Guest Post: Stop! You are NOT a Photographer! – by Kevin Halliburton

Who let the dogs out

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First off, I want to thank Jason for investing the years it has taken to build this invaluable blog and for risking it all on me for a day. It feels like someone just handed me the keys to their priceless sports car and told me to have fun, so thanks Jason, buckle up!

You are not a photographer. You are a story teller. When that sinks in it will transform your work.

Reverse lighting engineers aside, (you know who you are) most people are drawn to an image by its story line, not the perfectly executed technique.

That’s an easy thing to forget, and the more gear you add the harder it is to remember. The photographer’s job is rarely to create a technically perfect reproduction of a scene but rather to illustrate a compelling story as clearly as possible.

There is a massive volume of quality training available to today’s emerging photographer but most of it lacks an emphasis on the how-to and why of compelling story telling. That is surprising, because it is the single most important element in creating engaging and enduring images.


May the Light Source be With You

The technical aspects of shooting and post processing are critical, because they set the tone and mood of the story as much or more than anything in the scene. However, if you haven’t figured out what story you are trying to tell you aren’t ready to unpack, clamp down, dial in or power up anything, especially that fancy new high watt light or that even fancier and higher watt software.

Whoa there son, put that away for a minute… Let’s talk story.

If you think I’m over-emphasizing the importance of story telling consider this. All of the world changers in history, good and bad, compelled people to their point of view through effective story telling. Story tellers can, and often do, change the world. This is a power worth learning.

Photography is one of the most powerful story telling mediums ever invented but visual story telling doesn’t just happen consistently when you point the lens and trip the shutter. Good story telling is a learned skill; The single most important skill photographers need to master I might add.

Here are a few of the story telling methods I find helpful in my own work:

  1. Character research and development – I stopped thinking of my clients as “subjects” and started trying to develop them as “characters.” When possible, I try to do a pre-shoot interview at least 24 hours before the scheduled session. This gives the story I’m shooting time to mature in my mind and allows me to follow through on some of the steps listed below.
    If you can’t do a character development interview a day or two before the shoot at least spend a few minutes on a condensed version of one before you start clicking away. The purpose of the interview is to find out what the client wants to tell others about the person, place or thing they have hired you to shoot. Quite often they don’t really know the full story or message they have hired you to shoot. If you are shooting for yourself, you are both client and the interviewer. Don’t skip this step.
  2. Decide what method you want to use to convey your message – There are a lot of ways to tell the same story. I’ve identified the following methods frequently used in advertising:
    • Humor or Pun
    Take me to your Liter

    I have come for milk, take me to your liter!

    • Eye candy – Any image that just shouts, “hey, look at me!”
    • Might as Well JUMP

    • Humanize a non-human object
    • Flag-Salute

      A pledge of allegiance FROM the flag...

    • Identify a fear or create tension
    • Be Still and Know...

    • Exaggerate something
    • Two Tired

      Two Tired

    • Identify a problem or benefit
    • Litter is De-Facing

      Litter is Defacing

    • Create a metaphor
    • A Chill Hung in the Air

      A Chill Hung in the Air

    • Scale of subject to environment

    Nathan Driskell - Grace Museum Marketing Director

    • Ask a question
    • Pst...Hey Buddy

      Pst... Hey buddy, don't look now but is there a giraffe following me?

    • Twist the familiar
    • Da-Shroom-Wida-Plume

      Wild Mushroom

    Think of your story and consider what method will tell it most effectively. Write down two or three options and explore them in your story board or script in the next step.

