Storytelling: The Future for the Professional Photographer

Posted on 11/17/2010 by Jim Pickerell | Printable Version | Comments (0)

Most still photographers say their best pictures tell stories. To a limited degree, this is true. But photographers need to start thinking about more complete and complex stories, not just the best story they can tell in a single frame. This is where the opportunities lie.

Currently, there is such an abundance of single-frame stories, created by amateurs as well as professionals, that the market is saturated. It has become difficult to compete. Amateurs are taking a significant share of the market for this type of imagery.

Some still photographers are reluctant to get into multimedia or video because they see amateurs producing videos for YouTube and expect the competition in that arena to be just as fierce as it is in the stills market.

Some still photographers are reluctant to get into multimedia or video because they see amateurs producing videos for YouTube and expect the competition in that arena to be just as fierce as it is in the stills market. However, many of these videographers are either telling their own story, or not much of a story at all. The key to success for the professional videographer — and there will be lots of growing demand for this — will be in finding customers who have a story they want told and telling that story effectively.

Here is one example of where demand will be: 80% of those who travel go on line for travel information. Those who view a video online are 20% more likely to visit the destination. Will all types of vacation and travel facilities be anxious to tell their story with a video or multimedia presentation?

Multi-frame stories with sound, narration and sequence are much more complex to produce than a still image. Consequently, those who can produce such stories are likely to face less competition from amateurs.

Fifty years ago a picture story was a 10 to 15-page epic in Life or Look, usually with brief captions, and maybe 7 to 20 images. These stories gave the reader a larger understanding of a situation or event than any single image could convey. Today, such still photo picture stories in print have all but disappeared due to lack of space. Now, the pictures in magazines and newspapers are usually one shot supporting a long text piece. There is a movement in the publishing business to show more still images related to a story on their web sites, but the pictures and the text (other than captions) usually aren’t directly connected. Some publications are also putting videos on their sites.

In some instances still pictures are very powerful, but seldom, if ever, will a single still image supply as much information as a sequence of images supported by sound, music and an appropriate verbal story. 

The only thing that is holding back an explosive demand for multimedia and video content is the ability of creative people to think in terms of telling stories rather than producing single images.
When the only ways of telling stories were either in print, or expensive to produce motion pictures which were limited in where and how they could be shown, isolated still images were a satisfactory, cost effective way to providing more information than was possible with text alone. Now we have other ways of receiving information. We have the Internet and iPads as well as cell phones and all types of video displays. The amount of time consumers can spend acquiring information is limited, not infinite. They will get more and more of their information from these new devices and less and less from print.

The only thing that is holding back an explosive demand for multimedia and video content is the ability of creative people to think in terms of telling stories rather than producing single images.

It was clear from the seminar offering at PhotoPlus Expo recently that many image producers are beginning to try to learn more about video and multimedia. Most of the seminars on these subjects were packed. No one showed much interest in stock. There used to be a whole track on stock at PhotoPlus. This year there was one seminar and it was on microstock. On the trade show floor there was no evidence whatsoever of anything relating to stock photography.

One thing that came through loud and clear for anyone interested in getting into video was that it will not be a simple and easy transition. It is not just a matter of buying new equipment. There is a lot to learn about storytelling that most of today’s photographers have either forgotten or never learned.

Producing a multi-media or video story will require a totally different approach and mindset from that used by most still shooters. When shooting for print photographers tend to assess a situation, determine the prime or most important angle and ignore photographing any other aspect of the situation. Their focus will be to capture a single, exciting, dramatic moments in time. Throughout the event they will keep trying to get a better and better moment, but it is all about catching dramatic moments. After they have captured their “moment” usually someone else will write a story that may or may not closely relate to the photographer’s moment.

With a multimedia or video story audio and imagery must support each other and be harmonious. Initially the photographers needs to have a clear understanding of the story that needs to be told and how the images will relate to and support the words, and vice versa. In her PhotoPlus presentation Paula Lerner pointed out that sound is at least as important as the images in any story. A story with so-so images and great sound will be fine. One with great images and so-so sound will likely lose the viewers interest. Lerner often does her interviews first, edits the audio and on commercial jobs gets approval of the audio before she starts shooting. Then she illustrates the audio story. To understand more about how this is done, and where future demand lies, look at some of the stories on the experiences of individual students that Paula produced and shot for Boston University Sargent College and BU Admissions.

Producing a story by doing the audio first isn’t always possible, although Paula finds it preferable. Often it is necessary to shoot as the story develops. When working in this way it is important to shoot wide shots, medium and close-ups of every situation in order to have visuals that will cut with the audio and cover every aspect of the story thoroughly.

In multimedia stories most images will only be seen for 2 or 3 seconds -- sometimes less. If a sentence or a paragraph goes on for 10 or 15 seconds to make a certain point it is necessary to have a variety of related images that amplify the point in order to hold the viewers interest. Because each image is viewed for such a short period of time every image must be easy to read. Sequence becomes much more important than having an image that someone might examine in all its subtleties if it were displayed in print or on an art gallery wall. This often means simpler images, each one showing a different aspect of the overall situation. When strung together properly such a sequence can have more information conveying power than any single still image. Appropriate images will also be needed when transitioning from one point to another in the audio. 

Lerner suggests that still photographers start out by learning sound and editing and using stills for the visuals before moving to video. Shooting video with pans, dollies, follow focus and maybe a whole different type of lighting add another whole level of complexity to the production that can easily overwhelm those just starting out.
Lerner also suggests that still photographers start out by learning sound and editing and using stills for the visuals before moving to video. Shooting video with pans, dollies, follow focus and maybe a whole different type of lighting add another whole level of complexity to the production that can easily overwhelm those just starting out. Learning to put together a story, get quality sound and learning to use Final Cut Pro or other editing software is more than enough of a challenge for the beginning storyteller. Once you’re comfortable with these skills, start adding video to your repertoire. 

Some other sites that can provide insights into how stills can be used effectively in multimedia projects include:

1 – The work of Brian Storm’s MediaStorm. Be sure to look at the “Intended Consequences” and “Common Ground” pieces. Many of these pieces were done for non-profit organizations. Some people think that “non-profit” means doing the work for little or no money. However, many non-profits are prepared to pay competitive rates and find that good multi-media presentations are very helpful in their fund raising.

 2 – The New York Times is doing an extended series of multi-media presentation called “1 in 8 Million” which chronicles the lives of individual New Yorkers in their everyday jobs.

3 – Also be sure to look at Lerner’s series on “The Women of Kabul.” Lerner says that editorial work is no longer a way to make money, but she does it to tell stories she feels strongly about. Having these pieces in her portfolio has also helped her get the more lucrative commercial and non-profit work.


Copyright © Jim Pickerell. The above article may not be copied, reproduced, excerpted or distributed in any manner without written permission from the author. All requests should be submitted to Selling Stock at 10319 Westlake Drive, Suite 162, Bethesda, MD 20817, phone 301-461-7627, e-mail: wvz@fpcubgbf.pbz

Jim Pickerell is founder of www.selling-stock.com, an online newsletter that publishes daily. He is also available for personal telephone consultations on pricing and other matters related to stock photography. He occasionally acts as an expert witness on matters related to stock photography. For his current curriculum vitae go to: http://www.jimpickerell.com/Curriculum-Vitae.aspx.  

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