with Courtney Slazinik
3 ways to tell your story with photos instead of words
3 ways to tell your story with photos instead of words

There are so many ways to help your viewer understand why you snapped the shutter at just the moment you did, from adding a title to your image that sheds some light on what was happening to writing some background for the image that you are sharing. Many times I find that I have stopped to look longer at an image because of the caption or story the photographer added. It helps me see something in the image that I didn’t notice at first glance.

But, other times I enjoy looking at an image & imagining my own story line behind it. When we are interpreting an image we all bring our own experiences and perspectives to the table. While I do believe that the perfect caption or story can enhance the viewing of an image I often struggle to come up with them myself. It can be hard for me to write short snappy captions for images on Instagram or tweet in 140 characters the reason why I was inspired to click the shutter button and take an image. Which is why I have been pushing myself to improve my storytelling using just the images, to save myself from the creative writing part. And that brings us to 3 ways to tell your story with photos instead of words.

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storytelling with pictures

  • No.
    Be sure to step back and get the whole scene.

    I’m going to share an image from three different days that give the viewer the setting for the story below and a little behind the scenes for each.

    In this image from El Capitan Canyon Campground I was using a wide angle lens (the Canon 24-70 II at 24mm) to get as much scenery in the image as possible. I wanted to set the scene for the location of my story right from the start. You can see the long road, the fence, lots of sky, and even a little of the ocean. I got low to the ground to take this image to show as much as I could my point of view from being there, hoping someone might be able to imagine walking down the dirt path too. Based on this image the viewer can guess the setting is rural and outdoors.


    For this image from Santa Monica Pier, I wanted one image that would show where we were right at the start of my story. This image sets the stage for detail shots of the rides and the concessions along the pier once we got closer. But, just from this one image the viewer can tell we are on the water (but close to some city life), on a pier, and there are lots of activities. I shot this standing at eye level because I wanted to tell the story without any distractions in the foreground of the image. I was using the Canon 50 mm lens for this image because I wanted to get enough in the image to show the location without having so much that it became a distraction (which I find sometimes happens for me when I am shooting with a wide angle lens).


    When we went to the apple tree farm I knew I would come home with lots of images of apples on the trees, apple picking, and details from the day. But, I wanted to make sure to start my photo story with the location of our day. This particular farm has some wonderful white sided houses on the property and I tried to capture an image that showed some of one of the houses along with the fall leaves and some rows of apple trees. My goal was for someone to see this image and know the season and have an idea of the rural location.


  • No.
    Now step closer and capture the details.

    When we were at El Capitan (the location of the first image above) there was so much to look at that it was almost overwhelming. It seemed like every direction I looked there was something new. The good part of this was that there were lots of details to capture. The hard part was choosing which details could help me tell the strongest story of the place. I decided that I wanted a mix of detail images that showed the place {like these flowers below} along with detail images that told the story of our stay there {like the key to the cabin and the sign}. Using a macro lens like the Canon 100 mm 2.8, is a great way to get those close up detail images. Although I also like to use the 50 mm lens for these shots as well because I find that I like the extra space in the image, like the one with the cabin key. The texture of the table adds to the story so I wanted to include enough of it in the image plus it helps you compose the image when you give yourself a little breathing room in the frame.



    This next image from Santa Monica Pier shows details of two things I found pulled me in while we where there. I love the history behind things and this pier has a long history full of it’s own stories. There was something about the way the light was falling in this empty space in the room nearby by to the carousel. I felt like these images showed insight into the space & about my day there at the same time.


    Last, details from the apple tree farm. These are probably the most obvious details yet it was also a challenge to make it about more than just the apples themselves. I wanted to find details that would be specific to this particular apple tree farm, something that was unique about it which meant I had to look beyond just the apple trees & apples.

    Here are the apples.


    And here is a detail image of something unique to this farm. I was looking in every direction while we where there, not just at the trees but also behind us, looking for the story I wanted to tell.


  • No.
    Remember to look for characters, connections, and moments.

    These are two moments from our trip to El Capitan. When I see the image on the left of the light it takes me right back to that evening. It is the perfect moment of time. Placing it alongside the open wine bottle also helps tell the viewer the time of day and something about what we did.

    The next one is of my husband & son riding the roller coaster at Santa Monica Pier. I was standing below them with the shot already composed in my head waiting until the coaster got right where I wanted it then I clicked the shutter.


    Last one of the moments I wanted from our trip to the apple tree farm was of my son actually picking the apples off the tree. I loved that the image shows the size of his hand this year and how he still has to reach up to get the apples. For an unknown viewer, the black marks on his wrist may be a distraction but for me they tell the story of the time of year & his love of running club (they get a mark for each lap). This would be something that might require some words for background if you wanted to explain it but I was taking them image for our family albums so including that detail in this moment added meaning to the image for me.


My goal when shooting this type of family outing (and it would work with lifestyle family sessions too) is to think about getting the images I need to tell the story from beginning to end. I try to get the location, the details, and the characters in my images just like I would need if I was writing about it. Then I keep these things in mind when I am culling, editing, and planning my blog post. Did I include the setting? Are there details that are unique to the location? Did I get some images that show the moments of the day or the characteristics of the place?

  • January 30, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    I love this post! Beautiful imagery. Sometimes I get so caught up in the subjects that I almost forget about the surroundings. Thank you for the reminder!

  • January 30, 2015 at 12:44 PM

    The image with the apples is mesmerizing. I just sat and stared at it for ages. So simple and yet so inspiring. Loved it.

    Thanks for these images which are a real help for me to think about what I am capturing before I take the shot. :-)

  • January 30, 2015 at 4:11 PM

    Thank you so much! I realize that I have been taking these types of pictures, but felt like I was missing the mark on documenting our travels, etc. because I didn’t have a lot of pictures of us. Now I realize that I can tell a story using your 3 Ways – which means I can stop the “should have…” post-event analysis. That’s a good thing!!

  • January 31, 2015 at 1:59 PM

    Thanks for sharing so many great tips on storytelling. This is an area I am working on this year (with my 365) and really appreciated your thought process as you took us through the steps. The apples hanging from the tree are mesmerizing! We went to an orchard about a year and a half ago and seeing that photo brought back memories of our visit (even though our orchard is in Texas) but also made me realize that if we went back, I’d shoot it much differently now because I have a different set of skills. Again, thank you for a thought provoking post. :-)

  • Joan
    February 5, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    Great article, very inspiring. Reminds me of some shots I took when we went apple picking this fall with my teenage son and my friend and her son. I’ll have to pull them out and look at them again!

  • Charlie
    February 5, 2015 at 3:21 PM

    Brilliant post and beautiful photo’s. Time to step back and look at the surroundings as it tells the story just as much as the subject. Thank you :)

  • Amy
    February 8, 2015 at 5:49 PM

    SO many great tips! I especially love the reminder to take a picture of the place from a distance–I always forget to do this, and I always regret it later when I’m trying to remember the scene.

  • Ally
    February 8, 2015 at 9:42 PM

    Thank you, these brilliant ideas provide a structure for capturing and documenting my photos that I so easily overlook. So easy to remember too

  • February 9, 2015 at 4:29 PM

    great article and beautiful shots. i really like the bokeh in that last one.
    thank you for sharing:))

    the best!

  • February 11, 2015 at 1:08 PM

    I loved this article! Will need to keep these tips in mind!

  • Brittany
    February 11, 2015 at 1:15 PM

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful post! Your photos are amazing! This was a very inspiring read.

  • February 25, 2015 at 2:28 PM

    Love the very practical workflow here!

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