How to Tell a Story in Landscape Photography

It is the story that makes a photo special, and it is one of the base requirements for fine art photography. But it is also that area where landscape photographers seem to struggle most.

In my latest video on YouTube, I show why storytelling is one of the most important things in landscape photography or even generally in photography. You can nail the focus and the exposure, you can use a 100-megapixel camera and the most expensive lens on the market. But your image is worthless when it doesn’t say anything. A story is a foundation for getting emotion in the viewers. And isn’t this a reason why someone would like to hang up an image on his wall?

Landscapes Can’t Tell Stories?

When I mention in my landscape photography workshops that storytelling is one of the most important things, I often get asked how landscapes could tell a story when there are no people to see. I don’t know why this is, but many people seem to think that stories can only be told by a person in a photograph, as the viewer can easily recognize it or could interpret how the person feels due to facial expressions.

But landscapes can tell amazing stories, especially in combination with weather and light. The goal of storytelling is to engage the viewer, but also to evoke emotions. There are different things we can use to tell a story in landscape photography. Most important is to use a composition that supports the story. The composition holds everything together, as do how weather and light interact with the scene. Sometimes, we also need the right timing, like in the photograph above. The image title is “Ray of Hope.” I took this photograph right at that moment the light broke through a tiny gap in the clouds.

How to Implant a Story Into a Landscape Photograph?

In my video about how to implant a story in landscape photography, I show that so many landscape photographers struggle exactly with that. They build up a technically clean composition, they get the focus right, they start to think about implanting a story into the composition. But it doesn’t work that way. The composition has to support the story. And so the trick is: we just need to have the story already before we just think about the composition. So, the question of how to implant a story is wrong. I would recommend much more to ask how to find a story out in the field.

In the video, I reveal two different methods of how I look for stories that I use all the time in fine art photography. Which one I use depends on the artistry base concept. And if I finally have found a story, I just have to think about the characters I want to include to tell it.

The image above tells the story of self-confidence. The birch on the left side is shy and hides behind the conifer tree like a little child behind its mother. This is why it was important to include the trees on the left side. But the two birches on the right side are important for this story as well. They underline that the little birch in the center is different from all the other trees due to its golden hair, the yellow foliage. The others don’t have this or at least not that conspicuously. The little birch stands how it is; it is self-confident and doesn’t need to hide behind anyone.

All the methods of how to tell a story in landscape photography along with more details about storytelling and lots of tips are revealed in the above-linked video.

Christian Irmler's picture

Christian Irmler is a passioned landscape photographer from Austria who comes from a line of artists.
He engages already his whole life with the compositions of the paintings of his family. In 1990 he began with photography and started to implement all his knowledge from painting into his photography.

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oh boy, another story about the dreaded buzzword of storytelling. Why do people think they need to try so hard elevating an image into something that it isn't...

Hi Steven, it is absolutely not necessary to tell a story, if the goal is just to get a photograph. The question is, if your photograph should get to art. If yes, there are a couple of things to be fulfilled, to bring it to art. One of the most important requirement for getting art - and here it doesn't matter if it is painting, singing, photography or whatever - is to create something new. If we just capture reality, we don't create something new. But the story can create something new for us. This is what the "Gestalt Theory" is all about: "The whole is more than the sum of its parts". So, there is no need to bring a story into a photograph, but you can.
Nice greetings,

I'd like to acknowledge the excellent decision made to support your video with a fully developed written article as well. I really have no comment regarding the topic itself, but was thoroughly impressed by the aforementioned choice. I cannot stress how many times I dismiss an article on these sorts of websites because they are essentially a YouTube (etc.) link. I and many others do not process information that way generally (VARK Theory; strongly in the "Reading and Writing" category).
Thank you.

Hi Peter, thank you so much for your kind words! There are many ways of writing an article about a video and I totally understand what you mean. FStoppers has a quite high demand on quality here and this is why I like to write here.
It is interesting: It is not only all about using a different medium for conveying the information, articles and videos seem to use different "bandwidths". This was never planned to be honest, but when I look at my articles: in most cases they contain also some information, that is not included in the videos and also the videos contain additional information to the articles. I guess, whoever has read the article, might anyway be interested in the content when he watches the video, as he experiences not only what he has read already, but also new things. And on my experience, connecting different methods of conveying information is not a disadvantage for learning as well :)
Thank you for your comment and nice greetings,

Christian ... The story about the birch trees is 'your' story. I would have to ponder the birch trees a very long time before I would have to landed upon 'confidence'. My point being that the moral of the story, confidence, is a projection of your personality. My story about the birch trees would project my underlying needs, conflicts and values. That's why (in my opinion) characterizing what you're doing as 'telling a story' is confusing and off-putting to people. Telling a story is such a concrete notion to most of us. What we're trying to accomplish operates more like reading Rorschach Ink blot, where the viewer is projecting their unique story into the image, often from the depths of Pandora's Box. If the image is well conceived it should elicit some level of emotional response on a non-verbal, abstract level. It's upon this emotional foundation a viewer may or may not develop a dream/story comprised of a swirl of emotional fragments that coalesce into a feeling state of some sort. Thanks for letting me take this deep dive.

Hi Stewart, thank you for your detailled comment. You got it :) This is exactly how I'm convinced of how art works. It is all about interpretation, that leads into the story. Five different artists could see five different stories here. And it is the interpretation that could lead into a totally different story at the viewer's side. It is his experience and his preferences that avoke emotions and let him interpret the scene. There is absolutely no need for a match to the interpretation of the artist. For me the image title is anyway important, as it can bring the viewer to think about why the artist decided for that one and how he has interpreted the scene. The integrity of the artist is even a base requirement for getting a piece of art finally.
Thank you and nice greetings,