5 Keys to a Successful Photo Essay

Tell a Story

Much like any essay, photo essays work best when they have a clear beginning or intro, an engaging middle, and a solid end or conclusion. The introduction should be alluring enough to get the viewer to want to see more while also giving some background. The middle should show more detail and add more contexts to the introduction. Finally, the ending should recap the main point in a meaningful and memorable way. Overall, the photo essay should take the viewer on a sort of journey starting at getting them more interested in the topic, then continuing to keep their interest and displaying the importance of the topic and providing them with more context, and finally ending in a way that will have the most impact and stick with the viewer.

The Gun Nation  photo essay starts out by showing the viewers sticking images that paint a great picture on how guns in the US are somewhat glorified, but then it intermingles images of the glorification with the darker side of guns, and then ends with some more dramatic shots about how guns negatively effect people’s lives.


Compelling Portraits

One of the most powerful ways humans connect is through our shared identity as human beings. But just having human subjects for an entire photo essay isn’t enough to make it interesting to other; the portraits have to compelling. Some ways to make them more compelling is to highlight the subject, either candidly or not, in their natural environment, which gives the viewer a lot more interesting details about the subject. Though there are also ways to make compelling portraits without particularly compelling setting or action. For those series, more attention need to be paid to the subjects and highlighting their uniqueness in the most impactful way.

Alice Attie’s Harlem photo essay has a great mix of action and still shots, that all show the subjects in their natural environment, giving the viewer a more intimate glimpse into their lives.

Bonus: compelling and adorable portraits of animals are also great!


Action Shots

One of the best things about photography in general, is that it allows people to visually experience things they otherwise wouldn’t physically be able to experience. By using action shots in a photo series, it gives the viewer a much better understanding of what it would feel like to be there. This is why photojournalists almost always use action photos to convey their message and get people to care about the topic. However, taking good action photos is much more difficult than still life or static photos. Sometimes capturing motion blur enchases the message of the photo, but sometimes it can detract from that message, so it’s important to research the best practices for action photography before going out to shoot action photos for a photo essay.

The Predator or Prey: Shark Fishing in Baja, Mexico photo essay is a perfect example of how action photography can be used to transport the viewer into the middle of an experience that they would never be able to experience in any other way.


Set the Scene

Setting the scene in a photo essay isn’t just simply showing the whole setting in one shot, but it also involves providing more context to the setting and making the viewer really feel like they are really there. One of the best ways to think about it is like the photos are giving the viewer a sort of virtual tour of the space. To accomplish this, the photo essay should have multiple shots from different angles of the space, as well as various close up shots of specific details. This way the viewer is more fully immersed and has a better understanding of how everything in the space interacts.

The Home Is Where You Park It photo essay does a great job at setting the scene. If you were to just see a bunch of photos of the artwork, without any context, it would be hard to fully appreciate the work. But seeing it in the space, and understanding the scale and materials used enhances the viewers understanding and makes it far more interesting.


Well Composed Images

Not all photo essays need to have people as the subject, or need to depict a lot of action to make them more interesting and exciting; sometimes showing a quiet deserted space is the most compelling way to get a message across. However, if that is the case, then all the photos need to be beautifully composed. Without having to work around people or moving objects, it should be much easier to create visually appealing images of inanimate objects. Some of the most important things to pay attention to are balance –is it symmetrical or asymmetrical, space –how the objects fill the frame of the photo, contrast –both with colors and values.

Most of the images in the Magic in the Nearly Forgotten Mailbox photo essay use balance and contrast in a visually compelling way that draws the viewers and sets the right mood.


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