Where’s the Story?

Recently I wrote about the technical versus the aesthetic. This prompted a lively discussion via my In Box with a significant subset of my readership. But one email in particular asked a question that hits right at the heart of why some images don’t have aesthetic impact.

I refer to such images as “memory snapshots.” These are images you take because you were someplace or doing something that you simply want to later remember. We’re all guilty of this at some point or another. You arrive in a foreign (to you) city and are struck by something so you pick up your camera and take a quick picture. And yes, it’s usually quick and without much thought.

Technically, that image may be fine. It’s in focus, it’s well exposed, the horizon is level, you didn’t cut off anything important. But aesthetically, it’s lacking. Why? Because the story of that image is in your head, not in the photo.

In other words, you see something different in the photo than do others who later look at it, because you know the story behind it but your viewers don’t. Maybe it’s the first time you’ve ever seen a 300-foot waterfall. Maybe it’s the only albatross you’ve ever seen. But we don’t know that, do we?  

There’s nothing wrong with taking this type of photo, but they’re not showable without you there to tell the story behind the image. Indeed, the old stereotype of the couple trapped in someone’s living room watching a multi-hour slide show of their friends’ recent vacation is exactly that: the images tend to do little to keep interest, so it’s up to the story-telling capabilities of the presenter to not bore the audience. 

Let’s be clear here: words are not pictures. If words are needed to explain a photo—particularly of why the photo was taken—then the aesthetic element simply isn’t there. It’s okay for a photo to provoke questions (e.g. “what is that?” or “where is that?”), because the story there is mystery. But if the lack of story causes your viewer to yawn or move on, then you probably have a photo where the story is solely in your head. Such shots should be kept private for your own nostalgic viewing. 

So let’s talk about that “first 300-foot waterfall” memory snapshot. The story is “damn that’s big.” What did you do in capturing the image that says “big”? Did you put something that we can use as a scale reference in the shot? Did you shoot in a way that emphasizes depth (or in this case height)? A lot of people take this shot from far away with a wide angle lens (because the waterfall is big and it needs a wide angle of view to capture it). That’s uninvolving. It’s a reference shot of the waterfall, sure, but it’s not telling a story. 

So here’s the technique tip: get the story out of your head and into your shot. How many pieces of the story can you tell, how many clues can you provide the viewer? 

Of course, the first step in this is to actually bring the story to your consciousness, not just react at a subconscious level. You brought the camera up to your eye almost without thinking, so why did you do that? If you can’t answer that question, you’re not ready to tell the story to others.

This will also be filed under the Technique section, in Improving the Photographer

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