I look at a great deal of photography. I like to look at photos for many of the same reasons that writers like to read. It helps me get better at my craft.

I encounter lots of vision-related photography problems (and I am NOT talking about the fact that I now need both driving AND reading glasses!) I see photos where I am not sure what the photographer was trying to accomplish. In those cases I like to play doctor and I have a simple prescription: Become a storyteller rather than a photographer.

Why tell stories with your camera? Well, for one thing, people who look at pictures will enjoy looking at a story over a snapshot any day. Telling stories with your camera forces you to slow down and think about what you are doing. What is it about this scene that makes you want to make a photograph? What moves you or attracts your eye? Is there a point of view that you want to capture and preserve?

Asking these types of questions will almost always lead to a better photograph. In fact, if you just want to do ONE thing THIS YEAR that will significantly improve your photography, do this – tell stories rather than take snapshots.

If you need help getting to the point where you are a storyteller, you can use a vision exercise that I talked about in episode one of our show called SAS – which stands for Subject, Attention, Simplify.

Using SAS, I approach each scene asking myself what is the SUBJECT of this photo. There is a real temptation here to over simplify. I am not merely saying that I can identify the object I am pointing the camera at. For instance, look at the photo above. I made a series of photos that focus on a high school basketball player sitting on the bench. My subject is NOT the player or the bench, but rather the old ABC show’s theme of “The Thrill of Victory – And the Agony of Defeat.” If a photo works really well as a story, it doesn’t even need a caption. Here, you don’t need a cutline saying the team lost. It’s obvious on her face and by her dejected pose.

I have my subject. I now have to draw ATTENTION to it. That is the “A” in SAS. This technique can help you tell your story. It forces you to focus, literally and figuratively, on what’s important in the shot.

I decided to do several things in this photo to draw attention to the subject. Now remember the subject is more than the player. It is the story of a dejected player about to watch her team lose. To draw attention to the subject, I shot this photo nearly wide open using a long lens. I shot with a reasonably narrow depth of field to help blur the background. This automatically focuses attention on the player. I used a long lens because I wanted to isolate the subject. I shot the image at the subject’s eye line, and helped tell the story from her perspective, not mine.

Just like every good story has a beginning, middle and an end, every good photograph should have an obvious way to draw the viewer in, something to hold his attention once he gets there, and somewhere to go when s/he’s done.

The last part of SAS is SIMPLIFICATION. It’s the most important part of the SAS regimen. John Shaw says the difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is that the pro knows what not to include in the photo. And that was certainly true in this shot.

There was another player to her right. I could have included that second player in this image but that would have immediately detracted from the story. The additional player was not necessary. And this is important. When you are composing an image, take a moment to look around the frame and ask yourself. Is this thing necessary to tell my story? Is it part of what really attracted me to the image? If you see a waterfall running past a boulder and the power struggle between the boulder and the water is your story, then you don’t need to include the flowers, the sky, the grass, etc. Include only that which is necessary to tell your story and nothing more. This will improve your photography immensely and it won’t cost you a new piece of gear to do it.


All I really want you take away from this post is the fact that it’s a good thing to think like a storyteller rather than a picture taker. Everything else is secondary.

This post sponsored by the Digital SLR Store

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. Hi guys-I have been listening to your show since the beginning. I found it by accident on I-Tunes and I thought the premise sounded interesting and have been hooked ever since. I am an amateur photographer and use the information from your show and blog to improve my skills. I appreciate what all of you bring to the show-THANKS!

  2. Thanks for this awesome post. It is now printed and pinned to my wall! It’s very interesting how the best lessons are often the simplest. Much appreciated.

  3. AWESOME POST. I love these posts where you show us a photo you took and explain how you took it. It’s like being there with you teach us one on one. Would really like to see more of these sorts of posts!

    Another article that goes into this a bit deeper is by an L.A. Photographer named Chris Weeks. Check out his stuff on DeviantArt and on Uber.


  4. I do tell a story with my pictures… Once upon a time there was a guy who didn’t know how to focus his camera or compose his shots correctly….. JK but really good stuff… gonna try doing this the next time I get a day off (which hasn’t been in the last 21 days)

    ted from houston

  5. For the last few months I have been doing “Project 365” on Flickr (take one photo-per-day for an entire year). My goal is to tell a story of my entire day with one photo … it’s not easy! But, in the end, you can see my recent life happenings just by flipping through the photos chronologically.

  6. I think you can even take story telling one step further. I shoot mainly glamour work – I have found that a story is important to both the photographer and the model. We have the ability to tell the story but also incude the model in the story telling…. vs. a more journalistic approach where you cannot contact the subject we can usethe subject / model to tell the story.

    Also in 99% of cases the story or backstory will lead to much better results becase the model will pull on other skills they might have like acting out the role to better convince themselves and thus the camera of the role they are playing.

  7. Very nice. I listened to your first podcast, but I didn’t really “get it” until I read this blog-post. As a hobby photographer I am gonna try this next.

    Pleeease keep up the good work and excellent podcasts.

  8. @ Scott
    This is a great tips page. I always feel rushed when I am shooting sports events, especially as a I think about shooting the event specifically the on going play. However, your tip shot highlights the importance to take in the full environment when shooting.

    thanks very much for creating genuinely high value shows every week.

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