with Lorelle and Brent VanFossen

The Writer-Photographer – Enhance Your Story with Photos

Telling a Story

Brent walks up a trail with his camera gear. What is the story here? Photo by Lorelle VanFossenWords tell their own story. They bring forth rhyme and reason, color attitudes, and move people. Combining the power of the visual image with the verbal image can either enhance your story or overpower it. Finding that happy medium is the challenge facing every writer handed a story requiring photographs.

Like words, a photograph tells a story. It can either tell the whole story or part of the story. It’s up to the photographer, like the writer, to determine how much of the story is told by the image. Some questions to consider while planning your photographic essay are:

  • What am I trying to say?
  • What is the point of this picture?
  • Does it add to the story?
  • Does it subtract from the story?
  • Is my point really evident?

Finding the Right Combination

These simple questions help eliminate distractions and simplify your images. They improve the quality of both the photograph and the story you want to tell. As you seek to balance the images and the words, ask yourself:

Banolier National Park, Indian Ruins, Photo by Brent VanFossen

What is the point of this picture?
What is the point of the story? Is the story about the forest or the trees? Or is about the land the trees are on? Find the significant visual element to enhance the words you write. What do you want to say? What are you trying to tell the reader? Is your story about how hard life is for a tree in a dark forest and how it must fight the shadows to reach for the sun and life? Or is it about the scientific process of forest succession? Think through the concept and story line. Find the special interest, the main point that will literally “sing” to the readers. Maybe that’s the image you want to portray.
What is the emotional content of the image?
Does the photograph tell the emotional story of your article? Are these emotions part of the story? Any time you can capture the audience’s heart with moving images, the more willing they are to read the article and connect with the it. Two children playing on the sand tells of youth, fun, magic times of sharing and the joy and simplicity we may have left behind. An older couple watching the sun set from a park bench tells a story of aging, quiet, peacefulness, and contentment.
Part or Parcel?
Images which accompany articles can be the whole story or merely pieces of the puzzle. With the story of the tree, the words may tell of a passing breeze which drops a single seed into the soil and of the tree’s struggle to fight all the odds to survive. The photographs could show a seedling pushing out of the ground or a tree bent with snow and ice. Or a leaf or branch stretching out to grasp glimpses of the sun. Or maybe a tree seed in a child’s hand. None of these images tells a complete story, but together they may add to the entire content, enhancing the story.
Balance is critical.
When do you have enough images to tell the story and when have you crowded the story with images, losing the story? Ask yourself these questions over and over again as you find the balance between the words and the images. Familiarity with your subject, how the camera sees, and practice will help. Lots of practice and lots of film.

Working with a subject

This woman, Jo Boyett, stands by the water in a hard hat. What could be the story here? Photo by Brent VanFossenTime is probably the greatest gift you can give a photographic subject and the one thing you usually have the least of. Just as you wouldn’t want someone to shove a camera in your face, your subject won’t like it either. Spend time introducing yourself and asking questions about what they do and who they are. Comment on how they look, and reassure them that they will look just fine for the pictures you will be taking in a few minutes. Then sit down with the camera on your lap and just chat. It can take only five minutes or an hour, but it’s your job to make them feel comfortable. You have invaded their space, and it’s your job to help them help you.

As they become more comfortable with you, start to play with the camera while talking to them. Load film, dust off the lens, attach the flash – just mess with it. If they are unfamiliar with your camera, show them how it works. Let them take a picture. Have fun with it. Laughter is the best relaxer.

A lot of people feel guilty about photographing people and take the picture and run. Why? I see people notice me and I drop the camera and hang out a while. Then I take some more pictures. You have to pull down the camera and keep eye contact. You have to become a person behind the black box.
Nevada Wier, Travel photographer

Start to work slowly while talking to them. Expect to use lots of film. Film is cheap compared to that one caught moment that tells your story. All it takes is a missed eye blink or sniff and your shot is blown. Most 35mm SLR cameras have a mirror that flips up blacking out the viewfinder for the moment of film exposure. It only takes a split second for the human eye to blink. Take all this into consideration and take lots of pictures. After a while people become used to the clicking and forget about it, opening up even more possibilities.

