Does Your Photography Have a Point?

Does Your Photography Have a Point?

What's the point of your photography? And how do you engage viewers with your images more? I reached a stage where I struggled to clearly answer these questions but then I implemented a few very helpful techniques evident in these images that really helped me define my photography.

When I was grasping for creativity and inspiration in my photography not so long ago, a very insightful chat with an artist friend of mine helped sweep away the fog and perfectly clarify things for me. It wasn't the kind of overnight epiphany that Eckhart Tolle might have had, more just a reinforcement of what I already knew but hadn't been able to incorporate into my work as much as I'd wanted. What was it? Your work needs to be a reflection of you: your emotions, your views, your character, and your life perspectives. It seems obvious but how many of us really put ourselves into our work?

Until that point I'd just been focusing on taking great landscape images. But it was always more about the technical aspects — the composition, the color combinations, the light, and the camera settings. Those things are all extremely important and there's a ton of great stuff here on Fstoppers to help you learn those parts of photography, but once I felt that I'd honed and sharpened those skills sufficiently, photography started to become mundane and tedious. So I made a concerted effort to put more of myself (not in a selfie-type way!) into my photos. I've put some examples below which I'll discuss.

Telling Stories With People

There are two main things I try to do with my photos these days. The first is give an insight into my character and emotions, and the second is tell some kind of story and evoke emotions from others. One of the most common aspects of your photography that experts will tell you to work on is your storytelling. To me, however, the term is extremely frustrating because no one actually tells you what it means. It's become a little soundbite for the pseudo experts to spout off in conversation but there's never any depth to the recommendation. I've given it my own interpretation whereby it means going beyond the technical, pretty aspects of an image and engenders in viewers a strong desire to ask more and more questions about the image and their reactions to it. Let me explain with a few images below.

This image here starts with the technical aspects: the composition has the symmetry of the sun in the top left and the surfer in the bottom right. Both sit roughly on a rule of thirds gridline. It uses warm, analogous colors and positions the surfer so he's paddling towards the sun. So from a technical analysis viewpoint it's not too bad but I like it more because it's a genuine reflection of my soul. I grew up surfing on a beach in Sydney's south. I'm an only child whose parents divorced young so a huge amount of my childhood was spent in scenes like this where I'd wake up early and ride to the beach and surf alone as the sun rose. I revel in solitude and feel very uncomfortable in crowded places so this image here perfectly encapsulates what is most precious to me — the ocean, surfing, being alone in nature, and the uncertainty that surrounds us. 

When people view this image they tend to respond the same way. Invariably, they don't talk to me about settings or which lens I used, but more about the ocean, surfing, their childhood, or memories that this evokes. To me, that's what storytelling is — conjuring up thoughts in people that go beyond colors, or gear, or rules of composition.

This is another image that really resonates with me. Again, technically, it's not perfect but it's not too bad. Compositionally, you have the river dividing the frame nicely with a nice contrast of colors, you have the gorgeous, soft hues of the dimming sky, and you have the father and the daughter exiting to the left, reflecting closure. But it's more about the emotions this evokes in me. I'm 45 years old and have a 2.5-year-old daughter and a 4-month-old daughter. I'm not the youngest dad in the world and while I may be fit and active, time is precious. So when I see this it raises a flood of feelings in me: how I want to spend life with my daughters; what kind of father I want to be; when will I introduce them to the beauty of nature; will they want to spend time with dear, old dad as they become teenagers?

This scene brings together absolutely everything that I cherish — my daughters, the beauty of nature, and solitude. When you look at this photo, I sure hope you have a lot more running around inside your head than simply "I wonder if he shot this with a prime lens or zoom lens." That's what storytelling should do — provoke thought.

Storytelling Without People

In the two examples above I used people in the frame, but you don't necessarily have to. As I said earlier, I now generally try to include two things in my photos: an insight into how I see the world, and an opportunity for viewers to conjure up a raft of thoughts and emotions that go beyond simple compositional elements. Naturally, utilizing people is easier because they can be used as reference points for viewers to empathize with but it's not a black and white rule.

We'll start with compositional elements again first, just to show you that they are important and that you do need to learn them. In the bottom left corner the bigger rock is a strong point of focus and helps lead the eye through the frame as the rocks get smaller upstream. If you use a rule of thirds gridline you can see the light at the end of this nature tunnel is on an intersection in the top right. The river works as a leading line to draw you to the subject. In terms of color, it uses analogous greens and yellows. However, this image means more to me than those compositional parts.

By now you get the idea that I love solitude. I never had brothers or sisters to play with, nor cousins, aunts, uncles, or grandparents because they all live in England (my parents migrated to Australia just before I was born). I spent pretty much my entire childhood and most of my teenage years finding things out for myself and exploring the beautiful coastline and nature trails around my home in Sydney. And I've carried that love of solitary exploration through to my adult life here in the south of Japan and into my photography. This photo is a representation of that as I took it high, high up in a valley not far from home without a soul around for miles and miles. It took me about 2.5 hours to get there, hiking alone.

But I also love that opening of light in the distance. It's almost like a light at the end of the tunnel and can be used as a metaphor for life for those who like to have philosophical whims. This photo has led to many a conversation about the afterlife, religion, and near death experiences among other things, Again, exactly what storytelling is all about for me.

