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.

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

I’m not sure what you mean...?

I'm guessing a reference to gear obsession..

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."

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.

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....

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

We can but try

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.....

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

Perfect. So why is it a “new take”?

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.

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

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....

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 :)

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

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.

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.

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. :)

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 :)

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

Utter nonsense.

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

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.

Uh huh... and if you don't have money?

Do you use good gear or mediocre gear?
It seems like most of the gear don't matter stories are written by people with pretty darn good cameras and lenses. Not a Rebel 3 with a kit lens.

Good question. I’ve got my first Rebel still, a 7D2, and 5D4. A bunch of lenses but still use my pancake 40 as much as anything else. No lenses extortionately priced, most expensive maybe $1,200 or so...? And my go to lens is still my 16-35L, which is far from new and far from the best

I think there is a difference between commercial work and personal work.

Also, think it depends on the person and the type of photographer.

Taking snaps of your family and kids has another value to you personally and as such you view it in another way. I mean every snap has a story behind it to you.

I'm not the type of person that brings a camera everywhere, never brought it to family gatherings, graduations, etc. When I started my business and started shooting for a living that did not change, I still do not bring a camera to special occasions just because I'm a photographer by trade. So I think it very much depends on the person and photographer.

That's not to say I did not or do not take pictures of my family before I started the business my family were the usual test subjects and being a father of five I accumulated a few over the years. :-)

These days I use cell phones to record and take snaps of the family when needed, and while most of the images tell us a story I am quite confident it would not do the same for people who do not know us.

Storytelling is important, but I'm not sure family snaps are the best example of that.

I enjoyed this article and the photos even more. They proof very well what you are telling. It is also very true that today's cameras reached a quality level (buy second hand, if you do not want to spend that much) which we have never seen before. So we get the chance to concentrate on the story telling. The difference between telling a story with a well exposed and carefully composed beautiful photo to a just beautiful perfect photo is apparent. Even more, storytelling is above everything else: Please compare to photos of the past: Quite some of the iconic photos are (very) low resolution, sometimes out of focus and even blurred, but they tell a story and that is what they are famous for. Have a look at e.g. Henri Cartier-Bresson's 'Hyères', 1932 or 'Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare', 1932.

I would like to suggest that this gear-obsessed mania is driven by the very technology that we covet, into a rather vicious circle of spending even more money for a theoretically better piece of glass when we test its latent characteristics with micro-measurements. I come to this conclusion from the simple fact that as a former analog photographer, I rarely upgraded my staple lens set for each format. Once purchased, a Leica Summicron 35mm f2 was for life unless a second hand Sumilux came available for a good price. It was like the gear we owned was good enough. It was enough to handle a modest workload as everything else could be rented. There were no new surprises except in film technology. Or specialized cameras, like owning a Widelux just because one client needed that long rectangle in an annual report nobody read.

Yes, we should spend more time sequencing our photos into meaningful narratives that other fellow humans can learn from than to simply exalt in the sheer ubiquitous nature of world-image taking until it all becomes a blur. My advice to any serious amateurs: Find a subject and stick with it.

One more point: An any-brand current mirrorless body with a sharp macro lens is an incredible scientific tool for those studying the world.

In the end, the trend to write opinion pieces that gear doesn't "matter" and photography should be this and that is a tad saturated, to say the least. Just recognize that photography is not the same for everyone, nor should it be.

no, pretty spot on really. I was tempted to use some old, iconic photos of times past that are still as powerful and emotive today as ever. Yet when you examine the photos themselves, there are obvious flaws in them in relation to how we judge modern photos. Things such as noise, lack of focus, grain.....all likely due to the gear and processing available in those times but nonetheless inferior to what we judge in today's standards. So why are these photos still so iconic? Because f the storytelling capacity and their ability to move people.

If the gold standards for storytelling are snapshots of family and friends I think there are plenty of storytelling to go around.

Again the author's images of his family, of course, means a lot more to him than to anyone else. I very much doubt they tell a grand story to everyone else.

Slow things down and question, why we choose a certain angle, framing, etc, is, of course, great practices but to think that gear is in the way of storytelling, assuming everyone else thinks or work exactly like you. Which they, of course, do not and rightfully so.

Raises too many questions, storytelling for who? Has to have universal message that everyone understands?any picture can mean something, doesn't need ananthropocentric message, these days I find colors, textures, important as part of composition, and knowing gear can help with that. your pictures while ok, they just seem like a feed or a collection of vacation snapshots, but lack certain quality to attract interest in my opinion, maybe I've become jaded in the Instagram world where everyone storytelling is similar.