digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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What is your message? Storytelling photography

Locally I teach a travel photography class and I often ask my students what they've learned or what they've gotten out of the class. The answer I got from one of them made me feel really good, that my message was getting through. He said he wrote down:

What is my intention?

That's exactly our topic today. Why did you take a photo? What did you see that you wanted to convey to others that see your image?

When you slow down and start to ask yourself these kinds of questions, you will also likely find that the photographs you create have more meaning and more appeal to other people as well.

Is there a story or message here? What is it?
Is there a story or message here? What is it?

Getting “wow” reactions to your photos

Would you like people to “get” your images, see what you saw and maybe offer you a “wow” or two? There are a few keys to getting that kind of reactions, let's take a look:

  • have a point to creating a photograph, why are you taking it?
  • what do you FEEL as you are taking the photograph? Use all your senses: what do you smell, hear, see, feel and taste if it's applicable at the time?
  • what is your message, what is the story you want to tell?
  • what is drawing you in to take this image?
  • what do you want the viewer to understand and get when they look at your image
What is the story you see in this image? Why did I take it?

I can probably guess what you're thinking right now. Something along the lines of – “oh no now I have to get all the technical stuff right, apertures, shutter speeds, etc – AND I have to think about my feelings?!” Am I close? It is a lot, I get it, especially if you're still new to taking pictures and more interested in the basics of photography. But trust me on this, even if you have to stick your camera on Program or Auto for a while and focus on this . . .

Think about WHY, as you photograph

I've also heard more than once from my students that their photos were better before they started learning about camera settings and shooting more in Manual mode – can you relate to that too? So what's wrong with taking a step back and focusing on the other part of photography for a while – the aesthetic side!


Great photography is a balance of technical and artistic!

You need to develop both parts of that equation. The best in their field produce storytelling photography that is both technically sound, and interesting enough to draw the viewer in to their images.

Part One – the technical. Yes you'll want to master the technical stuff so that it's second nature for you and you can change settings without consulting the manual or even taking the camera away from your eye. Ideally you want to get to where it's second nature and you hardly think about settings, you just do it. That only comes with practice and familiarity with your camera.

Part Two – the artistic. This too needs to be nurtured. Looking at things differently and thinking about the WHY as you photograph is part developing your artistic abilities. Some people believe such talents are inherited and you either have it or you don't. I believe creativity can be learned and developed and, just like Part One above, only comes with practice. As we grow up and become adults we often lose touch with our creative side, but it's there if you are willing to uncover it.

Take a look at the two images of the dancers below. Both are technically well done, would you agree? They're in focus and well exposed. But which of the two tells more of a story? Which has more feeling? Which one gives you a better idea of what I was thinking, and my intention, when I took it?

storytelling-photography-1024px-08 storytelling-photography-1024px-04

Action plan for this week

You probably already know what I'm going to say right?

Get out there and photograph something, but this week, go out with more intention. Slow down, pause while you're shooting, and think about your reasons for doing it. Photography is a journey, use all your senses and try to capture that in your image.

Then – share then with us here and tell me about your experience. Did you notice a difference in the resulting photographs when you shot with intention? Did you use Auto settings and let the technical fall where it may and focus on the artistic? If so how did that feel? Was it successful in your opinion? Most importantly did you get any “wow” comments yet?

Secondly, what stories, if any, do you see in the images in this article? I'd love to hear what you see and what you get from my photographs and how close that comes to my intentions when I took them.


Until next time, keep shooting!

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  • Lanna Emilli

    Awesome post! I also think that way. I loved your comparison between both pictures of the dancers, really got me thinking!

    Thanks once more for the incredible posts and tips! =)

  • I’m lucky enough to have heard a few wows and I’m grateful for them. I think I struggle now that I’m using the other settings too, something for me to think about! Your post today makes absolute sense to me. I wanted to be the one that took those photos above so you’ve wow’d me again:) You always do!

    • Hi Sherri, thanks for your kind words, I’m glad it touched home for you. Since you like the images so much do you want to add any comments about the stories they tell? What do you see in each?

      Analyzing other images and being able to break them down and say why they are working is also really powerful for learning how to create the same thing!

  • Lori

    I too was wowed by the comparison with the dancers.

  • Thanks ladies! Wondering, do we have any men reading?? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • Darlene,
    Picture a flower from the ants view, and the flower is not so small. That story or message is not about a flower, but about the ant. To me, the picture of 2 people dancing isn’t about the people or the dance, it’s about an event. Focusing close on their legs, makes it a story of 2 people, bound together by the dance. The second photo makes me want to discover, or imagine, who these people are, and why is THIS dance so important. My new focus, idea, goal, is to take pictures of the flower to tell the story of an ant. I hope this makes sense. BTW, I am male and yes I read every post I get from you!

    • Yes that makes perfect sense. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  • Rosie

    Hi Darlene,

    I will give you a WOW factor on the second picture. The first picture is a plain one of two people dancing. I really did not get a clue of the intensity of the dance until I saw the second picture. I think I am right to say that it’s a tango. And the intensity and intricacy of the dance and steps is beautifully portrayed which the close up of the dancing feet.

    I am new to your emails and challenges and am excited about learning more about my camera and all the technical and artistic capabilities. I’m a newbie with a camera!



    • Thanks Rosie that says it pretty much perfectly and yes it IS the tango! I wanted to portray the intricacies of the footwork and the closeness of the partners in that they almost become one. I wasn’t doing that with the first image so I dug deeper and got the second one which I think it a lot more successful telling the story.

  • luigi

    Thank you Rosie for sharing the knowledge. I will definitely doing the exercise shortly.

    Let me try reading the messages. As for the first photo, there was a Spanish dancing festival in town in the mid-day in summer in front of a huge crowd. The dances were pretty good but may be long for some people.

    As for the bottom one, an intimate performance of a dance couple on stage in a mid day show.

    To me, the first one packs more story and information in it with less emphasis on the subject compared to the second one with more concise but powerful message.

    Are they close? lol

    • Hi Luigi

      I’m not sure if you’re replying to me or to Rosie who commented earlier. Either way, thanks for your comments.

      As for the message in the two images I’m glad you see a message in both images of the dancers. The point I was hoping to make is that the first one is not very story telling – although you’ve made good points that it shows context of the festival, time of day and how many people are watching. I think, however, that the second image tells more of the story of dance and the dancers. The connection between them, the difficulty of the moves, the intricacy of the footwork, the dedication it takes to do such a dance and the emotion between them even though you do not see their faces.

      Thanks again, keep reading and come back often.

      • Luigi

        Hi Darlene

        Sorry for my clumsiness gotten mixed up between you and Rosie. lol. It’s my very first response ever.

        I understand the point you made and I agree in that if I put my total attention on to the dancing, the reading is clearer in that perspective. The close-up one tells so much story and emotion as intended.

        However, I think I was too eager. I perhaps was unsure whether or not the in-focus background on the first photo was intentional. In this instance, it wasn’t and has made enough presence to draw my attention.

        That’s probably the dilemma in understanding arts for newbies like me. lol. Thanks again for sharing the knowledge.


        • Luigi – the sharper background in the wider dancing image is due to a wide lens. It’s very difficult even at large apertures to get shallow depth of field and get your background blurry.

          I’ve written an article on that actually:

          Part of the reason you want a blurry background IS to direct the eye because as you’ve mentioned when it is all sharp the subject and what to look at isn’t as apparent.

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