Visual Storytelling

by Dave Hood


What is visual storytelling? In the visual arts, such as photography,  it means telling a story with photographs, either with a single photo or a set of photos.

When  telling a story with photographs, you’ll need to consider several things.

First, you’ll decide on the function of the photograph. What is your intention or reason for taking the photos? Secondly, what do you wish to convey or communicate with the photos.

Next, you’ll select a subject.  It expresses a concept and communicates an idea.

Then, you’ll need to consider your audience. Who are they? How will the viewer react? How do you expect them to interpret your images? What is context for the audience? For instance, the web, in a gallery, printed in a book?

And you’ll need to make decisions about what sorts of signs and symbols to include in the photograph.

Text can help communicate your message. You might want to capture an image that includes text, such as a billboard, street sign, or stop sign. Or, you might want to add a quote or your own explanatory text under the photograph to help tell the story.

Finally, you’ll also need to decide on the type of narrative. Are you intending to tell  the story with single photography or set of photographs?

In this article, I’ll discuss each of these elements of storytelling.

The Photograph (genre and function and meaning)

Ansel Adams said, “A great photograph is a full expression of what one feels about what is being photographed in the deepest sense and is a true expression of what one feels about life in its entirety”. And so a photo does not only capture reality or an abstraction, it is also an expression of emotion.

Before taking pictures, you should answer the following questions:

  1. What is the genre? -street photography, architecture, still life, landscape
  2. What depth of field and lens do you intend to use?
  3. Will you be selecting a fast or slow shutter speed?
  4. What is the Light source ? Artificial. Natural.
  5. What sort of digital darkroom editing will you carry out with Lightroom or PhotoShop?
  6. Are you going to shoot in Colour or convert to black and white, and then have the photos printed?
  7. What sort of images would you like to capture? Still life, portrait, landscape, street photography…..

Functions of the Photograph

You’ll also need to decide on the function of your photograph.  A photo can have several purposes or functions:

  1. to record or document reality
  2. To interpret reality
  3. To construct reality. Example: still life arrangement in a studio
  4. to convert reality into an Abstraction
  5. To Tell a story with pictures
  6. To create social awareness-to inform the public
  7. To produce propaganda- to change the opinion of the public
  8. To provide a social commentary
  9. To distort reality-use of props and costumes and image editing to create beauty

Avoid Taking Cliched Photos

You should avoid taking photos of images that have been captured over and over, resulting in banality of response, such as a sunset or picture of the skyline. The viewer often reacts by muttering: So what? These are cliched photos, and they lack originality and a creative vision.

Context of the Photograph

You should also consider the context of the photograph. Here are a few contextual things to consider:

  • purpose of photograph
  • relation of photos to other photographs  in the set
  • Use of text
  • Placement of photographs
  • Cultural understanding and experiences that viewers bring

Printing and Presentation and other Output

Will the image be printed? Framed? Displayed on a Website? Hung in a gallery?

Will there be text used?

Is it a single image or set of images? What is the order, shape, sequencing of the image?

Who will view the image?

What is the purpose of the photograph? Art form, document reality, sell a product, and so on.

The following are popular ways to present photographs:

  • Single, framed Photograph
  • Created as a composite
  • Created as a montage
  • Shown as a slide show
  • Displayed on a computer as a PDF Presentation
  • Printed and bound in Photo book
  • Displayed on a website
  • Displayed on a tablet or smartphone


Who is Your Audience?

The audience refers to those people who are likely to view your photos. When creating a visual story, you’ll need to consider context, as it applies taking the photograph and to the audience.

Context refers to the circumstances that surround the setting of where the photograph is captured and its presentation.

Consider the following:

  1. The context within the image. Example: urban or rural; historical  or social; inside or outside.
  2. The content of the photo itself. What are the elements within the photo? Objects, people, landscape, buildings….
  3. Placement in relation to other images. How many photos? What is the sequence? Will you have both large and small photos?
  4. Where the photos will be viewed. On the web? in a Gallery? In your home?
  5. Wider context of the world in which we live-social, historical, economic, political

Choosing a Subject (concept and communication)

The subject is the concept and what you intend to communicate. Poverty, crime, pollution,  beauty, public art,  are just a few of a myriad of subjects that you can photograph.

In selecting a subject, you need to do have a concept and be able to communicate it. The concept or idea is also your reason for taking the photos.

Concept-What is the idea? what is your intention or reason for taking the pictures

With the photos, you want to convey some meaning to the viewer. In other words, you want to tell a story with photographs. And so you must communicate the concept to your audience.

Communication-What are you trying to convey with the photographs?

You are required to be passionate about  communicating your story through pictures, sending a message, conveying meaning.

If you are clear about why you are photographing your subject, then you can choose how to photography your subject.

