Constructing the Photo Narrative – With a Cellphone

(This post was submitted by a faculty member of the New York Film Academy)

The explosion in photographic imagery over the past decade has made photojournalists of us all. But while there is a great quantity of photos out there – on blogs, in social media, and even a few albums and refrigerator doors (still!) – The quality of those photos may be considered lacking. Some you look at once and they may hold meaning for you, personally. But other photos and series of photos are more interesting to other people if the quality and the cohesiveness of the images are good.

Every photographer (that means just about everybody) has his or her reasons for taking pictures. But one way to make your photos standout, to have some kind of meaning and memorability, is for several photos to fit into some kind of a narrative.

What is a narrative? It’s a story, or at least a theme. A vacation can be a narrative, as can jpegs of something you might shoot at a special event (Zombie Walks, for instant, or a county fair or school graduation). Almost everyone constructs a narrative to some degree – narratives are a basic element of what is taught in major photography schools . But you can make your narrative more meaningful, have greater impact, be more memorable and perhaps gain more online clicks and shares if you give it coherence and photographic drama.

Here’s a case in point. The gardener has many pretty flowers and robust vegetables and fruit that are all lovely to look at. But so is flora on wallpaper. The photos of a garden can be a lot more interesting if …

you chronicle the phases from spring to fall. The narrative is about a full season or seasons, from young buds to full flower to decline and maybe even death. There’s a story there.

you find the creepy underworld of otherwise gorgeous hydrangeas, abundant tomato plants and shady hostas. That underworld is bugs and worms, the texture of mulch after a rain or brown under-leaves that have outlived their usefulness. If you are lucky enough to find a sinister preying mantis (they eat every other bug, including their mates and siblings), you have the star of your scary environmental niche. It allows the viewer to see a whole other side of life and think about the interdependency of living things.

you show humans interacting with plants. This would include the child with the watering pail, and the grandparent showing her how it’s done. If there are vegetables, it certainly includes ripe fruit on the vine, picked by a hand and going into the mouth. To really round it out, show how leftover vegetation and vegetable peels return to the earth as compost. The narrative is the circle of life – perhaps of plants and humans.

The vacation photo series can be approached similarly. You really need to think through what the trip is about. Is it merely about spending day 1, then day 2, then day 3 in location 1, then location 2, then location 3, in sequence? That’s not a narrative, but just a report. A narrative includes how much you pack to go (a shot of your car truck or suitcase, opened), a map or plane tickets in hand, and maybe everyone wearing their vacation sunglasses. It might be about the meals you eat and the signs on the restaurants where you ate. Your narrative probably should be about the activities, but if that is, say, a beach, don’t just stop at Uncle John and Aunt Linda in beach chairs. Shoot a picture of what waves look like coming at you (keep the camera dry!), a close up of sand sculpture in the making, and maybe Aunt Linda’s incomplete sunburn as she puts on something nice to go to dinner. These are narratives, the images that convey the story of what happened. The memory will last longer than just a picture of a pretty sunset.

You do not need an expensive camera to do any of this. True, it may be difficult to take pictures at night without a flash, but a cell phone camera you can accomplish quite a bit. Most people do not realize you can control the light exposure on even the simplest smart phone, but in fact you can. Here is how to do that:

Say you are taking a picture of an object in the foreground but there is excessive light on what is behind it. The camera typically reads the light from the brightest area occupying the majority of the view.
As you frame the shot, tap the camera screen on the object you want to be the subject of the photo (which might occupy just a third of the screen). This overrides the lighter area behind it (the camera might center a square around the spot you tap, confirming it will do what you want it to).
Your camera will set its light reading to that spot and – voila! – the detail of your subject is not lost in darkness.
This can be done in reverse, allowing you to get the light reading from a distant object and create a silhouette of the object in the foreground.

All of this allows you to work more with shadows and trickier light, which adds drama to any photo. The more you add drama, the more exciting the narrative itself becomes.

So do more than point and shoot. With a little thought and technique, your photos turn into a story that is inherently more interesting and memorable.


