Behind the Camera: Telling a Story

· Reading Time: 13 minutes
Image courtesy of Michael Surratt Photography

Once upon a time, there was a photographer.  He enjoyed his time spent in the mountains, and along the rural back roads where he found most of his subjects.  One day, while he was on a particularly desolate road, something caught his attention.  Was there movement?  Was it his imagination?  Could it be a potential photograph?  All of these questions spun around in his head.  What could it be?

Now that is the start of a good story.  Note, I didn’t say that it was a good start…a story teller I don’t claim to be.  However, this does introduce the topic of this month’s Behind the Camera Feature of “Telling the Story.”  I know you have heard the phrase that a good picture is worth a thousand words?  That gets thrown around a lot at times, and I’m betting that the meaning behind that has faded a little over time.  If you have been reading through my blog for any amount of time you have undoubtedly heard me mention many times about telling a story with one of my pictures.  I realized that this could be an interesting topic to discuss here in this monthly feature.  I’ve always used this feature to discuss things that have come up during the previous month that I felt deserved a little bit of special attention.  It seemed to always focus around technical aspects of photography and while I know I have a lot of photographers that read this blog, I also know that there are those who just enjoy the pictures.  This is a topic that should appeal to both ends of the spectrum and all points in between.

When I say that I look for the story in the image and try to convey that story, I am talking about a couple of different aspects of an image.  On the one hand, I am looking at all the elements that make up an image and trying to make sure that they all work together to tell the particular story of that scene.  In other cases, I am looking at a scene that I feel has a story to tell us.  I usually don’t know what that story is, but I try to capture it in a way that prompts the viewer to create a story behind the image based on the clues that I have provided through the composition.  There are times that both of these concepts come together in an image and those are the ones that are truly special to me.  In any case, the goal with this form of “story telling” through a single image is quite powerful because it prompts the viewer to look into the image, not just at it.  In this day of Facebook and Instagram, it is all too easy to just look, like, and swipe.  It is the equivalent of eating Lay’s Chips (or some other chip).  You can’t stop at just one.  You enjoy each one, but one is no different from the next so you just swipe through the images.  I don’t want that out of my photography on any level at all.  I strive to create something that causes you to stop and look at the image, and then into the image.   I do this through story telling in my compositions.  Lets take a look at an example.

All To Myself“, Canon 5D Mk3, 16-35mm f/2.8L Mk2, Converted to B&W in Lightroom

This is one of those great images where the story comes in two parts.  Breaking it down, the first part of the story is what I have included in the frame.  There is a beach with a single person sitting in a chair under a very large cloud that is looming above.  The tones are ethereal thanks to the monochrome conversion.  All of the elements point to the person, which is the focal point for the image, but is so very small in the frame.  The disparity in size is important to the image because I wanted a feeling of loneliness in the image, and by showing a large expanse of area around this individual, you get that sense.  The cloud looks like a small one at first, but when seen compared to the person, the scale comes into play much better.  There is a starkness to the image and hopefully it sparks an emotional response from the viewer.  I was very careful about what elements that I included in the frame.  There were boardwalks that could have been used, other people on the beach a bit further in either direction, not to mention dunes which were just out of the frame.  All of these included elements work together for that soul purpose of telling a story of loneliness and how small we are in the grand scheme of things.  This is not to be confused with pity or something negative though.  Just a bit of introspection into the human condition.  The uplifting part of it comes from the next step of the story telling.

The other end of the story comes from the questions that the image prompts.  In this case, I left a lot of information out which might have given away what was actually happening here.  The questions that you are left with include the obvious “why is he alone on the beach?”  “Where is everyone?”  “I see tracks in the sand, so there had been people there, what happened?”  “It doesn’t look like a storm is approaching, and the surf isn’t bad at all.”  These are some of the ideas that might be going through your head looking at this image.  It is up to you to come up with your own scenario about what you are seeing.  You will find that depending on your mood, the answer will be different each time you look at it.  Again, that is a great technique to get you to look further into the image and engage with it on a very cerebral level.

The reality of this image is that the storm had actually just passed and most everyone had left the beach during the rain.  This brave soul remained out in the rain enjoying the serenity of the afternoon.  For me, it appeared as though he was totally at peace with the world, and at that moment an integral part of that world, not just an occupant of it.  In just a few moments after this image was shot people started to cross into the frame and the whole look of the scene changed.  He quickly became just one of the masses which were enjoying the beach that June afternoon.  The moment that I captured him seemingly alone in the world was such a poignant time and everything just lined up to tell that story in a single image.  It illustrates a human condition that we can all relate to in some form or fashion.  This quality, brought about by the inclusion of just certain elements is what tells the story of this image.  It is an emotional and thought provoking image, or at least I hope that it is.

Impact Collar“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer

This is another example that I love using to illustrate how the story of the image is a little different for everyone, and how a single image can be quite powerful.  As with the majority of my old iron photographs, there is an inherent story to the cars.  How they are captured tends to showcase what drew my attention to them in the first place and struck that chord with me.  This Edsel was not my intended subject of the day by any stretch.  In fact, I was heading to Hanging Rock with the intention of shooting some landscapes.  I just happened to pass by a restoration shop along the way and saw this beautiful Edsel sitting in the parking lot.  The infamous grill is what caught my eye initially as it is a very characteristic element of this car.  This particular image was all about that center section of the grill.  I included that as the primary element right in the middle of the frame.  The rest of the elements were used to frame that grill and draw attention to it.  The emblem in the middle was gold which was the perfect contrasting color for the cool blues surrounding it which caused the eyes to focus right on the center element which is what I wanted.  The sky and the paint color worked together and the clouds and chrome worked together.  The symmetry of the image worked.  This was the story that I wanted to tell with my composition.

The inherent story behind the image and the one that I hope the viewer brings to the image is all of the adventures that this car had been through.  At one point, it was being built at the plant and shipped to a dealership where it spent time with a window sticker before being purchased by an excited customer.  I’m sure that it went through many car washes and services along its early life.  Then age happened, and problems started which probably resulted in a trade, some more care and attention, and ultimately it was left idle and replaced.  This is the type of story that I think about with these images, but that is just based on what I am bringing to the image.  Your experience might vary.

In fact, I have the privilege of knowing just how this image was received by a viewer shortly after I shot the picture.  This is such an awesome story and one that I am excited to get to share here.  I was contacted via Facebook about this image and the series that followed of the same car.  This person went on to tell me that it brought back such great memories from her childhood when her Dad who was a mine worker had bought a new Edsel.  He was so proud of that car and it was a big part of the family history.  My images of this weathered Edsel had brought those memories back and really hit her heart.  We talked about some ideas that she had and she ultimately purchased two of the images of this Edsel with the intention of locating some of the pictures of her Dad and his car.  This process took a while, but she did find the ones that she was looking for.  Currently, she is working on getting all of the images framed together as a tribute to her Father.  The story behind this image turned into her story, and I just can’t ask for any better than that as I am capturing an image.

This is the power of photography, and it is so much more than just capturing a pretty scene and moving on.  You want to capture a scene that moves somebody.  You want to create an instant connection because with photography these days, you only have an instant to make that impact.  A pretty picture is just that, a pretty picture.  There are a ton of them all around and their worth is diminished from what it used to be.  As we have discussed before, these days everyone is a photographer.  Anyone can capture beauty.  What sets photographers apart now is the story behind the image which engages the viewer and makes that image special to them.

