Photo Essay Tips

How to Create an Effective Photo Essay

As photographers, our camera provides entry into other people’s lives, emotions, traumas. It is an honor that people let us into their lives, and a privilege to see and capture the world through our lens.

Photography literally means writing (graph) with light (photo), and the photo dssay is storytelling with photography. The PhotoPhilanthropy Activist Awards recognize photographers who can tell the story of a nonprofit organization with inspiring photographs and few words.

Here are some tips that may help you to tell an inspired story:

1. Identify a topic: Photo essays are most dynamic when you as the photographer care about the subject. Whether you choose to document the agency that runs the soup kitchen down the street, or the NGO that works to protect tree frogs in the Amazon Rain Forest, make your topic something that interests you.

2. Do your research: If you decide to work with the soup kitchen agency, get online and find out how they are funded, who are their clients, what are the statistics about hunger in your community, who else feeds the hungry, how many meals the organization makes in a day, etc. Consider talking to people who support the agency, or volunteer to serve. Read their mission statement. When you talk to the agency, make a list of their activities and important employees that they want documented. All of these factors will help you in planning out the type of shots you set up for your story.

3. Find your story: After your research, you should decide on the type of photo essay you want to present – narrative or thematic. Narrative photo essays tell a story conveying a person or activity over time – for example, the International Red Cross’s response to the Chinese earthquake, or the work of an agency responding to hunger in a community. Thematic photo essays focus on a theme and show photos relative to that theme – for example, child poverty, or drought in the Midwest. It will help you to organize your shooting if you understand the type of story that you want to tell.

4. Convey emotion: A successful photo essay conveys emotion – anger, joy, fear, passion, excitement. To connect your photo essay with its audience, you must draw out the emotions within the story and convey them in your shots. Consider the impact that the activities of your nonprofit organization has on you, and the emotions that you see portrayed by those involved. Then consider how you will articulate this emotion through your photographs.

5. Plan your shots: It is often helpful to start out by creating a “shot list” for the story. You will want photos depicting the various activities of your nonprofit organization in order to tell their story. Before shooting, walk around the agency, meet the people involved, pay attention to the light (look for natural light as much as possible; watch out for fluorescent bulbs which tend to give off a yellow light). Look for small details that will convey a story or a mood. Look for an interesting face, as well as environmental (scene setting) images that will help the viewer locate the story. Each shot will work like a sentence in a one-paragraph story.

You will want to open your essay with a powerful lead photo that draws the viewer in. Next often comes a scene setting image, one that describes the theme or narrative, followed by portraits and detail shots. Finally, use a strong summing-up photo to pull your story together, and finish with a powerful image that becomes the “clincher,” the image that you want the viewer to leave with.

An effective photo essay is made up of a variety of shots. You will want to include at least one of each of the following:

  • Scene setting or landscape photo
  • Portrait (a portrait showing your subject in his/her environment)
  • Detail shot
  • Action photo (showing the activity of the organization)

Above all, remember to let your photos do the talking.


via PhotoPhilanthropy.

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