This guide will help you to understand what narrative in photography is, and how it’s created, and give you some tips on how to use it yourself.
We’ll also have a look at some of the most famous photographers using narrative to give you a good visual foundation to start from.
Narrative is a useful tool to learn regardless of the kind of photography you’re interested in or pursuing as a career.
Any photographer can use narrative. Food photographers, wedding photographers, photojournalists, travel photographers, and commercial photographers; all use narrative to create powerful series that tell a story.
Without further ado, let’s get stuck in.
Table of Contents
What is Narrative Photography?
Narrative photography is the act of using a camera to narrate a story and the idea that photography is a good medium for storytelling.
As with all other forms of narration, the person doing it must have a good understanding of context, and what it is they want to portray.
Narrative photography uses a series of thematically linked images to narrate a sequence of events.
Not every event, not every moment is needed to tell the story, that is up to the photographer to decide.
The photographer must choose what to include and what to exclude, and in which order to construct the narrative.
And that narrative doesn’t have to be true. Although photojournalism uses narrative to tell real stories about our world, you can also use photographs to tell fictional stories.
Why is narrative important in photography?
Sometimes, the visual impact or beauty of a photograph is enough to give it meaning to the viewer. Sometimes the technique the photographer uses is enough to give us pause.
There are many pieces of fine art without a story or narrative to them that can stand alone.
But, many images that have nothing behind them except the desire to be beautiful, or shocking, are ultimately bland. And this is where narrative comes in.
Even single images can have a sense of story to them. The cliché, a picture is worth a thousand words, only holds if there was a reason for the photographer to take the picture and the viewer can feel it.
A sequence of images combined to tell a story can be very powerful, both visually and emotionally.
Looking at a photograph or photographs can automatically create a sense of distance and separation between the photograph and the viewer.
There is the photograph, which is being observed, and the person looking at it, who is doing the observing. There is a gap there, and the less the viewer knows of the context and content of the photograph, the wider the gap is.
A narrative helps to bridge this gap between the image and the viewer. And this is important because it connects the photographs to their audience, the photographer to the viewer, and the viewer to the story told by the narrative.
It is the same connection the reader has with the writer of the book they are reading.
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So, the most important thing narrative should do, beyond creating a connection, is to inspire the viewer’s imagination.
Whether the viewer is seeing a single image or a series, they should want to know more, they should want to seek out more of the story.
What is the difference between narrative and story in photography?
The terms ‘narrative’ and ‘story’ are often used interchangeably, but they are quite different.
The story is the events themselves, the things that happen that have a beginning, middle and an end.
The narrative is the way in which the story is told, the sequence of events, and the structure of the story.
The narrative holds the story together, but the story is the content of the narrative.
If that’s confusing, perhaps the easiest way to remember the difference is to think of it this way:
If you reshuffle the order of events, you have a new narrative of the same story.
6 Examples of Narrative Photography
How Do You Do Narrative Photography? 16 Tips
Here are some tips for telling visual stories using photo essays, a single image or across multiple images.
1. Be original
More than ever, our world and our eyes are drowning in images.
They’re on news sites, advertisements, blogs, and your Facebook feed. It’s a deluge.
And even when the aesthetic quality, or technical ability that has gone into taking the photograph is high, it’s often repetitive.
Plagiarism and unoriginality are rife. Just think of how many millions of unique people who have visited the Leaning Tower of Pisa and come away with exactly the same photograph.
If you want to tell a story with your photographs you need to stand out.
Ideally, you need to try to come up with an idea that no one has seen before, but you could also find a completely new way of telling an old story.
The important thing is that it has to be new. There has to be a reason for people to want to engage with it.
The good news is that just because you’re alive, you’re already halfway there.
You are an original, and only you have the ideas that you have.
So have a think about what those ideas are, and try them out.
2. Do your research
Ask yourself, why are you doing this? And why does this story need to be told?
The answer doesn’t have to be that you want to change the world, or that you want this story to say something profound, it can be as simple as that this story interests you in some way.
You have to have a reason to shoot it. If you don’t, you’ll lose motivation or do it half-heartedly. If you’re not interested in the story and have no emotional connection to the content, that will be translated into the image or images, and they will suffer for it.
But, assuming you know why you want to shoot a particular narrative, you then need to research and plan the shoot.
If there’s a history to your topic, you should be reading about it, if you’ll be shooting in a foreign culture, you’ll need to learn about the customs, and probably some of the language.
