The Power of Visual Storytelling

August 13, 2012 by Michelle

Yesterday, I wrote about the first session at the Blographer event I attended.  The information provided by Amanda Bottoms and Eric Cobb on how to make your photos blogworthy had to many tips and tidbits in it.  It’s going to take me some time to play with them all, but I’m looking forward to it.  This session on visual storytelling featured another Amanda – Amanda Padgett – along with Rachel Devine.

The only downside to this session?  I had to scoot about a half hour before the session ended, so there was more information that I wasn’t able to capture.  What I did get down on “paper” though, was helpful to me, and I hope it will be to you, too.

The Power of Visual Storytelling

Rachel Devine – Sesame Ellis (@SesameEllis)
Amanda Padgett – Everyday Elements (@amandapadgett) 

Amanda – Erin and Amanda Bottoms really set us up for this. They kept saying, “You’d better talk about that” so now we have to. We want to relate visual storytelling and photography to the writing process. A writer comes up with the story and then they do drafts and they edit it. You should have the same process for your photos to have the same impact for your readers.

Joel had asked if I would like to speak with Rachel, and I was familiar with “Beyond Snapshots” and I was intimidated because Rachel is huge and gifted, but she lives in Australia, so we’ve been working together in the morning and at night. We found out quickly that we are very different, so the best way to describe that is that we’re dusk and dawn. We have a lot in common, but we are very different. You’re going to hear some ways that Rachel does things and the way that I do things; take that back and chew on it and decide what works for you.

Rachel – We just talked a little about the storytelling process. I’m a photographer and an accidental blogger. I started my business in Los Angeles in 1995, so I photographed for companies like Target and the like. I had a child and started photographing her; that story will come a little later on.

The storytelling process isn’t just throwing images up on the blog. I have a rhyme or reason to it, and we’re going to teach you to have beautiful stories represented in your images as well as your writing. I’ll talk a bit about photo theory that most people don’t talk about. There is a lot on the mechanics of the camera, but not often about the multi-dimensional and broad photo theory. I want to talk about why it’s important to bloggers. It’s a visual medium.

We wanted to poll the room – who is a photographer by trade? Do you blog as well? Who’s a blogger by trade? Who here is DSLR, point and shoot, camera phone? Basically, this applies to everything and everyone. It isn’t just a fancy camera thing. If you do have one, we encourage you to learn how to use it. 

Great visuals will bring in your audience and up your numbers. That will bring in sponsors. RSS feeds – you can read an entire post in an RSS feed, but you’ll click on a photo to see it better. Pinterest – craft, food and mom bloggers. I’m talking to all of you. You’re not going to pin an ugly picture. If your sauce isn’t lit or photographed right, no one is going to make that meal.

It applies to every type of blogger. The images will increase your reader engagement and have them come back. They will want to read your story and wait for your posts, which goes into numbers again. We’re talking stats, which gets you sponsored posts and reviews. If a company gives you a product, they want a good photo of you using it in your home.

Digital content creation creates a spoke content for blogs. The brands can push out to their social media, and it’s more personalized than ads shot in studio. I did this, and for me, then the company wanted to buy the images – they’re beautifully shot, but real, and using the product. I’ve been employed to shoot a big brand’s bloggers’ kids wearing their clothes. I’m working with a bunch of different agencies to bring more of this to market.  I’m a brand ambassador for a lens company. I love the brand, and that’s another thing that comes out of it.

Building your brand – it’s real and your life. People know what I tell them about me and what I show. They keep coming back, and I’ll tell you a bit about my story next. My clients as a professional photographer come through my own blog. It started when I got postpartum depression when I had Gemma who is now 7 1/2. It wasn’t talked about in the States, and I joined Flickr. I didn’t want my clients seeing my digital photography because I was afraid they would see the real me going through postpartum depression.

I just last year split into two place with Rachel Devine Photography, which is the professional stuff in addition to the Sesame Ellis I’ve been forever. I clawed my way back from postpartum depression by using Flickr to show the images. The twins were IVF, so I was going through fertility problems and not telling anyone, so I decided to just start sharing images on Flickr of that journey. The response I got back was that it helped me and it helped them.

