f/8, f/11, f/16, etc.) By using a slow shutter speed, the photographer was able to blur the action of the players and still capture the expression of the coach. Many times a photographer will have to experiment with different combinations of shutter speed and aperture to achieve the desired results for a specific scene.

Color vs. Black and White

Choosing to use color or black and white in your imagery can have a huge impact on how your photographs are viewed. In certain instances, the absence of color allows the viewer to focus purely on the shapes and objects, and the variations of dark and light within the image. By removing the color in an image the intensity of certain objects may increase or decrease, depending on the subject matter.

How does the absence of color (black and white imagery) affect the narrative in the image below?

A man fishes along the Athabasca River near Fort McMurray, Albterta. Although fishing is a popular way to pass the time, he says he won't be eating any of the fish because of the pollution in the river from the Tar Sands oil developments upstream.

In the image above, the use of black and white allows the viewer to concentrate on the elements in the image without being distracted by color. The photographer intentionally back focused the image on the trucks in the background to illustrate that pollution is a problem along the river.

Lens Choice

Lenses are an essential part of any photographer's toolbox. They allow photographers to focus on objects that are at different distances within the frame. You have the choice to photograph on the foreground, background, or anything in between. In addition, different lenses have different visual properties, which can emphasize depth or field of view, or distort how we see what's really in front of us.

Wide-angle lenses - These lenses, which shoot with a short focal length, generally range from 16-35mm. Using these lenses allow photographers to create images that bring the viewer right into the scene. In a sense, you are putting the viewer in the situation. Wide-angle lenses force the photographer to become part of the scene. They are also extremely effective for setting the scene, which will be discussed further in a later class.

How did the use of a wide angle lens help tell the story in the image below?

Escarleth, a 15-year-old Honduran girl with severe scoliosis, awaits spinal surgery with the support of her family members and church in Nashville, Tenn. Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams/Nashville City Paper

A wide angle lens was used in this situation to include a lot of information in a single photograph while still focusing most of the attention on the subject. When using a wide angle lens, photographers must be hyper aware of limiting the number of distracting elements in the image especially between the foreground and background.

Normal Lenses - These lenses are used for the majority of situations as they lend themselves to creating imagery most like what our eyes really see. Ranging between 35-70mm, normal lenses are useful tools when creating storytelling imagery.

Telephoto Lenses - These lenses have a longer focal length, bringing the action to the viewer. They allow photographers to photograph far away things without moving closer to the subject. Telephoto lenses generally have a much shallower depth of field, which can be useful for isolating certain parts of a scene.

How did the use of a telephoto lens help with the composition of the photo below?

Will Miller, of Sarvey Wildlife Center, prepares to show a juvenile Bald Eagle to a group of people at the annual Eagle Festival in Arlington, Wash. (Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams/The Everett Herald)

In the photo above, a telephoto was used to isolate the storytelling aspects of the image in what was a very cluttered room. Knowing what lens to use for different situations will help you tell a visual story in your photography.

Creative Controls

As a visual storyteller, you have a myriad of creative choices that can enhance your storytelling.

By using layers within a frame you can keep a viewer bouncing around to different foreground and background elements, adding complexity to an image. By using lines, you can lead the viewer through the frame in a very specific way, and by choosing how big to make an object within a frame you can choose to add emphasis to certain parts within a frame. By using sharpness and contrast you can lead the eye to the most important parts of your picture.

It is important to be able to effectively use a combination of technical and creative controls to leave the viewer with the story you are trying to tell.


Learning how to use layers within your photographs is a skill that takes time, patience, and practice before you can become efficient with it. Using layers allows the viewer's eye to travel throughout the frame from foreground to background and back in a kind of triangular form.

How does this photographer use layers to enhance the narrative of his image? If the layers weren't separated would this image be as successful?

Photo by Alex Webb

When using a wide angle lens, the photographer must be ever mindful of keeping elements in the foreground, middle, and background separated. You will notice that in this photograph most of the people are separated from each other, allowing the viewer to travel from each subject in a triangular motion.

The following images, photographed by famous National Geographic photographer Sam Abell, illustrate how layering can be used to add both complexity and beauty to an image.

What are some other benefits of having layers in your photos, such as the ones below?

Notice how each layer is separated from the one behind it to create a clean pathway for the eye to bounce from object to object. When photographing fast-moving, complex situations, treat it like a dance, always moving and readjusting until the different layers line up perfectly within the frame.

Here is how Abell describes his approach:

"All the elements of the finished photograph are present in the first frame. Of these, the most important is the deep background where prairie and sky meet on a clean and graceful horizon. On this foundation the photograph is built.

I concentrated the composition on one cowboy and the action around him. I was after a layered picture and thought circumstances were best for this when, in frame two, the calf was branded. But layering depends on separation of elements and that didn't exist at the top of the frame.

Without moving, I turned my attention to the horse and rider and swung the composition rightward as they moved off. A man approached from the left carrying a bucket, spoiling the exit of the rider. I recomposed on the cowboy and made the final frame as, simultaneously, a new tableau of cowboys appeared in the distance and the bucket swung to the edge of the frame.

My colleagues like this picture for its complexity but I want something more in it. I want the branding iron." - Sam Abell


Lines are useful in a variety of ways within a photograph. A line can be just that, a physical line such as a railing—or a line can be formed by numerous spots or shapes that leads the viewer's eyes down a path through the frame.