OBA Blog Swap – Guest Holly Hammersmith

Hello! I’m Holly, the Cleveland-based writer behind “Rust Belt Runner,” a blog where I detail my journey with running, yoga and healthy living. As part of the Ohio Blogging Association May Blog Swap, today I am sharing some of my favorite photos.

Currently I’m shooting with the Canon 300 ELPH point and shoot camera, which I just purchased this spring. It has 12-megapixels and a variety of advanced features for a point and shoot. So far I have been really impressed with the crisp, colorful images it provides.

In the spirit of the forthcoming summertime on Ohio’s northeast, I’m sharing some images I’ve taken over the years of Lake Erie and it’s coastal lighthouses – two of my favorite subjects to shoot.



Marblehead Lighthouse, Marblehead, Ohio, 2006


Cedar Point, Sandusky, Ohio, 2008


Huron Lighthouse, Huron, Ohio, 2010


Rocky River Park, Rocky River, Ohio, 2011


Geneva-on-the-Lake, Ohio, 2012

Guest Blogger: Matt Dempsey

After seeing his photography over the course of the last two-and-a-half years, I had offered Matt the chance to post here. When I saw a recent batch of pics, I knew he had to share them. He sent me a set he took at Lakeview Park, of the light display there. He described what he did:

  In order to get the effect for these pictures, this is what I did: Having a tripod is a must due to the fact that I used shutter speeds that ranged from 1 second until 20 seconds. The ISO was set at 200 and the apertures were from f/8 – f/32. I simply set the camera to the aperture to what I wanted, focused on the subject, and pushed the shutter. When the shutter is pressed, I then simply zoomed the lens from 18mm – 55mm and vice versa. Doing this causes a plain scene to come to life.

County Commissioners’ Public Hearing

I’m glad I attended today’s Commissioners’ Public Hearing for alternatives and input on increasing the county tax. There will be two more meetings and I hope the attendance is greater than today’s, it may have been the weather or the time of day, but the majority seemed to be County employees.

I learned a lot from the dialogue and I believe we can’t rely on mass media for the information needed to make our decisions. The Commissioner’s meetings have always been televised (wish Lorain’s Council meetings were).

I came away amazed that the ordinances/laws in place will not allow the system to improve.

• There are State mandated rules that affect the prison system (where prisoners have better living conditions than our men and women in service overseas)
• The salaries of our Commissioners (they can’t take a pay cut)
• Civil Service (they can’t take a pay cut)
• Unions have contracts and non-union receives the same increases
• A Sheriff’s Deputy must remain with an inmate in the hospital 24/7
• The Levies we’ve voted for pay for the salaries of those individuals who contribute (MRDD etc) (they can’t take a pay cut)

In the words of Ted Kalo, “Expenses are mandated.”

I hadn’t realized how much the Sheriff’s Department does with so little:

• They serve warrants
• They are responsible for the 700+ Sex Offenders in the County
• Foreclosures
• The FBI’s report says that a County this size should have 110 Sheriff Deputies, at this time we have 20 on the road all shifts.

It’s forecasted that with the reduction in revenue 1 of 3 criminals will avoid the Justice System if the tax is not implemented.

I didn’t realize ¼% of the current tax goes to the Jail, ½% goes toward the County Government and the remainder is the State’s. (I don’t understand I hope someone will explain)

It was mentioned that they were going to approach the Unions to discuss concessions. I can’t help but think, if I were asked to give up something, I would ask if the rest of the “Team” was doing so as well.

I learned a lot; I have a different perspective, but I also wonder now if we have any chance.

Paula’s Ponderings – September 15th, 2008

Sometimes you have to ponder on the journey to and fro.

So on my way to tonight’s Council Meeting, I drove through the mess Ike left behind. I had plenty of my own.

As I drove North on Broadway under the underpass/train trestle around 18th (?) I noticed the sign for a local Church’s Festival. I remembered a citizen telling me they witnessed the Street Department putting the sign up and asked me who was paying for the city workers time to do that, the city or the church? I said, “Why don’t you call and ask?” They felt they’d be given a bunch of BS so they didn’t even want to bother.

Council minutes will be posted soon so you can follow up. In fact, here are some other interesting links for the city.

