Blog #4: Storytelling

You've probably heard the phrase "a picture paints a thousand words" or something similar to that effect, and this is, in all honesty, very true! Images, like art, can pose questions, provide answers, conjure feelings and emotions, and bewitch or bewilder a viewer, much like a story can. In this blog post, we'll explore why storytelling is important, how images can convey a story, and the techniques we can employ to create photographs that really engage a viewer.

1. What kind of story Do You Want to Tell?

I love a good story, don't you? Stories are magical things! They take us on a journey; help us to better understand concepts or complex issues; prompt us to experience empathy, visualise unfamiliar situations; or simply allow us to enjoy the adventures and exploits of others, whether they be factual or fantastical. In my "proper" job as a trainer, I use stories all the time - stories from my own experience, or perhaps stories from the points of view of others. Whether they be serious or funny, I find that attendees at courses engage so much more with stories than they do with facts and figures, and they find that they've learned something new, often without even realising it, by the time we arrive at the moral, or grand finale of the story. The fact that folklore and fairytales exist is testament to the enduring power of stories, and of storytellers; indeed, before the Grimm Brothers wrote them down, tales of Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood had already existed for hundreds of years, passed generationally from the mouths of storytellers to the ears of terrified children!

It can be argued then, that most humans are pre-wired to be engaged with stories, but a story doesn't necessarily have to be composed of words or sentences that are spoken or written down; not at all - because an image can be just as impactful, prompting a viewer to experience emotions, gain knowledge or understanding, ask questions, or even create their own story narrative in their heads. Images that do this are very powerful - they are not only visually appealing, they are also engaging catalysts for deeper thought and meaning. This makes the art of visual storytelling in images very important, and there are a range of techniques we can employ as photographers to help drive a storytelling narrative in the images we capture.

Choosing a visual narrative for one or more images, or even one that weaves its way through a whole body of work, can sometimes be very difficult, and sometimes it can be really easy - it all depends on what you want viewers to understand or feel about your photographs, whether that be something deep, meaningful or important to you; or something light and relatable, like the highs (or lows!) of parenthood. That is the beauty of visual storytelling - it's your story to narrate as you please, and your voice is heard through your pictures. With my images, I want people to mostly feel "enchanted" - to see and feel Arthur and Sybbie's adventures from their point of view - hopefully with an almost fairytale-like quality. I also want to inspire other parents to want to do the same with their kids. To achieve these goals, I try to use the techniques described below when taking and editing pictures to create my own visual narrative that I hope conveys those messages in a meaningful way for viewers.

2. Capture "Doing" Photos

Documentary Style

There are many photography "styles" out there, from traditional and modern portraiture, to abstract, architectural, macro, and street photography. All of these styles are capable of telling stories, but some are more effective at it than others. One style that features quite a lot in my work is "documentary photography", a style that is sometimes referred to as natural, relaxed, or candid photography. It involves capturing subjects naturally whilst they go about their business, and is characterised by them not posing or looking at the camera, but instead being engrossed or occupied with what they are doing. For children, this would normally involve capturing them doing kid stuff, like socialising, eating, walking, running, playing, etc. Whilst this may sometimes require a little bit of set-up, I do try not to interfere too much, preferring wherever I can to just snap away whilst they do their own thing.

Generally speaking, these documentary-style images of subjects "doing" something tend to be very suited to storytelling than straight up "look at the camera and smile" portraits (although I do capture those, too!). I'll often capture images of the kids playing, exploring or sniffing mushrooms, climbing trees, or picking or gathering flowers, etc. Images like this allow viewers not only to see the subject, but also engage with and think about what they are doing (and why), rather than just looking at a posing, grinning child (although they can be very cute!). This creates a deeper connection with the image, which is effectively the essence and purpose of storytelling.


You may have heard of the term "Show, Don't Tell", and this is a writing mantra to help authors drive a story narrative forward using sensory details and actions, rather than exposition. This allows a reader to experience a story, rather than simply hear it from a narrator. Documentary images do the same thing - they are prompting a viewer to think about an image by showing the subjects doing something - even if that's just sitting down and daydreaming. The actions of the subject may conjure thoughts, feelings and emotions in the viewer, which helps to create a narrative.

The 4th Wall

More subtly, but equally effective, taking candid images like this actually disengages a viewer from feeling they are looking at a photograph, which in turn, more easily allows them to experience the visual narrative of the story within the image. As the subjects are not looking at the camera (and therefore at the viewer), the viewer becomes a "fly on the wall", and feels they have the freedom and space to explore more deeply. This is known as "the 4th wall", and is a technique used in filmmaking where the characters in a film are unaware of the viewers at home watching them - This is why it can be very jarring indeed when a character in a movie directly addresses the viewer, as the fantasy of the story is interrupted by reality. Candid images effectively prime a viewer's mind for receiving a story, so are a wonderful baseline for creating images with a visual narrative.

