I frequently encourage people who attend my photography workshops to approach the day as though they have been assigned to shoot for a magazine editor and need to provide a strong series of images for a photo essay. One of the locations we visit is the local fresh market here in Chiang Mai, Thailand, so I’ll use images from this market to illustrate the point in this article.
The time it takes you to create a photo essay may be determined somewhat by your chosen subject. If you’re photographing your child’s birthday party, a social gathering at work, or a football match, you will have time constraints. With other subjects, you may have the luxury of being able to return many times over a period of days, weeks, or months to continue building your pictorial story. Whatever you choose as your subject you will be able to apply the points in this article to help you produce a strong series of photographs that a picture editor would welcome.
Approach to making photo essay
There are two main ways of approaching a photo essay – thematically or narratively.
I’ve chosen a series of images for my photo essay here with a thematic structure, showing the market as the overall theme. You may like to choose a narrative structure and tell a story with a beginning, middle, and end. To follow a narrative storyline at the markets I could choose to follow someone who arrives to do the buying for their restaurant, follow one of the porters who haul produce for shoppers or spend time with a vendor documenting their daily routine.
Whether you take a thematic or narrative approach, applying some basic guidelines to the way you shoot and how you make your final selection of photos will result in a strong series of images.
You want to look for three types of images; wide, medium, and close-up. By shooting these three image types you will build up a broader perspective on your subject.
At a market, I’m always looking to capture a great wide shot showing the lively hustle and bustle and feel of the overall vibe of the market. This is difficult to capture because I have no control over what’s happening. It’s important in situations like this to take your time. Find a good location where the lighting and background are pleasing and you will not be obstructing anyone, and shoot a lot. Be observant.
Watch and see the flow of what’s happening and anticipate the best time to shoot. If your chosen subject is more static you might want to include a single prominent feature in some of your wide shots. For example, if you are making a photo essay of your local park, try including one of the park benches, a drinking fountain, or a flowerbed in your wide compositions rather than taking just a wide shot with no main focus.
Medium shots are best composed with one main subject as the focus, and including relevant aspects of the location as well. These shots will show a more intimate view of your subject, draw the viewer deeper in, and help them connect with your story.
At the markets, I like to shoot environmental portraits, often of the people who work there. Including some of their surroundings supports the theme by developing the context of my story.
Showing the mango vendor with her cart, produce, scales, and umbrella helps build the essay more than if I was to crop in tight and to make a portrait of only her.
Including some action in these shots makes for interesting photos too, as with this photo (above) of the butcher sharpening his knife. Neither of these photos was posed, but sometimes it’s a good idea to take a little control of the situation and ask someone to pause so you can make a portrait.
I asked this fishmonger with the lovely smile tray of smoked mackerel to pose for me.
Coming in close to capture the details will definitely add depth to your photo essay. Look for elements to include in your close-up compositions that others may overlook. Single colors, patterns, and textures all work well as close up shots.
The neatly stacked fish in the blue plastic tub, the basket of (live) frogs, the bundle of soup ingredients for 5 baht and the bunch of flowers made from pandan leaves all add variety and interest to my market photo essay.
If you’re photographing a birthday party your close-up shots may be of the detail on the cake, some of the wrapped or unwrapped gifts, or tightly cropped happy children’s faces. Look for detail shots which fit in with the overall feel of your photo essay.
As you are shooting, consider how your images will fit in with your overall story. Think about the five “W” questions – who, what, where, when, and why. Answering them with your photos will build up a very good impression for someone viewing your photo essay or picture story.
Traditionally, this market is where the people of Chiang Mai have gotten food. The market is over 160 years old, so it has real character.
When you’re shooting your photo essay be aware of the overall tone and feeling of the situation you are photographing. Become a part of it, not an outsider with a camera, and you will produce more intimate, interesting photographs. If you have time on your side, even consider visiting the location where you’ll make your photo essay without a camera. Doing this will give you a different perspective and may help you connect with your subject more easily.
Choosing Your Photos
Once you’ve completed your shoot and have downloaded the photos to your computer, begin by discarding any that are technically inferior. You don’t want to include shots which are out of focus, poorly exposed, or your timing was off. Remember, you are aiming to please the photo editor of a magazine (just pretend this is the case, even if you are shooting just for yourself, it will help you to have this mindset) and they will reject any images not up to their technical standards.
