When we share our images from a trip or from an event close to home, we become more than photographers; we become storytellers. An individual image can tell a powerful story all by itself, and most of the best ones do. But presenting a series of related images in the form of a photo essay is a great way to share a story with your viewers. Each image serves a purpose in the structure of a photo essay, just as each sentence or paragraph does in a written essay. In this post, I will revisit last weekend’s Sacramento Super Spartan Race (see Post on Spartan Race), taking the same 12 images from the earlier post but rearranging them in the form of a rudimentary photo essay. We’ll discuss the purpose of each major type of image in creating the essay. [Note: I am borrowing some of the organizational concepts presented in CUNY’s Photojournalism course materials at this site: http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/.]
Establishing Shot: Usually the first image in a photo essay, the establishing shot should draw in the viewer by presenting the big picture.
The establishing shot sets the context of the essay. Here I use an image of large contingents of athletes running over the hills. I shot from a distance, using a telephoto lens to compress the perspective and emphasize the massive scale of the race. Buy this photo
Alternatively, we could use the starting line image as our establishing shot. Some essays lend themselves well to a chronological telling, in which case it’s good to start at the beginning. In the case of this specific event, I prefer the establishing shot to be a big-picture overview of many athletes in the middle of their course.
The starting line is a good place to set the stage for your photo essay if you will be using a chronological method of telling the story. Buy this photo
Portraits: Often the biggest portion of the photo essay, portraits tell the story through images of some of the people who are involved. The portraits can be tight head-shots, full-body shots, or environmental portraits that show the setting as well as the person. I like to use a combination of all of these compositional methods. And it’s also fine to use a mix of posed shots and candids. Variety can improve some photo essays, although in other cases you may opt for a consistent look-and-feel for many of your images so the mash-up of styles doesn’t distract the viewer from the story.
This environmental portrait shows the athlete in the context of the monkey bars obstacle, with other athletes and the background included in the frame. Buy this photo
Portraits of athletes don’t have to be in the cliche pose of standing, legs apart, on the ground flexing their biceps. Athletes are happy to pose in the midst of whatever they’re doing when they see a photographer nearby. Buy this photo
Not all portraits have to show the subject’s face. This environmental portrait works because it shows us what the athletes are doing from their point of view. Buy this photo
This posed portrait is framed rather tightly, showing the power and the elation of the athletes after finishing the race. The background, while bright and busy, is not overly distracting. Buy this photo
For powerful portraits, I like to seek out people who have something special to say. This racer stopped for a moment so I could make a portrait. His flag makes a nice counterpoint to the rolling hills and featureless sky in the background. Buy this photo
Interaction: Most photo essays can benefit from at least one shot showing the interaction between different people in the story.
Although Spartan Race athletes are fierce competitors, they also make an effort to support one another and cheer their fellow racers on. I enjoy capturing these interactions because these moments often tell a strong story visually. Buy this photo
This shot of kids playing in the shower area at the end of the race shows another type of interaction. Buy this photo
Close-Up: It’s helpful to include some images that show the little details. In the case of this particular event, I don’t have many close-up shots, so I’ll include this one fairly tight portrait as a placeholder. It would be great to include a true close-up shot showing just the athlete’s gloved hands as she grasps the rope, perhaps with part of her face in the background, for example. This could be done by tightly cropping this image.
This tight portrait shows great action and emotion. While it’s not a true close-up image, which ordinarily would show only a few details rather than the full person, it can serve a similar function in the essay by focusing the viewer’s attention on a small specific part of the race. Buy this photo
Closer: This will be the last image in the photo essay, so it needs to be a strong one. It could be a climactic moment or, if the story is being told chronologically, an image made at the end of the race. I’ll include two possible closing shots here. The first captures an athlete jumping over the fire at the finish line; it’s both dramatic and symbolizes the end of the event. The second shows a classic Spartan Race moment, where the athletes have to carry heavy buckets of sand along a muddy, hilly course; this image could make a good closer because it evokes a quintessentially Spartan Race sense of emotion.
The finish line itself is a dramatic vantage point. In this particular race, athletes must jump over a line of fire to finish the course. Buy this photo
An iconic Spartan Race image. I captured the strenuous activity of carrying buckets filled with sand by shooting from a distance with a telephoto lens. Buy this photo
Have you presented your images in the form of a photo essay? How did you structure it? What advice can you share for fellow photographers who would like to use this format?