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Photography Challenge – Tell a Story

In my photography career, I've gone through many incarnations of myself. I've done food photography, commercial studio and industrial photography, did portraits and weddings for years, been an industry rep for an album company in New Zealand, sold my work as fine art in galleries and shows, worked in a camera store, and now teaching photography.

After having done commercial and commissioned work for years, shifting into thinking like an artist was challenging. So, this month I'm going to give you the same challenge I have participated in a few times. I learned a lot in the process and I hope you do as well.

Photography Challenge – Tell a Story

Your challenge is to create a photograph that tells a story – specifically, one that represents a poem or a song. It will force you to think about the message and story your image is telling, and not so much on the technical stuff. This is a good thing.

This is how I suggest you approach this challenge:

  1. Find a few songs or poems that appeal to you. Ones that you relate to or like the message or story being told.
  2. Think about how each of those makes you feel. What is the story being told? Then think about how you could show that with a photograph. How can you tell the story?
  3. Select the poem or song that resonates with you the most, and that you think you can create an image to represent it.
  4. Then set out to create an image to tell that story.
  5. Rinse and repeat. If at first, you are not successful, pick a different song/poem and do it again. Even if you are successful, keep doing it because it's a great exercise to stretch your creativity muscles.

Bonus points – work with a writer

If you want to add an extra twist to this challenge, find a writer to collaborate with directly. I have done this a few times and it's always rewarding and eye-opening for both artists.

I've had writers create poems about some of my images. That was interesting in that they didn't always see the same story in my images that I did, or that I had intended people to see.

My images of Peru inspired two writers to create poems about them. This image inspired the poem below. These are the hands of an 84-year-old lady in Peru.

Hands of Time

The toil of your life
is carried in your hands in
the earth stains upon and
under your fingernails
as much as in the thinning
gold wedding ring around your
wrinkled finger.

Your hands in their tired
silence upon your lap
go beyond language barriers;

and words are not needed
to tell your story.

–  Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck

This is a good exercise to show you how your images are being perceived by viewers, especially other creative people. You may find that they see more stories in your images than you ever imaged.

This is the same lady as the image above. This one inspired a different author to write about it, see her poem below.

Old Woman

old woman
on your face lies a gift of fields
stories unfold in the pleated furrows and long tales spill
across the white fence of your smile
phrases slip easy through narrow gaps
where pickets have fallen away
and I lean into the clear space of your calm contentment

I roam free in the gift of your eyes
ponder dimensions of the dusk you now inhabit
while the ripened sun spins out of your path

I am drawn by the gifts you carry in your hands
parrafin tapers antiqued and bent
and the bronzed shelf of your arm
warm against my back

Primed for your last hour
you are comfortable
in the history of your bones

– Barbara Mitchell

Creating images that tell a story

Creating an image for a written piece presents a different set of challenges and issues. If you're working directly with the writer you have the opportunity to chat with them and really understand the message of their work. Ask them how they “see” it coming to life in an image, and set about trying to create that.

Here's an example of a collaboration I did with a writer. She had already written the poem and it was my job to illustrate with an image. I talked to her and learned about the meaning of the poem, and what it represented to her. This is what I came up with:

Here is how the original image looked as processed in Lightroom with basic adjustments.
Here is the image after tone-mapping (HDR processing) to pull out lots of texture and detail in the tree, especially the roots, because those are the “toes” in the poem for me.
This is the final image for the collaboration project. I did a lot of creative effects on it in Photoshop including adding a texture overlay, grunge edge to the image, and of course the poem overlay. Click on this image to see it larger and read the poem.

Tips for storytelling

So how can you tell a story with your images? Here are a few tips for you:

  • Make sure you get close to your subject, close enough to have a clearly defined subject or focal point. Storytelling it much harder when the viewer isn't sure what to look at in your image.
  • Choose the kind of lighting that is appropriate for the story. This has to do with the quality of light. Hard or harsh lighting has more drama, while a soft light is more gentle and well, soft. Which of those tells your story better?
  • Play with image editing or processing. Will the story come across better as a black and white image? Or do you need strong vibrant colors? These are little tweaks you can do to your image in the processing stage, as I have done above with the tree to make it look more weathered.
  • Go for mood, over technique. Yes, sharp focus and exposure are good things to have in an image but don't be afraid to let go of perfection a little bit in the name of making art. Some of the best fine art photographs in history are not perfectly sharp. Should we critique Henri Cartier-Bresson?
  • Incorporate movement into your image if it's appropriate. Perhaps the story is not a static one and representing movement or adding a blur to your image might tell it better. Experiment and see what works best.

