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For Stronger Photographs, Think Cinematically

The way we approach a photo essay is very similar to the way a cinematographer tells a story. In this excerpt from The Visual Toolbox: 60 Lessons for Stronger Photographs, David DuChemin explains how to use the technique to to think in terms of a consistent style, an intentional sequence, and the use of establishing, wide, and detail photographs to give both information and impact.
This chapter is from the book

IF YOU’RE LOOKING TO TELL fuller stories than one frame alone can tell, then a series of photographs that work together is the next logical step. Of course, these days the lines are blurring between still photographs, mixed media, and video, but I know something about making the former and very little about the latter, so this lesson will focus on still photographs in sequence. Still, I ask you to think cinematically, because the way we approach a photo essay is very similar to the way a cinematographer tells a story. Specifically, in this context, I encourage you to think in terms of a consistent style, an intentional sequence, and the use of establishing, wide, and detail photographs to give both information and impact.


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Canon 1Ds Mk III, 85mm, 1/100 @ f/1.2, ISO 800


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Nikon D3s, 20mm, 1/40 @ f/8, ISO 800


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Nikon D3s, 17mm, 1/800 @ f/8, ISO 200


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Canon 1Ds Mk III, 16mm, 1/8000 @ f/5, ISO 400


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Canon 1Ds Mk III, 85mm, 1/320 @ f/1.2, ISO 800


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Nikon D3s, 20mm, 1/400 @ f/8, ISO 200


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Canon 1Ds Mk III, 85mm, 1/60 @ f/1.2, ISO 800

Photographed in Kathmandu, Nepal, over a couple years, these images span different times of day, show us different characters, and reveal different parts of the same context, as well as different ways of expressing the same devotion. Together they give a fuller picture and tell a more complete story than one photograph alone could.

  • “I encourage you to think in terms of a consistent style, an intentional sequence, and the use of establishing, wide, and detail photographs to give both information and impact.”

Consistency of style matters because it gives a story visual unity. There’s no rule that says all your images should be either black and white or color, but doing so makes one image connect to another. It’s a visual clue that says they belong together. You could do the same with color palettes, aspect ratios, or frame orientations. Within those constraints, there can be a great deal of variety, but the images will all work together. Considering how each frame connects, or relates, to the next, will prevent the readers of your images from dropping the thread of the story or losing the mood you’re trying to establish.

In the case of a story where the unfolding of events is important, an intentional sequence allows you to convey necessary information in the right order. Placing the climax of the story before the introduction of the main characters won’t make sense and will be confusing to the viewer. Ask yourself, “Does this make sense to someone who doesn’t already know the story?”

But not all photo stories are about a specific event. They can be about places or ideas or people. An intentional sequence is still important, though you’ve got more freedom to choose that sequence based on other considerations. One of the strongest of those considerations is rhythm, or pace.

People like rhythm. Being hit by intense image after intense image, for example, makes us numb. Placing a softer image between two intense images can give us a mental break but can also increase the impact of the next intense image. The same is true with other types of images. Six portraits next to each other will generally have less impact than if you create a rhythm with them, placing other images throughout, such as details of hands, or wide shots of the land in which they live, or candid images of a couple of them talking and laughing or working together. Rhythm carries us through a story. Watch or listen to master storytellers and see how they allow their voice to rise and fall, alternating between comic and tragic moments to make each stronger. Or a watch a comedian who allows us to catch our breaths between punchlines, and you’ll get a sense of what can be done with your photographic stories.

Most discussions of the photo essay tell you to focus on establishing frames that set the scene, wide frames that show action, and closer details and portraits. I have little to add to this except that I think the content is more important than how wide the frame is, or how much you include. It’s not how much you include—it’s how deep. Stories move us, or have the capacity to, only as much as the storyteller is willing to make us care. So do include a variety of frames that show the elements of the story in wider to tighter photographs, and include action and relationships, portraits, and details. But most of all, make me care. Put the time in. Wait for great light, light that complements the mood of your story. Wait for great moments—moments that make me laugh or cry. If the story includes people, build enough rapport with them to build trust and gain access to deeper moments. And most of all, tell the truth. We’ve stopped believing the idea that the camera never lies and are beginning to move on to the idea that the camera says whatever the storyteller asks it to. So it’s not to the camera we’ll look to place our trust, but to the storyteller. If you manipulate us, or misrepresent the heart of the story, or aren’t open with us yourself, you’ll lose our trust, and if you do that you’ll lose your connection with your audience and the story will lose its potential power. Make it consistent. Give it a sequence and a rhythm, and a mix of information and impact. But most of all, make it human.

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