Ask First
Many people don’t like their picture taken. Be polite and ask permission before taking someone’s photograph. Even if you hold the camera up with a questioning look on your face, wait until they nod approval.

Animals make facial expressions, too. Just take time and wait as we did with this orangatan in a zoo in St. Petersburg, Florida. Photo by Brent VanFossenAsking people to tell you their story will often produce the facial images you want. As they reminisce, their faces and bodies will emulate the emotions linked to the stories. An old farmer may stand up and dance around like a kid when he talks about the great barn dances they used to hold. Or he’ll sigh and smile a soft smile and blush a little remembering the young woman who shared his life in the beginning. Look for those moments and listen. They will usually warn you before they make a shift or change: “You should have seen my mother standing there, so ticked off! I thought she was going to kill me. She said, ‘Bill, you get your pants on right now or I’ll get the whipping stick out!'” As he emulates his mother shaking her finger at him while standing there, fist on her hip, you are ready for the shot.

Working still subjects

Just as with people, any subject should be worked in the same way. With Part of the story of the swamp at Loxahatchee NWR is the Red Rouge Lichen which covers the trees. Photo by Brent VanFossenwildlife, spend time making the subject comfortable with your presence. Even with inanimate objects, work it from a variety of angles and positions. Wander around and try to see the subject from different perspectives and directions. Make time to spend with the subject, be it a tree or a person.

The longer you spend with your subject, the more familiar you become and the more new things you see and learn about the subject. Read about the subject before you ever go out to photograph it. If the story is about trees, read not only factual, scientific research but take time to check out a children’s book or two about trees. Look at the subject from all points of view as you prepare your writing, and you will look at that old tree from a new perspective.

Technical How Tos

Sample magazine layoutWe offer a unique workshop teaching environmental and ecological writers how to incorporate nature images into their articles. Here are some tips we give them to improve the quality of their nature photography.

Watch horizon lines
Humans prefer things in their proper places and looking like they should. We expect the ground to be level, water to run downhill, and trees to grow up. Shaking those expectations can create slightly disturbing images and detract from your point.
Horizontal vs Vertical
Don’t forget that a camera has two points of view: horizontal and vertical. People are vertical, trees are vertical, so turn the camera on its side and make things look like how they feel. Offering your picture editor two choices, horizontal and vertical, will make you look better, too.
Simplification is probably the single most important technique. Just like in editing your writing, in photography you need to eliminate the distractions. Do you need a shot of the forest floor with all its clutter and dead leaves? Is that the story? Or is it about the leaves themselves and not the clutter? Keep the main point of your story in mind as you look for images to represent it. Keep it simple. Too many words can spoil a story. Too many subjects can spoil a great picture.
Slow down
It’s easy to click off a few shots and consider the project done. It’s also easy to get so excited about a subject that we forget proper technique and end up with unusable photos. Take time. Slow down. Learn how to prevent getting too excited by planning ahead and understanding how your equipment works.

It seems like everyone photographs the Grand Canyon in Arizona. But how many take time to see an old friend in a new light? Photo by Brent VanFossenSame old, same old
Don’t treat things as if they are old-hat, dull and boring. Try looking at things from a new point of view just as you do with your writing. Who said you had to stand over a child to take their picture? Get down to their level. Who said all pictures must be made from the standing position? Lie down on the ground and aim your camera up. Climb a tree and aim down. Try new angles and positions to keep your work exciting and different. You might find all kinds of new possibilities and perspectives which may also change your viewpoint on your story.

The process of incorporating photographs into your articles can be as hard or easy as you want to make it. Take lots of pictures and try not to repeat yourself. Keep looking for some new angle, some new way of looking at things. Keep focused on the main points and concept of your story. Most of all, take time and have patience. You will find the magic of photography enhancing the magic of your writing.

One Comment

  • george kaufman
    Posted July 28, 2005 at 7:21 | Permalink

    Very good article. I’m trying to get back to photography and I find you article useful and stimulating.

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