Why and How Storytelling Can Transform a Nature Photograph – Part 2
An Example of Photographic Storytelling
I was present in the highlands of Simien in northern Ethiopia. I had been dreaming for years of photographing wildlife and landscapes in that part of the world, and finally I had my chance.
For the first trip, I went with my two best friends, Philip and Andrew. They had agreed to share this extraordinary journey because they were also fond of new experiences and extraordinary photographs.
We started our journey at an altitude of 2000 meters (6,000 feet). We climbed little by little until we reached 5000 meters (15,000 feet). We were looking for Ibex, which are endemic to that region of the world. They were very rare and difficult to find. We had to walk on the slopes of the mountains to find them.
The slightest step or climb made us be out of breath. We had to carry our camera equipped with a 500mm and our tripod. We decided that every 200 meters (600 feet) of walking, we would take a break. Oxygen is limited, and we would gasp for breath if we traveled 10,000 meters. We are exhausted by these small efforts.
Suddenly, down below, at the bend of a trail, we saw the Holy Grail of photography. A family of Ibex: two adults and a young one. It was so unexpected, and the surrounding decors were superb, as well as the soft morning light.
We only had to go down 50 meters (150 feet) to meet them. It was our first meeting, and we took our time for fear of frightening them. Although they had spotted us, they peacefully continued to graze and didn’t move. After some consideration, we decided to remain at a distance of 30 meters (90 feet) from the group, since there was no way to approach closer without startling them.
Suddenly, the young ibex decides to venture from his parents a few feet away, to a spot that was the perfect dreamy backdrop. Fortunately, we were prepared, and our cameras were already installed on the tripods. We captured some shots, not thinking that they would be exceptional. We triggered to show the beautiful creatures that we had spotted them. For the next twenty minutes, the little one played hide and seek with us, by nodding off, waking up, and teasing us. It got on our nerves. Meanwhile, the adults are grazing, but not in a beautiful attitude.
What the heck! We have Ibex in front of us. They accept us in their circle of security, but the attitudes displayed are not desirable. We began to feel cold because a light icy breeze flowed through our clothes.
Suddenly, the young Ibex, looks up and gives us a look and a smile that we will remember all our lives. The position of the head on the body is perfect. He charmed us with his playful smile, as if he understood that we were beginning to despair and wanted to give us a special photographic opportunity as a gift.
Thus, we created the photo we wanted.
A Beautiful Story Never Uses Technique as the Subject
I often meet photographers who talk to me about their photographs regarding the technique used.
They tell me about focal length, aperture, depth of field, sensitivity, converters, or noise reduction. I listen patiently and attentively because I am also passionate about technique. However, I never talk about technique except in my photography courses where it is important to understand how to effectively create successful photographs.
Listening to these photographers who are focused on technique, I try to place myself in the head of those who only use a mobile phone to take pictures. I tell myself that the person will be bored for many minutes if they politely resist.
You have to know that a good photo story is never about the technique. A good photo story must always encourage the audience to dream and wander in their imagination.
For example, you can explain the origins and purpose of a photo project. You can expand upon why it is so important to you and what sparked your desire to create the photos. You can detail the events that occurred on the field before and after the trigger is pressed. If you unexpectedly met an animal, give concrete examples of the situation. If you have experienced extraordinary emotions in a given light, describe them in detail.
When you tell a story, never forget to mention detailed facts so that the viewer can put himself in your place. If he cannot imagine the scene itself, how can he put himself in your shoes? How can he remember anything that you are telling him if there is no impact, no connection?
A good story is always carried deeper to an emotional level.
Humor is also an added bonus for the audience.
A Beautiful Story Is Always Short
If you decide to tell a story about a photo or a series of photographs, be brief.
Never lose sight of the fact that photography is a visual art.
The story must only enhance the impact of your photography. You are not defending an oral text but a photographic work.
Your story should not exceed one minute. Beyond this time, you will lose your audience.
A Beautiful Story Is a Lived Story
When telling a photographic story, I advise you to report only facts that you have actually experienced on the field.
If you start embellishing the truth and adding details that did not happen, you will lose yourself in your story. Moreover, if you retell your story, your story will have different versions, which will be confusing.
If you lie, even if you believe yourself to be an inventor who enhances stories, your reputation will be tarnished. Never forget that it takes years to build a good reputation. Becoming an authority in a field requires years of labor. Losing a reputation only takes a few days.
I advise you to always adopt a frank and honest attitude.
A Good Story Must Be Prepared
In my career as a professional photographer, I am always a picky perfectionist. I conscientiously prepare my photo projects, workshops, and conferences. I strive to limit the field of chance where a disaster could occur. I know that whatever I do, I will never reach perfection. Perfection is impossible to attain, and there will always be hazards and unforeseen events. Nevertheless, some disasters can be prevented. When I go to galleries or meet collectors, I prepare the stories I am going to share. I write them and repeat them in front of a camera. Then I review the footage and measure the duration of the story. I can also check myself to make sure that I am not moving away from my subject. I must never forget that I must present and defend a photograph with my story. I know that in front of my audience, I will have to adapt my story. Indeed, each audience is different. I retain the general structure and honesty of the event, but I may improvise by adopting a different tone or specifying some facts more than others. I also have to improvise because the questions asked by the viewers will force you to change the angle of attack in your story. Nevertheless, your improvisation must remain credible. The quality and honesty of your story will not change if you prepare your story beforehand.
Knowing How to Precisely Stop Is a Major Asset
In one of the previous paragraphs, you read that a story must be short, as you do not want to annoy an audience.
This is not all. If you present a series of photographs and each requires a story, you must know to stop at the right time. Too many stories can kill your photographic approach. You or the audience may become bored. People may shy away from your photos.
Stay simple and concise to provoke the little spark that will make the viewers wander in their imagination. Once this spark has been triggered, stop. Do not go further. You have achieved your goal by enhancing the impact of your photographs.
If You Do Not Have a Beautiful Story to Tell
When I asked them to tell me the story of the photos, they were unable to talk about them. Often, I found that they had something to say but that their natural timidity prevented them from speaking. You cannot imagine how many times this has happened to me. It is absolutely incredible that so many photographers have struggled with not being able to tell their story.
If you have this problem of not being able to confidently defend a creation, practice in front of your mirror or in front of a camera. It is not easy if you are shy, but with practice, you will obtain results.
Never forget that an interesting photo always has a beautiful story to tell. What a pity it is to reserve that story for you alone.
Never forget that you create beautiful nature photos to share your vision of the world!
Nature photography is not just about camera mastery and technique.
Telling a beautiful story will always reinforce the impact of your photos or series.
My experience has taught me much in the last ten years. Never neglect the oral aspect of explaining a photo to an audience. It is a great way to convince others and share your passion for nature photography.