If there’s a particular fashion that needs to be followed or a set environment it needs to be shot in, you need to know all about it.
Even if your story will be shot in a more spontaneous, candid style, at a sporting event, or religious festival, for example, you still need to plan.
You need to take care of all the logistics, timetables, travel and accommodation arrangements, and know the weather forecast.
During your research, you can find other photographers who have shot the same event and ask them for tips. They might let you know about things, for example, you’re not allowed to shoot, or protective clothing you might need.
Whatever you’re shooting, you need to prepare meticulously, in a way that is relevant to your subject, and well in advance.
Although planning and researching can sound like rigidity to an artist, when you have a plan in place, it frees you up for the next point.
3. Be spontaneous
Whether your narrative is being shot through a more candid form of photography, such as street photography, or taking place in a highly stylised and controlled environment like a studio, you need to be spontaneous (or at least be open to it).
You can’t control everything. You can plan, you can set your camera settings, you can tell models what to do, and you can get yourself in the right positions, but you must always be alive to the moment.
Trust your instinct, listen to your gut.
If you are storytelling in a fast-paced environment, or a war zone, you need to think fast and adapt quickly to changing conditions.
But even if your shoot is a slower-paced and in a more controlled environment, things may happen that you have no control over, but those might be the things that bring your images to life.
Something might happen to change the direction of your narrative or give it a layer you hadn’t thought of.
If you are closed to these chance happenings, you might miss the story completely. So, have a plan, and do your research, but remember that plans can change, things happen. That, after all, is the nature of stories.
4. Consider your settings and equipment
The camera settings you use will have a great impact on the effectiveness of your narrative.
Think about your depth of field. What do you want to be in focus? What would you like to be out of focus?
As for your shutter speed, how will you use that? Do you want to freeze the action, or use motion blur to infer movement? Blur can also be used, of course, to express other things like, for example, confusion.
Think about how your use of these settings will help you tell the story.
The time of day you choose to shoot in (if your story takes place outside) will also have a great impact.
Naturally, if you are shooting in a studio, the temperature and brightness of the lighting you use will play the same role.
Think about which camera you’ll use, whether you’ll shoot digital or film. And the lens – the focal length is very important.
Telephoto lenses will bring you up close to your subject, whereas wide-angle lenses will allow you to show more of the background or scene – so you need to make sure this is relevant.
Will you overexpose your images? Should you underexpose them?
These are all things you need to think about before you take your photographs, and also when you are taking them.
5. Look for symbolism
This is somewhat related to the third point, spontaneity.
When you are open to what is happening while you are taking photographs, you may start to see symbolic elements you can use in your photographs. Your mind may start to create links.
But this is also true in a more planned sense. When you are planning a shoot, you might want to think of more abstract or symbolic ways in which you can express your story or parts of it.
Literal interpretations can often (although not always) be a little boring.
Think about approaching the narrative from the side, rather than head-on to unearth symbolism in photography.
6. Limit visual distractions
This doesn’t mean that your photographs cannot or should not contain a lot of information, or many focal points (as long as there’s balance).
It just means that you need to eliminate everything from a photograph that’s not relevant to what you want it to express. The image needs to be concise.
If there’s a fish in your image and it doesn’t need to be there, take it out.
7. Pay attention to composition
This is a basic rule that applies to narrative photography as much as it does to any other type of photography.
You need to consider leading lines, hidden geometry, the rule of thirds, or the use of negative space.
It can be easy when focusing on narrative elements to forget that in order for anyone to look at your story, you must first present them with a balanced image that draws them in.
That’s composition. Your decisions about which compositional rules to adhere to and which to break will be the viewer’s visual introduction to your work, and therefore the element that will decide if they look further and get to be told a story.
8. Convey emotion
Find ways to introduce emotion into the narrative.
There are many ways in which to do this, and these ways will depend greatly on your subject.
Some examples, though, would be in your choice of lighting, colours, exposure settings, or as simple and stark a choice as whether you choose to photograph someone from the front or back.
Finding a way to express conflicting emotions creates tension.
Most importantly, you, the photographer needs to feel emotionally connected to what you’re photographing. Without that, you won’t be able to convey any emotion at all.
9. Use captions
Not all images need captions, but text is a great way to add information or context to a story.
It doesn’t need to be factual, either.
I’ve seen abstract text paired with images and poetry. The main thing is that the text, if you use it, is relevant to and enhances the image or images, without telling the whole story.
