(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.