May 2, 2005

Be A Storyteller, Not Just A Picture Taker

By Scott Bourne

I am a lucky guy. I get to critique hundreds of images each month. This makes me a better photographer. It also helps me to identify what I want my students to work on in order to improve their photography.

In the course of giving these critiques, I notice that many errors are repeated. Many are common. And with some basic instruction, many are eliminated. But once you move past the beginner stage, the errors seem to be more random, less about equipment or technique and more about vision.

So when I encounter vision-related photography problems (and I am NOT talking about the fact that I now need both driving AND reading glasses!), I have a simple prescription. Become a storyteller rather than a photographer.

Why tell stories with your camera? Well, for one thing, people who look at pictures will enjoy looking at a story over a snapshot any day. Telling stories with your camera forces you to slow down and think about what you are doing. What is it about this scene that makes you want to make a photograph? What moves you or attracts your eye? Is there a theme, a phrase or a point of view that you want to capture and preserve?

Asking these types of questions will almost always lead to a better photograph.


Years ago I took a workshop with a fellow named Lou DeSario. We were in the beautiful Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, Arizona. I was setting up a stream shot with some lovely fall color in the background. All of a sudden I heard this loud voice.

"S T O P!!!" - cried Lou.

"Why are you taking that picture?" I think I started blathering something about it being pretty. He then proceeded to teach me one of the most valuable photographic lessons I have ever learned. He again asked me WHY I was taking the picture. In fact, he asked me the same thing about a dozen times. At the moment, it was rather annoying. But later, I realized what he was doing. He wanted me to be able to articulate with specificity that which I found moving in the scene. He wanted me to tell him what I really saw, why it moved me, how it made me feel, and what was special about it. Most of all, he wanted to know whether it told some greater story.

At the time, I didn't understand the difference between taking a picture and making a picture. So I asked for some concrete help. Ethereal phrases wouldn't get it done for me. I am a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy. So Lou shared a vision exercise with me that is, to this day, the basis for all of my composition. It's called SAS. Subject, Attention, Simplify.

Using SAS, I approach each scene asking myself what is the SUBJECT of this photo. There is a real temptation here to oversimplify. I am not merely saying that I can identify at what object I am pointing the camera. For instance, if I make an image of a tulip standing alone in a field of tulips, my subject is NOT the flower, but rather the theme of perseverance and bravery.

Once you have a subject, you need to draw attention to it. That is the "A" in SAS. This technique can help you tell your story. It forces you to focus, literally and figuratively, on what's important in the shot.

You can use a variety of techniques to draw attention to your subject. You can compress the background, zoom in closer, put your object in a single swatch of light, use a special angle or put your subject into an odd situation.

Just like every good story has a beginning, middle and an end, every good photograph should have an obvious way to draw the viewer in, something to hold his attention once he gets there, and somewhere to go when he's done.

The last technique Lou taught me was simplification. It's the most important part of the SAS regimen. John Shaw says the difference between a professional and an amateur photographer is that the pro knows what not to include in the photo. Simplification is all about removing any part of the picture that doesn't help tell the story.

When you are composing an image, take a moment to look around the frame and ask yourself. "Is this thing necessary to tell my story?" Is it part of what really attracted me to the image? If you see a waterfall running past a boulderand the power struggle between the boulder and the water is your story, then you don't need to include the flowers, the sky, the grass, etc. Include only that which is necessary to tell your story and nothing more. This will improve your photography immensely and it won't cost you a new piece of gear to do it.


All I really want you take away from this article is the fact that it's a good thing to think like a storyteller rather than a picture taker. Everything else is secondary.

Start thinking in terms of story and you'll immediately see an improvement in your ability to compose photographs that make people pay attention to your work, and your point of view.



Scott Bourne is the author of "88 Secrets to Selling & Publishing Your Photography" and "88 Secrets to Photoshop for Photographers." Both are available from Olympic Mountain School Press, His work has also appeared in books, magazines, galleries, calendars, on greeting cards, web sites and on posters.

Scott is a professional photographer, author, teacher and pioneer in the digital imaging field. His career started in the early 70s as a stringer covering motor sports for Associated Press in Indiana. Since then, he has shot commercial, portrait, wedding, magazine and fine art assignments. His new passion is wildlife photography.

Scott regularly lectures on a variety of photo and media-related subjects. He's appeared on national television and radio programs and has written columns for several national magazines. He is the publisher of, an online magazine for serious photographers and also serves as the executive director of the Olympic Mountain School of Photography in Gig Harbor, WA.