March 19, 2013

Storytelling Imagery…

sto·ry·tell·ing (from noun the telling or writing of stories
Wikipedia expands the definition/description … “Stories have been carved, scratched, painted, printed or inked onto wood or bamboo, ivory and other bones, pottery, clay tablets, stone, palm-leaf books, skins (parchment), bark cloth, paper, silk, canvas, and other textiles, recorded on film, and stored electronically in digital form. Oral stories continue to be committed to memory and passed from generation to generation, despite the increasing popularity of written and televised media in much of the world.”

I’m going to expand a bit more and make it personal: I try to capture my own family’s stories and culture and events and milestones in photographic images. I’m not someone who enjoys writing, journaling, keeping up scrapbooks, or otherwise putting in written documentary form the happenings in the lives of my family members.

But I surely love taking pictures. And capturing our story.

It’s my opinion that storytelling photography looks very different than a traditional, beautiful portrait. A storytelling image includes more details. Is more authentic and honest. Sometimes is messy. Sometimes is funny. Sometimes is sad. It is not posed. Or manipulated. Or forced. It lets the moment speak for itself!

Let me show you what I mean by storytelling photography. I’ll start with a film scan from 1998 – a picture of 15-year-ago me and my oldest son (who’s now receiving college invitations – ack!).


This picture totally, completely transports me back to this time. This time back when summers in San Jose were swelteringly hot. And we made regular trips to the library, because even way back then, my son loved books. And the cat (peeking out from behind the futon) was never far from me. And the purple REI diaper-bag-backpack went everywhere with us. And I studied cookbooks because I was all about cooking once-a-month and freezing meals for “convenience” sake. This picture beautifully documents life.

Let’s fast forward 15 years … exhibit B:


Here’s my youngest son. On the brink of turning 10. But with every ounce of boyhood imagination left intact. My couch is fading and the slip cover is shredded. But Littlest Dude doesn’t see or mind that. He’s got his eye on his target. And his K’nex assault weapon is locked and loaded and ready for action.

And exhibit C:


These are my dudes. Out late at night. With flashlights and bug-catching paraphernalia in hand. It was a hoot. They were all 100% engaged. I want never to forget that silly moment in time.
What about telling the stories of my clients? What does that look like? For me, it looks an awful lot like this:

J-Fam orange county family photography

It’s what life in their backyard currently looks like – with football throwing/catching while the dog runs interference, with sisters competing to see who swings the highest, with mom looking on, happy and amused by all of it… I did not need to stage or “pose” or manipulate this. This dear family just went outside and did their thing.

Here’s a big part of the secret to storytelling images: be patient and wait for the moment as it unfolds. Don’t be afraid to let the “clutter” into your frame. Stop down your aperture (f/4, f/8, even f/11 if light allows) to keep more of the details in focus. Use a wider angle perspective (24mm, 35mm). Shoot wide. Shoot deep. Observe minutely.

Storytelling photography doesn’t need to be limited to merely one image. More often than not, I use a series of photos to narrate the story. Like in this blog post where my boys hunt bullfrogs in the yard at night: Or this one where baby ducklings from school had a sleepover at our home:

Storytelling in a series of photos is especially easily & conveniently done with a phone camera, since it’s nearly always with you. And added bonus is that phone cameras don’t have narrow DOF, so everything will already be in focus for you ;-). Embrace the details! Embrace the “mundane” parts of life.

This photographic series below reminds me of the weekend when the dudes and I took a bike ride by the beach in the not-summer-time and the sights we saw along the way, and the goofy things we did…

beach bike ride

There’s a beautiful quotation by Elliott Erwitt: “To me, photography is an art of observation. It’s about finding something interesting in an ordinary place … I’ve found it has little to do with things you see and everything to do with the way you see them.”

Now, go grab a camera, find something interesting in an ordinary place, and tell a story J.

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