Take your time to look over your photos. Grouping them into the three types, wide, medium and close-up will help your decision-making process. Compare your photos within these groups and look for the strongest pictures that support your overall story. Think about how they might be laid out on the pages of a magazine and what they will communicate to someone viewing them that is not familiar with the subject of your photo essay. Finally, you will want to choose one main shot to be the feature image. The one you are most happy with that best conveys your feeling for the story you are telling.
So even if you have no aspirations to shoot for a magazine, this is a good exercise to help you put together a better photo essay. Consider printing a book or your completed project for yourself or to share with friends or fellow travelers.
Please put your comments and questions in the space below, and share your photo essay images.
This past year, the Leadership Network hosted a quarterly Photo Essay Contest. According to their press release:
“The goal of the contest is to collect photo essays featuring large, Protestant congregations. The idea of compiling photo essays, rather than single photos, was inspired by various news outlets’ use of the medium.”
“In our organization we hear tons of great stories of what God is doing in various cities, but we rarely get to see pictures. Pictures can tell a story just as well, if not better, than words alone,” says Stephanie Jackson, publications manager for Leadership Network. “We think photographers can offer a fresh and unique, visual perspective of the vibrancy and life happening in churches around the world,” Jackson adds. More>>
Our church takes an annual trip to Mexico in December and I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to get some great pictures. This was my first photo essay and I figured worst case scenario, by entering I would learn something. This entry ended up winning 2nd place (2nd Quarter).
Bringing Light & Power To Mexico
Encouraged from the positive response from my first try, and having been reinvigorated after my visit to the Evangelical Press Association, I decided to enter again, this time featuring our Micah House after school program. This won 2nd Place (4th Quarter) and the “People’s Choice Award” GRAND PRIZE.
Micah House Makes A Difference
Entering these contests was a great exercise and fun to do. Winning was icing on the cake. Through the process of putting these together I learned a few things that I found helpful.
10 Photo Essay Tips & Tricks
- Know the story you want to tell first – With the Mexico trip essay, I wasn’t sure what approach I was going to take. This made it much more difficult to create with the story photos we had. With Micah House, I outlined the story first, then went to take the shots I knew I needed. This was much simpler.
- It’s nice not to be rushed – Deadlines are a helpful motivator, but putting together a photo essay is not something to be rushed. Give yourself a few weeks. With Mexico, all the photos were taken in one day. With Micah House I had 6 photo shoots over 3 weeks. Taking the photos is only the beginning. Plan on spending at least twice that amount on the rest of the project.
- Don’t be afraid to partner – You don’t have to take all the pictures yourself. With Mexico there were two of us that entered the contest. With Micah House I was aware of photos that I wanted to include to make the story stronger. Ask permission and give them photo credit. Most people will be happy to help you.
- Sometimes you need to direct the shot you want to take – A photos essay isn’t necessarily photojournalism where you are just documenting what you see. You have flexibility to direct the outcome to get what you need.
- Editing is where the real work happens – This is can be a time consuming process. With both essays, we had over 1,000 photos to sort through to end up with about 20. Always be thinking, which photos are “strongest” and which photos will help you tell the story.
- Color correct for consistency – When you have multiple cameras, locations and times of day, etc., it’s easy to have your essay look disjointed. You don’t want the change to be a distraction. One person should be in charge of color correcting so there is a similar look for the entire essay.
- Have people who are passionate about your topic help write the essay – Typically the photographer takes the lead on a photo essay. But don’t forget the essay part. A photo essay is BOTH show and tell. For Mexico I enlisted Jeff & Kathi McNair, friends and nationally known leaders in disability ministries. For Micah House, I had Program Coordinator Dianna Lawson help me by sharing her favorite parts about the people and program. In both cases we sat down for several hours reviewing the photos and writing down potential captions.
- Editors are your friend – Like any involved project, at some point you will stop looking at it objectively. Remember, editing is a team sport. You need outside help to give you perspective and to insure you tell the best story possible. Grammar, spelling, sentence structure and narrative all count to the judges.
- Know your deadlines – I had assumed the 4th quarter deadline ended at the end of June. It wasn’t until I re-read the contest application, that I realized it was due a few days earlier! Fortunately, I had worked ahead and had most things ready. I would have felt terrible to have gone through all that work to have missed the chance to submit my entry.
- Have fun and know (regardless of the results) you have made a helpful contribution – I have found that most churches and nonprofits do not have many good photos of their people and programs. The worst case scenario of making a photo essay is you will have quality photos to share that they can use on the web, annual reports, giving appeals, public seminars etc. Best case scenario you might win and give your organization some additional well deserved attention.