The 6 Must-Have Shots for a Photo Essay
There’s an often invisible art to telling an incredible story in images. To tell a whole, complete story in photographs, it takes a collection of certain types of images that play off one another and build the story like Lego blocks. Indeed, there are six essential shots to every complete photo story. And in this episode I’m walking you what all six images are.
Subscribe to get Jaymi's “The 6 Must-Have Shots for a Photo Essay” eBook
What You Get Inside This Free EBook:
- The essential shots for every photo essay
- How to capture them during a shoot
- Worksheets for pre-visualising your shots
- Checklists for planning and tracking your project
- Everything in a printable PDF format
It is truly incredible how much information and emotion can be packed into a single photograph documenting the briefest moment in time. Yet one image equals just one moment. So what is required when you need to convey the complexity and nuance of a large and multifaceted story?
Amazingly, this can still be done in a small handful of images. They just need to be the right types and coordinated together so that they can illustrate with beautiful variation all the layers of a story.
Knowing that there are six types of images that you need to tell the full story gives you a path to follow as you shoot. Even as you explore every opportunity for a photograph that unfolds in the field, you can refer back to this list to know you’re covering all of your bases for when you get back and are curating your final selection of images for the essay.
Understanding what these six shots are and why you need them allows you to think way outside of the box in an effort to build a contained story.
So it is well worth investing the time in learning and practicing the six must-have images for any photo story, and how you might work them into your own style and approach to photography. We have a lot of fun exploring all these shots in this episode.
- The Hero Image
- The Character Image
- The Context Image
- The Action Image
- The Detail Image
- The Take-Away Image
- The exercise that will help cement how to recognize and use these photos in your own essays
Ready for More?
Episode 007: The 6 Must-Have Shots for a Photo Essay
(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)
I have a question for you. Have you ever opened up a magazine and you flip through the story only looking at the photos rather than reading any of the text. And yet you felt like you understood the story? Or have you ever been completely absorbed into a story and felt like you were there experiencing the whole thing? Because the photos guided you through the entire plot, the scenes, the characters. This is the power of a really well done photo essay.
There's often an invisible art to telling an incredible story in images. To tell a whole story, complete story in photographs, it takes a collection of certain types of images that play off one another and build the story like Lego blocks. And indeed, there are six essential shots to every complete photo story, and in this episode I'm walking you through what all six images are.
And I have something for you. It's one thing to be told, and it's another thing to really see these six types of images put into action in a story. So I created a free downloadable e book that provides examples of these six images, in action in different stories and it includes worksheets that helps you brainstorm and visualize a story of your own. You can download this free e book at JaymiH, that's JaymiH.com/7. It's seven for this episode, not seven because there's seven. Anyway, let's dive in.
Welcome to Impact the conservation photography podcast. I'm your host, Jaymi Heimbuch. And if you are a visual storyteller with a love for all things wild, then you're in the right place. From conservation to creativity, from business to marketing and everything in between. This podcast is for you, the conservation visual storyteller who is ready to make an impact. Let's dive then.
Hello, Hello and thank you so much for joining me on this episode of Impact, the conservation photography podcast. Before we dive into all of the great content that we have planned, I have something exciting to share. This episode is sponsored by Wild Idea Lab, my membership community, where conservation visual storytellers find the creativity, community and support for their wildest work. Doors only open for new members twice a year, and can you guess what time of year it is?
See Wild Idea Lab is designed specifically for emerging and established photographers, filmmakers and artists working in conservation and science, communication with monthly master classes, live events, community engagement and so much more members from around the world accelerate their growth as creatives and find their place in a network of colleagues and friends. Whether you are just starting out or you've been a pro for years, Wild Idea Lab has the resources that you need to do more and go farther with your work. It's that time of year when doors are opening.
So I would love for you to hop over to Wild Idea Lab dot com and find out how becoming a member can help you make a bigger impact as a conservation visual storyteller. You can add yourself to the wait list and be first to know when doors open. Alright, now let's get into this episode.
I absolutely love to talk about this part of visual storytelling. I think it's because it satisfies my creative side with the ability to put poetry and interpretation into a storyline. And it also satisfies my Type A personality because knowing that there are six types of images that I need to tell the full story gives me a path to follow as I shoot. It's a checklist I have in mind so I know I'm covering all of my bases. It allows me to think way outside of the box in an effort to build a contained story. I know that sounds really contradictory, but that's basically what we're doing here. Knowing that you need these six types of images for a thorough, complete story allows you to just bust open creativity while knowing that you're staying on track. It's a favorite thing for me to talk about and teach about, and I think I'm extra excited because it's one of the lessons in my conservation photography 101 course. And my current students are just launching into this part of the course this week, so my brain is all about it.