I want to help solve problems, which is the “Beyond Snapshots” book. Rarely will I post a client shoot on my blog, but when I do, my stats go down. I want to talk to real people, people who are going through the real things. I’m now an expat and have gotten a lot of great feedback on that.

If you are selling anything, people are going to buy from friends. If they see you as a friend or as someone they know – and I mean people coming back to your blog or crafts or food – they will follow those stories. It has to be your story, not dramatic.

All three of my kids have Instagram accounts. We try to accept that its’ a digital world, and we do our best to keep them safe. I moderate comments because I get a lot of trolls. Knowing your story means knowing you to your readers. If they trust you, that’s how you can monetize your blog or just have people keep coming back.

Sharing stories broadens your audience. Instead of showing me recipes, show me your kitchen. Expand to create your story. Show me the farmer’s market. It can still be your brand and your topic. Don’t tell me about it, show me. I really want to see things – I don’t have a lot of time to read. The same holds true for fashion bloggers – show me a thrift shop, walk me through your shopping. Personal blogs are not faceless magazines. This is you. A personal blog is your story, so share it and expand on it. Crafters, show me your crafting room, or focus on different things. Every Wednesday, maybe do something else. It’s still your story, and you can show people that they’re not alone. There are other people like that out there.

I photographed the door (shown in the picture on the screen) and didn’t think about the fact that the initials of my twins were on the door, because we didn’t say the twins’ names. Things like that can spur conversations with your audience unexpectedly and people were guessing the names like crazy. We announced that they were twins by Gemma holding a pink and a blue pacifier.

Gemma saved for over a year to save for an iTouch, so we created a savings jar and I did a craft post on how to do that. What is visual storytelling? It has purpose. That is the one word that sums it up. If you take away anything from this, it’s purpose. When I started the infertility journey, you have to give yourself shows and can’t do it on your belly button, so I shared details showing my shot marks. It’s a way for me to heal and for other people to be healed. That’s purposeful shooting. It does include time focusing on technical elements.

If you have a vision in your head and can’t make that photograph look like what’s in your head, it’s frustrating, so know your camera. A DSLR has all these controls and so figure them out and use that tool to tell what you want the story to be. Think about other photographs and what they tell you. Knowing my settings and being ready for it with what story you want to tell, that’s how you get the photos you want. Happy accidents happen, but being ready is more important.

Identify what works in a photo. As photographers, we have the frame, what we put in it, what we don’t, where we put it is all key. Think within that box and try to get it in camera, but yes, you can crop later. I try to spend as little time editing as possible. I want to get the pictures right in camera.

My goal is no clutter in my photos; they are the repeating characters you don’t need to know. Learn what to leave out by simplifying. What’s outside the frame is not featured for a reason, and that makes a stronger image. This is the real important part: What does it say to you when you first look at it? What you see may not be what is meant to be told. Your viewers may have a different background, so you have to build up context for them. That’s why you keep telling your story over and over again.

My mom is 85, and she’s getting ready to move to Australia (photo shown on screen of an older woman in a bedroom folding clothing, shot from a distance through the doorway). I was visiting my mom and saw a reflection in a mirror or her in her bedroom, and I saw the aging and the passing of time, and if I keep telling that same story over and over, it will come through. But you can sometimes just have fun and practice to revise your own vision by breaking free from your normal process.

If you are telling someone else’s story, you can’t separate yourself from that story. I’m putting my views on it, but that’s what we do, and it’s fine. Tell a story when you’re traveling from your point of view. When it’s not a struggle is when you know you’re getting it right. Occasionally people will see something like that and be surprised, but if I completely changed my style and everything looked like this, then it wouldn’t be my style.

