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Elements Of The Photo Essay

Photo by Leslie Fisher

Monday we started talking about photo essays. We began by looking at SoundSlides, a great product to use to help you produce engaging photo stories. In fact, Monday’s post marked the beginning of a giveaway that will last throughout this week and culminate on Friday with some lucky person getting a licensed copy of SoundSlides Plus. So, today I want to talk more about the actual essay itself.

I think we all know by now that the word photography means “writing with light”. But just because someone has a tool to write with doesn’t mean they know how to write. For that matter, just because someone gets published doesn’t mean they know how to write. We all know there’s plenty of pretty bad books out there. But I digress. We were talking about the photo essay. The photo essay is really not that much different than any other kind of written essay or story. A photo essay should really have a simple but clearly defined flow with a clearly defined beginning middle and end. The object is to take a limited number of photos, say 5 to 35 images, and to tell a story with them. Those images must take the viewer and unfold something akin to a plot line before them, all in a period of 3 or 4 minutes. What I hope to do in this post is to give you a list of the important elements of a photo essay. Sort of a shot list. Some people use different names than I give them, but the concept is the same.

Not all Photo Stories Are Created Equal

There are different types of photo essays. Some deal with a linear event that unfolds over a given time frame. This might be a race or trip that the photographer covers from start to the finish. A great example of this is the essay Kingsley’s Crossing. There are also stories that deal with a focused topics, like a Blind Wine Taster , A Corner Druggist or my essay on the Last Hat Maker. Other essays might deal with event, like Thaipusam. Whatever the type of photo essays are doing, it will still need to be filled with photos that work together to tell the story. One thing I tell class that I teach is that each photo must be good enough to stand by itself. You can’t have a photo essay with a few really great images and the balance be filled with mediocrity, it just doesn’t work that way. Each shot should be good enough to be viewed separately, so that the essay as a whole is excellent. But each image has it place in the story. Below we will talk about what that place is.

Before going into the different types of shots needed in an essay, I want to talk about the essay itself and how to prep for it. One of the things I see frequently among students who are trying their hand at creating a photo story, is they create it as they go. They go out shooting throughout the day and then as they’re out they try to think of a topic. That’s going about it backwards. The best thing you could do would be to walk around the city or subject you’re interested in photographing, all the while keeping the camera in the camera bag and just observe. “Keep your eyeballs peeled”, as my dear ole’ daddy used to say. See if you can see a theme or story emerge. Spend time with people talk to him here what’s important to them and a story might just bubbled to the surface. This is not to say a story can’t be an assignment. In fact, that’s the way most photojournalist work. They’re given an assignment and told to cover it photographically. Either way, you have to understand what it is you’re shooting before you put the camera to your face and that take time and observation.

Another helpful way to approach an essay is to create a shot list. Using the type of shots listed below, think through ideas and concepts that you want to grab photographically. After spending time with the Cheese Man of Kashmir, I knew there were several shots I had to get. One was a Detail shot of milking poured, another was of Medium shot of Chris working with his Gujjar associates. If you can, create a shot list before you go out it can be a huge help. But don’t limit yourself to the list. Better to have too many shots than not enough.

The Shot List

(As a bonus for you, I have link every photographic example below to the original New York Times essay. Enjoy!)

1. Hook Shot.

This shot is sometimes called a lead shot. It’s the shot grabs you or hook you and draws you into the essay. Sometimes it’s the first shot of the essay. Other times it appears somewhere inside the photo essay, but is used as the essay’s cover or thumbnail image. It is and image that is often very creative and leaves the viewer wanting  information about the topic.   The literary equivalent to a Hook shot is the first few words that grab you in a novel. Remember this sentence? “The great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail.” – Peter Benchly, Jaws. Those first few words grabbed readers and sucked them in and they where hooked. The Hook shot should do the same.

“A Withering Harvest in Florida” Photo: Chip Litherland for The New York Times

2.  Establishing Shot.

The establishing shot does pretty much what it sounds like it does. It lays the visual context for the story. It is often a wide shot that shows the setting or the environment where the story takes place or the character lives or works. The shot often is the very first shot of the essay. If it’s not the first it will be included in one of the first few shots. The literary equivalent of this is usually found on the first page of the novel. It is when the author paints a written description of where things are taking place. ” It was a dark and stormy night…”

“Cairo Aglow at Ramadan” Photo: Shawn Baldwin for The New York Times

3.  Medium Shot.

At this point in the story there’s momentum building up. The medium shot serves to inform the viewer who are the characters and what they are doing. The shot should include both the subject and it’s surrounding. If your story has people in it, and often the shot will have two or three people and all interacting in some way. You might have an individual working with some equipment or doing some job. But the image should be wide enough to see the environment. It’s not a detail shot.

“The Resurgence of the Hazaras” Photo: Adam Ferguson for The New York Times

4. Detail Shot.

As the name implies the shot has to do with the details. These shots add flavor to the story, almost as the spices does to soup. It is the detail shot that that creates intimacy with the viewer. Can you imagine a story where characters walk through nondescript hallways and streets? It would leave readers without any sense of time or place. And so it is with a detail shot in a photo essay, it gives our viewers a sense of place. A detail shot anchors the story.