10. Shoot a series, shoot a single
Don’t tie yourself to the number of photos you need to produce.
Sometimes, you’ll intend to create a photo series, but everything you need to say can be said in a single photograph.
Other times, you’ll work on a photograph and realise you need to expand on that idea and create a series.
The narrative will tell you what you need to do.
11. Use colours
Colours are an extremely important narrative device.
Blue can be associated with sadness, red with passion or anger, green with envy or the natural world.
Think carefully about how your use of colour impacts your storytelling in photography.
12. Think about perspective
Perspective, too, is loaded with psychological weight.
Choosing where to shoot things will determine how viewers see them on a subconscious level.
For example, if you want to portray a person as confident in your narrative, don’t shoot them from above, as that will show them as vulnerable or weak. Instead, shoot them slightly from below, or if you want them to be overconfident or domineering, get down even lower.
13. Be inspired
Look at other photographers’ narrative photography work.
Study their images to learn about composition, use of colour, and how they put narratives together.
Also, it’s a good idea to join a photographer’s group, either online or in the flesh.
Talking to other photographers about your ideas and theirs is a great way to get ideas, feedback, and inspiration, and to let air into your work.
By that I mean, take it out of the bubble you put it in.
Often when we create things we do so in a closed room, so to speak, and letting other people see it, and allowing other perspectives on it, can often be the thing needed to drive it forward.
14. Don’t be afraid of failure
Many people are so scared of failure that they don’t do anything. They might have ideas, but they don’t act on them, just in case they don’t work out.
Failure is a natural part of progress, a natural part of narrative photography.
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It’s possible your idea might not work. It might need to be changed, or discarded entirely.
But you can always learn from it, and that’s what will help you change your project for the better, or what will give you a better foundation from which to start something new.
Accepting that you might fail, or might already be failing, is actually pretty freeing. It releases tension and frees you from being overcritical about your work.
And if you can then relax into it and just be interested in the outcome of your own story, you’ll enjoy the process more, and your work will be better.
15. Be coherent
This is possibly the most important tip in this narrative photography guide.
Coherence is where the narrative goes to live or die.
The more coherent your idea and execution are, the better chance you have of creating high-quality narrative photography.
For the narrative to work, all your ideas and aesthetic elements need to come together in a tight, complete package, with no fluff or extraneous matter.
That means the composition, use of colour and perspective, the settings you have chosen, and the motivating principle by which you chose the subject, must all clearly have an intention.
And, if all of those elements have been chosen and included with intention, and if everything irrelevant to the expression of the story has been eliminated, you should have something coherent.
Which means, something that is truly itself, and not something else.
16. Give yourself time
Sometimes it can take a long time for a series to come together.
Sometimes things need to be reshot.
Even if you are just trying to take a single photograph, it can take a lot of time for all the elements to come together.
It might need a lot of post-processing.
Sometimes you might get frustrated and need to step away.
But the world is not in a rush to see your narrative photography work, so you shouldn’t rush the process.
Take the time you need to make sure that when you’re finished creating the visual story , you’re happy with it, and wouldn’t want to change anything about it.
Who Is Famous for Narrative Photography?
- Gregory Crewsdon – Best known for staging dramatic scenes of American suburban neighbourhoods and homes
- Robert Capa – A Hungarian-American war photographer and photojournalist who is considered by some to be the greatest in his field
- Ansel Adams – A famous landscape photographer known for his black-and-white images of America
- Henri Cartier-Bresson – Often considered to be the father of modern photography and a master of capturing the decisive moment
- Robert Frank – A chronicler of America and the American way of life, who created iconic images about racial inequality
- Margaret Bourke-White – A documentary photographer who was the first woman to be given credentials to shoot World War II, and the first photographer to be allowed into the Soviet Union
- Dorothea Lange – An American photojournalist and documentary photographer. Her Depression-era photographs are her seminal work
- Walker Evans – Another American documentary photographer whose work humanized the effects of the Great Depression
- Diane Arbus – A photographer who specialized in disturbing, intimate, and disturbingly intimate portraits
- Steve McCurry – A versatile photographer who shoots travel, portraits, and in war zones. One of his photographs, Afghan Girl, is perhaps one of the most famous photos ever taken
As the Content Manager of Shotkit, India Mantle brings with her a lifelong love for photography that she developed during her childhood, watching her father document their family moments with his Nikon EM. In her free time, you find her enjoying the awe-inspiring natural beauty of her home, Northern Rivers, Australia.