Tips and tricks

Secrets of storytelling and composition in photography

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[Photography: Writing with light.] That's exactly what it is. I can say that I am a writer, but instead of using a pen, I use a camera.

In a marketing campaign or in an advertisement, words are of utmost importance. It is a craft in itself to find the right words to sell what you want to sell. Images are equally important. Doesn't the saying go "An image is worth a thousands word"? But how to tell a story with a camera? Every successful story has a structure, for example, an introduction, characters development, a build up, a climax, an ending. A successful image also needs key photography elements.

Let's start with the first example.

Example 1


The above picture would have been also nice without the statues on the right. I could have easily used a tighter angle, but I wasn't going for that type of shot at all. In fact, I didn't care about the bed and the furniture too much. My main objective was to first include the statues, and then see what part of the room I could fit it the frame. The statues play a major role in telling a story about that room. Remember, we are in a medieval castle. That room has surely more than one story to tell. The statues may be princes, dukes or who knows who could have slept in that room. It doesn't matter if the statues represent real persons or not. They are in the picture to spark your imagination. The fact that the statues are looking into the room draws the viewer's eyes even more into the frame. But what if they weren't? If you are lucky enough, you can move them around and stage the shot. Use everything that is available to you to make a compelling shot. It's perfectly fine to stage a shot if need be.

Another thing about that shot is the fact that it is taken from a very enclosed area, the fireplace, which makes you feel as if you are peeking into the room. It adds a lot of dynamism. Love this shot (I know it's my photo but just saying ;)).

Example 2

For that shot, I wanted to connect the "The Tudors Chronicles" book with the two portrait paintings on the wall. I intentionally placed the book on that table so that the most important elements are aligned. Whether or not the people on the paintings are part of the Tudors offspring is not important. Again, what's important is that a story is triggered in the viewer's mind.

Example 3

The story of that shot might not be as strong as the first two but I wanted to show an example of a very dynamic shot. Why is it dynamic? Because of the leading lines of the fireplace, which guide the viewer right into the frame, and to the first big earth globe. The fireplace happens to be the centrepiece of that room and serves as a beautiful introduction to the photo.

It took about 15 minutes of observation to take my first shot of that room. There are a few questions that I ask myself before shooting: "Is that room has a special story? What is the centrepiece of the room? What element stands out more than the others, or what element doesn't stand out but should? Ask the owner. She will be more than happy to tell you about those facts. When you get into a historical place like a medieval castle, and before spraying like crazy, you really have to take a step back and ask all of the above-mentioned questions. I'm not there to take snapshots, but real, thought-out long-lasting photography.

Example 4

Although this is not an architecture shot, I'll use it to explain a composition principle: the eye path. The first time you looked at that image, your eyes first laid on the lady, then on the guy's head and lastly on the piano keys. This is exactly how I composed the shot. There is a strong story here. Although the piano keys occupy a very small portion of the photo, they are the secret element that binds the two characters together. Remove the piano keys, and you have a very boring shot, let alone no story whatsoever. So, did you guess who those characters are? Indeed, it's Chopin and his mistress.

Example 5

I love this shot because it includes very strong elements that work well together. First, the camera is on the ground and tilted upwards to make the statues look taller. They look like they spring out to action. Second, I used the clouds to my advantage by making a long exposure to create movement. I then converted the picture to black and white because the colours didn't bring anything to the shot and also, because I wanted to keep this vintage, old look since it is a second world war monument.

But what if the clouds weren't there? It would definitely not have the same dynamism and it would lack something. In that case, I would wait a day or two (if I can afford it) to get clouds in the shot. As a photographer, you sometimes need a bit of chance on your side... and patience!

Here is an overview of the same monument. I don't know who took that photo. I chose it to show an overview of the place. By the way, this is not what I call "photography"; this is merely a snapshot that anybody can take.

One of the most important tool that enables you to tell stories are lenses. They are equivalent to a painter's brushes. Sometimes you may want to use a prime lens because of the wide aperture it gives you, but I almost exclusively use zoom lenses because of their versatility and the nature of my work. When I'm in tight space and I can't move, a zoom lens is always the solution. I just mentioned "wide aperture". You can use different photography techniques to tell stories, and aperture is certainly one of them.

Example 6

Talking about lens, one of my favorite is the fisheye lens. I almost exclusively shoot vertically with it, unlike most photographers. Here is a perfect example below. For that shot, I wanted to have the effect of the cathedral reaching for the sky and also to fit the whole cathedral in the shot. There is only one lens that can give you this and it's the fisheye lens. I love the distortion here because it fits the pattern of the building. Use the lens distortion to your advantage!

Another important photography element here are the colours. Gray and red are two very nice contrasting colours that create a push-pull effect. By the way, this is the real colour of the door. I only removed colours of everything else except the door.

Example 7

Here is a very good example of many strong techniques that make this shot very compelling. This is a shot from a cemetery in Warsaw. The camera was tilted at a 45 degrees angle.

Strong composition elements:

1) The only thing in color is the Polish ribbons.

2) Not only the ribbons the only thing in color but they are the only elements oriented at 0 or 90 degrees angles, which makes them stand out from the other elements.

3) The stone crosses are the only elements oriented at a 45 degrees angle.

4) The only thing in focus is the second cross. If all of the crosses were in focus, it would be more boring.

5) You get the feel of infinity by having a big cross in the foreground and many smaller crosses in the background. I could have frame the shot with the only two crosses in the foreground, but I wouldn't have had the infinity feel to it.

As you can see in the photo below, the visual lines are very strong and the geometry is very obvious.

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