This image is beautiful, but has less story narrative potential. The 4th wall has been broken because Arthur is looking directly into the camera, and therefore directly at the viewer.

Although this image is very similar to the last, Arthur is looking away into the distance. This has far more story narrative as viewers may wonder what he is looking at, what he is thinking about, and how he feels about it.

3. Include Little Details

Little details in images (even in non-candid portraits) help to drive a storytelling narrative. In a lot of my images, there are tree climbing bruises on legs, untied shoelaces, bare feet, muddy knees and messy hair. Some of these I could certainly fix with photo editing software, but I often elect not to as they tell a story of childhood to the viewer, so are quite important (for my narrative). Sometimes, even shots of the details themselves can elevate a set of images, giving insights into the story of the day, or adding extra narrative to a particular activity. Distracting details that pull eyes away from a subject, or don't drive a desired narrative (or even change it), should be removed from images. For me, these are usually very bright spots caused by light that draw a viewers focus away from a subject, or objects that don't belong in a scene (like litter, toys, power lines, etc.).

The mud, dirt, and filthy sock, all add to the childhood charm of this image.

The water spray and Sybbie's soggy party dress create a fun narrative.

The wood shavings in Sybbie's hair tell a story of mischief whilst cleaning the chicken coop!

Arthur was so proud to find these ceps in the garden, but a little mouse had found them first!

Before the chicken coop is cleaned, the eggs must be collected, and counted!

The fancy foraging basket, the meadowsweet petals on Arthur's trousers and his bare feet in the grass all provide extra narrative detail to this image.

I just love this portrait of Arthur. His tousled locks, freckles, braces, tree climbing bruises and unzipped shoe all combine to create a story of boyhood.

4. Capture Action

Action and movement are good ways of telling a story in an image as it creates drama, and makes the viewer follow the subject, or look ahead to where and to what they are moving toward (or from!), helping them to create a story in their own minds. Images with movement are dynamic and often have a strong impact on the viewer, which is the ultimate goal of a visual narrative. For some essential tips on capturing moving subjects, check out the previous blog in the series, Focus. It is also good to remember that movement doesn't necessarily have to be from the subject - other things moving in a scene, such as leaves, or water droplets, also create a sense of motion in an image.

There's a lot I love in this image - the light and drama especially, but for me, this also tells a tale of the boundless energy of children, something that many of us lose as adults (especially ones with kids!).

There's a lot of Hansel and Gretel narrative in this image, for me. The kids are leaving a dark path and emerging into a lighter one. Arthur looks stoic and responsible, whilst Sybbie looks very child-like.

This image conjures the simple joys of childhood for me. A childhood filled with late summer light, seemingly endless energy, and plenty of fun. To take the narrative further, it's a childhood that I know Arthur and Sybbie are lucky to have; but for many other children, is not a reality.

The falling leaves have created a sense of movement in this image, despite the kids being stationary. The leaves could portray many things, from the changing seasons, to the relentless passage of time. Under this backdrop of motion, there's also plenty of narrative detail, too, from the leaves alighting on Sybbie's head, her rolled-up sleeves, and her and Arthur's expressions. This image could conjure different things to different people!

5. Capture Emotions & Expressions

Capturing emotions, such as joy, happiness, excitement, awe, or even pain or sadness, is an excellent way of weaving narrative into images. Strong emotions and the expressions that go with them, visually engage viewers by making them want to understand why the emotion is being displayed, but even more powerful, is the emotional response that seeing them brings. Viewers often find themselves feeling empathy for the subject - emulating and sharing in themselves the emotions on display. This is a very powerful visual narrative tool, as emotions can be catalysts for thoughts, memories, aspirations, and even behaviours - As one of my goals is to inspire other parents to head outdoors with their children, this is quite important for me.

6. Capture Connection

Capturing moments of genuine connection between subjects, such as loving embraces, hand-holding and cuddling, is a great way to tell a story with a photograph. As highly social animals, we humans innately crave physical connection with others - it's a very powerful driver in all of us that is linked to our happiness and wellbeing. Showing viewers images of connection therefore taps into a primal physical and emotional need, and is one of the easiest ways of creating a relatable narrative with a strong impact.

Imagination: The kids were riding a dragon and being chased by a flying monster in this image. I always hear "Neverending Story" when I see it!

Cute kisses always provide the warm and fuzzies. Like a cat though, they are always on Sybbie's terms!