It is truly incredible how much information and emotion can be packed into a single photograph documenting the briefest moment in time. Yet one image equals just one moment. So what is required when you need to convey the complexity and nuance of a large and multifaceted story? Amazingly, this can still be done in a small handful of images. They just need to be the right types and coordinated together so that they can play off of each other and build upon one another like those Lego blocks. So let's talk about those images.
Image number one. This is what I call the hero image, and it's not because it's a photo of a hero of a story. Rather, it's because of a Web design thing. Web designers have this term for the big banner image that spans the top of a website. It's the hero shot, so it's a fitting term for the lead image of a photo essay as well.
Since this image serves to introduce the story to viewers, the hero shot provides that first impression. It sets the tone, introduces the characters and hints of the story. This is the image that becomes the face of the essay, the one visual that really pops into someone's mind when they think of the topic.
You know, a hero shot when you see it. You see them every time you open a magazine that has really photo rich ah stories. It's usually the two page spread with the title of the article overlayed on top of it. It's that first bang image. When you're shooting, you might pre visualize and work toward that hero shot. Or it might be one of those shots that just appears in front of you while you're working, and you also might not recognize it at all in the moment. But rather when you're going through your images and pulling those that are going to become your final story portfolio, you'll notice which one stands out as that lead shot that really packs a punch and provides this curiosity driving hook or an overarching introduction of the story that the viewer is about to see it go through. So that's image number one: The hero shot.
Image Number two is the character shot, because every story needs to highlight characters who move the plot forward, right? So characters, they're the ones who spark emotion, and they keep us engaged and connected to the story so that we're interested in learning more. And they could be the good guys, or they could be the villains, or they might be people, but they might be an animal or a vegetable or a mineral. Whatever they are, we need to know who it is that we're supposed to care about and who is affecting issues that are discussed in the story. So your character shot is typically an intimate image of your main character.
Usually, conservation stories have more than one leading player. You know, a lot of times it's one human one and one individual of a species, or it is a group of people, and it is a habitat or something along those lines. But many times there are more. There's towns or there's even populations of wild animals or even huge habitats, like we're talking about an entire rain forest ecosystems, whatever it might be.
When you're deciding how to make a portrait, think about how you want the world to see your subject. So how do you want people to feel about them? What questions do you want your audience to ask? What do you want triggered inside them? What do you want sparked? The way that you craft the portrait can shape these ideas and these enquiries whether you work toward a pre visualized shot or you make a portrait on the fly, just ensure that the image reveals something about the character that you really want. The audience to see. So that's image number two.
Image number three is the context, and this is an oh so important shot, and it's also really easily overlooked. But the context shot provides the where and the why for the viewer. So let's talk about the context shot that provides the where information.
It's so easy to focus so intently on those up close subjects in the story that it's difficult to remember to step back and provide an answer to one of the critical questions that your viewers are gonna have. Where are you In the world, the context shot could be a landscape or an aerial image. It might be a photo that covers an entire street or a city block or it might be a single room in a home or an office. Whatever it is, or however, it is that you decide to shoot it, the image should help people put the story on a larger map. In their mind, it provides a forest for all of those many trees in your photo essay.
But a context image can also be a why context image, and what I mean by that is it's an image that provides really important contextual information of the key issues of a story. So if someone takes a quick glance at it before reading the text, they're gonna have an inkling of what the text is going to be about. It might also still be a location, but it could be a shot that explains circumstance or attitude or barriers. I’ll throw out an example. If you're talking about toxicity in watersheds, you might provide a contact shot of the watershed. But you might also provide a shot that is inside of a laboratory with water quality testing strips or different colors of water. And that context of the laboratory provides a why to your story we need to know about water quality. The story is in the context of understanding water quality because of that laboratory in sight.
Another example. In the free e book that I provide in this episode, I used the example of Channel Island Foxes. So this is a story about the recovery of this endangered species, where the contact shot of the wear is a landscape of the island, illustrating how it's home to this affluent human population and the why contact shot is a frame of a wildlife awareness sign in a campsite on that shows specifically that the population of recreation er's who camped there often come into contact with the wildlife and that that's a big source of potential conflict. So there's a contact shot of Okay, well, we're on an island, and, you know, there's an affluent human population there. Okay? And then the why is oh, recreationers who are Going to this island. Yeah, there's wildlife conflict. Okay, I've got the why, right? Okay, So the type of shot that you need to provide contacts will be specific to each story. And depending on the shoot, you might need to keep it really simple and straightforward. Or it might be your opportunity to go way beyond the literal and see just how creative you can get. And that's especially true when it comes to why Context Shots. Okay, so we have hero image, character, image and context image.