Camera therapy is my process. It’s what I call my storytelling process, and it might not apply to you, but it works for me. Everyone can identify an image that is poorly shot where the story gets lost, but the real thing is teaching the eye. People say you can’t teach the eye, but then dance classes would be steps and music classes would be scales and writing classes would be spelling and grammar. Most photography classes are just teaching you how to us your process. Enjoy the process and learn.

If you get a process, and mine is camera therapy, I think about what I want to say and I prepare. I know ahead of time what the lighting will be or bring the right lens. Then take a deep breath because it’s just pictures. Push yourself to look at things from different angles and think about how you can take it better. Don’t just keep taking the same photo over and over again. You can do that with your own photography and get to know your subjects to create characters. Gemma thinks she’s hot stuff, and you tell the story of the character’s you’ve developed.

I’m going to suggest two books. The first is “Bird by Bird” that is an amazing book on process. Think of ABCD. A is action – What is going to happen in the photo? It’s your purpose and your message. That’s what’s most important. B – Background – This is your background. What are you bringing to the story? C – Content – It’s your focus – what are you putting in the picture, what are you leaving out of the frame? D- Development – What’s happening with the story and develop those characters? This is your story and your protagonists. Develop them, and tell people about your characters. Show them your characters, and that’s how you create a visual story.

Amanda – I wanted to tell me story. I started blogging in 2008 when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. This whole blogging thing seemed like a good way to keep my family members in the loop with what’s going on with my dad. I would share pictures of my dad and update them on his progress. Not long after that, I saw other people’s blogs, and their pictures looked a whole lot better than my camera’s photos. My husband didn’t want to buy me a big camera because he was convinced I’d never use it.

When I started, I had everything dead center with the head in the middle. When my dad died in 2009, about 6 weeks later, I went out and bought a camera because life is short. This is something I had wanted to do and didn’t want to lose a moment. If you shoot on auto, you have an expensive point and shoot. I put my camera in manual and figured it out. I started teaching workshops on Photoshop Elements, and that’s how I’m here today.

People have the story on paper. With a writer, they want to write the best they can, they want to get it out as best they can to start with because the editing process is hard. Do the same. Get the best image possible out of the camera.

The things you need to focus on are exposure – you need a well exposed image – focus, light, composition, proper equipment, setting image limits. Cheat sheet: http://bit.ly/helpsheet that has tips for every one of these items and how to correct every one of those things.

Exposure really really matters. If you put a photo on your blog that is dark, people are going to want to see it better. There is an exposure triangle: the ISO, aperture and shutter speed. If you aren’t controlling those things, your camera is going to try to make a best guess. It won’t be right. There is a big difference between too slow of a shutter speed and too fast. Set your ISO, set your aperture, and then use the wheel at the back to set your shutter speed when you’re shooting in manual.

Backlighting is beautiful, and people really love it. You have got to know how to shoot and set the exposure for the person though, or the person is going to be really dark. You have to control the shutter speed to capture the movement. You need to have a fast shutter speed to capture action.

What about focus? Focus seems like a really simple topic. I’ll just get it in focus! I am surprised by how people don’t know that you can move the focal point of a subject in your camera. There is a menu of closest subject, matrix, and single point. I recommend having it on single point and you can choose where you focus. Pay attention to that. That’s how you can do the aperture changes with the background blurry.

What if your photos are out of focus? I always say, “Can I see the EXIF data?” There is a lot of information and your shutter speed, and I find that it’s almost always too slow for the moment. Your shutter speed needs to be roughly double the length of the lens you’re using if you’re hand holding and not using a tripod.

Rachel – Make the light for you. Don’t just move around, and be sure to use the natural light. My favorite thing in the world is the big foam core boards. I love to cut holes using an X-acto knife so I can have the light come through it and then bend it down over your item. It looks like it’s lit with a giant, very expensive soft box. I have examples on my Facebook page. Check Beyond Snapshots with all sorts of tips on various topics.

