Creating Compelling Photo Stories

Think of a photograph that makes you proud. Does it help you remember an emotional event or a person who is important to you? Chances are, the image is meaningful because it’s part of a larger story.

My name is Willow Paule and as a documentary photographer, images are the medium I use to tell stories. My mission is making intimate photographs of ordinary people, and getting to know their extraordinary stories. Part of how I do this is revisiting the same people over time and committing to working with them until I have a good understanding of their story.

Although having one impressive image is nothing to sneeze at, having a cohesive body of work that tells a compelling story is more meaningful.

So, here are some tips to becoming a better photo storyteller.

Observe First

Strengthen your power of observation before you even pick up your camera. Go to a bustling place like a farmer’s market or a park and look for patterns of activity. Look for leading lines that draw your eyes to possible subjects in these spaces. Take a notebook and write down some of your observations or make sketches of interesting ideas.

A big part of good storytelling is understanding where it is going. So, when you’re watching people in these public spaces, try to intuitively think what they will do next or what will happen next.

Later, when you’re photographing, this will serve you well. You can create images at just the right moment to clearly show the viewer what’s happening.

Identify and Isolate

It's vital to choose a clear point of focus for your images.

When I was starting out with photography, I had trouble deciding what exactly to focus on at events. There was a lot going on, after all. So I made the mistake of just trying to get it ‘all’ in a photo. However, isolating one point of interest makes your photographs so much stronger.

When you’re using multiple photographs to tell a story, you can focus in on different subjects of interest, then include the strongest images in your story.

Follow Your Curiosity & Create a Relationship

Take photos of people you’re curious about and ask them plenty of questions.

If you’re not sure who to take photos of, identify where your curiosity lies. Who do you want to learn more about? It could be someone you don’t know that well, or maybe it’s a family member. Once you get the ‘in’ to begin photographing them, decide to commit to the project and don’t give up.

Before you start photographing your subject, ask yourself, ‘What’s the best way to convey their story visually?’ Once you’ve identified a few important themes to focus in on, start taking photos.

When you look through your images later you can ask yourself, ‘What do I know about my subject that’s missing from this visual story?’ Once you know, you can go back and take photos again.

Asking questions will give you important contextual clues that you can use to scaffold your photo story. You might learn about fascinating details that you can either photograph or include in text form with your finished project.

Aside from finding out important details, asking questions reinforces your interest in the person you are photographing. It helps you form a strong relationship and create trust with them.

I try to ask my questions coming from a place of kind curiosity. Staying empathetic is the key. When in doubt, I picture someone asking me the same question. I don’t want to put my subjects on the offensive with confrontational questions. What I want is to be honest and transparent with them and ask good questions that help them examine their own feelings and help me understand their story. Don’t be afraid to capture personal moments. If you’ve cultivated a strong relationship with your subject, they will let you know if they feel uncomfortable with something.

Take Your Time

Take the time a story needs. I’ve been photographing my project Girls...Now Women for more than 10 years and will probably continue. The project documents women I met as teen girls in Arizona, USA who were in foster care due to neglect and abuse. I’ve continued documenting them as they’ve become adults and started families of their own.

You can share your work before you finish a project but there is no end date on a project unless you or your subjects become tired of it.

Take your time editing too, keeping in mind the idea of a story arc. Although a documentary project doesn’t have a literal beginning, middle, and end, when editing your photo story, you can think about how a novel is organised.

In the beginning, we see the subject’s world before it changes. Next, there may be an inciting incident, which prompts your subject to act. At the midpoint of your story, something big happens or you reveal something big about your subject. Perhaps the subject will push back against changes in their life and you will capture the resulting action. Next is the climax where something exciting or dramatic happens. And finally, you get to end the story, when your subjects’ world has changed.

Aside from deciding if photos are technically good enough to include, also think about if they will add to the general arc of the story. It will take time, but you will start to see the story emerge!

If you want to go beyond the surface to capture emotions and evoke feelings through your photographs join Willow Paule’s free email course Create A Compelling Photo Story In One Week.


Willow Paule is a documentary photographer, educator and blogger who is currently based in Central Java, Indonesia. Her photos tell the intimate stories of everyday people and their extraordinary lives. Willow blogs about photography, creative risk-taking and bringing vulnerability into your photo work.

#photography #documentaryphotography #inspiration #interview #storytelling

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