More examples

Here are two more examples. Both were written about my images, to the image came first and the written words later. But you can see how the images really do tell the stories well so they should give you some ideas.


In your thin scruffiness,
black and white against
sand and stone, I think
of your well-groomed, fattened
relatives guarding luxury
in North America, as you
guard for the hand in the south,
that feeds you, no matter
how sparse, the dry bone.

– Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck

Young Girl

you are the definition of endurance
standing firm against the backdrop of your native country
and I am the same
wedged between the busy streets and avenues of my own

we are no different really, you and I
your eyes a watercolor of secrets
tracking survival from the dusty grounds
pulling in a wish, inventing a dream that might save you
while my own secrets flock to my eyes
from the weathered places I track daily
a lost mother, a broken union between man and woman
things too painful from the past pushing in

we both stand in our dry surroundings
contemplating life through the history of our fortunes
yet we are not broken by the paths we are forced to take
we breathe scraps of hope into our skin
and the flush of them covers us
makes us into something strong
turns us into a signpost of resilience.

– barbara mitchell

How to participate in this month's challenge

In order to participate in this challenge and be eligible for this prize you need to:

  1. Upload your favorite image that tells a story in the comments section below – if you have more than one you can share as many as you like but only one will count as your entry.
  2. Tell us the poem or song you use – what is the story your image tells?  Give us a link to the song on YouTube or the lyrics or words of the poem your image represents.
  3. Tell us about your experience doing this challenge?  Was it hard to tell a story with one image? What issues did you struggle with? What did you learn by doing it?
  4. Upload your photo, poem-song info and what you learned by the cut-off date of December 31st, 2017. I'll give you extra time on this one. The winner will be randomly selected from all the entries in January 2018.

NOTE: please do NOT save your images as TIF (they will be too big to add in the comments, must be under 2mg) and please do NOT email your images to me for critique. I cannot give personal critiques by email, leave your images below and I will comment there.

Please note: if you do NOT fulfill all the steps above your entry will not be valid. Just adding the photo will NOT be counted as an entry. I want to hear about it too, please. The point of these challenges is to help you learn something new – tell me about that.

You may post more than one photo, and do this as many times as you like over the month (you can comment as many times as you like, and share as many photos as you want – but it will be counted as one entry per person). The more you practice the better you’ll get at it, like anything – so share away. I also encourage you to share the link to this challenge with a friend, so you can do it together!

One last example – poem below.


Your image overlays an image
of my daughter, your age,
posing like you on a sun-heated rock;

her youthful beauty glistens
in the riverside spray, dancing
in the sunlight, the look
of affluence on her skin, while
the dust of your surroundings
is worn with poverty
on your skin.

She is looking outward, like you, but
your eyes draw in sand stone scarcity,
while her eyes draw in abundance;

she is wearing a blue hat, the blue
of a cloudless sky, a crisp Canadian
mountain morning, blue
with endless expedition;

even the layered stones
behind you seem empty
in the uneven cracks, where
no moss, or vine can emerge
with flowering life, yet
life is in the clothes you wear,
ancient with story and survival;
and you in your orange hat
are cheered color: a bloom
of hope in the parched
Peruvian backdrop.

– Sandra Mooney-Ellerbeck

The Prize

This month the winner will have a choice of prizes between:

So get shooting!



You are here: Photography Tips » Photography Challenge – Tell a Story

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  • RenaNeal

    Found in my home town, 5 hrs old and murdered by whom we know not. I wish they could find the killer but they too may be dead. so many grieved for this nameless infant and wished they’d known he needed help. tossed aside and left where he may have been conceived, the whole town cried for the unnamed child. 2 seats side by side, a funeral missed by unknown parents and no family to speak of. generations have come and learned of this child, many have asked the old only to be turned down. no one speaks of this tragedy, not in the town where he was found. so we move on, and wonder on, who was this child given no name by the town where he was found.

  • Sankeertthanan Thavam
  • Jose A. Soler

    I have a slide show called Struggle that includes photos of the Womens’ march in Boston, workers struggles in NewBedford, Day of Mourning images in Plymouth ,MA and ends with a photo from the climate change march and rally in Boston to This Land is my land interpreted by Sharon Jones. Unfortunately I couldn’t post it – MP4 and too large.

    • Hi @joseasoler:disqus That’s awesome. But the challenge is to tell a story in just ONE image. Can you select one from that slideshow that tells the story of something written? Like a poem or song?

      • Jose A. Soler

        I sent two photos that convey struggle and justice -one from the women;s march and the other from the climate march
        Thanks for your reply and especially the one on Puerto Rico

        • Sorry the photos didn’t upload. We need to see them here please if you want to enter in the prize draw.

