Is There Storytelling in Landscape Photography?

Landscape photography is one of the most popular genres of photography, but how do photos of rocks, mountains, waves, and sunsets tell a story? 

Photography has always been used to tell stories. It has always been an easier, more convenient, and more effective way to illustrate events and phenomena. But, as a landscape photographer, you may have sometimes questioned what stories you are telling your audience. How does the location illustrate an event? How does the light translate into trains of thought? 

Storytelling has always been attributed mostly (but not exclusively) to human subjects. If not the human elements directly, they can be objects that represent human life and activity. Perhaps that is the reason why not everyone with a deep understanding of landscape photography would be able to identify storytelling elements in a scene without a human element. Human elements are not uncommon in landscape photography. However, it is the significance of that visual element in the photograph that sets it apart from instead being a travel photograph, a street photograph, or even an outdoor portrait. Human elements in landscape photography are often effective for scale and movement but not directly the main subject of the image. Instead, there are various visual elements that aid in storytelling in landscape photography, and in this video are a few examples. 

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Tom Reichner's picture

I do not believe that a still photo ever tells a story, regardless of what the subject matter is.

I think that still photos cause the user to envision all kinds of possible stories that may lie behind the moment captured in the photo, but that they do not actually tell the story.

Even if a still photo directly communicated a story, it would do so by showing the viewer the story, not by telling the viewer the story.

Timothy Roper's picture

Agree with Tom Reichner. While photos have always been used to illustrate written stories, on their own they don't and can't tell a story. Take the famous photo of the little girl, Kim Phuc burned and running naked down a road. Looking at the photo, you'd have to ask what is she running from? A terrorist attack? A chemical plant explosion? And what happened to her skin? Maybe burned in the chemical plant explosion? No way to know, just looking at the photo. And if someone were to kindly point out it's from the Vietnam war, a viewer might have to ask, "what's the Vietnam war?" Only words and the stories they create can answer all these questions.

Deleted Account's picture


Edit: before you object, please read the thread, three people have made similar objections.

My response will not change upon restating of the same objections.



The essay can be referred back to Ali Choudhry's recent article "A Surefire Way to Improve Your Photography With One Critical Change" <

It is absolutely true that *pure* landscape can connote (see referenced essay) emotion to the viewer; and the viewer can infer meaning, subject to their own subjective worldview. However, *pure* landscape cannot tell a story without some sort of context; whether that context is words, or a photo essay.

The following image can certainly cause the viewer to feel an emotion, or infer their own story; however, in the absence of context (see caption), it cannot tell the story *I intend*.

"Dark Point, on the Central Coast, was the site of a massacre of the local Indigenous people."

[more follows]

Timothy Roper's picture

"It is absolutely true that *pure* landscape can connote (see referenced essay) emotion to the viewer; and that viewer can infer meaning, subject to their own subjective worldview."
That's true of ALL photography, not just landscapes, pure or otherwise. For story, you need words. Or at least moving pictures (ie, video).

Deleted Account's picture

See my second comment.

Deleted Account's picture


By contrast, these images tell stories on their own; but, they are not landscape, they are documentary.



2. One of mine.

Timothy Roper's picture

But what stories are they purportedly telling? The first one looks like a very interesting story of a Bigfoot hanging onto a log, and about to kill the man below (that would be an exciting story!). And the second one is the story of a broken-down excavator? It's really too hard to tell, though, without some kind of text.

Deleted Account's picture

Sorry, I was lazy in my image selection; I assumed everyone was familiar with the orangutan fighting the bulldozer.

I would have thought the issue of habitat destruction was common knowledge. I sometimes forget that some people just don't give a shit.

Timothy Roper's picture

Yes, just like I said. You need video and/or text to tell the actual story.

Deleted Account's picture

No, *you* need. I don't.

Deleted Account's picture

Let me give you low hanging fruit.

This tells a story on its own.

