Your Photography Should Be About Storytelling, Not Pixel-Counting or Gear-Collecting

Your Photography Should Be About Storytelling, Not Pixel-Counting or Gear-Collecting

Anyone can buy expensive cameras. And anyone can buy even more expensive lenses. But not everyone can create images that evoke emotion in viewers and really make you think about what's going on in them.

Telling stories through your images took me a long time to understand fully. On the surface, it's a pretty simple concept: take an image that tells a story. But doing so isn't as easy as it sounds; at least, it wasn't for me over the course of several years. Like many, I fell into the trap of placing far too much importance on gear. Bodies, lenses, filters, gadgets, tripods: I wanted the best, and I wanted them all. The problem, ironically, is that gear is simply so good these days. I don't care if you're a Nikon person or Canon loyalist or a Sony ambassador, nor if you're a DSLR guy or a film girl or a mirrorless newcomer; the simple fact is that gear these days across the board is so phenomenally good. Producing images that are technically incredible has never been so easy. Get decent light, point your camera, focus your lens, push the button. Voila! The camera even processes a JPEG for you, so you don't have to do a thing. Upload to Instagram, add a couple hashtags, revel in the glory. How easy is that?

For a long time, that was pretty much my modus operandi (though I always shoot in raw). I would find beautiful locations, then wait for good light, think about my composition, then let the gear create its magic. Sure, I'd put years into understanding color theory and rules of composition and how to use dynamic range efficiently, but I got to a point where I was really jaded with photography. How many sunsets can I shoot? How many long exposures of water around piers can I capture? Sure, if it was a paid assignment, then I'd do it with as much love as ever, but for my own pursuits and personal endeavors, I'd hit the proverbial brick wall, mostly because beyond the beautiful colors and the gorgeous shades of light, none of the photos were speaking to me for much more than the few seconds I'd look at them after post-production.

So, I made a pact with myself to try to capture stories with my images that created discussion, confusion, deeper thought, and that engendered more and more questions. Naturally, I'm not always successful, and often, my ideas fall very flat, but when I do get it right, I find the satisfaction far, far greater. But more importantly, I can keep going back to those images long after they've first been produced. So, I'd like to share some of those with you and tell you my thought processes behind them.

At first glance of the photo above, most people are taken aback by the giant wall of water smashing the rocks. But there is much more to this than just that apocalyptic wave. You start asking things like "are they actually going surfing out there?", "are they insane?", "how do they get into the water from that position?", "is that some kind of island they're standing on?", "how did they get there?""where is the photographer standing to get this?" These are all questions I am regularly asked when people look at this. And often, parents ask about the lack of responsibility shown by lifeguards and so forth. The point is: this creates a lot of thought and discussion, but without those two surfers, it would simply be a ferocious display by Mother Nature. Interesting, sure, but nothing that's never been seen before. By capturing these two surfers in this moment, it becomes so much more. 

I love this photo above for so many reasons. It's my eldest daughter running through some shrine gates in Japan as her grandparents chase her. I have this photo up in my office, and it is incredible how much inquisitive conversation it generates, both from Japanese people and westerners. Obviously, the setting is an Asian country, but this is unique particularly because of my daughter's hair color. Typically, most mixed Japanese/western kids tend to have much darker hair. Indeed, my youngest daughter's hair is dark brown, but for whatever genetic reason my eldest daughter got my hair color. So, when you look at this photo, there's an instant type of confusion, because you have a fair-haired, rather Western-looking girl running through some shrine gates with smiling, Asian-faced people behind her.

For many visitors in my office, they usually ask about my daughter, then ask who the people behind are. When I explain that they are my wife's parents, many people (who don't know me well) are surprised I'm married to a Japanese woman, because of my daughter's fair hair. Then they tend to comment on my wife's parents' smiling faces and are happy that there seems to be a good relationship between us all. Indeed, when I first met them, I was terrified, as they are from the south islands of Japan, which are typically very conservative. But they took me in and have always been incredibly hospitable and loving. So, this image captures everything that's good about my family and my parents-in-law and the place I call home. And it's far more evocative than if I'd taken a stock-standard shot of just the shrine gates without anyone in the shot.

I think every parent (and non-parent) can feel something with this: the love between a mother and baby and also the complete, utter reliance of a newborn on its parents. What I also love about this shot is the purity of my daughter's soft, white, porcelain skin juxtaposed with the rougher edges of my wife's fingers. Sure, I could have smoothed those imperfections out, but I think I would have lost some of the impact of how age takes its toll on our bodies and how the young are so perfectly untainted. The most certain thing about this image is that no one gives two hoots about my focal point or the camera body I used: it's all about how the image resonates with them.

Of course, not every single image you take has to tell a story. This is a photo I took for a client who wanted something moody from a particular location on Australia's east coast. It had to be certain colors, it had to have water, and it had to have some drama. That was my remit, so this is what I came up with, and the client was ecstatic with the result. I also enjoyed the process, because I had to use my imagination and my knowledge of the ocean, the tides and the sun, and also use my gear efficiently. But if I'm perfectly honest, once I'd given the client the big, printed frame of this shot, I seldom revisited it again on my computer, nor printed it out for hanging in my home. But I do look at it now and wonder how much more powerful it might be if I'd placed a silhouette of a surfer somewhere in the frame.

Perhaps that's just where I am with my photography and scenes like these. While undoubtedly stunning, they don't really put too much fire in my creative belly. What do you think? I'd love to hear your views on the importance of storytelling in your photography and how you go about evoking more thought in your audience. Please leave your ideas in the comments below.

