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Published: Friday 25th of January 2013

How to Write a Photo Essay

In the last couple of decades, visual communication has become increasingly present both in the media and in our everyday lives. Video and photography are modern means of telling a story. A photo essay represents a series of images, organized in a particular succession so that it depicted a specific emotion or concept or events unfolding in a specific way. Photo essays vary from those that are composed solely of photographs, photographs with descriptions or subtitles to those in which the text is predominant and photos are used to complement or illustrate the written text. Photo essays are becoming widely used by the members of the press, people in the advertising industry, bloggers. They are a handy tool for expressing emotions, creating a "how to" instruction, or showing the unfolding of events. Making a photo essay can be divided into three sections: selection of the topic, creating the images and developing the organizational structure of the essay.

Selection of the topic

  • Make use of the things happening around you on a daily basis. Most people follow with at least some degree of interest the social happenings in their immediate surroundings. The topics can range from simple ones like holiday preparations in your neighborhood to those that are more complex and involve a certain degree of analysis of social events or emotional investment in the topic such as the rising crime rates in the vicinity or homelessness.
  • Local events always stir up interest in the community. Whether they are a concert of a local high-school band or a street flower market, they are bound to have at least some people really passionate about it, and even more of those who are at least mildly intrigued by the event. If you plan your photo shooting in advance, you could even arrange with the organizers to have your photo essay put on their bulletin board or their website.
  • Find inspiration for your photographs in your workplace or photograph your hobby. You could make a photo essay about an employee`s typical day at work, or your work can be used to present the company for which you work to the public, to serve promotional or advertising purposes. Such photo essay can find its way to the company's website or social media page, or even your own personal page – whatever you choose, you are bound to have some viewers. Hobbies make excellent photo essay topics. There are always people interested in the same hobby as you. The photos can demonstrate your level of skill at something or be a "how to" guide for those thinking of taking up the same hobby.
  • Choose an inspiring subject. It should be something you find appealing. If it is something you are excited about or care about a great deal, you will be able to convey your passion to your audience. Also, think about the availability of the subject. It should be something within your reach and relatively easy to capture.
  • Consider your target group. Before you start shooting, you need to know a few things about your audience. You should have a general idea of who you want to present your essay to, what these people expect to see, what interests them. You can choose a subject with impact on broader audiences, such as unemployment or social inequities, but sometimes a more personal subject can spark more interest.
  • Decide whether you would use the narrative or the thematic method in creating and presenting your photo essay. Narrative photo essays are all about telling a story: a day at the office, or a typical morning routine, or a series of photos depicting how certain things, like the construction of a new playground, are progressing on a daily or hourly basis. Thematic photo essays center around a theme like homelessness or soldiers returning home from deployment overseas. They consider the full context of the issue, but then portray specific examples, or focus on stories of individual persons within that particular frame of reference. Sometimes it is up to you to choose the exact format you feel most comfortable using, but other times, especially if you were commissioned to create a photo essay, the format will be pre-determined by the requirements of the publication that will print it.

Photo-shoot preparation

  • Obtaining waivers or written consents from those you plan to photograph. These are necessary whether you intend to publish your photo essay commercially or use it in social media, or any other place. Even in case you are not familiar with the legislation on using other people's photographs, it is always wise to get permission. You should be extra careful to ask parental consent when photographing children. Additionally, institutions like schools or day-care centers have policies of their own on who and under which circumstances can have their picture taken. Make sure you do not pressure anyone into signing a waiver. It should be just as easy to refuse as it is to accept to be photographed.
  • Do some research on the subject. If you want your audience to get an accurate sense of what your topic is really about, you should familiarize yourself with it beforehand. Read anything you can find about it online, talk to people involved with it, and ask them what they find interesting about it. Find out what is specific about the topic or the protagonists. Which fundamental values or emotions lie in the center of this topic? This will help you to get a better understanding of what the topic of your photo essay really is and to plan your photo-shoot so that your photos would really show its essence.
  • Draft an outline. As in written forms of essays, an outline allows you to get an idea of how you will commence with your work, what it will encompass and in what order. The outline of a photo essay consists of at least a focus or a signature image, an establishing shot, multiple detail shots and an end photo called the "clincher."
  • Select the signature photo. It should be the one that really shows the essence of the subject. A fireman rushing out of a burning building with a rescued child in his hands is indicative of the heroic efforts exerted by firefighters for example.
  • Capture the establishing shot. It shows the context of the story. It is a wide-angle shot which includes a background with multiple people allowing the viewers to get a general idea of what the photo essay is about and who it involves.
  • Determine what kind of detail photos you will need. They are basically close-ups of people's faces, activities, interactions or objects.
  • Find the "clincher." It is the photo you will end your photo essay with, the one which conveys a message and/or provokes an emotional response in your audience. There is no detailed instruction on how to find the clincher, but when you do find it, you will know.