Lines can be powerful tools when used appropriately as they force the viewer to land on a specific subject. According to some theories, different lines can be associated with different feelings or moods. For example, while a horizontal line, such as a horizon, is associated with stability and calmness, vertical lines are associated with stature and strength, and curved lines are associated with grace or beauty.

"After the point, the line is the most basic visual element. It is fundamental to human experience. The first thing you drew as a child was a line. The first thing any human drew was a line. It is the basis of all alphabets. Just think of all the expressions that indicate how important the line is to our everyday experience: "Get in line".... "Toe the line".... "Walk the line"... "Don't cross the line." - John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Here are some beautiful images using lines as a formal element. Different lines and shapes can have very different feelings. What feelings do these images evoke?

These images show how lines and shapes direct the viewer's eye. Photos by Steve Dzerigian.

Balance and Emphasis

Having balance in a picture is sometimes difficult to describe. People know when a picture feels balanced and definitely know when a picture feels unbalanced, top heavy, or awkward. Learning how to give weight to different parts of a frame, whether that be by increasing its size, using more contrast on the subject you are trying to emphasize, or using lines and layers to direct the eye towards that subject, allows you to focus on certain areas of the frame more than others.

While having a balanced frame is an important skill to have, sometimes we want to have a more unbalanced frame to add tension or impact to a situation, making the viewer feel uneasy.

In what situations would you want to create an unbalanced composition? Is there anything about the composition of the image below that makes you uncomfortable?

A girl stands in front of her trailer in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. Pine Ridge Reservation is considered the poorest county in the United States. (Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams)

In the photograph above, there is a certain uneasiness to the frame, but the viewer's eye goes directly to the splash of color in the little girl's shirt. Keeping her small in the frame as well as off center creates a bit of uneasiness.

The large water tower dwarfing the little girl in the foreground also adds to a sense of forboding and uncertainty. All of these points speak to some of the issues on the Pine Ridge Reservation

Sharpness and Contrast

What part of a picture does your eye go to first? Is it the blurriest part of the frame or the sharpest? Generally speaking, when you look at a photograph, your eye goes directly to the sharpest part of the frame. Generally, this is the most important element in the scene. Varying the sharpness in a frame, whether by using depth of field or motion blur can give significant emphasis to specific elements.

What parts of the image below are important to keep sharp or in focus? Would it have been as successful if nothing was in focus?

Photo by Donald Miralle

In the photo above, the use of a slow shutter speed leads the viewer's eye directly to the middle runner's face, creating a very clean image with a wonderful feel to it. If the photographer had chosen to use a faster shutter speed, the background could be very distracting and the other runners would be more in focus as well.

Just as the sharpness of objects within a frame demands attention, contrast from light to dark or between colors can direct the eye. When trying to place emphasis on a subject try photographing it in a setting or against a background where there is a contrasting edge or color. Learning how to separate your subject from the background by using varying sharpness or contrast will allow you to begin to create definitive narratives within your imagery.

Using different lenses can give your photos visual variety.


Achieving Visual Variety

Visual variety is an important skill to have when approaching any photography project. Whether you are trying to produce a single image to correspond with an article or story or compile an entire photo essay or picture story, being able to create multiple images with very different looks and feels will help you to create a more effective narrative.

Establishing Shot

A good establishing shot allows the viewer to become acquainted with the scene. Generally, establishing shots are shot with wide angle lenses such as these landscape shots below.

Bird Hunters, Coffee Creek, Montana, 2006. (William Albert Allard/National Geographic)

The establishing shot above shows the vastness of the scene as well as what is going on by including the dogs and the hunters.

My Dakota. (Rebecca Norris Webb)

These establishing shots use layers instead to add interest to these photographs. By photographing the elements of the car in the foreground it not only illustrates the wide open spaces of South Dakota, but also of the concept of a road trip.

Medium Shot

Medium shots generally are the shots that really tell your story. Captured with normal or wide-angle lenses, these are the shots that drive the narrative. Be sure to focus on interactions between people and the interactions that occur between foreground and background elements.

Members of the United States Navy carry the casket of Daniel Able to the hearse at Los Alamitos Airfield on Tuesday, July 31, 2007. Daniel, 21, was killed in Iraq while serving as a medic. (Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams)

In the shot of the men carrying the casket above, the foreground and background elements tell the story of the unloading of the casket from the plane to the hearse in a visually dynamic way.

Close-Up or Detail Shot

Close-up shots bring the reader face to face with part of the scene. By focusing on a small portion of a scene such as the wrinkles on an elderly woman's hand, the bloodied hand of a boxer after a fight, or a splash of color as a man walks down the street with a red umbrella, you are forcing the viewer to look at a very specific portion of a situation.

Telephoto lenses can be very useful for detail shots because they allow you, as the photographer, to maintain a distance while trying to focus on a specific object. Using a telephoto lens to photograph a detail is especially useful in sensitive situations where you may not want to be overly aggressive about getting close to the subjects.

The photo on the left was shot with a 35mm lens and the one on the left with a 200mm lens from the same spot. (Photo by Matthew Ryan Williams)

While the use of a wide angle lens gives the viewer a lot of information, the use a telephoto lens can be used to bring the viewer up close and personal with the subjects without the chance of disturbing the moment by being too close. Telephoto lenses are also great tools for sensitive situations when sometimes being too close to your subjects can make everyone uncomfortable.

Learn tips for shooting candid photos.
Learn common types of editorial photography.
Learn the NPPA ethical guidelines for photojournalism.
Learn a basic workflow for a photojournalist.

Share your thoughts and opinions on narrative photography in the Discussion area.

Create two candid and two set up images showing your command of storytelling techniques.