Just One of Many Elements That Make A Photo Great

Storytelling Photo

This storytelling image of model Hillary was shot to illustrate, on her request, the break-up between her and her longtime boyfriend. Photo ©Rolando Gomez

At almost every photography workshop I’ve taught for over 15 years, I’m often asked to critique photos. While there are many things to look for when critiquing a photo, like composition, lighting, exposure, sharpness, etc., one of the first things I like to look at is if the photo is storytelling; does it possess editorial value plus emotional appeal?

When self-critiquing your work, or critiquing someone else’s work, study the photo and ask yourself, “Does it bring out your emotions, does it have value to your intended audience?” If it does, chances are it’s a storytelling image. Ideally you’d like a “yes” to at least one of the latter questions, so let’s look at what they mean.

Editorial value traditionally appeals more to publication requirements when images are used to illustrate a story, but today, with the Internet, one can argue editorial value applies to social media too. If you’re asked to supply photos to a publication, an editor will normally tell you what they are looking for in an image and if your target is social media, it’s based on hashtags and trends.

If you’re a blogger, or want to submit a freelance article, then the photo needs to illustrate your points. Visual storytelling is another form of getting the point across as well as conveying an event you’ve just captured.

If your photo doesn’t support the article for publication or what’s trending in social media, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad photo, it’s just not the photo needed for the means. If that’s the case, save it for a future article, trend, or even better, license it as a stock photo or use it for your own portfolio promotion. Not all images we capture are storytelling.

Emotional Storytelling Appeal

This photo caters more to the emotional appeal of love. Photo ©Rolando Gomez

Emotional appeal is an image that stirs emotions in your intended audience. If you’re photographing the birth of a newborn, then obviously your audience is that newborn’s immediate family and friends, so look for that emotional appeal in the image. Hopefully the image tells the story of the newborn’s birth too.

Another photography element to look for, does the image invoke emotions? If the image is super strong, emotionally, it might become viral on social media, which will provide additional exposure to your photographic abilities. Though don’t judge the image just on your emotions; ask yourself if it will invoke emotions in others too? But don’t judge a photo’s emotional appeal based on comments, likes and share, as an example, a scantily clad model will always get likes, comments and shares, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a great photo—you can call that phenomena hormonal or juvenile appeal.

It’s easy to feel biased towards your own creations and remember, always expect positive reviews from family and friends, which simply stated means, don’t count on their blessings as a sign of a great photo—unbiased feedback is a better testament in your photography, though remember, photography is subjective too.

There are many forms of emotions to consider, here are just a few: sadness, joy, trust, anger, anticipation, disgust, envy, love, and surprise. There are others too, but these are some of the main emotions photographers can capture in their images, obviously some are positive and some are negative, but the idea is for the image to create a reaction, hopefully positive. Public acceptance is preferred, but often photos have caused public outcry too.

Storytelling Photo, Emotional, Editorial

I shot this storytelling photo during the Pan American Olympic Games; notice the emotions of the boxers and the editorial value to illustrate a boxing story.

The most powerful photos are those that invoke emotions over a broad spectrum of viewers—remember the Eddie Adams photo of  General Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner in Saigon? He won the Pulitzer with that emotionally strong photo. While you probably won’t win a Pulitzer with a fashion, glamour, beauty or fine art nude photo, you do want to gain acceptance from at least your subject or client.

Strong images, like the latter, tell a story. For example, in portraiture you have portraits and then you have environmental portraits. Environmental portraits tell a story about the person being photographed. Let’s pretend you have to photograph the CEO of an automobile company for their annual perspective. A great photographer would place that CEO in a position where something like the assembly line is in the background. This technique, where you have a main element and a secondary element to tell a story is called juxtaposition.

Love, Storytelling Image

This storytelling photo was taken just before one of my Virgin Islands photography workshops. Notice the emotional appeal of love illustrated in this silhouette and how any viewer can picture themselves in this image.

Sometimes telling the story is subtle, or implied. For example, if you have a photo of a female subject standing at the bathroom mirror applying lipstick, that is one story, but if you have the same scenario where the mirror’s reflection displays a doorway with a man’s tie hanging from the door, that is another story and can often make the viewer feel as though they are actually there. Something as simple as adding an extra glass can imply two people are there even though you’re only showcasing one individual.

As photographers are we always going to capture editorial value and emotional appeal so a photo is storytelling? Not necessarily, but if we strive for it with some “pre-visualization” of what we’re trying to achieve, the chances do increase throughout the shoot. Think about working with your subject on a concept, this can help too. As a minimum try telling a story with your photos if you can; “why stop when you can make it better?”

While there are other elements that make a photo great, something I teach at my photography workshops is does the image tell a story and provide editorial value plus emotional appeal? If it does, there is a great change that image is a great photo, not just another mediocre shot. As always I close by saying please don’t forget the men and women who serve to protect our country, God Bless them, their families and friends, Rolando.

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