A photograph is a story compressed in a single image. Photographers need to be good storytellers in order to make interesting photographs. The difficulty lies in telling the story in a single frame instead of being able to develop a story through time. On the other hand, this characteristic leaves more room for the viewer’s imagination. It is the photographer’s duty to build a foundation that the viewer can build on without forcing his or her own vision upon the viewer. There are narrow nuances between spoiling the story by telling everything through the image and leaving out too much so the image is too confusing to interpret.
Only show what is relevant to the story. Robert Capa’s famous quote, “If your picture isn’t good enough you are not close enough,” is a good summary of this point. For example, when shooting a street scene, don’t fall to the fallacy to show as much as possible in a single frame. By stuffing the image with lots of elements, you will compulsorily capture details that are totally irrelevant for the image. Instead, focus on the important parts. If you see objects near the edge of the frame that aren’t necessary for your story then get so close that you can’t get nearer without cropping out parts that are important to you. That way you assure to show only what is relevant to the story.
Every story follows the typical structure of a beginning, mid and end. A photograph should ideally cover all these three story arcs. Of course this conflicts with the characteristic that a single image has no time span where a story can be built up over time, but there is one tip to get a structure flowing. That is embracing triangles in your images. Triangles are not only popular due to their geometrical shape, but they also give the viewer an easy structure he can follow. Simplified, every angle can be a turning point for the story. It doesn’t really matter where the beginning or ending is; that is not up to the photographer but to the viewer.
Harmony and balance are important in life, but they makes for boring images. Street images that are completely harmonic may be beautiful to look at, but they seldom tell a good story. Good stories don’t go straight from A to B; they embrace twists and turns that catch the viewer by surprise. Conflict and harmony are abstract terms in relation to images. As an example, gestures often help to create some kind of tension between subjects. Although it might not be clear what a person is pointing at, it encourages the viewer’s imagination to continue the story.
Keep it simple. Now that you read about integrating triangles, gestures and subjects into your story, you might be tempted to do it all at once. The truth is, it’s nearly impossible to create such stories from scratch. Rather, search for one of these elements and try to integrate the others as well as you can without forcing it too much.
Are you seeing a gesture? Try to search for two other people who are close and are somehow related to the gesture, and then try to frame it to its best potential. While you’re out on the street shooting, don’t try to come up with a complex story on the spot. Rather, focus on one element and go on from there. Under real conditions, a lot of trial error is required to create a compelling story in a candid genre like street photography.
Closed vs. Open Stories
Another big part about storytelling is the nature of closed versus open stories. While the former tells a story from beginning to end and leaves very little space for the viewer, the latter is less strict about its structure. For the viewer it’s in general more interesting when the story isn’t displayed completely, but when they can be involved in the development of the story itself.
In photography this means that it can be helpful to leave out subjects that might be important to the story. While I already emphasized that there shouldn’t be any elements left that aren’t relevant because they cause more confusion than adding to the image, we can even go one step further and leave out a detail that might reveal the full scene.
Imagine the triangle with a gesture pointing at a person, where we can clearly see where person A is pointing at and the scene is fully explained by a photo. It’s an easy story to follow for the viewer, but it might also feel like they have been taken by the hand.
Remind yourself of the famous shower movie scene of Hitchcock’s Psycho. The true horror infiltrates your mind because you’re forced to think about it. It is not what is clearly visible to you that triggers the fear; it starts in your head and the movie is only a small guide without revealing too much.
Try to embrace the same logic in your photos. Build a story by photographing little details that combine to produce a great story. Don’t show everything to viewer or reveal the full scene; instead, leave a detail or two out and the viewer is able to create their own little story. This way they’re more bound to your picture and it will generate a lot more interest than telling a complete story from start to finish.
Don’t be too complex or force a story too much. Story telling is probably the hardest part of taking an outstanding picture in street photography. It takes a lot of trial and error to get a genuine, candid and interesting story that is well composed and draws the attention of the viewer.
About the Author
Sebastian Jacobitz is a hobby street photographer from Berlin who captures the everyday life in his city.
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