Timothy Roper's picture

That photo doesn't tell much of the story. The story about how the child was alone because her parents were getting food from an aid plane, Nick Carter took the photo, and she then she went back to her parents (with many other people around, including many journalists). You don't get any of the actual story from this photo (which I would argue is about the aid efforts). You might fill in your own story when looking at it, but something different.

Deleted Account's picture

I am perfectly aware of the back story.

The question at hand is "can a single photograph tell *a* story?" *Not* "can a single photograph tell a precise and correct story to all observers at all times?

Timothy Roper's picture

That's not backstory. It's what was going on when the picture was taken. It's THE story of that little girl. But the photo was of course used to illustrate something much bigger (the famine in Sudan), which people learned about with printed words. Without the words, who knows what this is a photo of. Maybe some kind of right of passage ritual, where small children are left alone for awhile? No way to know.

Deleted Account's picture


Backstory wasn't anywhere in the question.

But you do make the point, by example, that words are not enough to give you what you demand.

Deleted Account's picture

It does rather make your point doesn't it.

Brian Albers's picture

It’s not that we don’t give a shit. It’s that we simply don’t know all of the surrounding circumstances around this or any other photo. You can’t expect people to know everything about everything.

So no, a photo cannot tell a complete story. It can give somebody a glimpse of what happened in that exact moment, but the viewer may not have any way of knowing the who and the what and the how and the when that led up to that photo or what came after that photo.

And that’s all the stuff that makes up the story of the photo. And that’s the stuff where you’ll need words or video.

This is a ridiculous hyperbolic example, but- without that video, and without any other context or knowledge whatsoever, how would a viewer know that the orangutan shot wasn’t staged? Or the starving child with the vulture? Or any other photo? Or how would we know it’s not a composite?

Deleted Account's picture

How on Earth are people interpreting the question as "a complete story", or "backstory", or a specific precise story to all observers at all times?

None of that was the question.

But yes, pre-existing knowledge is a form of context.

And I'm not sure I'd choose caring about the environment as a hill to die on.

Tom Reichner's picture

They aren't telling a story to me when I view them. I don't know what is happening in either of the photos. Nor do I know what happened in the moments leading up to the moment the photos were taken, nor do I know what happened in the moments immediately following the photo being taken. They aren't really communicating anything to me at all.

Deleted Account's picture

Again (you are the third such objector), the question is *a* story; not *a precise, complete, and accurate story, which is consistently interpreted by all observers at all times*.

Cognition is subjective; therefore everything, including words, is subjectively interpreted by each individual observer.

If we apply the preconditions of the objectors, then the question is not even worth asking.

Timothy Roper's picture

In that case, I'm sicking with my Bigfoot story for the first one. I mean, that's a great story, right? And as you point out, who cares about the truth and facts?

Deleted Account's picture

Yes, very droll.

Stuart C's picture

I think it can from a weather point of view, or if some kind of change in the landscape is documented. But ‘pretty’ landscape shots are more just enjoyable to look at rather than offering anything compelling from a storytelling perspective.

Deleted Account's picture

I think we can take the question "will *words* confer an accurate, consistent, and complete interpretation, by all observers at all times?" as having been addressed.

Steven Andrews's picture

Perspective, angle, mood, light, and everything else mentioned here are important elements creating beauty, emotions, or professionalism in a photo. None of them has anything to do with a "story". A portrait created from different angles, with different lenses, etc., may evoke different feelings and may portray people differently, but none of that is a "story". I keep hearing people talking about images "telling a story", but I have yet to hear them explain what that story actually is. In my mind, this alleged concept of "storytelling" is really two things: bla bla and pomposity

Deleted Account's picture

Yes, if one were writing a paper, one would first define the word "storytelling" and/or "story".

Timothy Gasper's picture

As Rod Stewart so plainly put it....'Every picture tells a story.' Regardless of whatever someone may think, they can't account for another persons' interpretation of a story which may or may not exist for that person. One may speak for themselves, but certainly not for others.