Whether you aim to get your photographs published or are shooting for fun, it’s worth adding a photo essay or two to your portfolio. From a professional point of view, these show editors that you have the skills to pull off a wide variety of shot types. And from the point of view of general good practice, especially when you’re travelling and taking pictures, the discipline of telling a coherent story forces you to think about and connect with your subject before you so much as doff your lens cap.
Finding the story: what to shoot?
A travel photo essay is more than a laundry list of tourist sights. You’re aiming to capture the essence of the place or event in a small number of pictures, and that means putting some advance thought into what you’ll be looking at. If it’s a festival, find out what activities will be taking place: You’ll need a shot of them. If it’s a particular town or region, identify what makes the place tick: It might be a monthly cattle market or even a particular local craft. Having established an interesting theme, find out the backstory. What goes on behind the scenes? Who are the people involved and what are their stories?
Also Read Genesis of a photo essay
How many photos?
Going by the formula that an essay should be about 1,500 words, and a picture speaks a thousand words, you’ve got one-and-a-half pictures to work with. More realistically, six pictures is the bare minimum that can be classed as an essay, 10-12 a good average, and 15 a ceiling. These should include a variety of image types, including wide-angle scenics, details, close-ups and the all-important portraits that put life and emotion into the piece.
Keys to the kingdom
Somewhere, you also need to find a key image that introduces the main element of the story and sucks in your viewers, making them want to see more. If you want to get it printed, take horizontal and vertical versions.
Make a list, then improvise
Once you’ve decided on a topic, you can have a shot list. Like a shopping list, this should be considered a handy tool to help you remember the crucial things. But don’t let it stop you from impulse buying: The unplannable moments that seem like nothing at the time you capture them might shed light on a part of the story you hadn’t foreseen or provide the inspiration for your next essay.
On the ground
When it comes to ticking off your list, organization and commitment to the task are the key elements. I allow myself three days to cover a destination and plan those days around the light: Landscapes morning and evening, portraits, interiors and siestas when there’s glare.
The law of order
When it comes to putting your pictures in order, think of each image in your essay as a paragraph in a story. It should be a coherent unit of thought in its own right, but as well as being well-composed and artistically interesting, it should feed into the other images to create something that’s more than the sum of its parts. At the end, you’ll find more joy in looking at that small progression of pictures than in flipping through an entire holiday worth of snaps. Your photo albums will be all the more interesting for it.
David Stott is a writer and photographer based in Australia.