Playful snuggles and a patient big brother, who was engrossed in his drawings before Sybbie came along.

There's a fairytale-like narrative in this image of the kids snuggling in the mystifying cottongrass.

The powerful connection between mother and baby is what drives the narrative in this super-candid image of Sybbie's unexpected arrival into the world. There's also plenty of other narrative elements for viewers to digest, such as the shower cubicle and my wife wearing her glasses. The framing of the door also augments the notion that this is something you don't see everyday (unless you're a midwife, which I certainly am not!). There's lots of narrative here - it's chapter one in the story of my daughter!

A one day old Sybbie feels the warm sun and her mum's loving embrace. Out of all the pictures I've ever taken, this is my favourite. There is beauty, vulnerability, power, love and magic in this image for me, but then again, I'm clearly a little biased!

7. Setting and Objects

The setting for an image can really help drive a story narrative, from dark mysterious forests; to bright, sunlit meadows, each setting brings it's own charm and atmosphere to an image, which sets the tone for a story. Objects that are in the image can also pull out meaning and drive a storyline. Objects can be anything, from toys, books and musical instruments, to socks, mushrooms, or discarded shoes. The more unusual or interesting the objects are, the better for a storytelling vibe.

There's a clear fairytale narrative to this image, from the dark, foreboding forest and the mystical mushroom, to the elven quality of Arthur's facial features.

More fairytale vibes here, but a much brighter, happier, and less mysterious setting on the cottongrass meadow. The little balls of fluff add a magical quality to the image.

Mystery: Just what exactly is Sybbie doing here? Is she pretending the Fly Agaric is a big red rocket? Is she inspecting the undersides, or thanking the Forest Gods for her find? Who knows? And that perplexity creates a story narrative!

Narrative objects don't have to be inanimate! This injured little grasshopper that Arthur found creates a tale, too!

The light here gives this image a lovely mythical quality that conjures images of Pan, the God of Nature for me. It also raises questions about what Arthur was playing. I love his messy hair, bare feet, grubby legs, and the warm sunlight on his face.

8. Perspective

I've talked about perspective in a previous photography tip blog. Perspective is a fantastic way to pull viewers into an image and experience the world from a different point of view that they're not used to seeing (in my case, from that of a child). Doing so allows the viewer to connect with old memories of their own childhood, or remember a time when their own children were little. For more tips on perspective, check out the second blog in this series, Composition.

The perspective in most of my images is from that of a child. I do this to enable the viewer to see the world from Arthur and Sybbie's point of view, rather than from my own (adult) one. This usually involves me snapping away whilst lying in the mud! This hopefully provides an immersive experience for the viewer, allowing them to connect with notions of childhood in their heads.

9. Exposure / Editing

The way a picture is exposed or edited can also play into a narrative for an image. Dark images tend to create a sense of mystery, whereas bright images create a sense of joy or happiness. As I want a fairytale vibe in my images, I tend to edit on the darker side (as I think that fairytales are dark and mysterious adventures, often involving enchanted forests; wild, natural magic and child-like innocence). This editing "style" plays into my visual narrative really well, and I'm always pleased when people tell me: "This reminds me of a fairytale!". To learn a little more about light and exposure, check out the first blog in this series, Light.

I really enjoyed capturing this fairytale-themed shoot with the kids, despite it being a little removed from the kind of images I usually capture. This is mainly because editing them was a breeze as they were perfect for my editing style!

10. Flipbook-Style Storytelling

Sometimes, a set or collection of images tell a perfect "mini-story" all by themselves. Lying on the floor and snapping away candidly can often produce wonderful little scenes that really need to be seen in a particular order or sequence to be appreciated properly, just like one of those flip books you may remember as a kid. The medium you display these on for the viewer is important here, as you don't want them to see all the images at once, which may spoil the narrative. Luckily, apps like Instagram are perfect for this due to the single image carousel it uses, which only allows a viewer to see one image at a time. Below are a couple of more recent mini-stories that I captured of the kids.


Cheeky little Sybbie decides it would be most fun to stuff her finger in her brother's mouth, then decides to say sorry with a kiss on his cheek.

Hat Stealer!

Another lovely little set of images, this time Sybbie decides she wants to wear her brother's hat, then decides she doesn't want to, after all!

That's all for now - this was another big blog post, so I do apologise if I've waffled-on a bit too much! If any of you have any queries or comments, feel free to email or DM me on social media @thegrizzlyforager! I'd also love for you to post a few of your pics if you've put these tips into practice!

Happy Snapping!

Next Blog In The Series:

Learn how what a child is wearing and interacting with in a photograph can have a big impact on the look and feel of the final images.

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