How to Use People to Evoke Emotion

In closing, I think it would be remiss of me not to offer this tip on using people to evoke emotion in your viewers. It's very important, whenever possible, to leave people in your images unidentified, or unidentifiable by things such as clothing, hair color, or hairstyles. Why? Because you want viewers to imagine that the people in the scenes could be them. You want viewers to place themselves in that scene and allow them to daydream about thoughts that are conjured up when they spend time looking at your image. If you use subjects with wild tresses of luxuriant, blond hair, for example, it will be difficult for anyone without such hairstyles to imagine that it could be them in that scene. So what's the best way to do this? By using silhouettes.

In the three images I've used with people today, all three have had silhouettes. This final image of the fisherman shows what I mean about leaving your subject unidentifiable. We can't see his face, his hair color, his race, his age, or his brand of clothing. Heck, it might even be a woman. This allows anyone to gaze at this image and place themselves here without any effort. Identifiers like loud clothing or specific styles act as distractions.

To Sum Up

In closing, I want to reiterate the importance of giving yourself to your craft. I felt more than a pang of dissatisfaction and indifference to my photography when I was just going out and shooting nice scenes with beautiful colors. There's nothing wrong with that from time to time (or in situations where it might be a paid job) but for me, I started to feel much more of an affinity for photography when it became something I started to emotionally invest in. And when you do that, your storytelling becomes so much stronger because you're trying to say something more with your images and put a part of yourself into them and that really does resonate with people. You genuinely feel that there is much more of a point to what you're trying to create.

What are your thoughts? I'd love to hear from you in the comments below to discuss anything I've said today or anything that might help you drive forward in your photographic journey.

Iain Stanley's picture

Iain Stanley is an Associate Professor teaching photography and composition in Japan. Fstoppers is where he writes about photography, but he's also a 5x Top Writer on Medium, where he writes about his expat (mis)adventures in Japan and other things not related to photography. To view his writing, click the link above.

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Thanks for posting this. I've appreciated photography as an art form for a long time, however, I've just started participating as a photographer. Your tips and thoughts really convey how to use photography as a storytelling medium. Until now, I knew that I should try to be a storyteller, I just didn't know how. After reading this piece I think I have a better understanding. Thanks again.

PS: The images you've included are phenomenal.

No problem, happy you found it helpful. As I said, the term “storytelling” is used a lot but it’s something that took me time to work out too. Good luck!

Thanks for the post. It does resonate with me. I have had a camera for close to 30 years. Photography was a small hobby among many, a small way to keep some sort of creativity going (I am an engineer by trade). So when we decided to go on Safari 3 years ago, I wanted to get more out of the experience and bring home those awesome pictures everyone else has. I upgraded to a 6D and rented the best zoom I could get. But after getting home I was disappointed in myself. I shot with a reckless abandon and while I did have some great shots, I really didn't let the experience guide my shots. The emotion I felt wasn't in the pictures. I started looking for some guidance, and articles like this help a lot. The images I respond to the most in my archives are the ones similar to your first picture and story. They take me back in time to a place or a feeling. Or, since I take a lot of travel pictures, they make me want to be right back where I took the picture. It is a story of sorts. I just need to have patience and shoot a story, and not just a moment.

Yes I know exactly how you feel. In your case, it might have been “there’s a lion, gotta snap it. There’s a hippo, gotta snap it.” Then you get home and you have some exquisite lion and hippo shots that are stunning but perhaps don’t reflect the context, or your unique situation at the time. Or perhaps don’t do enough to separate your shots from other lion/hippo shots.
Sometimes, less is more and planning helps a lot with that.

Thanks for this thought-provoking & poignant piece. In my opinion, your idea of "story telling" goes much deeper than commonplace perceptions of the term, and dwells more into the artstic dimension of picture taking, where things like "meaning" , "purpose" and "ideas" carry far more weight than mere technical consideratons only. In fact, it could be argued that technical aspects of photography , as i think you allude to, serve a higher purpose, where we reflect on and try to make sense of the meaning of life. This, of course, brings us right into realm of "philosophy" , something i regard as indispensable to art photography. Thanks again for sharing and best wishes with your work, which by the way is more than stunning.

I guess as you get older, it takes more than just stunning colors or beautiful land features alone to keep you intrigued with photography. I don’t think every single photo has to tell a story but I think you at least need to put some thought into what you’re doing and, more importantly, why.

Ironically, it takes me much longer now to get far fewer photos but the ones I do come home with tend to be far more satisfying.

This has been a struggle for me for months. I feel like I have the technical side of photography down, but I just haven't been finding anything to really get me out and photographing. I bought a new camera in January and I still haven't even used it aside from a couple of test photos. I've just been so uninspired.

I think I need to print this out and read it every morning to refocus myself.

I know exactly how you feel. I went through a long period where I just couldn’t be bothered taking pics of *another* sunrise and *another* waterfall. Beautiful scenes but done to death is how I felt.

Now, I actually think about and plan what I want to shoot before I go. That even involves a sketchpad and pencil sometimes and arrows and scribbled notes pointing to what I want and where. Try it. It’s very rewarding when you come close to prducing what you originally visualised

I began taking photographs in 87, I think I’ve fought ever since with the question of ‘purpose’ and validating shooting that frame of Kodachrome for it to sit in a drawer. When the digital revolution happened and everyone became a photographer, I really could not continue in an art that had been so diluted, holding a camera made me feel physically ill. I’ve taken up painting, it gives me some of the peace of matching lense, shutter speed, aperture and light, but my love is still for the reassuring crunch of my Minolta X300 shutter.