Aperture and bokeh
Aperture affects the exposure in terms of how small/wide the opening is to allow in light. With f3.2, the focus will be just on the horse’s head and the tail is already out of focus (photo of a toy horse sitting on a counter). At f8, you can see everything that’s in the background because it’s in focus. It impacts the depth of field. This goes to storytelling. Is what’s in the background important? If not, you can use depth of field to get rid of what’s not important. I’ll often shoot at f3.2 or f4.

A big difference is in the distance from me to my subject and my subject to my background. I’m further away from my subject, and the background is somewhat in focus. I move in closer, and the background is more creamy and out of focus. The distance is key. Pull your subject from the background and you get in closer. If you zoom in, it works even better. I love it.

When you’re composing and crafting your picture, the composition can be so off that you can’t save the photo. Compose it correctly in camera; it does matter. Alter your positions; don’t just take the same photo over and over again. Don’t just shoot down at children, but get to their perspective. Think of the rule of thirds, which I’ll show in just one second. Look for leading lines that draw you into your focus of the photo. 

Negative space
Get your subject in one part of the photo with nothing else going on in the photo, which will really draw the viewer to your subject. Sometimes, fill the frame with your subject. Use a natural frame for the photo.

What not to do?
Tilts gone wild. You don’t want to make it so severe that your subject that looks like they’re falling off the world. Tilt a little can be fun to give a little different perspective. Tilt with reason and purpose. Be careful with it.

Have the right tools
Lenses do matter. I don’t want to tell you to go into debt for a camera or lenses, but they do matter. The new cameras all do what you need them to do. The Nikon and Canons are great. You need to get a different app for your smart phone, though. I use Camera Plus.

Don’t buy the kit lens for your camera. You want a 50mm f1.8 or a 35mm f1.8 are great lenses. When you have a macro, you can get in super close, not that you should all the time. A 60mm f2.8 is an affordable macro to do that. Other brands are good, but the most help can be found for Nikon or Canon.

Rachel – I come from a film background, so I tend to be precise. I would shoot an entire session on two rolls of film, which is 72 frames. Who here shoots hundreds of frames in a session now? You don’t need to take hundreds. Get a small memory card and dedicate it to this – take 72 frames, and take pictures like your lens in back is broken and you can’t see what you’ve shot.

Do it with no in camera deletion. Record the lighting and what you were doing at the time. Figure out your f stop and shutter speed. Don’t even look at the back of your camera. You’ll get to 72 so fast, but this will force you to be careful. You have to slow down and force yourself to think of what you’re doing. Explore your city or take your kids on a scavenger hunt.

Amanda – I go out once a year to shoot with other photographers in Savannah where I could come back with 150 images and another photographer would come back with 1,000. She had to go through editing for 1,000 photos. That time matters. When someone writes a story, the editing is where you get to the right story.

You hate to see typos in a book. There has always been an editor going through books to kill off the run on sentences. They add elements, too, to make it more interesting. They make more exciting verbs or adverbs to liven up your story. Editing will do that for us. It takes a so so image and brings it to life.

The basic workflow is to import, tag and select. How are you managing your files so you can find them? If you use editing software, you can tag your images so you can find them easily later. I can find just about any photo I’ve taken in the last three years because of this.

Go through and select the pictures you want to use right away, the ones that are going to tell your story the best. Then you correct the problems. Almost all photos have some problem that needs to be fixed, white balance, composition, exposure. We’ll possibly add some creative effects. Then well crop or recompose the photo. We’ll sharpen the photo before resizing and possibly watermarking. Tip sheet: http://bit.lyhelpsheet

And yes, there was more… but this is where I had to leave.  My favorite tip?  Tagging the photos.  You have no idea how often I am searching for a photo I know I took but can’t find easily.  If you have the rest of this session, please let me know!


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    Comments

  • Heather


    Reading this made me realize just how badly I need to find more info on improving my pictures. Of course, it doesn't help that I've been “demoted” to a 4mp Kodak since my new camera went missing…

    Thanks for the great info!

  • Lisa Noel


    saving this to come back to cuz it has so much great info!!

  • Amanda


    Wow. Thank YOU for posting this!! So much great information and Amanda is SO smart!

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