Telling Stories in Photos

Imported from Unit 5 of the Open Ds106 course by Alan Levine

Photo by Jennifer, UMW ds106 student, Spring 2013, see

Photo by Jennifer, UMW ds106 student, Spring 2013, see

“There are no rules for good photographs, there are only good photographs.”
-Ansel Adams

The photo, quote, and lead for this unit’s ds106 comes from a previous ds106 student’s perspective on photography.

In doing ds106 Daily Creates you’ve already been using photography and drawing skills, plus you’ve had some practice doing visual stories from our Introduction to Storytelling. This unit we go a bit deeper and give you the opportunity to practice telling stories in visual form. We also hope to have us thinking more about story when we use our cameras.

You may go from someone who takes a lot of snapshots or quick mobile photos to one who thinks more about composition, framing, and being more intentional with your photography. Even if you are an accomplished photographer, you can always get better by honing skills or trying new approaches. And we find that people doing this unit’s work come away noticing the world around them in new ways, in more detail.

This uniy most of our work comes from the ds106 Assignment Bank – we strongly urge you to write up your assignments to meet the criteria of being a Blogging Champ— this means not only blogging the visual media you create, but writing about the idea/inspiration behind it and information on how you made it.

Inspiration: How Photography Connects Us – David Griffin (National Geographic)

The Story Behind a Photo

Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorthea Lange

Migrant Mother, 1936, by Dorthea Lange

Look closely of the most iconic photos, especially to usher an era of photojournalism, and consider what story an image alone might tell. Who is this woman? Where is she? How dod she get here? What does this photo say about the era?

And there is so much to the story behind the photo, and the photographer’s own story. See The Story Behind Dorothea Lange’s Iconic “Migrant Mother” Photograph and How She Almost Didn’t Take It (Brain Pickings).

Consider Lange’s method of note taking; what might she have done given a place to blog and publish her own photos? Is there more to a photo than the photo?

Becoming Better Photographers

Anyone can take snapshots, the question is do you want to elevate your photography skills to produce perhaps more artful, more story full photos?

The suggestions below are borrowed from Twenty Ways to Make Better Photographs. None of Them Involve Buying Gear a free ebook by David duChemin. You don’t need to buy the book, we’ve lifted some key points.

  • Get Pickier: Instead of using your camera like a rapid fire machine gun, spend more time pre-composing in your mind. As you get more practice, you can be more selective, and more deliberate. See if perhaps you can decide before taking a shot if it will be good.
  • Better Contrast Makes Better Stories Contrast can be in terms of colors and lighting, but also elements and subjects in your photos- look for things that maybe do not belong together (juxtaposition). Look for near and far perspective.
  • Change My Perspective By Changing Yours: Find different and unique points of view. Look down, up, lay down on the ground, anything different from your normal view of the world at head height. Seek perspectives of lines.
  • Create Depth: Look for ways to add dimension of visual depth in your 2 dimensional images- play with foreground, lines, use of wide angle lenses, use of dark backgrounds
  • Get Balanced. The rule of thirds is not only about placement on a grid; duChemin describes visual mass, elements that draw more attention in a photo and how to balance that effectively. “Becoming more intentional about creating and playing with balance in your images will help you create images that more intentionally express what you have to say.”
  • Pay Attention to the Moment: Sometimes it means slowing down, but also being more aware of the action in a scene, trying to anticipate the moment of something interesting before it happens e.g. watching a family at the table preparing for when baby might spill the glass of milk? at sporting events trying to be ready for the kick that scores the goal?
  • Look to the light. Probably the most key lesson- be aware of light that works and what does not. Knowing about shadows, directions, aiming for directions where light is strong (or not). Good light makes every photo. Learn how to sense when light is good (and when not, and you can skip lousy shots).
  • Use the Best Lens If your camera uses different lenses, understand better what a wide angle does versus a telephoto not only in terms of what it can fit in a photo, but what effect it has one photos (squashing or expanding space). If your lens is fixed, understand what its limits are (how close you can get, what happens at severe angles).
  • Expose for Aesthetics Learn how to use aperture, shutter speed, iso to control the image- what the effects of these all play on depth of field, motion freeze vs blurring. For fixed lens camera/mobile, at least understand what the level of light means for your photos (why are those low light photos are blurry?)
  • Put a Great Foreground in Front of a Great Background Pay attention to the near and far. A landscape scene is dull without something in foreground to give depth and scale. Learn to avoid clutter and distracting elements.

These are of course, very general guides. You get better as you look at your own and others photos. You get better when you think more before you press the shutter. You get better when you try new approaches. You get better when you break the rules.

We’ve assembled many more resources into a web based collection once housed on storify.

Pick at least three tips from these resources and try them as you do your Daily Creates and other assignments this unit. Write a blog post that summarizes the tips you tried. Include:

  • Link and credit for the tip.
  • Embed an example of a photo where you tried the technique
  • Describe how you thought about this, or what approach (or variation) you tried.
  • Take your photo that you are most proud of in terms of learning a new photo technique, and write a summary in our shared Google doc How We Are Becoming better Photographers. With your contribution, ds106 will have a guide for others to benefit from.