Council Agendas

Mayor’s Board of Control


Civil Service Documents

As I was leaving council I had a chance to talk with many and, in fact, met Kalin for the first time. It was a pleasure, we have a lot to research after our conversation. 🙂

I pulled past the Police station,

 as I made my way South on Broadway. Business was good; they had a full house in the paddy wagon.

 During tonight’s meeting it was discussed that LPD would beef up patrols in areas hit by the power outages. And the Fire Department was pulling out for a call as I drove past the Central Station.

Our Safety Forces were doing their best to keep us safe.I sit now overlooking a fall sunset on the lake with the duck couple;

 they sit on the Lake Bank and look at the water much as we do. I’m listening to classical and jazz and they’re listening to the wind and water.
Oh, the many faces of Lorain.


The City of Lorain has suffered loss of power in various locations throughout the city. We have been advised by Ohio Edison that the power outages could last for the next 2-3 days. Those residents without power are encouraged to first contact family or friends for assistance. If those without power need additional assistance, they may contact the Red Cross @ 440-324-2929 for assistance. As always, if an emergency exists, please call 911 for Police, Fire, and EMS or you may call the non emergency number for the Lorain Police Department @ 440-204-2100.

Paula’s Ponderings

I’ve attended 98% of council/committee meetings in the last four years.

There are the “Die Hard Dozen” that shows for all meetings.

So when Tom Coyne shows up Sept 8th at a Committee Meeting and for this Agenda, you have to wonder, why?

I’ve wondered and asked why…….

In my research I’ve found he’s interested in Development.

To make a trip all the way out to Lorain, one must ask, ‘is there employment for him in the future?’

This Begs The Question:

“Do We Need Any More Controversy in this City?”

Lorain City Schools: Dismal Impact of Declining Enrollment

(Many thanks to Guest Blogger Kelly Boyer Sagert!) 

Bring up the subject of charter schools in Lorain and a significant percentage of people will have strong opinions about their educational value, both pro and con. At tonight’s Lorain City Schools (LCS) Board of Education meeting, it was the financial impact of charter schools on the public school system in the state of Ohio that was discussed.

Statistics were presented that showed how much of the state foundation funds earmarked for LCS are currently being transferred to community/charter schools. In 2002, approximately $1.1 million was transferred from LCS to charter schools; in 2008, because there are now 1,043 students living in the LCS district that are attending charter schools, more than $8.9 million of monies earmarked for LCS is being transferred. Losing $8.9 million, it was noted, is comparable to losing 12.1 mills on a levy.

In addition, there are 635 students living in the LCS district that are attending other public schools through the open enrollment option. This means that nearly $3.4 million of state foundation funds earmarked for LCS is being transferred to other public school systems (compared to $910,000 in 2002). This loss is comparable to losing 4.8 mills of levy funds. When combining the loss of funds to charter schools and through open enrollment, the school system is currently losing $12.3 million, comparable to 16.9 mills.

School Board President Jim Smith calls this loss of students – and the loss of the accompanying dollars – the “real culprit” in the financial troubles of the district. Smith added that the LCS district does gain some students through the open enrollment option, which somewhat mitigates the loss of students – but the district is losing significantly more students than it is gaining.

Lorain City Schools Director of Facilities Dan DeNicola stated that this student loss has had a “devastating” effect on the building project. Here is some history on the building project, first published in nearly this format at

In 2001, voters in the Lorain City School district passed a levy to build multiple new school buildings; because this levy passed, the district received a significant amount of state funds with which to construct the new buildings. To date, according to the school district’s web site, nine new buildings – seven elementary and two middle schools – have been constructed. Because enrollment in the Lorain City Schools has dropped since then, the state is not providing the school district with all of the funds initially awarded.

At tonight’s meeting, DeNicola said that the LCS have lost about 3,000 students since the time the levy passed in 2001, with current enrollment figures around 8,600. The state of Ohio, he added, is projecting LCS enrollment numbers of only 6,000 to 7,000 when determining the building space required for LCS to educate children. DeNicola called the situation “profoundly unfair.”