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The Photo Essay

The challenge of capturing or implying a story with photography is made easier when you can photograph it in a longer form—in several frames that tell the story in more detail and more breadth than a single image alone could do. Enter the photo essay, the traditional means by which photographers have told longer stories.

There’s a visual language at work here, a convention that’s evolved to help us string our story together and give our audience the tools to interpret it. Used well, a photo essay is a powerful means of expressing your vision. And as electronic media becomes increasingly prominent, the photo essay is getting more powerful with the addition of ambient sound, interviews, video clips, and music in the form of multimedia slideshows.

Long-form photo essays generally share the same types of images, and while this is by no means a formula, it provides a framework—a starting point built on established conventions. Here are the usual suspects, accompanied with images from the stupa at Boudhanath in Kathmandu.

The Establishing Shot: This is the wide shot. These images generally say, “This is where the story is going to take place.” It establishes context, setting, and often mood.

The Medium Shot: Images that get closer to the action, these shots generally say, “This is what the story is about, this is who the characters are.” Not all photo essays are about people; the characters in your story could be horses, or weather, or boats, for example.

The Detail Shot: A closer, tighter image of details relevant to the story. In the case of a photo essay about horses, it might be the detail of a horse’s saddle. In the case of an essay about weather, it might be an old barometer or a car damaged by hail.

The Portrait: A tighter portrait or headshot—often an environmental portrait.

The Moment: A photograph that captures a gesture, an exchange, or the peak of the action. This is the “wow” shot.

The Closer: This one wraps it up, provides some resolution, or just provides a natural place to put the story to bed.

While not every photo essay will have each of these kinds of images, they will have most of them, and certainly they will have the first three. National Geographic has made an industry of perfecting the photo essay and is an excellent place to look for inspiration—not only in the quality of the images, but in the kinds of images they choose to tell the story.

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