          • Jose A. Soler

            The photos are at the top right after rusty Smith’s photo

          • Okay I see them now thanks.

  • Jose A. Soler

    Esta tierra pertenece
    a los puertorriqueños.
    Algunos han muerto.
    Otros, todavía vivimos;
    pero la mayoría,
    aún no ha nacido.
    Puerto Rican Artesan/Artesano Puertorriqueño
    This land belongs
    to the Puerto Ricans.
    Some have died.
    Others, still live;
    but the majority,
    have not been born yet.

    • Beautiful!

      • Jose A. Soler

        Thank you that photo and the rainbow shows the beauty and the promise of my ravaged island that will be born again- free and sovereign. The artesano knew this when he wrote these words.

        • Are you there now? How are things? I do want to visit your island one day soon.

          • Jose A. Soler

            Right now Puerto Rico is in bad shape, colonialism has ravaged it. Places like El Yunque are beginning to flower again and the youth and the people have begun to rebuild since they know they can’t count on the colonial government nor the US for any substantial help so that solidarity and humanity are flowering among the people but they need water and electricity. Those of us in exile in the US have also risen to the occasion.
            Anyway I know you will does us justice if you visit I have seen what you have done with Nicaragua. Photography is a powerful medium that can help change things.

          • Thanks, not sure I can go any time soon but I would love to help. I feel for the people. I think that mayor that spoke out to get help is courageous.


    My nom-de-plume is Rachael Dakota…..I like the name. I make posters and stories using this name.

    I thought about all of the pictures we make, but never look at, and all of the lost memories. The photograph is of an overflowing box of old photos, reading glasses and lace table cloth. These, to me, set the time frame. I wrote the poem to match the image. The pictures represent changing seasons in this person’s life. The person remembers Spot by looking at the pictures, and puts them away, when they get tired. I’ll say “she” is in there too and hopes someone comes to play with her.

    Her hopes come true because people look at the images of her playing with Spot and “imagine” them playing in the backyard. She is played with, remembered or imagined. The sole purpose of the images is to evoke memories.

    The goal is achieved. Right now, you too are imagining her playing with Spot; simply by me telling the story.

    Best regards,
    Brian Steeves

    • Awesome. What is the gallery reference and date below? 1926?

      • This is a poster I made for the exhibition of the photographs. Rachael is fictional, as is the event. Most advertising posters have time and place on them. The ENTIRE POSTER is the entry for the challenge; not just the picture itself.

  • Redhorse89

    a SABI place

    in my lonely
    I find
    feeling, colour
    pleasure of
    being on my

    Note: Sabi – Early Japanese word that alludes to the solitary contemplative condition in which poetry is written

    Copyright © Brian Strand | Year Posted 2017

    • Excellent job the image definitely says that

      • Redhorse89

        Thank you. I took this image of my husband by our home as he was nearing the end of chemotherapy. He later told me a wave of thoughts and emotions came over him as he looked out over the lake. This became a favorite image of his.

  • Doug Faber

    Out taking shots along an old railroad track, I noticed this tiny shrub, and thought it represented how life struggles to survive in the desert where temps can soar above 110 degrees, but also be freezing cold in the winter, in Southern California. I decided to name it ” Between Steel and Stone” ……

    • Very nice and you wrote the words too! How cold can it possibly get in Southern CA? LOL I live in Canada, you can’t fool me!

      • Doug Faber

        HI Darlene. Thanks for you comment. We have quite a few micro climates, from the coast, inland, mountains, and desert. The location I took the photo is above the desert valley, but is dry and hot in the summer. It can drop below 32 degrees in the winter as the elevation is over 2500 feet. I know it does not compare to your location, but the temperture swings can be quite far apart depending where you are.

        • Hi Doug – yes we laugh at 32f degrees LOL! In January it’s regular about -25c here which is about -13f. So when it gets UP to 32 (0c) we put on shorts (NOT kidding many do it!)

  • Mila Mar

    For couple of years now I’m doiing a film photography. I love to play with multiple exposures as you never know if you got it right the first time. When i took these photos I had in mind one of my fav Eurythmics songs: “Who’s that girl?”

    The language of love
    Slips from my lover’s tongue
    Cooler than ice cream
    And warmer than the sun
    Dumb hearts get broken
    Just like china cups
    The language of love
    Has left me broken on the rocks

    But there’s just one thing
    (Just one thing)
    But there’s just one thing
    And I really wanna know

    Who’s that girl
    Running around with you?
    Tell me
    Who’s that girl
    Running around with you?