  3. Story board your ideas – Story boarding is simply the process of clarifying and illustrating your ideas before the shoot. Even if the client already has a story board you are required to work from it’s a good idea to translate it in your own words. I find the images where I start with a storyboard or outline tend to go more smoothly and come out stronger than those where I skip it. If you don’t have the time to do this formally, at least take a few moments to envision what you want to end up with before you begin the shoot. This is probably the single most important step in the story telling process. It’s not a bad idea to spend far more time on story boarding than you do on the actual photography and post production.
  4. Use light as an adjective to describe your characters and environments – Light, shadow and the transition between them are powerful communicators. Volumes have been written on how to properly light a subject but the story should determine which method you choose for a given scene. Consider the following descriptions of various lighting formulas and envision how you might use each formula to describe a character, prop or environment:
    • Soft or smooth
    • Hard or edgy
    • Moody or dark
    • Halo (back or rim light)
    • Colorful
    • Brilliant
    • Shadowy
    • Flat
    • Vibrant
    • Warm (yellow/orange)
    • Cool (blue/green)
    • Etc. – Get the idea?
  5. Strong facial expressions trump everything – If you see a great expression on your subject’s face shoot it. You can break every rule in the book and a strong expression may still make it the best shot of the day. Facial expressions are solid story telling gold. Don’t let them get away.
    Can We Wrap This Up?
  6. Learn to anticipate and create the expressions you want through body language and dialog – Don’t just banter with your subject during a shoot, be mindful of the story line and continue to pull them into it through dialog that is purposefully associated with it. Genuine expressions are hard to fake but surprisingly easy to create by simply giving your subject something to genuinely react to. Don’t say, “ok, smile.” Say things like, “wow, you have a beautiful smile, I love it!” If they need to look sad or sympathetic tell them they remind you of a close relative who just passed away. If they need to look shocked, say or do something shocking.If being deceptive in pursuit of an image bothers you, don’t worry. This is not deception, it’s emotional manipulation <grin>.If emotional manipulation fails to create a genuine reaction, hit them with a snowball.
  7. Use costumes and props – Look at the image below. How do you express the complex story of a hard rocking skater who also enjoys a quiet afternoon of fishing with his family? I didn’t stage this picture of my youngest brother, I just recognized that I was looking at a great illustration of his complex character and shot it. The fishing pole and the worn, Vans skater shoes say volumes about him that would be hard to convey without the visual aides. The edgy light and post processing are important to the story as well (see next tip). Props and costumes. Good stuff!Reel Comfy
  8. Post process per story requirements – Novel writers wouldn’t begin every story with the cliche’ line, “it was a dark and stormy night.” Don’t run the “dark and stormy night” filter on every image either. No matter how cool it looks in that rock star photographer’s portfolio, if heavy handed post processing decisions are not driven by the story they can end up detracting from the message. Take a closer look at that rock star photographer’s work. You will probably find that it’s their story telling ability, more than their lighting and post processing techniques, that have put them on the map. Studying that part of their work will take you a lot farther than figuring out their specific techniques. Of course knowing your way around those tools can take a story to a whole new level, so don’t neglect them either.
  9. Define and engage the viewer as a character in the scene – One way to do this is to shoot from the perspective and vantage point of the viewer’s character in the story. A good portrait rule is to shoot your subjects from just above eye level with a medium to long telephoto lens for the most flattering portrayal of their features, but that vantage point and perspective might not be where you want your viewer positioned. The focal length and placement of the lens dictates how the viewer will see themselves in relation to the rest of the scene. How are you going to develop their character? Do you want them to see eye-to-eye with something? Do you want them to look up to or look down on something? Should they view your subject as enlarged (short lens) or compressed (long lens)?It’s beyond the scope of this article but there are ways to flatter a subject from just about any angle if your viewer, as a character, needs to be repositioned. Know the standard rules of photography but don’t let them keep you from communicating from a unique vantage point if your story calls for it.
    Golden Child
  10. Point to the point of the image – Use leading lines, enhanced sharpness, contrast or other visual clues to direct the eye of the viewer to the main point of the image. One of the most powerful clues is to include a secondary character looking at your main point of emphasis.

    Stand in a crowded place and stare at the ceiling if you doubt the power of this visual cue. Several people around you will instinctively follow your gaze. Don’t leave people guessing what you want them to look at. Point at the point. Spotlight it. Soften or diminish everything around it. Draw leading arrows and highlight circles around it. Leave no doubt.
  11. Finally, this may sound counter intuitive to everything else I’ve said, but try not to over think things while you are shooting. Over think things before you shoot then relax. During the shoot allow the story to evolve but hold the reigns with purpose. New details, and story lines will probably emerge during the shoot. The more carefully the characters and script have been defined, the easier it is to recognize shifts in character and make an intelligent decision on the fly to either pursue them or pull things back on track.

I would love to hear your story telling tips and tricks as well. Here’s hoping that your life is full of amazing stories this year. Grab your camera and tell some of them as powerfully as you can. Happy Shooting!

