The Secrets of Taking Good Pictures: Narratives

Photography expert Tom Langford gives his advice on how to make your photos tell stories.

Tourist 1 (photo credit: Rebecca Kowalsky)
Tourist 1
(photo credit: Rebecca Kowalsky)
Tom Langford is a commercial photographer, professional retoucher, and a website designer.
We all love a good story. The art of story telling is just as important today as it was thousands of years ago, so much so that it has adapted to every aspect of our culture and technology. In one form or another, cinema, TV drama, sitcoms, novels, journals, documentaries, newspapers, blogs and news channels all satisfy our thirst for stories. Photography is no exception, and pictures that tell us stories attract our attention far more than snaps.
Snaps are great for capturing visual records of whatever is important to you. Family and friends may enjoy them, but if you were to show them to others, you would have to verbally tell their story. If you want to progress in photography, you will have to learn the art of visual story telling. Luckily, it’s hardly rocket science and once you get the knack of it, it'll become second nature.
Stories usually have a beginning, a middle and an end. Good photographs usually have corresponding elements: a primary focal point, a secondary focal point, and other areas of detail to keep your eyes moving over the picture. An image may be static, but it is not still! Your job as a photographer is to keep the viewer interested by using these tricks of the trade.
Here is shot from Rebecca Kowalsky who took it on a stroll through London. Let have a look at it and consider what sort of story it tells and how it could be improved:
Tourist 1 (Rebecca Kowalsky)Tourist 1 (Rebecca Kowalsky)
It’s a mildly amusing shot of a street performer. I like the out of focus head in the foreground and the snapper in the red shirt (on the right) that give the photo a bit of depth. But my eye takes it all in too quickly and I’m already wanting to see the next shot. There isn’t too much of a story here: “I saw this street performer in London and took a shot of him,” sums it up.
The performer is obviously a primary focal point, so here we have the beginnings of our story. The cropped head isn’t strong enough to hold our interest and doesn’t work as a secondary focal point, so this story lacks a middle section. If this lady held a camera taking a shot of the performer that would make a good addition: We would then have a story and a much more interesting photograph. Here is a retouched version of what I mean:
Rebecca KowalskyRebecca Kowalsky
But what do you do if the lady does not take a picture just when you want her to? How do you create a story that does not exist?
The simple answer is to wait and see what happens. Perhaps another story will present itself for you to capture. But unless you are aware that it’s a story you are looking for, you will hardly spot it even when it does occur.
Below is another story that probably would not have happened: If I had the time I could retouch in many stories. Your job as a photographer is to find the story that turns a snap into a Picture. Time and time again you will face frustration, but with enough determination, practice, patience and a little understanding you will succeed.
Tourist 2 (Rebecca Kowalsky and Tom Langford)Tourist 2 (Rebecca Kowalsky and Tom Langford)

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If you are aspiring to develop your photography skills, send me a picture and I will publish one at the end of my next article with some constructive feedback. 

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Tom teaches photography courses for beginners and advanced. Details of his courses and field trips at: