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A photo is an experience, not an object.
A snapshot is a commodity.
Anyone with a phone these days can take a selfie and call it a “photo.”

In order to differentiate from the crowds, we photographers must become visual storytellers. We must make the photo an experience. If you are trying to make a living selling photos, then your job is to take something that is free (a selfie) and turn it into something worth paying for. (The same thing is true if you are simply competing for eyeballs on ViewBug, Flickr or 500px).

We are in the experience economy. How does Starbucks charge a premium for the same cup of coffee as the shop two doors down? They make the process of drinking a cup of coffee an experience where the thought of the cup of coffee is more powerful than the cup of coffee itself. Sorry, but Starbucks coffee is actually not very good. The memory and thought of a cup of Starbucks coffee is much more powerful than the product itself.

Don’t mistake what I am saying, though. I’m not saying that you should take a crappy product and add window dressing. A bad photo will always be a bad photo. I’m suggesting that what separates a technically strong photo from an amazing photo is the experience of the photo.

Truly immersive experiences are not only memorable, but also transformative. For example, why do we pay so much for education? We pay because it has the power to transform us permanently for the better. My bird photographer friend Scott Bourne was fond of saying, “no one needs a picture of a bird in their house.” And Scott was right, but Scott’s bird pictures invoked feelings of freedom, mobility, adventure and transcendence. This feeling is what people pay for. They don’t pay for the photo itself.

The best way to evoke feeling is through strong storytelling. Good stories inform, involve, and inspire.

Inform

This is the part of story telling that most people get right. What is the scene? Are we in a church at a wedding. Are we in an exotic location? Is it morning or night? What is the minimum amount of information needed to convey the plot?

You don’t need to convey everything about the scene. The audience will work to understand the scene if the implied payoff is strong enough. Figuring out something with limited information is what we do all do day. Our brains enjoy the challenge and it gets the viewer involved. Don’t give your audience 4. Give them 2 + 2.

Involve

This part gets a little harder. You have to make your audience care.

Kids television host, Mr Rodgers, carried around in his wallet a quote saying there isn’t anyone in this world you couldn’t grow to love, if you heard their story. People are drawn to stories. Good stories stick with us. Good stories get retold. Stories can be more powerful than facts.  Don’t let your photos just state the facts.

A good photo, like a good story, makes me care. It almost doesn’t matter what subject is, you can love it if you can relate to the story.

Inspire

This is the aftertaste. An experience is a memory. As we see a powerful photo, we are empowered to act. Even if we don’t act, the feeling of wanting to act is powerful.

Take an ordinary picture of the first dance at a wedding. On the surface, this picture catalogued that moment in the wedding.  But with time, seeing that photo can transport us back to the feelings of love on that day. Better yet, a great first dance photo can make us want to be more true to our wedding vows and love our spouse even more.

A landscape photo of the Taj Mahal in India can show the beauty of the building. A great photo can inspire us to want to travel and explore. Even if you never go to the Taj Mahal, the feeling of wanting to explore is a powerful experience.

As photographers, we love the feeling of paper. Some of us miss the tangible nature of a printed photo and the way the light shined off the gloss. Holding the paper at the edges as to not smudge the sometimes still wet ink. This seems lacking in the digital photography age, but we must remember that it was still just paper back then. The paper didn’t make it more valuable. The feelings that the photo involved always held the value. In turn, we should each create valuable stories to share, and not just snapshots. Give your audience an experience worth paying for.

Gerard Murphy is the CEO & Co-Founder of Mosaic
Makers of the
Lightroom Sync App


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Join the conversation! 6 Comments

  1. Reblogged this on Miechelle Photography and commented:
    I found that having a story with photos, does indeed help to sell them. Not all of my photos have amazing ones, but there are those that need to definitely have the stories handy. Who knows that once the person knows where the photo was taken, they might fill you in about their childhood memories about that place. This may help with sales, but even if it doesn’t, you have brightened that person’s day, by letting them tell you their story. Very fun :)

    Reply
  2. I agree! I do many of my images in a narrative form. It gives the viewer the more than what meets the eye with just one image. I’ve always been the photographer who likes to create more than one image and to take the viewer through an experience of the subject being photographed.

    I feel a series of image can be just as profound as one image.

    Reply
  3. Reblogged this on Shoot From The Hip – A Photographer's Journal and commented:
    Some good insight on the approach to the photo narrative.

    Reply
  4. So very true, the effect of the story, as well as the reason people drink Starbucks Coffee!

    Reply
  5. I like the three “i’s” you present here. Just wondering how “invite” might be included. Yes? Perhaps it overlaps what you already have. But I’m thinking it comes between “inform” and “involve”.

    Peter F

    Reply
    • Great point Peter. You need to “invite” people around the proverbial campfire to hear the story you are about to tell. If you haven’t attracted them to hear your story, it won’t get told!

      I also think the setup to the story needs to be compelling. You need to tell the audience that you value their time and there will be a payoff for them listening. Something as simple as “Once upon a time” does this magically. You can’t help but want to hear more…

      Reply

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About gerardatphotofocus

Gerard has had a passion for photography since borrowing his Mom’s Pentax as a kid on family vacations. Later, Gerard turned this passion into Mosaic which he co-founded. Gerard grew Mosaic from a PowerPoint and a dream into a service used by tens of thousands of Lightroom users daily. He is also an avid Lightroom advocate and teacher of Lightroom tips and tricks. His Lightroom videos have been seen by hundreds of thousands of photographers. Gerard has been featured on many national podcasts and large photography publications teaching Lightroom and talking about the future of photography. He has also been featured in Forbes Magazine as a young entrepreneur. Gerard lives in New Hampshire with his wife Elizabeth, daughter Caroline and son James. He shoots on a Nikon and uses Lightroom on both his Mac and PC.

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