Best Photo Essay Sites

Today Christina Nichole Dickson looks at the topic of Photo Essays. Christina is a photojournalist for Revolutionary Media. She is also an instructor with the Institute in Photographic Studies. Her work may be found at Christina Nichole Photography.

In the last twenty years, video and film have become the predominant forms of modern storytelling. But before video, there was photography. And for the last one hundred years photography and storytelling went hand in hand.

Now more than ever, the power of storytelling ought to be harnessed. But telling a story with photos takes more than just a skillful photographer. An impacting photo story can only be developed by skillful photographers who understand the emotions and concepts behind ever-great story.

The form of such a story is called the photo essay.

What is a Photo Essay?

A photo essay is very simply a collection of images that are placed in a specific order to tell the progression of events, emotions, and concepts. Used by world class photojournalists such as Lauren Greenfield and James Nachtwey, and Joachim Ladefoged to name a few, the photo essay takes the same story telling techniques as a normal essay, translated into visual images.

5 Photo Essay Tips

A photo essay isn’t simply for photojournalists however. Every human being is drawn to stories. Whether you are an amateur or a professional, the photo essay is a brilliant way to bring your images to life and touch your family, friends, and coworkers.

1. Find a topic: Photo essays are most dynamic when you as the photographer care about the subject. Whether you choose to document the first month of a newborn in the family, the process of a school drama production, or even a birthday party, make your topic something in which you find interest.

2. Do your researchh: If you document a newborn’s first month, spend time with the family. Discover who the parents are, what culture they are from, whether they are upper or lower class. If you cover the process of a school’s drama production, talk with the teachers, actors and stage hands; investigate the general interest of the student body; find out how they are financing the production and keeping costs down. If you photograph a birthday party, check out the theme, the decorations they plan on using, what the birthday kid hopes to get for his or her gifts. All of these factors will help you in planning out the type of shots you set up for your story.

3. Find the “real story”: After your research, you can determine the angle you want to take your story. Is the newborn the first son of a wealthy family on whom the family legacy will continue? Or does the baby have a rare heart condition? Is the drama production an effort to bring the student body together? Or is it featuring a child star? Is the birthday party for an adolescent turning 13, or the last birthday of a dying cancer patient? Though each story idea is the same, the main factors of each story create an incredibly unique story.

4. Every dynamic story is built on a set of core values and emotions that touch the heart of its audience. Anger. Joy. Fear. Hurt. Excitement. The best way you can connect your photo essay with its audience is to draw out the emotions within the story and utilize them in your shots. This does not mean that you manipulate your audience’s emotions. You merely use emotion as a connecting point.

5.Plan your shots: Whether you decide to sit down and extensively visualize each shot of the story, or simply walk through the venue in your mind, you will want to think about the type of shots that will work best to tell your story. I recommend beginners first start out by creating a “shot list” for the story. Each shot will work like a sentence in a one-paragraph story. Typically, you can start with 10 shots. Each shot must emphasize a different concept or emotion that can be woven together with the other images for the final draft of the story.

Remember that story telling takes practice. You don’t have to be an incredible writer to pull off a powerful photo essay. All you need is a bit of photographic technique, some creativity, and a lot of heart. And once you begin taking pictures in stories, your images will never be the same.

In part II of this series on Photo Essays, I will give a practical example of how I apply these techniques in a photo essay of my own.

Photo essays seem like a daunting undertaking accomplished only by the massively creative unicorns living in our midst. They’re popular among the New York Times and Times of the world. However, you can easily learn how to make a photo essay, too. If done well, a photo essay can put a picture to your purpose and create a personal and emotional experience for your website visitors.

Previously, we talked about the benefits of a photo essay on your nonprofit’s website. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty process of how to make a photo essay and look at examples along the way. Let’s get started!

Find a Photographer

Before you do anything else, make sure you have a talented someone willing and able to take these awesome photographs. This someone can be a volunteer, staff member, or a professional photographer. Have someone in mind? Great!

Decide on a Message

What do you want to say with this photo essay? The message should be related to your nonprofit’s mission and vision. A good message has the capacity to invoke an emotional response to viewers.

Make a Game Plan

Pinpoint a subject or group of subjects to photograph. Action is great for photo essays, so it’s best if your subjects are doing something. Coordinate a time and place that works for the photographer as well as those being photographed. A photo essay does not need to be done in a day (although it definitely can be). Be sure to let your photographer know the more photos to choose from, the better.

Choose Your Photos

This is where the creative juices really start to flow. All of the photos should address the same message. As you’re choosing which photos to include, keep your core message in mind. Which photos best convey that message? Consider your audience as well, and choose photos that they’ll connect with emotionally. The photo essay tells a story, so be sure to arrange your photos in an order that makes sense for the story.

In this photo essay, Charity: Water tells the story of a school in Nepal that needs access to clean water and receives it. Each photo drives home their message: Everyone should have clean water. Whatever your message is, make sure it hits home in every photo you choose.

Include a Variety of Shots

Varying ranges and angles will add some depth to the photo essay. Wide shots set the scene, giving the viewer an idea of the location and who is involved. Medium shots are usually action- oriented. They give the viewer a better idea of what’s going on. Close-up shots are often among the strongest. They are intimate, focusing on one subject in a tight portrait. Detail shots can be integral to setting the scene. Often, these shots are a close-up of someone’s hands performing an action.

Team Rubicon uses photo essays on their “Story of Team Rubicon” page. They start out with a wide shot, then medium, detail, and close-up. The variation keeps the photos visually interesting, while sticking to the same message in every photo.

Format Your Photos

For a slideshow setup, keep all your photos the same size. Additionally, if you decide to include a border, it should be the same on every photo. A border is not necessary, but it can be useful in certain instances. Write a caption for each photo with a simple explanation of what is going on in the photo.

This New York Times photo essay on refugees uses a border on each of the portraits. The border ties together each of the portraits, taken at different times and in different countries. This method humanizes the crisis by photographing the refugees outside of the refugee camp, so they can be seen as dignified human beings.

Briefly Set the Scene

Your introduction should be short and informative. You definitely want to let your photos tell the story, so only include information that the average visitor would not be able to glean from the photo itself or the caption.

Conclude with a Call to Action

Include the call to action at the end of the photo essay. Appealing for support makes sense after you’ve given your visitors a chance to learn your mission through a photo essay.

So now you know how to make a photo essay for your nonprofit, and you’ve seen some stellar examples. Include your new photo essay on your website. Visitors will have a clear image of who they are helping and will be more likely to turn their emotional connection into support for your nonprofit.

Does your nonprofit use photo essays? Have any other tips on how to make a photo essay? Let us know in the comments below.

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