Many years ago I took a few specialized photo workshops, because for a brief time, I was intending to go down the path of photojournalism as my career. Those classes turned out to be very useful, as I learned how to think in terms of “the story.” I had to create a series of images, as well as find a way to tell a story with just one image. Who would’ve guessed that this would help me in nature photography?
Although, as photographers, we don’t employ the exact “who, what, when, where and why” concept that I learned in school for writing stories, we need to ask the same questions when creating a narrative image. A photograph can contain the who (subject), what (the action), where (sense of place), when (time of day or season) and even a why. As a photographer, it’s your job to determine what the story might be and find a way to present it in as compelling a way as possible. If you use this same thought process as writers do, you can create a more complete narrative in your composition.
Find the story in the landscape
Even a landscape picture tells a story. Begin by first figuring out what inspires you in the location. What makes the location unique? Try to establish what you want to express in the photograph. Then, look for a point of view that brings out your vision in the strongest way. Use any visual clues that help to express the story:
- Is there a process of nature, or some detail that’ll express the story strongly?
- What elements don’t help the story that I may need to exclude?
- And is it the big picture, a small one, or a detail that tells the story better?
If the story isn’t obvious, it should at least cause the viewer to question the image. For example, in the lead photo of this chapter, the story is about the polished rock. With its unusual shape, the rock stands out, and the image is a compelling landscape composition, but if you don’t know geology, you won’t get the story that’s presented here right off. But you will ask yourself, why’s that piece of rock smooth and others around it rough? What’s going on here that makes this piece stand out? The photo may inspire you to search for the answer to these questions.
Capture the telltale moments
In a storytelling photograph, any gesture or action is an important element that can enhance the story being told. Sometimes, the action is the story, with the rest of the scene supporting it. Not every photograph you make has to have action, though; many nature photographs simply celebrate the passive beauty that nature offers up to us. But in a narrative image, where you’re trying to tell us something more than “isn’t this a pretty place,” gesture and/or action can enhance the story and make a big impact.
If there’s no animal or bird or exploding volcano to create action, look for other things that can imply gesture. The blurred water in a stream can be considered gesture. Dark clouds caught in the act of swirling overhead, rainbows and the splash on a rock from a little wave are all gestures that bring your stories to life.
Find the action
In photographs where animals are involved, there can be a key moment or gesture that becomes the main storyline. Getting the timing right to capture the moment when a whale breaches or a bird catches a fish is essential to telling the story.
It’s important to look for clues that tell the viewer something about the animal’s behaviour or how it interacts with its environment. The way zebras neck, for example, tell us that they’re very social animals. Whales lunge-feeding tell us how these giants eat in the ocean, and a jackal making off with a piece of a zebra tells us not only what jackals eat, but how they provide for one another.
It’s important to look for clues that tell the viewer something about the animal’s behaviour or how it interacts with its environment.
Animals experience fight-or-flight situations, run, play and engage in other activities that are amazing to watch and to photograph. These animal stories aren’t unlike those of the human condition: The animals eat and sleep, and many express a bond and show nurturing to which we respond emotionally.
Portraits of animals, or what I like to call “trophy headshots,” don’t express stories. They’re simply a study of a wonderful animal or bird. These do tell us about the subjects, in the sense of their features—such as the long bill on a honeycreeper that allows it access to the deep parts of a flower, or the markings on a butterfly wing that make it look like a huge eye to avoid predation.
But even in a headshot, you may find gesture. It may be the direct contact of the wolf’s eyes, staring right through you; or, if the animal barks or yawns, you have gesture and you’ve managed to photograph the moment of that gesture.
Gesture and moments of action simply add more expressive qualities to the picture. Look for those: Is there a moment that’ll express a story strongly?
Moments of nature aren’t just about the actions of animals or birds or humans. Lightning, rainbows, glaciers calving, sun rays striking the land through openings in the clouds—these are all moments of nature expressing itself, and special moments to experience and photograph.
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