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From this website to Peta pixel and DP Reviews.... Guilty as charge

Iain Stanley's picture

I’m not sure what you mean...?

Jarred Decker's picture

I'm guessing a reference to gear obsession..

Iain Stanley's picture

It’s quite ironic that when I first started with photography and was pretty much clueless, I obsessed over gear. Yet didn’t have a lot of spare cash. Now I’m very comfortable with my skillset and have a lot more free money to spend, I don’t really buy much gear unless something breaks....

I think he means that lots of these blogs "borrow" from each other. DP Review has gotten particularly bad about it. They do some of their own gear reviews but any photo news, etc. they just blatantly steal. DIY Photography is the absolute worst about "borrowing."

Michael Jin's picture

So would you say that DIY Photography would be my one-stop-shop as far as collecting news from every other photo website that I regularly visit? I wouldn't mind having all my news aggregated in a single spot.

I would not advise that. I don't even look at anything from DIY Photography before. There are many better blogs that aggregate but have better original articles. IMO their "original" content is remedial.

Iain Stanley's picture

I try to create unique content when I write longer articles, as well as use my own images like I have here. But with so much news and people so well connected to things it’s certainly hard to remain 100% original....

Michael Jin's picture

New take: Your photography should be about whatever you want it to be about.

If only it were tagged, somehow, as his opinion... ;-)

Iain Stanley's picture

We can but try

Iain Stanley's picture

You’re free to write about that if you wish, just as I’m free to write about things I lean towards. That’s why this is an opinion piece, and is tagged appropriately so.....

Michael Jin's picture

I just did. It's a comments sections, which is delineated appropriately so....

Iain Stanley's picture

Perfect. So why is it a “new take”?

Michael Jin's picture

What I wrote is pretty self-explanatory and if anyone needs an essay as to why they should think for themselves, there's no amount of writing in the world that can save them. Keep allowing others feed you prescriptive advice about the values you should hold or what your hobbies should accomplish.

Kevin Harding's picture

Although I often wait around trying to get people into the frame they are unfortunately often not the right 'type'. Maybe I should carry a blow-up I can fix into position for silhouettes ;) I'm sure what looks like a silhouetted surfer on Everest would make a splash :D

Iain Stanley's picture

Use yourself....I’m not being sarcastic either. In skateboarding and surfing images I use composites/blends and use myself. Precisely because I got sick of waiting for people and then not getting the position or movement or style I wanted....

Kevin Harding's picture

Oh I am absolutely NOT photogenic , any more ;) I'd definitely do more harm than good to the shot !
In the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, for example, I waited nearly an hour for the shot I wanted, a single lady in black abada walking between those awesome pillars with no-one else around. Often I'm not that lucky though. Hang on .. maybe I could have done that one myself :)

Iain Stanley's picture

sure, there are circumstances where using yourself might not be appropriate. I can't control every situation but I often ask my wife or friends to stand somewhere or do something within the frame if I think it will strengthen the shot. Almost always as silhouettes though

I was photographing an underground basin and asked one of the personnel to "pose" on the ladder leading out. I gave him pretty specific direction but it just didn't happen and he was too far away, given the acoustics, to understand me in situ so I ended up putting the camera on timer, with 5 shots, and had to run like hell and climb like a monkey to get in place before the first shot fired. Luckily, at that distance you couldn't see me, in the photo, gasping for breath! :-)

Iain Stanley's picture

would've been a great BTS video haha

What if I like to tell stories about pixel-peeping and gear-collecting?

Pixel-peeping and gear content gets clicks and views. If a site or channel only does artistic stuff it ends up one of two ways: it sticks with the art & technique content and eventually plateaus in terms of popularity or it "sells-out" and starts doing gear reviews and gets to grow.

Iain Stanley's picture

Yep absolutely spot on about gear reviews and view counts. Waddya do? If I want to write a longer piece of 1,000 words or more like this, then I write about what I enjoy. Gear reviews have their place and generate discussion but they’re not something I’m particularly fond of....

I treat gear reviews as utilitarian. Do I need a new strap? OK, let's check out some reviews. Do I want a new wide-angle lens? Let's see what has been released in the last few years in my budget.

Hell, I treat modern gear as utilitarian. Does this configuration of gear allow me to achieve what I want to achieve at an acceptable quality? If yes, off I go, if no, change the config.

I used the term "modern gear" there because when I buy vintage stuff I actually do care about how it looks because many of my vintage gear are also display items.

Iain Stanley's picture

yes gear reviews are extremely helpful. It's a chicken-egg situation I guess: do gear reviews get the viewers or do writers write about gear coz viewers demand it? My article from last week has just about hit 50,000 views but that's a rarity. It can be deflating writing about art and technique and getting very little response or care from readers, so many people play it safe and go the gear angle.

I hope it isn't too discouraging. For what it is worth, as a relatively new photographer, I find articles discussing photography itself immensely helpful and insightful. I'm sure a lot of older and more experienced photographers do too. :)

Iain Stanley's picture

No it’s fun. Trying to think of new things to interest and engage readers is enjoyable. It doesn’t always work, but at least I get to write about photography and share my work :)

Ian Goss's picture

“Anyone can buy expensive cameras. And anyone can buy even more expensive lenses.”

Utter nonsense.

Iain Stanley's picture

Walk into shop, point to camera you want, take out wallet, give staff money, accept camera, walk out.

Marcus Joyce's picture

I think fundamentally yes that's how it's done.

But take your camera to the counter, get a store card, don't pay off store card get into big debt.

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