If you’ve ever seen one you’d know it. It’s the kind of picture that makes you stop and say, “Wow! Look at that!!” It’s a photograph that draws you in, makes you linger, and causes you to wonder about the story unfolding before you. The photographer has captured “The Moment”. That is a storytelling image.
I’ll admit, when I was in photojournalism school my professors made a big deal about capturing “The Moment”. It sounded rather vague and esoteric. But almost 20 years later, I get it. You can have a fantastically composed and lit image, but without the sense of “moment” the photo can fall flat. There’s no curiosity on the part of viewers. Nothing compels them to keep looking at the photo or even thinking about it later in the day. A successful visual storyteller draws viewers in and doesn’t let them go.
Let’s look at an example. Take Dad’s photo “Pony Express”. Dad gives clues to the viewer, making it easy for them to understand the photo and the story it tells. Rugged mountains and a brilliant sunset suggest we’re in the Western United States. Then we have men in cowboy hats, riding hard and handing off bags to one another. Even if they didn’t know the title of the photo or had just bare bones knowledge of U.S. history, viewers could conclude these men must be the famous Pony Express riders.
This frozen moment grabs viewers and causes them to spend some time pondering the photo further. The photo turns their imaginations loose. Where were these guys going? How fast were those horses traveling? Did they make it? What were in the pouches?
Viewers’ minds are free to further explore the photo when an image feels authentic. If the “Pony Express” were shot on a city street and the horses were plodding along instead of running, viewers would have a hard time connecting the photo to the legendary mail service. It just wouldn’t feel genuine. Viewers loose interest quickly at this point.
Good Visual Storytelling
So how do you capture those storytelling moments? First, find something that stirs your passion. If you’re not interested in your subject nobody else will be either. You want to love your subject because it will take many hours of practice to really learn to capture the moment.
Next, follow the five “W”s of storytelling: who, what, when, where and why. If your photo can answer at least three of these questions without a caption, you’re off to a good start.
Let’s break down Dad’s photo “The Great Horse Chase”. Just by looking at the image, you can conclude:
Who: The rider is a cowboy that’s very skilled with the lasso.
What: This is a serious, intense horse chase.
When: It’s daytime. It could be the Old West or modern day.
Where: It takes place out West on a ranch.
Why: This one could have a couple of stories. Some people could say the cowboy was catching a wild horse or it could just be a couple of run-away horses. The point is, a viewer cared enough after staring at the photo to guess at the story.
In planning his shots, Dad usually sketches out the image that’s in his head. This allows him to consider these five questions before he even begins to plan the actual photo shoot.
You may be wondering how this works with a subject you don’t control. Never fear. We’ll tackle that question in detail the next section. Suffice it to say, I used these questions on a regular basis when I worked as a newspaper photojournalist. I didn’t have the luxury of planning a photo nor control over most of the elements, but the five “W”s helped me recognize when a “moment” was happening right in front of me.
One other thing every good storytelling image contains is motion to pull you into the story. Obviously a still photo is just that, still. However, great photos frequently capture a sense of motion like horses running, blurred water rushing down a stream or a bird hovering in mid-air.
“Roadrunner Breakfast” is a great example of suggesting motion without actually seeing motion. While viewers can’t see the beak of the roadrunner moving, it’s clear the bird flipped the worm up and was going to devour it. The motion is implied because of the worm suspended between the bird’s beak. Always look for some sort of motion to keep to your viewers engaged.
Creating vs. Capturing
Are good storytelling images created or captured? I’d say both. In Dad’s Old West images, he carefully controlled the models, props, locations, composition, action and lighting.
He compares creating images like “The Great Horse Chase” to making a movie. There were many interdependent parts that had to come together at just the right time and required coaching from a single person. Dad was the director who ultimately knew the moment he hoped to create.
However, shooting wildlife pictures is a whole different ball game. Dad can’t control the animals. Wildlife photography is more akin to photojournalism. You shoot on the fly, looking for the best combination of lighting, composition and action in an ever-changing situation. Quite often it comes down to luck. You just happen to be in the right place at the right time to capture a unique moment.
Whether you’re creating or capturing your storytelling image, there are things you can do to tip the scales in your favor.
Even if you’re carefully orchestrating a photograph like one of Dad’s Western images, you still need to recognize when “The Moment” happens. It may not look exactly like you imagined. Be ready to shoot anyway.
Take for example the photo “Mountain Lion and Dogs”. The mountain lion was stuffed, but the dogs were alive. They were convinced the mountain lion was alive too. One dog decided to circle around and sneak up on the mountain lion. While this wasn’t Dad’s original plan, he recognized in the midst of chaos, the closer dog created unique layers of activity in the photo. This was his storytelling moment. He pressed the button.
When you’re creating “The Moment” do yourself a favor and get the best folks you can to help you. Dad always makes sure to find the most skilled cowboys, fastest horses and the best animals he possibly can. Behind the scenes he always hires the top assistants and advisors to make sure the photos are technically excellent and authentic. That may require shelling out some serious bucks. It’s worth the money. Technical incompetence and inauthenticity show in your photos.
“You want to eliminate as many stupid things as possible,” Dad says. “A horse stumbles or the rope misses the horse because you haven’t got a skilled roper and rider. You find the best and pay them to help you get the photo. It’s the only way to make a believable photo.”
If, on the other hand, you’re capturing unscripted wildlife moments, you’ll need some luck. Getting lucky often starts with doing your research. Find out where your favorite bird, bear or bobcat likes to hang out.
More often than not, you’ll be better off at a location with thousands of birds like Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge or some place that is designed for wildlife photographers like the Martin Refuge in south Texas. The Martins have set up photography blinds and regularly feed the birds so capturing moments like “Caracara Craziness” is a snap. (You can read all about Dad’s adventures at Martin Refuge here.)
If you’re not sure where to go, consider hiring a local guide. Very early in our wildlife photography pursuits, we once spent fruitless hours sitting on the Carrie Nation Trail in Madera Canyon, Arizona near the chokecherry bush. Why? We’d been told the elusive elegant trogon had repeatedly been spotted eating berries from the bush earlier in the week.
We would have been better off hiring a local birding guide to help us find these shy birds’ favorite hiding places. We never did see a trogon although we heard two calling to each other way up the canyon as they rapidly retreated from the crazy humans camped near their bush.
Perhaps if we’d known a bit more about the trogons we would have gotten the shot. I can’t stress enough how important it is to understand your subject so you can anticipate the action. This is key to capturing a storytelling moment. A sports photographer has to understand the game of football in order to anticipate where the ball will go on the field and get in position in time to shoot the action. Western and wildlife photography are no different.
Dad spent a lot of time observing hummingbirds in his quest to capture the photo “Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell”. He purposely chose a drip feeder placed behind the flower to attract the hummingbirds. He’d observed that the birds tended to contort their bodies into the unique backwards “J” shape when approaching the sugary treats at this type of feeder. His observation paid off with a great photo.
Besides knowing the habits, you have to shoot a lot of bad photos to capture that glittering jewel that is “The Moment”.
My Uncle, also a professional photographer, used to say, “Film is cheap. Shoot, shoot, shoot!!”
Today photographers have no excuse for skimping on shooting. Digital is dirt cheap compared to film. Dad shot over 500 photos the day “Broad-billed Hummingbird at Yellow Bell” was taken. Shoot, shoot, shoot to stack the deck in your favor!
If you’re shooting a lot, you’ll become even more familiar with your gear. You need to know your gear inside and out. In hummingbird photography Dad failed many times at capturing photos that stopped the wing motion and showed off the amazing array of colors in the birds’ iridescent feathers. He knew other photographers had successfully shot the picture and it became highly annoying to him. (You can read all about Dad’s hummingbird adventures here.)
“I was driven with a vengeance to find out what was going wrong equipment-wise,” he said. “Eventually I got the right gear and worked out all of the glitches. The result was a super nice hummingbird photo. But it took a lot of sweat equity over several months before I was successful.”
Learning to recognize and capture a storytelling photo takes time, practice and a bit of planning. But eventually you’ll begin to develop a sixth sense of when the moment is right. That’s when photography gets exciting.
As Ansel Adams, the celebrated nature photographer said, “Sometimes I arrive just when God’s ready to have someone click the shutter.”