Do Your Pictures Tell a Story?

Reader Question: How do I tell a story with photographs?

My Answer: A photo editor’s nightmare is when someone shows him a picture and then starts to explain what’s in it. In the worst cases, the photographer starts to talk about important things that aren’t even in the shot.

In the simplest of terms, a storytelling photograph must show what the story is about. As the stories we want to tell with pictures get more complex, it becomes harder to fit all the elements into one frame. However, trying to make that happen is a great exercise.

The first step is to photograph all aspects of the story. Get to know the subject until you can decide what visual elements help tell the tale of that place or person.

Think about it in terms of covering the story from different angles. Photograph your subject from near, far away, back, front.

The key to an interesting photographic coverage is variety. Change up the size of the subject in the photographic frame. Shoot the same thing with different focal length settings. This is the time to really play around.

Photos work best when they have more than one storytelling element. In this case I was pretty bummed that the rain and fog were obscuring the Alaskan mountain range behind the glacier. Then I found out our boat was to be visited by two National Park Service rangers. Their small size emphasized the scale of the landscape.

One of my tricks is to think of adjectives that can describe a place and then see how many of them I can get into a photograph. Here I’m showing Cold, Fog, Rain, Immensity, Ruggedness, and Struggle.

And, last but not least, don’t fall into the trap of including the main subject of your story in every picture. After a few photos the viewers will get the idea.

Be sure to mix things up, take a lot of pictures, and review your shots while you’re still in the field because that’s when ideas for what will become the best photos — the keepers — will start bubbling to the surface.

Most photographers don’t just stand around waiting for the best scenes to appear in front of them. They work to draw their mind into the scene, hoping to capture the telling details that would have gone unnoticed without careful observation.

Dan Westergren is director of photography for National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow him on Twitter @dwestergren and on Instagram @danwestergren.

Do you have something you want to ask Dan about travel photography? He’ll be answering reader questions periodically on the blog, so be sure to leave a comment.


  1. Renuka
    November 2, 2013, 8:47 am

    Helpful! Sometimes I find myself clicking without thinking much. I think it’s so important to wait and look for good shots.

  2. SandeepaChetan
    October 1, 2013, 12:59 am

    Great tip about the adjectives.

  3. Nancy
    United States
    June 16, 2013, 5:59 pm

    Thanks Dan!

    I’ve been taking pictures all my life, but I’m learning how to tell stories and not just make ‘pretty pictures’. I will put these tips to use immediately and see where they take me.
    Thanks so much for sharing!

  4. Tushna Lehman
    Seattle, WA
    May 15, 2013, 11:59 pm

    I love having a rhetoric in photos. Beautiful photography that draws you in with storytelling makes your work more interesting. Great read!

  5. Salman Siddiqui
    Minneapolis, U.S.A.
    May 12, 2013, 6:14 pm

    Hi Dan

    I was in your recent seminar in Minneapolis and it was pleasure spending the day with you. I still remember your take on your experience while in Kentucky looking for your photographs.

    Their are so many awesome photographs on the Internet, we got to have good stories if if we want to stand out. Totally agreed!

    Though I got answer to my queries during the seminar, still, their was one question which I was hesitant asking may be because it looked very simple.

    Do you always click in manual mode? I use manual mode all the time but I wonder if photographers clicking for Nat Geo are using other modes instead of manual.

    Thanks for your time.

  6. OdysseyTravels
    May 9, 2013, 3:01 am

    excellent tricks for anyone interested in storytelling through snaps.

  7. Ian Faulds
    Bellingham, Washington, United States
    May 5, 2013, 1:42 pm

    Great tips, particularly mixing up the topic of your story in the photos so you don’t bore your readers. I myself need to get better at that.

    Ian Faulds

  8. frank w.
    May 3, 2013, 2:28 pm

    Very cool tips! I like the one about using adjectives.I will incorporate the suggestion on myphoto field trips!