Missing Someone“, Canon 5D Mk3, 70-200mm f/2.8L Mk2, Singh-Ray Color Combo Polarizer, 5 images merged in Lightroom

When it comes to telling a story through images, this is one that really hits home with me.  I don’t know how it is received by the viewers, but this is such a strong image for me.  This one all started with the clouds I could see in this direction.  There was just enough definition in them to really make an interesting picture.  I started out looking for something to put underneath this wonderful sky.  What I found was a lone tree on a ridge with a broken fence just under it.  The elements that I wanted to include to tell the story of this scene started out with just the tree, the fence, with the grass and sky.  It was going to be  very minimalist image in my mind.  As I was putting that story together it didn’t capture exactly what I wanted to say, and it was failing as an image.  I had seen the fallen tree to the side and dismissed it to start with since it really wasn’t positioned well to be a primary element.  However, I could see a nice dichotomy forming with this image by including the fallen tree and the one that was standing proudly on the ridge.  The story that the scene was dictating was something that I had not previsualized, but listening to the little voices in my head this is what resulted.  It was no longer a minimalist image and I was able to pull a good bit of detail in the clouds as well as accentuate some of the light shining through from the sun above the clouds.

The second part of the story didn’t reveal itself to me until I got home and started to process the image.  It hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw it on the screen nearly completed.  This was a perfect illustration of how I feel about the loss of my Mother.  All of the elements told that story so well, and it was hard to ignore.  Of course, I was the tree left standing.  There is no missing that broken fence which symbolizes a barrier of sorts between a parent and their grown child.  There are places where things can get through, but lives are separate.  If you look at the rise of the ground, the fallen tree is slightly elevated which is where a parent would be in the family hierarchy.  Of course the fallen tree represents my Mother who passed away suddenly last October.  The clouds cement that fact with the sunlight shining on the surviving tree, while darker clouds are over the fallen tree.  As you look at the relationship between the two trees, you can almost sense a longing for the standing tree to get to the fallen one, but is unable to do so because of barriers, and physical constraints (would have to uproot and ultimately die itself).  Wow, we are really getting philosophical here…but you can see where I’m going with the telling a story with my images.

Each image that I shoot has a different story that the scene is asking me to shoot, and each viewer brings their own story to it when they view it.  Telling a story with an image is very complex, and many times it doesn’t pan out.  It becomes just a picture.  These are the ones that I try to avoid putting in my gallery because those are the pictures that will lead to just a quick look.  I long for substance in my photography, and I want that substance to carry over to the viewer who then uses that image as a springboard for their own imagination and memory.

Woodland Stroll“, Canon 5D Mk3, 24-70mm f/2.8L Mk2

Speaking of imagination, here is a great example of an image that will spark the imagination of the viewer.  The story itself of the scene was simple and revealed itself the moment I turned the corner of the trail.  I was entering into the low clouds which were rolling through Hanging Rock and the patterns of the trees with the trail snaking through really grabbed my eye.  I knew that I needed to include the root system to the left as an anchor to the image as the rest would go soft in the clouds.  The foliage along the top and coming down to the right would frame the trail perfectly and the one large tree in the distance would be a focal point to the background.  This was the story of the scene, very simple and straight forward.

The story that comes from it is a little different for everyone.  I have heard that it is spooky looking, mysterious, soothing, and I’ve heard that folks can actually feel the light mist in the air along with the chill in the air for an early morning hike.  This is one of those images that quickly involves the senses (other than sight) of the viewer which is quite important to keeping the viewer involved.  When I look here, not only can I remember the moments around the capture, but I can go back to every hike I have taken in the early morning.  I can hear the birds chirping, the water drops falling from the leaves.  I can actually remember hiking with my Dad as a kid.  I can actually get lost in this image quite easily and just stare into my mind.  That is the story behind this image for me, what story does it prompt for you?


Thank you for joining me as I try to explain what I mean by telling a story with my images.  I hope that you enjoyed some of the back stories behind these images and gained a little insight to who I am as a photographer.  I’ll see you again next month for another installment of Behind the Camera where I will discuss another aspect of my photography.  As always if there is something that you would like explained a little better, let me know.  I’m always looking for topics to discuss.  Next month’s is wide open, but I have a special announcement to make with the September’s installment.  So be sure to stay tuned for that one!