Day 1 - Storytelling (communicating intention) & 3 steps to stop taking boring photos

Identifying photographic opportunities

Have you ever walked around an area and struggled to find a photo opportunity to capture?

Depending on the subject and/or genre, there are different elements of a photo to look out for. Some elements include:

  • Light and shadow - strong and dramatic shadows or soft, gentle diffuse light
  • Lines, texture and shape - provides interest and guides the viewers' attention
  • Colour - a strong dominant colour or combination of colours
  • Gesture, posture - the human element creates a connection with the viewer
  • Context - changing the angle or moving back, can include identifiable content

It is up to you to prioritise these elements. If the day is overcast, there may be less opportunity for light and shadow. Then you could start looking for interesting gestures and interactions between people.

If you are travelling and the only opportunity for photography is in the middle of the day when the sun is high and creating strong shadows - that is your opportunity to look out for pools of sunlight between shadows.

Practise looking out for just one or two of these elements at a time.


Storytelling is something you likely hear photographers talk about. For so long, I did not really understand what that meant. For over twenty years, my photography was always directed and created within certain parameters! Very technical and no room for creativity.

Once, I started experimenting with smartphone photography, the genre that appealed was landscapes. I was often wondering how do you tell a story when it is just scenery? You too, may be thinking this storytelling concept does not apply to you either.... but it does, in every photo. When we delve into composition shortly this may make a little more sense. In a landscape image the colourful sky may have been the motivation to capture the image and intention of what I want to share. Therefore, making the majority of the image filled with the sky instead of half sky and half foreground makes it more obvious that I want you to notice the stunning sky. Make sense? It will as we move along..

Unlike video, in photography, we need to provide the narrative. The aim is to communicate to the viewer or ourselves in photo memories why we captured the photo. Images can communicate without needing further explaining and extra mental load to interpret.

Storytelling in your images can create an emotional connection with the viewer. The context can evoke a universal memory that we all share. It could also be something surprising or shocking. Telling part of a story will encourage the viewer to use their own imagination to fill in the blanks.

Multiple image storytelling in a series

Sometimes a sequence of events may have taken place over time and in different locations. These images can be positioned alongside each other to create a story. In the below example, you can see the day we picked up our new puppy Lucy. A series of three images is a Triptych.

To combine images like this, my two favourite apps are PicsArt (iOS and Android) and FrameMagic (iOS).

Single image storytelling in 5 steps

Providing a narrative in a single photo is more challenging. However, the first two steps below make it much easier.

  1. The intention of the photo – why are you taking the photo
  2. Composition – how the subject and supporting contextual elements interact with each other
  3. Lighting – create a mood aligned with the intention
  4. Aesthetic experience – pleasing to view, fascination, appraisal and emotion
  5. Editing – further enhance all the above

This formulaic approach can be applied to almost any image, even the landscape images!

This system can be applied to any image, even the landscape image and long exposure images!

Puppy playing example:

Once you know the 'why' you will start to become better at the 'how' to capture and edit the image.

The intention of the photo is to capture the excitement and motion. Therefore, get down low and close to the action. The bright orange toy and centralised puppy (Lucy) is obvious as the subject. The angle of the toy and blur articulates that motion. The Struman Optics fisheye lens adds energy and fun in a unique distorted perspective. The crop is also wide enough to provide the context of the puppy playing inside a home.

In the second photo, the intention is to show the size of the puppy. Shooting from a higher angle and small garden rocks in the scene provides relative scale.

Photographic intention

Intention is the motivation and reason for taking the photo. Knowing the intention will ensure that when you look at the photo, you will know exactly what it is about. This is achieved by many different techniques. If you are like me and have to work hard at creativity – you are going to LOVE that there are guidelines to help us out!

Have you ever noticed people who just take a photo to record what is happening in front of them? Intentional images will result in better memory recall and communication in years to come when your memory has long faded. You may have even experienced this yourself. Travel photos really benefit by capturing the image from a storytelling perspective.

This involves:

  • A clear purpose (subject);
  • Context (surrounding area); and
  • Visual narrative (story)

Prior to taking a photo - pause to consider what motivated you to take the photo

Subject clarity helps to experiment with different ways to capture and communicate that subject. You will start to really think like a photographer now, by:

  • Focusing your mind (pun intended) to find more creative angles and perspectives
  • Avoiding a cluttered background
  • Looking at how light is falling on the subject
  • Consider other elements in the photo.

As you can imagine, a happy snap without intention will struggle to evoke some sort of emotional or physiological response.

Knowing the intention of a photo will also be invaluable when it comes to setting up the image and the later editing process. You will know exactly what to introduce, remove, reduce and enhance to re-create the authenticity of the scene or moment as you saw it.

Composition and Lighting = Visual language

Photographic Intention is a nice introduction to visual literacy – the ability to read and write in the visual form. We are naturally quite adept at visual interpretation. It is widely known, that we read visuals at 60,000 times faster than text. Photography is a universal language that connects us and speaks to the heart.

Understanding what attracts our attention and what is over-looked, plays a pivotal role in helping the audience easily understand the intention and message of your image. Our eye is attracted to faces, people, bright, vivid, colourful objects, dominant shapes and objects in sharp focus. Conversely, our eye does not initially explore areas of the image that are dark, blurry and de-saturated of colour.

Composition and lighting will be covered in more detail in the next module.

Aesthetic experience - visual impact

Let’s touch on this one quickly before we cover composition in the next module. When we talk about the aesthetics of an image, most of the time we talk about how pleasing, calming and beautiful the image is.

These images have distracting elements removed and are referred to as 'clean' images. They allow us to very simply interpret the tones, lines, textures and colours within the image without a heavy mental load.

What about darker, moodier or even confronting images? They too have a certain strategically created aesthetic to them. So let's break it down a little more without getting technical by exploring the aesthetic experience.

The aesthetic experience involves four components:

  1. Subject – Implicit meaning of identifiable subject/content in the image
  2. Theme/story – Perceptual association – identifying meaning in the image
  3. Composition – Guidance and control of our gaze through the scene. This involves the dominance of different elements and how they relate to each other
  4. Emotion – Most of us can place ourselves in someone else’s position. If the viewer can imagine being the subject or in that scene, they will form a closer bond and connection.

Visual impact in your images is the challenging and rewarding part of photography. Some genres lend themselves naturally to being an aesthetically pleasing image. These can be landscapes, long exposure effect images and food.  

Visual engagement is another whole topic in itself! This is commonly referred to in visual marketing. Existing and potential customers have increasingly shorter attention spans. Visual engagement is the way of conveying meaning and intent. Visual engagement for businesses aims to communicate trust, value, relevance and even urgency.  

As you can see, editing an image requires a basic understanding of the above principles. There is so much more to creating a great image than using a filter. Different filters can enhance tones and colours. However, filters do very little to help storytelling.