Image number four is the action. So this is your opportunity to bring someone into the scene into the moment with you. Nothing in this world is static, and a photojournalism essay isn't considered complete without illustrating that fact, an action shot highlights the activity around which the story revolves, or the action that's really inherent in the subject that you're capturing. So, for example, a super common situation is documenting some kind of story that has researchers involved. So a photograph that covers the action of the on the ground research is a pretty critical shot, right? Or, if you're documenting, say, a species, then action is going to be some of those all important behavior shots feeding, fighting, mating, rearing, young and so on.
For either approach, you need to show movement and purpose. You're working to encapsulate a millisecond frozen in an otherwise speedy moment and the way that you decide to shoot the action of facts. Just how involved the viewers gonna feel so helpful Strategies can include using a slower shutter speed and allowing a pan blur to illustrate speed. That's going to invoke certain emotions in a viewer or getting really low, so the viewer feels like their eye level with stampeding animals or squealing tires. Or there's people rushing to accomplish something that's a tense, serious, exciting task. You know, there's so many ways that you can approach this, but with an effective action shot, aviewer can imagine what happened before and what happens after the moment, based on how much action you put into your image. It's as if they have a video playing in their heads, and the way that you decide to shoot the action again affects how involved, the fewer feels. Okay, so we have hero shot, character shot, contact shot, action shot.
Up next is image number five, and that's the details. Details are often overlooked. And man, oh man, they could be so powerful. Getting into the nitty-gritty of a story can be straight up poetic. These are the shots that illustrate pieces of the story that are important yet so easily overlooked so that when you do show them they're that much more powerful to the viewer and you're bringing them into a spotlight. You're giving this extra layer of story or information, a place of importance. Detail shots can even make viewers feel like they're right there in the location with you they're taking in every moment and emotion. Detail shots can take a lot of approaches, but the effect is typically the same. They bring the viewer into the underlying layers of the story.
When I talk about detail shots, I'm not necessarily saying that you're gonna pop a macro lens onto your camera and get really close. You're gonna grab your zoom lens and zoom all the way into the max.
The concept of details is actually more about intent than content.
So again, detail shots are about intent rather than content. A detail shot could be a quiet moment that reveals the personality or the internal emotions of your characters. They can help to visualize a component of a technical process. They can create an emotional bond to the subject in the story, through the level of intimacy that the image provides. There's no story that's going to be complete without the details because they add so much depth. They embed so much emotion into the story, and they cement themselves so solidly into an audience is memory detail. Shots get overlooked, but they are powerful when you really remember to capture them and use them right?
And finally, image number six, This is the takeaway shot. So in the hero shot, we have this big, bold, interesting image that draws people into the story. The takeaway on the other hand is how you want people to feel or act after they finish the story.
So, like the hero shot, it is intended to sear that image into the memory of viewers so they carry it with them for days or years, or maybe even the rest of their lives. But it has another, even more powerful purpose. It is intended to spark a change. This is your opportunity to inspire reflection or action. These are two really critical things in our work as conservation photographers because the ultimate goal of a conservation photojournalism essay is to get people to pause, to think and then to act.
The takeaway image functions as your call to action. This could be as simple as someone is going to reflect on how they feel about the issue that you presented, or they could consider how it might affect her alter their own habits. You might drive someone to their own personal change, and depending on the power of the image on its own, and within the essay, you could nudge a person from internal contemplation to external action, as far as banging down the door of their representatives on Capitol Hill. Think about what you want people to feel to understand and ultimately to do in response to seeing your photo essay and make sure that the last thing they see is an image that sparks that reaction.
And there you have it. We have the hero shot, the character shot, the context shot that can provide a where context or a why context, the action shot, the detail shot and the takeaway shot. If you have even just one of each of these, then you have got a really solid photo story on your hands.
Now, if you want to see some examples of these in action, there's two things that I would love for you to do. The first is to download your free e book that has three examples of how these images are used inside of different types of stories. And again, there's worksheets for you to plan, visualize and pull off photographing your own story so you can grab that the link is in the show notes, or you can go to JaymiH.com/7.
The second thing that I would love free to do is to grab a stack of magazines that are known for great photojournalism. Of course, the thing that pops to mind National Geographic but there's a lot of them out there. If you don't already have some of these in your bookshelf that head to the library or even to the magazine rack at the grocery store, go through some of the stories and see what ways these types of shots are used. How are they used? How are they ordered in the story? How are they captioned. How do they play off of each other to provide more and more information and impact?
It's a really fun exercise to do and you learn a ton just by looking at the stories and really examining how the story is told. With different photos, you can unpack a lot of insights by doing this.
All right, I hope that you had as much fun dishing on this topic as me because I sure do love it. And if you have any questions, feel free to ping me. You can find me on Instagram or Facebook. You can email me, I'm happy to hear from you. There are more good things to come when I talk to you next week
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