Story in a Photograph

Every photograph has a story behind it. It means something to the photographer. There would have been incidents, anecdotes or thoughts that led to that image. The gap arises when the photographs fail to convey these stories. This is the medium we have to convey our thought and experiences. So, is it not obvious, that our photographs should also tell these stories?


Post Eye-Surgery

(Photograph of a lady who had undergone eye-surgery, immediately after her dressings were removed. The smile and the gleaming look conveys her happiness on being able to see again. The nurse is hidden away with only her work visible, through the image of her hands, the white coat and a stained dressing being removed.)


Getting down to the basics

Every photograph is built up on some basics. There is the main subject that usually is the center of attraction in the whole photograph. This is what I call the primary element in the composition. Sometimes there are more than one such primary elements in the photograph.

Next there are things in the photograph that are not the center of attraction but somehow are related to it. These are the secondary elements in the image. These secondary elements relate to the primary in a manner that can either increase or decrease the impact of the photograph.

Apart from these, there is the foreground and background. These do not directly contribute to an image usually but there maybe stray elements here and there that can weaken the impact of the photograph. Some of the features may further increase the impact. I call them supporting elements.

In landscapes, the main element is usually the same as the background but still it features some primary and secondary elements. A setting sun may be the primary element and some distant hills might be the secondary elements.

As the first step, learn to identify these elements –

  • Examine photographs by some other photographers and try to identify the primary element. These are main focal points of interest in the image.
  • Identify the secondary elements that are not the center of attraction in the image but are somehow contributing to it.
  • Now comes the most crucial part, identify the elements in the photograph that are pulling the attention away from the primary and secondary elements of the photograph.

In the photograph shown above, the lady is the main element, the nurse’s hands removing the dressing are the secondary elements with the white coat providing a clue to her being a healthcare related person. The background show an old hospital ward with typical hospital beds. The distracting elements? The biggest distraction is the bright colored dress. A black and white image would have taken care of this but at the cost of the color on the dressing. The reddish brown color is hallmark of the iodine used in dressings and cleaning in many of the hospitals. A black and white image would have reduced the impact of the dressing though taken care of the distraction from bright saree as well. It all depends on the photographer’s interpretation and visualization. I let the photograph remain as it is.


(A panned shot of a family on a bicycle. The primary element is the lady, who is balancing herself on the bicycle while holding a baby and an umbrella to shade her small family. The secondary elements are the bicycle and her husband pedaling hard. The bright sky and mud road are the supporting elements. The photograph is from Majuli island, the largest river island in Asia, which gets flooded every year. More about it here – Majuli Island)


Creating a story

Once you have done the above exercise and can identify the main scene in the photograph, telling a story becomes easy.

Gather up these thoughts in your own mind and then create your photograph –

What is it that wants you to capture the photograph? What attracts you to the scene or subject in front of you? Try to identify that one main primary element that is churning up your emotions. It may be the smooth flow of a cascading waterfall, a beautiful sunrise, the crisp and cool morning air, the silence of the hills, maybe the sound of a chirping bird, or the playfulness of a puppy. If you notice, there are things that may not be directly visible but still kindle the need to photograph.

If the thoughts that are asking you to create the photograph are visible, the task is easy. This is your primary element. A cascading waterfall, the rising sun or the puppy in the above list for example. Visualize a photograph around the primary element. How about a long exposure of the waterfall showing the flow. The rising sun might be looking beautiful by the way it has been framed by the hills or due to the colors in the sky. The puppy seems playful to you but in a moment frozen in time, the playfulness has to be depicted. Maybe a bright colored ball as a prop? It all depends on how you want to tell your story. Once again, coming back to the first photograph in this article, the stained dressing acts as a prop.

If the thoughts that are pushing you to create a photograph are not visible, then you will have to come up with a way to show them. Dew drops on the flowers can give an indication of the cool misty morning, maybe someone wrapped up in a shawl or holding a cup of steaming coffee. The silence of the hills can be conveyed by landscapes devoid of people and any signs of civilization. Sounds of a chirping bird? Use a long lens and capture the bird itself.

The story has to be told. A flicker of expression can make or break a photograph. So, make sure everything is as it should be before you press the shutter release button. While you do so, learn to act fast. Such stories are sometimes candid in nature (Candid Photography).



(When I stood on the platform above, I felt the ocean breeze and wanted to climb all the way up on the rock. What impressed me was the stairs on the dark rock and the deserted look they had. They seemed to be endless, going all the way to the top. Captured with a wideangle, the photograph tells the story of the long unending stairs on the black rock while giving a glimpse of the sea shore below. The important aspect to the deserted look was to avoid any people on the stairs.)


Series of Photographs

This is the latest trend in telling a story. Most photo-journalists now prefer to shoot multiple photographs which when kept together show a complete story. If you love telling a story in this manner, go for it. I personally prefer each photograph to be a complete story.

The photograph below is from a series of photographs that I took in subways showing musicians asking for alms. The series tells a story of the overall conditions and lack of recognition for these artists. However I prefer to show-case the photographs individually. Each of them has story in itself.



(The musician lady with her accordion and a confident expression on her face that also portrays her engagement with the music are the primary elements.  Her dress, footwear and her travel bag speak of good taste that has fallen to tough times. The absence of a bowl with money shows her pride in asking for alms and yet she sits and performs in a subway. The tiled wall and the metal floor are the supporting elements making us aware of the harsh truth that she is playing here and not in a philharmonic hall or a concert.)


Go, pick your camera, step out and create stories. After all, each and every photographer is a person with creativity and an eye to see something more than what others can.

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