Start Your First Photo Essay Step by Step

Images rule the world. Photo essays can visualize the rise and fall of the rich, the misery and struggle of the poor, the talent and creativity of artists, or the great work of average people, which makes our daily life possible. This structure can help you organize your first photo essay.Preparation can take quite a while, especially when you work on a project besides your regular job. Sometimes, it takes years to find the right person or get permissions to shoot. Here are some basic steps for creating good stories.

Some photography projects need a lot of preparation.

What Is a Photo Essay?

Photo essay, photo reportage, photo story. All these terms describe a collection of images about one story or subject. While photo stories and photo reportage are usually associated with a chronological course of events, a photo essay is a wider concept of storytelling.

Stories and reportage are often said to include the beginning, a middle part, and an end. Photo essays don’t need these three ingredients to cover a topic. The photographer creates a collection of images, which represent the topic from his or her point of view. Although photo stories are also told by a photographer through his perspective, an essay seems even more subjective.

A photo story captures an event from the beginning to the end.

In photo essays, the photographer’s perspective is hence more present: He or she selects the topic, the subjects, the focus, and the style of photography. There is no strict course of events to be followed, the photographer creates a common thread through the topic itself.

Doing it right is almost impossible. As for almost any topic, critique will be louder as you get further into sensitive topics. After all, discussions and debates are part of democracy. As long as you know that you did the best you could, you can be proud of your work. Consciously going through your project step by step is the foundation of every good photo essay.

Find a Topic of Interest

The first step towards your first photo essay is selecting a topic. The closer your topic is to your own environment, the more accessible it might be. Any topic is fine, as long as it seems original or novel. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but you should find a subject of interest. The flowers in front of your window kitchen? Rather not. A group of volunteers in your city? Cool! A handicraft that is going to die out, soon? Great!

Religion is one of my favourite topics. People all over the world can understand it, even if they don't share the same passion.

A good photo essay needs emotion. While you don’t need crying people in front of your camera, you should choose a topic that leaves some room for empathy and identification with your participants. Your camera should build a bridge between the photographed and the audience.

Of course, a photo essay about nature is also possible, but it shouldn’t be a focus, here.

Research Your Topic Intensively

Step number two is the most important one: Do your homework. There are two big reasons why you should take it seriously. Firstly, you will need to defend your work if you want to publish it. Secondly, it’s irresponsible to create a false image.

Documenting other people’s lives needs more skills and knowledge than handling a camera. Especially when we are working with sensitive issues, we should always critically question our own prejudice. Good research can help to create new perspectives rather than recreating our preconceptions.

Sensitive topics need more care in every step.

Preparation also helps you find a suitable perspective, suitable participants, and suitable venues.

Today, research is easier than ever. Online research should help you get an overview of your topic. You can also find the work of others that you might find inspiring, but at some point, every good research should lead you beyond the web. There is hardly any topic which has not caught the attention of scientists and journalists. Take a look at scientific articles, magazines, newspapers, and books to get an in-depth inside of the topic.

Find a Contact Person

99 percent of documentary work must not be shot secretly. If you want to shoot an essay about people or institutions in your area, feel free to contact them. Meet them first without your camera and get to know them as humans and not your subjects.

Many people are more afraid of a photographer than the photographer is afraid of meeting new people. Finding insiders and make them become your participants will improve your photo essay dramatically. Having a participant in your story is worth more than only photographing a subject. A subject is only photographed, a participant has an own voice and will provide you with more information.

Also, be prepared that you might need to change or even ditch a topic. Always ask yourself the question: Are you the right person to tell the story? Personally, I think, as long your participants are fine with it and you don’t misuse a given structure of power, you should feel free to go.

People might ask you why you want to photograph them. Better be prepared but avoid making promises about the outcome. When you’re unsure about what will happen to your photographs, tell the truth. Never act as a liberator and tell people that your photographs will better their situation or give voice to their cause. Too many times, that won’t happen.

Go Out and Do More Research

As soon as you reduced your future photo essay to a topic, a group of participants, and venue, you need to go back to your homework. Find out everything, you can. Search for names, check promising locations on Google Maps and get a better idea of the best way to present your topic.

Now that you are in contact with your participants, you can also go out and do your own research in the field. Spending a day with a participant will tell you a lot about your topic and the environment of your participants. You can also check if your participants use you to promote their own cause. Especially in political photo essays, that’s a big issue. The more time you spend with the participants, the closer you get to the truth. While it’s easy to stage a shooting, it’s hard to stage a whole day.

Not photographing right away will also help you create a bigger picture in your mind. As soon as you got your camera with you, you might be too focused on your gear and miss important details. Sometimes, the most interesting and surprising pictures can be found behind you. You won’t see them when you only look through your viewfinder.

Sometimes, the most interesting stories are the little details behind you.

Shoot the Photographs

Once you’re done with all the aspects of research, you should grab your camera and shoot. Make a plan, what you want to capture, but always be ready to improvise. No day is like the other and there will always be unpredictable events. That’s what’s most exciting about shooting a photo essay.

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Brent Daniel's picture

Thanks Nils! A ton of great insight into a subject that often eludes me. I think that's the next step on my own journey to becoming a better photographer and story teller. It's also a good reason to slow down, spend more time, and become more involved in individual places while traveling. See less, but more deeply.

Jacob ws's picture

With AI background removers, you can cut out background easily without using photoshop. All you need to do is upload an image and leave the rest to AI.