“High-Speed Connections” Photo: Laura Pedrick for The New York Tim

5.  Portrait shot.

Often a tight portrait or head shot, but can also be tight environmental portrait. This shot gives a face to your characters. It make the story personal to someone. Even if your character is not a human, a portrait can be important. Let’s say you’re doing a story on a racehorse. He would still want a portrait of the horse.

“In South Africa, a Resurfacing of Violence” Photo: Robin Hammond for The New York Times

6. The Gesture.

Others have called this the Exchange Shot. I like that title as well. But I use the word gesture because I feel like it’s more than just an exchange. It can be someone shooting basketballs or running. But, as the term exchange shot implies, often times it is interaction between two subjects in the story. There’s usually movement involved in some sort of interchange between the subjects. By having this shot in the essay we keep the essay from becoming a series of portraits. The gesture shot allows us to experience life within the essay.

“A ‘Yooper’ in the Abortion Fight” Photo: Sally Ryan for The New York Times

7.  Closure.

Except for the establishing shot which should always come at the first of the photo essay, the only other shot that has a definite place within the essay is this one. The closure, as the name implies, it is the parting shot. It draws things to an end. It’s the “ride off into the sunset” photo. This shot provides resolution for the story and puts it to bed.

“Remembering Hardware” Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

Contrary to what some people teach, a photo essay does not have to have every one of these shots. It should have most but there are no rules. You can have an effective photo essay without a detail shot or a gesture shot. I personally think the more of these you have, the chances you have at better telling the story in a compelling manner. But the goal is the story not the process. So feel free to go on break the rules.  Think through a storyline, take this list with you and go out and shoot. Trust me, you get better every time you do it.

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How to Create a Photo Essay

Creating a photo essay is a combination of art and journalism. As with a written essay, the elements of a photo essay should be structured in a way that easily conveys a story to the viewer. Each individual photo contributes to the overall story, theme, and emotions of the essay. The photos you choose must not only be compositionally and artistically strong, but also informative and educational. Finding photos that have both qualities can be very challenging, but the result can be very powerful.

There are two types of photo essays: the narrative and the thematic. The narrative essay tells a story through a sequence of events or actions. They may follow an individual or activity over a period of time and present this story in chronological order. A thematic photo essay focuses on a central theme (e.g. homelessness, the environment, etc.) and presents photos relevant to that theme.
Regardless of what type of photo essay you choose to present, the following elements should be considered during its creation:

  1. The story- Your essay should be able to stand alone, without a written article, and make logical sense to the viewer.
  2. A range of photos: A variety of photos (wide angle, detailed, portraits etc.) should be included. See the types of photos section discussed below.
  3. The order of the photos: It is important that the order of your photos effectively tell a story, in an interesting and logical sequence.
  4. Information and emotion: Your photos should include both informational and emotional photos. Those essays that effectively evoke emotion while providing information tend to convey their messages the best.
  5. Captions: In a photo essay, captions are your best opportunity to describe what is happening in words and ensure that the viewer understands. Include informational content in these captions if necessary.

Types of Photos

By including a variety of types of photos in your essay, you will ensure that it is both interesting and informative. The following types of photos, presented together, can create a successful photo essay. Not only is it important to choose powerful photos, but also to present them in an effective order. While the order of some photos (e.g. the lead photo, and the clincher) is set, the order of most types of photos in your essay is your preference.

The Lead Photo: Similar to the first two sentences of a newspaper article, your lead photo should effectively draw in your audience. This is usually the most difficult photo to choose and should follow the theme of your essay. It could be an emotional portrait or an action shot, but ultimately it should provoke the curiosity of the viewer.

The Scene: Your second photo should set the stage and describe the scene of your story. An overarching photo taken with a wide angle lens is often effective.

The Portraits: Your photo essay should include at least one portrait. Capturing an emotional expression or telling action shot can effectively humanize your story. These photos often evoke strong emotions and empathy in the viewer (whether it is a positive and enthusiastic emotion, or a sympathetic and concerned emotion.)

The Detail Photos: Detail photos focus in on one element, be it a building, a face, or a relevant object. These photos are your best opportunity to capture specific objects. The captions of these photos should be informative and educational.

The Close-up Photos: Similarly, close-up photos provide an opportunity to focus in on specific objects. These photos are tightly cropped, simple shots that present a specific element of your story. Again, this is an excellent opportunity to present information in the caption.

The Signature Photo:The signature photo summarizes the situation and captures the key elements of your story in a telling moment.

The Clincher Photo: The final photo, the clincher, should evoke the emotion you want the viewer to walk away with, be it a feeling of hope, inspiration, or sadness. Decide on this mood before you select this photo.

Remember, these suggestions are only guidelines. Photo essays are a form of art, and like any artistic creation, breaking the rules can sometimes create the most powerful result. Don't be afraid to try something different.