Shooting the images

  • Make sure that the lighting is adequate. Check what type of ISO you need for the particular conditions under which you are shooting. ISO regulates how much light goes through the lens while shooting a photograph and the speed with which you capture the image. You use low ISO when capturing stationary objects in bright surroundings or when artificial lighting is available. When objects are moving or the lighting is weak, you should increase the ISO. The ISO starts at 200 and then doubles to 400, 800, etc. The doubling of the ISO makes the lens more sensitive by letting in more light and shortening the time needed to capture an image. The time needed to capture an image with ISO 400 is four times shorter compared to when the camera has the ISO set at 100.
  • Plan the composition of your photo. This might seem a difficult task especially if you are not an experienced photographer and take your pictures on the spur of the moment. Even so, you can determine where you would like to position your objects, and what the picture is supposed to show in the background. You can always resort to the simple rule of thirds, which means that the photo divides itself into nine sections by the use of three vertical and three horizontal lines. The point of focus should be at the place where the lines cross. Also, bear in mind that you do not need to take the perfect shot, you can always change something during the editing phase.
  • Take lots of photos. You need a multitude of photos of the same thing, captured from various angles and perspectives, zoomed in or out so that you can choose just the right one for the essay. Be prepared to climb ladders or trees, or crawl under things merely the get the right shot.
  • Let your photos lead you. Do not follow your outline blindly. It is impossible to know beforehand where the photos will take you if you let your project develop. You can change parts of your photo essay plan if during your shooting you find something more interesting than what you originally planned to capture. Remember – if something catches your interest, chances are your audience will also find it interesting.

Creating the organizational structure of the essay

  • Eliminate all the photos you do not need in your essay. Delete those that are out of focus, blurred or otherwise unusable. This will still leave you with much more photographic material than you actually need for your project. At this point, you will choose the photos that capture the essence of the topic best and disregard the others. This does not mean that you should delete them altogether; perhaps you will be able to use them on another occasion.
  • Select the signature photo. It is a sort of a cover photo intended to grab the attention of your audience, and give an insight into what your photo essay will depict. It can be an image demonstrating a universal emotion or activity which is at the heart of your story. If, for example, you are doing a story about a stressed out stock-market broker, your signature photo could show him holding a pile of papers in the air and frantically staring at the monitors surrounded by countless other brokers.
  • Systematize your photos. After eliminating unusable photographs, you should systematically organize all the rest of them using whatever criteria you choose. These may be the type of image (portrait, close-up, scenery, human interactions, etc.) or the part of your essay you intend to use them in (in the introduction, to establish a context, or to make a point at the end, etc.) You can also define the categories of your photos in any way you see fit.
  • Develop your photo essay design. There are multiple designs from which you can choose depending on whether you have decided to use the thematic or the narrative approach. Narrative essays can show a typical day or a routine, or how something progresses, like the construction of a building. Thematic essays, on the other hand, usually open with a signature shot, followed by photos showing variations of the theme, including close-ups and wide-angle shots, and end with a “clincher” shot aimed at making a lasting impression on the audience and summarizing the main points of your photo essay. Always provide an all-encompassing shot that will demonstrate your context and cover the five news-style questions: “What happened? “, “Where did it happen?", "When did it happen?", "Why did it happen?" and "Who was involved?"
  • Get feedback. Once you have aligned your photos in an order that you are happy with, found a focal picture, an establishing shot, the "clincher" and all the photos in between, you should run them by another photographer or a friend or relative to see what they make of it. Avoid telling them what you meant to accomplish with your essay until you have heard their opinion of it. If their story differs significantly from what you were trying to say, you can ask them if any of your remaining photos would tell your intended story more successfully or if the images should get aligned in a different order to get the message across.
  • Insert the accompanying text. The text you add to your images in the form of captions is not meant to explain the photos. The images should be self-explanatory, and easy to understand. What you write underneath is information that one cannot discern from the picture itself, like the date, the name of the subject or statistical data relevant to the story. It is also possible to use very little text accompanying your photographs and it can be limited to the title and a few words to introduce the subject and to round up your project at the end. If your task was to complement a written essay with pictures, be sure to make them show emotion and portray a broader context which would be difficult to put into words. Use the visual material to your advantage.
These instructions should give you an insight into what a photo essay really is and how you can create it yourself. Remember, however, that practice makes perfect so do not expect your first photo essay to be a masterpiece. Stick with it and with a bit of photographic technique, some practice as well as some passion you should make an excellent storytelling photographer.