    The language of love
    Has left me stony gray
    Tongue tied and twisted
    At the price I’ve had to pay
    Your careless notions
    Have silenced these emotions
    Look at all the foolishness
    Your lover’s talk has done

  • Jose A. Soler
    • Jose A. Soler

      The Women’s march in Boston, MA gathered at the Boston Commons and marched from there. You could not move but it was a wonderful event of struggle and inclusivenessWhen I saw the sign made by this woman quoting the words of the great activist and poet Audre Lord I KNEW I HAD TO MAKE THE PHOTO no matter how hard it was since I could not move backwards or forward, I use it my Struggle slide show with the words of “This Land is your Land” but what she wrote on that piece of cardboard made my day and it inspires me every day I look at it. This woman is a symbol of commitment.

  • Jose A. Soler
    • Jose A. Soler

      I used this as the closing image of a slide show using Woody Guthries’ “This Land is Your Land” As the demonstration ended on the Boston Commons and I had been going all over taking photos of speakers and participants I sat on a bench saw these two beautiful children with their signs and knew that this is what it was all about. I later found out that they where from the city I live in -New Bedford They do justice to the song as song by Sharon Jones.

  • Russell Rusty Smith
  • Mihaela Irimia
    • @russellrustysmith:disqus If you want to enter for the prize you need to put the words these images are to represent as well. Was it a song or a poem?

  • Mihaela Irimia

    Notting Hill London 2017 ,`Septembre Mihaela Irimia

  • Mike Williams

    This poem was written by my 14 year old grandson. I took the photo and created this image which stayed in the guest room containing the window.

  • Sally Stone

    I have learned that when taking portraits of my family (or anyone really) that they are much better when moving or there is some action. I love this photo because it is so typical of them. I wrote the Haiku because Haiku is so bottom line and you have to get your point across in a very few syllables. Hope you all like it.

  • Gro Wikheim Korsmoe

    Just about…

    I expected a scenario when this little boy – in his finest folk costume – was about to rain dance the puddle… But his vigilant mother managed to snatch him out the last minute…
    Of course, there is no time to think about camera settings in such a situation, so I just had to fire loose..

  • Gene
    My wife was describing a photograph to a woman in a local gallery, which our daughter had taken with her cell phone and sent to us to let us know that she was cancer free after a year long encounter with breast cancer.

    About a month later we received a letter in the mail with the following poem and the request that we forward it to our daughter.

    A heart In The Sand
    By Glenda Thomaston Appling

    When I stand Lord on the sea shore
    With my toes deep in the sand
    You’ve seen me draw a heart Lord,
    There I feel you take my hand.

    Like the water rushing in that takes
    The sand around my toes…
    Makes a smile appear with joyful heart,
    You wash away my woes.

    The picture that I draw for you
    There on your perfect beach,
    With soft wind blowing in my hair,
    I feel you with-in reach.

    No troubles can wrap ‘round my heart,
    For you Lord hold me fast.
    You’ve loved me from my first breath and
    You’ll love me to my last.

    But the breaths I take each day Lord,
    I so want your to see
    That in moments like these sweet ones
    Your great love is here in me!

    So as I draw my heart again
    Upon your sandy shore
    Know this child of yours is praising you
    And will forever more!!

    I had the photo and poem printed 2 up on an 11×14 canvass and made simple pine frames for 4 prints. One went to our daughter together with the original hand written poem, one went to the author and one hangs in our kitchen. I didn’t know what to do with the fourth until a friends wife was diagnosed with breast cancer.
    Not an entry, just another example.

  • Kim Jackson

    ​I wrote this poem to express what I was feeling when I toured the
    Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyons in Arizona about a month ago. I have never
    sat down and put my thoughts and feelings on paper before. It was a
    challenge, but I knew I needed to tell my story about this experience.

    Horseshoe Bend Slot Canyons
    by Kim Jackson

    Traveling by jeep on a very bumpy road through private Navajo land,
    I came to experience the slot canyons.

    I’d seen photographs during my research,
    but I could not imagine what it would feel like to experience it myself.

    As soon as I walked to the entrance of the slot canyon,
    I couldn’t move.

    I was awe-struck by the beauty that surrounded me,
    and I couldn’t explain what I was feeling.

    These slot canyons had been formed millions of years ago from the wear of water rushing through the rock,
    forming ripples and layers in the delicate sandstone.

    I felt the sudden urge to run my hands across the surface of the sandstone,
    but I was afraid that I would somehow ruin it.

    While exploring the canyon with my camera, our Navajo guide began playing her double flute,
    the sound was beautiful, yet haunting, and I was frozen.

    I wanted to stay longer and not leave this sacred place,
    but one day I will return to enjoy it again.

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