In selecting a subject,  you’ll need to consider:

  • What are you intending to take pictures of?
  • Do you intend to record reality, to interpret reality, to create something representational,  or  to create an abstraction?
  • What is your intention or reason for taking the photos?
  • How will you photograph your subject?  What type of lens will you use?
  • How will you communicate meaning? Text, series of images, montage, and so forth

Here is how to focus on a particular subject:

  1. Select a topic.
  2. Select a concept from the topic. What is the main idea? It will frame your picture taking.
  3. What do you want to convey or communicate?
  4. What is the meaning? representational, abstract, symbolic, allegorical

How to communicate or convey an idea with photographs

  1. Referring to it
  2. Implying it
  3. Recording it


Before taking photos of a particular subject, do research on the Web. Your goal is to see what types of photos others have taken.

Visual Narrative

A  visual narrative means to telling a story with a single image or a set of images.  You’ll need to consider:

  • What are the sizes, shapes, arrangement of the photographs?
  • Will your  set of images convey a beginning, middle, and ending? Or will you use only one photograph to tell  the story?
  • How will context inform the choices about the photographs?

Using a Set of Images

If you decide to tell a visual story with a set of photos, you’ll need to consider the order or sequence , and arrangement of the photos. Some things to consider:

  1. Linear order- sequencing of a set of images
  2. Fragmented-each image shows some particular aspect of the story
  3. Aesthetic continuity-similar colour, similar tone, similar use of elements of design
  4. Sequential story-beginning, middle, and an end. What photo comes first? What photo comes last?
  5. Size and shape and layout of the images
  6. Juxtaposition of different images-contrast

What is your first photo? What is your last photo? Do you want to juxtapose contrasting ideas?

Visual Punctuation

  • Will you have larger photos for more important ideas and smaller ones for less important ideas? All photos are the same size? Different sizes?
  • will some photos have more prominence than others?
  • will you have a sequence, beginning to end
  • Will you organize like a spoke in a wheel?
  • do you need a lead picture that sums up the visual essay?

The Single Image

The viewer understands the story from all the elements in the single photograph. Often the photo is captured at the decisive moment.  For instance, capturing the decisive moment-Paul Henderson’s goal in the ’72 Canada Russia Series or World Cup winning goal.

Will you use text to as a title, as a caption, as an essay. What is the size of the photograph? Will you create a black and white? Or will you print a colour photo?

Text (within the image or added to the image)

These are the printed words that you add to the photo before presenting it, such as a title or caption. Text also refers to the text captured in the photograph, such as the logo on the Campbell’s soup can. Text is often an important attribute of storytelling with photographs. It helps communicate the intended message.

You can add text to tell your story of photographs. You have several choices:

  • A title can introduce and generate interest or add context
  • Text within the image
  • Caption can be used to provide context
  • Text can be used to explain  the photograph, or the photograph can be used to illustrate the text
  • Quote- adding text, such as an inspirational quote or captions or title
  • Scrawled text- Text scrawled on a negative signifies a persona l touch.
  • Scanned image- Scan an image with handwriting
  • Added text-Text added in Photoshop

Text is often used in advertising to sell products and services or as postscript in a book of photographs.

Signs and Symbols

Signs and symbols are popular ways to communicate meaning and share the context of the photograph.  For instance, if the photographer takes an image of a disheveled person on a park bench, the viewer quickly makes the judgement that the person is down on his luck and homeless.

And so, many signs and symbols are universally understood, while other require you to learn their meaning. For instance, if you travel to a foreign country to take photographs of the culture, you’ll need to learn the language and the street symbols and signs.

The Sign

What is a sign? It has a two-part model.

  1. The signifier-the form that the sign takes
  2. The signified-the concept the sign represents

How does the photographer use signs? Some include them intuitively. Other photographers carefully construct them in their compositions


The Symbol

What is a symbol?

It is something that represents something else, such as traffic lights or a flag or dove. The object that is a symbolic has meaning beyond the photograph. For instance, see the images of Robert Frank’s “The Americans.” He captures the symbols of America.

A symbol can be a visual metaphor. In other words, the photo can represent how you feel.

Always ask: What is the symbolic meaning within the photograph?

And when shooting, always ask yourself: What symbols do I want to capture?

The photographer might accidentally include signs and symbols within his or her photograph. Or the photographer might capture these by accident.

And so, to tell as story with pictures, you need to consider several  things:

  1. The photograph itself
  2. The subject you are taking pictures of
  3. The audience-who will view your photos and how will they view them.
  4. Context-where you will you take the photos?How will they be presented?
  5. The signs and symbols captured within the photograph
  6. Whether text will be included or captured
  7. Printing and presentation? Will you print? Display in a book? In a gallery?  Post to the Web?

Visual storytelling is about the photograph, the subject, the message you are communicating, how you intend to present your images to the audience–and then anticipating what sort of reaction you expect from them.


Creative Photography: Context and Narrative by Mario Short