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.
Canon 5D, 27mm, 1/640 @ f/11, ISO 400
The stupa at Boudhanath, surrounded on all sides with prayer flags, is the hub of the Tibetan community in exile in Nepal. This wider shot establishes the scene and is the broader context for the following images.
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.
Canon 5D, 85mm, 1/50 @ f/5.6, ISO 100
In the inner circle of the stupa, devotees and monks pray, read, and meditate. A medium shot like this brings the action in a little and provides you with a more intimate look into the details of the story. In this case, the robe, the empty shoes, and the sacred text all point toward Buddhism, the faith associated with this place.
Canon 5D, 27mm, 1/500 @ f/4, ISO 100
A woman feeds the pigeons and sends them fluttering. Not critical to the story, the pigeons remain an important part of my experience at Boudha—always present, always filling the air with sounds of nervous flocks scattering.
Canon 5D, 70mm, 1/500 @ f/4.5, ISO 400
This monk very patiently allowed me to photograph him, both his portrait and his hands. When I edited the sequence of him it was his hands, and the subtle out-of-focus details that constitute the background of this image, that contributed to the story more than his face. The beads, talismans, and worn hands tell more than his otherwise stoic face.
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.
Canon 5D, 57mm, 1/400 @ f/4, ISO 400
A young acolyte, friendly and curious, happily poses for my camera. Of the many portraits I took, this one felt among the most universal—he’s a Buddhist monk, but also a child, unguarded and full of curiosity. The portrait brings to an essay its intimacy and connection to the viewer.
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.
Canon 5D, 25mm, 1/10 @ f/16, ISO 400
Canon 5D, 21mm, 1/500 @ f/8, ISO 400
A man prays as the sun rises over Boudhanath. It might just as easily be sunset. This image could serve as my Moment shot as well, but there’s enough resolution and mood in it that it makes a good Closer.