Create Photographs Like a Writer Creates Stories

Every morning, after I drop off my daughter at preschool, I walk over to the middle school and enter the big heavy doors. I’m usually in a hurry because school already started and the students are about to change classes. I’d rather not get caught up in their book bags, hand shakes, and their rush to get to the next class. Plus my petite size means many of them are already towering over me and I don’t stand a chance between a book bag swinging and the wall of lockers. I’m not a student, so I’m invisible. Except to a few. To those few, I’m their photography teacher.


These few students and I are in charge of the yearbook this year. Fun, but not without its challenges. Like the only camera available to them is their school issued iPad or phone. Yet, these students create some fantastic stuff! They’ve learned photography isn’t about the camera, but is about the stories they tell in their images.


So far, we’ve cracked the books on how to use their iPad camera app in manual and how to tell visual stories. White balance, light and composition are coming up next.



One of the easiest ways to teach 8th graders is through the work they’re already doing in school. Connecting reading and writing mostly, which means how to craft a good story with a main idea that stands out. Everything they’ve learned about writing, whether for information or creatively, applies to photography. And it’s just what I’ve done with them.


Most of what we talk about when we talk about visual storytelling is the main idea. Focusing the photo on the main idea, which can be a theme or idea, a person, light, color, you name it. Creating a clear main idea for the reader is a goal of writing, just as the goal of photography is to make the main idea clear to the viewer. We do that through the technical choices we make. Within a photograph are also supporting characters, just as there are in writing. These strengthen our stories through connection.


I first thing I ask students to do, as they frame a shot, is consider their main idea. Then consider how they will convey that idea to the viewers. What is their story?

The second question I ask is how they will tell it.What techniques might they use? What point of view? What would make their story stronger?

Next, I ask them to look at the corners of their frame. They need to include supporting characters and exclude anything that isn’t relevant.


The story makes most photos great. It’s that moment captured. It is light and composition that are like adjectives to a story. They are fun and creative and used effectively can support your story so it’s stronger and more beautiful. They can also break your story if they are not included in an effective way.


The last thought I always leave them with is practice. Just as you can’t become a good reader or writer without practice, you can’t become a good photographer without constant practice. It takes work and sometimes that work is drudgery and other times it flows freely and beautifully, but doing the work is most crucial to developing your skills as a storyteller both visually and verbally.


What does this mean for you? If you know a bit about writing, I hope you find it useful in transferring that skill to photography. Whether you’re capturing client lives, portraits, your own kids or your products. When you shoot, consider your story and the elements that go into a story. Once you start focusing on the stories you want to tell through your images, you’ll start to notice you are cultivating your creativity. It’s another mindset that takes you deeper and requires creative energy but at the same time has deep rewards for yourself and those looking at your photos.

Processed with VSCO with lv02 preset

The photos in this post are all a part of my day in the life series I’m completing this year. It is a personal project I started in January. I take storytelling images of one day each month. I started the project to work on my storytelling skills and I’ve learned so much more. This month the day I chose, I had a sick little at home which is why she seems to be lying around in most of these. It is a time I do want to remember – taking care of my girls when they need it. At the end of the year I hope to put all the days in a life for each month in a special photo book. I do this more for myself but the lessons I’ve learned I share here because I think they’re powerful for anyone shooting any type of photo. As humans, we love stories and if we can include a story in our photos, they become much more powerful.