If you’re an avid camera owner, then you expect your camera to be more than just a tool for capturing images; you want a powerful and creative storytelling device. This way, when you share your photos, your viewers will be excited and moved by what they see. But there are some tricks to doing this. It’s not as simple as taking a quick photo in Auto mode.
Have you ever told a story and realized your listener just wasn’t getting it? Photos can be like that, too. In fact, one of the biggest problems with snapshots is that you often must explain them, sometimes ending with, “Well, I guess you had to be there.”
This is the problem with shooting in Auto mode.
But, with the right use of aperture, composition, and focus, you can take your viewers on a journey and tell a story through your images.
In this blog post, I’ll share five tips for creating powerful stories with your DSLR or mirrorless camera.
- Tip #1: Switch your camera to Aperture Mode for creative storytelling.
- Tip #2: Experiment with different focus points.
- Tip #3: Use depth of field to control the mood of the image.
- Tip #4: Use composition for creative storytelling.
- Tip #5: Use light and color to guide your viewer's eye and tell the story.
- Now it's your turn.
If you’re shooting with a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can control the size of your aperture, which is something mobile phone cameras can’t do. (If you shoot with your iPhone camera, you’ll love tip #3!)
Tip #1: Switch your camera to Aperture Mode for creative storytelling.
Here’s how it works. The aperture is the opening of the camera lens that allows light to enter and hit the camera’s sensor, creating the image. It also controls the depth of field, which determines how much of the photo is in focus.
A lower aperture (f/stop) number will create a shallower depth of field, where only the subject is in focus while the background is blurred. I shot this photo of my daughter in Paris at f/2.8. The sidewalk cafe scene was set with the colorful table and chairs, along with the menu. The out-of-focus people in the distance also helped show it was outdoors. But the subject was clearly my daughter and not the crowd.
A higher aperture (f/stop) number will create a deeper depth of field, making more of the image sharp and in focus. Here I’ve used an aperture of f/14 for a photo of the Drum Point Lighthouse at the Calvert Marine Museum in Solomons, Maryland. I chose that aperture to be sure that the reflection in the foreground and the lighthouse were both in focus.
If you want to create a story about a particular subject, using a lower aperture number will make that subject pop off the image. On the other hand, if you want to capture a wider view of the scene, choosing a higher aperture number will give you a deeper depth of field, making everything in the frame sharp and in focus.
But here’s a creative storytelling hint: with a deeper depth of field, you’ll need to add elements of composition to guide the viewer’s eye. (See Tip #4 below.)
Tip #2: Experiment with different focus points.
Your camera’s autofocus system is designed to lock onto the subject and focus on it. But remember, your camera can’t read your mind. Only you know where you want the viewer’s attention to go.
I captured this image of a noisy baboon at the entrance to the Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. She was hiding deep in the trees near the parking lot, telling us exactly what she thought of us. I set my one focus point on her fur, which was the only thing I could see clearly. With my aperture set to f/2.8, I shot the photo. Amazingly, the camera was able to blur the branches and leaves between us, and she emerged in focus. If I hadn’t chosen my one focus point, I’d have an image of green leaves with a hint of a baboon deep in the trees.
So, here’s the solution. You can set your camera so you are the one choosing what’s in focus. You’ll still use the camera’s autofocus system but manually select a focus point. This will allow you to compose the creative storytelling photograph you want.
Choosing an off-center focus point will also give your images a more dynamic composition, adding an extra layer of storytelling.
Tip #3: Use depth of field to control the mood of the image.
The depth of field you set can help control the mood and feel of an image.
For example, if you’re capturing a portrait, using a shallow depth of field will isolate the subject from their surroundings, creating a sense of intimacy and closeness. I shot this photo of my friend, Michael, with my iPhone 14 ProMax in Portrait Mode! Yes, my iPhone is definitely an important part of my camera gear!
On the other hand, using a deeper depth of field will include more of the surroundings, giving a sense of space and detachment to the image. It’s a great way to include the environment in the story. Here I included the gardens at the Williamsburg Inn in a photo of Michael.
Tip #4: Use composition for creative storytelling.
Capturing an image with the right framing and composition can create a story without words. This is especially important if you’re using a higher aperture number.
One way of achieving this is through using the rule of thirds. This is where you divide the frame into three equal parts, horizontally and vertically. Then, you place the subject or the point of interest along the lines or at the intersections.
An easy way to visualize this when you’re composing your shot is to turn on the Grid Display in the camera menu. Now, you’ll see faint lines dividing the scene into thirds. Line your subject up on one of the lines. If you want an even stronger placement, place them at the intersection of lines.
In this photo of the New Point Comfort Lighthouse, I’ve included the rule-of-third lines as an illustration. The lighthouse is placed at the left top intersection of the lines.
Another composition technique is to use leading lines to guide your viewer’s eye through the image. Leading lines can be anything from roads to bridges, branches, or sidewalks. Any single element that draws the viewer’s eyes through the image will help create a sense of depth and direction in the story and lead you to the subject.
Tip #5: Use light and color to guide your viewer’s eye and tell the story.
Our eyes are drawn to the brightest part of a photo, so being aware of the light in the scene will allow you to place your subject for impact.
I shot this photo in a faintly lit shack in Ecuador. As I was looking around for a subject to include in the image, a ray of sunlight suddenly shot through a hole in the roof, illuminating the white bowl and bouncing up to light my friend’s face. I had my subject!
Bright colors also stand out from dull backgrounds and help with creative storytelling.
I was on a stock photo shoot with my friends on a rainy morning in Paris. All my photos reflected the drabness of the weather. Then, this woman appeared in the distance, walking towards me. I held my breath while quickly checking my camera settings. Then, after she walked past, I swung around and captured the street shot of the morning! Her outfit and umbrella told the story.
Now it’s your turn.
Using aperture, depth of field, composition, and focus, you can easily tell a story through your camera and take your viewer on an incredible journey. Whether you want to create a series of visually compelling images or a single image that tells a story by itself, the five tips outlined above can help you get started on your next project.
And here’s a bonus tip!
Look over the photos in this post and see how many included more than one tip. Often, layering these techniques makes an even more compelling image.
If photography words like aperture and depth of field leave you scratching your head, check out my guide- Lens Lingo: 20 must-know photography terms in plain English.
If you shoot with an iPhone camera, read this blog post, where I share tips for using Portrait Mode creatively.
Would you like to join a group of fellow photographers on a photo walk, KelbyOne is hosting their Worldwide Photo Walk on Saturday, October 7th. On this one day, you can join photo walks all over the world. I’ll be leading the walk in Colonial Williamsburg and would love for you to join me. You can sign up here.
If Williamsburg isn’t convenient, search for your location at this link.