Kevin Halliburton
Ice Imaging – Abilene, TX

  • Great post and great advice for anyone attempting to communicate anything really. The story line is probably the most critical element to creating the emotional hook that draws people into the image.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:31 am
  • steve kalman

    Thanks for that great post.

    I’m working my way through a few of David DuChemin’s eBooks. In one he says (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘Ask people what they’d rescue from their house if on fire and they had time to grab one thing. Most will say the photo album.’ Note, he did not say “the art on the wall”. The photo album is the story of our lives. They’re rescuing the story.


    January 25, 2010 at 10:40 am
  • Photography is a bit like playing tennis. You have so many things to think of, that you forget to look at the ball and hit it. In photography or in painting, if you have nothing to tell, there is no communication and it’s not worth doing it at all.

    January 25, 2010 at 11:41 am
  • Thanks for this post. I’ve been venturing into photography for some time now and I’m always looking for something out of the ordinary. This is a great method that I can’t wait to try! Thanks again.

    January 25, 2010 at 2:26 pm
  • Nicely written, and certainly an excellent point. If our photos aren’t telling stories then what are they doing?

    January 25, 2010 at 11:07 pm
  • I just read a great article on the process of story boarding that I mentioned above. Check it out here.

    January 29, 2010 at 1:16 am
  • Another in depth article delving into the psychology and methodology of story telling was published this morning by Smashing Magazine. Even if you don’t take the time to read the entire article it features a photo by D. Alan Harris from this Roller Coaster Progression set that is worth seeing.

    January 29, 2010 at 10:18 am
  • Scott Stuart

    Just when my passion for photography had become so much fun… This makes it seem more like a job than a creative response to the situation or circumstance you find yourself or subject in.

    January 30, 2010 at 10:46 am
  • That is a valid point Scott and I’m glad you brought it up because all of these techniques can work intuitively in the field as well as exhaustively on a highly scripted shoot. That said, I find the thrill of preparation akin to the work a trophy hunter puts into a single shot. I had a lot of fun as a boy with a .22 just walking around looking for something to shoot but the guys with a passion for hunting sports put a ton of work into just about every shot, and I dare say, enjoy it far more than I ever will.

    Good story telling is usually intentional, and it is work, but it doesn’t have to be tedious. I would love to hear your methods but here is how I adapt these steps, say on a Sunday stroll down the street where I’m just out to fire off a few frames and relax a bit. Keep in mind that once you get used to shooting stories instead of pictures you can click through just about all of the followings steps in a few seconds.

    1) Character research and development: There are millions of stories unfolding around me every second. That bee on the flower, what’s his story? Look at that little bird. How many thousands of miles has he flown to be right here, right now? What’s driving him? Where is he headed? How can I express that story in a single frame?

    That blade of grass – It used to be a seed, a descendant of a thousand plants. Is it a single blade among millions of perfectly clipped duplicates on a manicured lawn or is it a taller blade clustered with a handful of tough little renegades making a stand against the drought? What if I can find those two types of grasses side-by-side? Can I make a story out of that?

    I could go on but the point is that even when I’m shooting for fun I try to pick a subject, any subject, then figure out it’s story. When I shoot with that story in mind my images tend to be stronger.

    2) Decide how I want to shoot that story: I look for a humorous twist, a dark twist, a vibrant color that grabs my attention, etc.. I think about post processing and make sure I bracket for an HDR or pick up all of the elements I may need for a composite if I think that’s what the story needs.

    3) Storyboard: In this case it’s real time “sketch shooting.” (can I coin that term?) I shoot, review, think about how to improve it, tweak, shoot again, rinse and repeat as necessary. The screen on the back of the camera is an excellent storyboard.

    4)… I could go on through the whole list but I hope I’ve got the wheels rolling. I’m going to stop here for now and let everyone think through their own shooting style and work flow to see how the methods apply to them. I bet most of you do a lot of this stuff instinctively already.

    The purpose of this article is to bring awareness to the critical importance of story telling in our images, not to convince people to adopt my methods. How to get there is wide open for discussion. What is working for others?

    January 31, 2010 at 2:20 am
  • Thanks for remminding me.. it can be easy to forget!

    February 2, 2010 at 9:01 am
  • Bruce DeBoer from “Permission to Suck” and NPR’s Scott Simon offer some key insights into story telling here:

    I thought Bruce’s post would be a good addition to this dialog. Enjoy!

    April 6, 2010 at 4:58 pm

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