Like any other type of artist, it is a photographer’s job to tell a story through their pictures. While some of the most creative among us can invoke emotion or convey a thought with one single photo, the rest of us will rely on photo essays.
In the following article, we’ll go into detail about what a photo essay is and how to craft one while providing some detailed photo essay examples.
What is a Photo Essay?
A photo essay is a series of photographs that, when assembled in a particular order, tell a unique and compelling story. While some photographers choose only to use pictures in their presentations, others will incorporate captions, comments, or even full paragraphs of text to provide more exposition for the scene they are unfolding.
Photo essays are a well-established part of photojournalism and have been used for decades to present a variety of information to the reader. Some of the most famous photo essayists include Ansel Adams, W. Eugene Smith, and James Nachtwey. Of course, there are thousands of photo essay examples out there from which you can draw inspiration.
Why Consider Creating a Photo Essay?
As the old saying goes, “a picture is worth 1000 words.” This adage is, for many photographers, reason enough to hold photo essays in particularly high regard.
For others, photo essays allow them to take pictures that are already interesting and construct intricate, emotionally-charged tales out of them. For all photographers, it is yet another skill they can master to become better at their craft.
As you might expect, photo essays have had a long history of being associated with photojournalism. From the Great Depression to Civil Rights Marches and beyond, many compelling stories have been told through a combination of images and text, or photos alone. Whether artistic in nature or designed to prove a socio-political point, photo essays often evoke an intense reaction.
Below, we’ll list some famous photo essay examples to further illustrate the subject.
Famous Photo Essays
“The Great Depression” by Dorothea Lange – Shot and arranged in the 1930s, this famous essay still serves as a stark reminder of The Great Depression and Dust Bowl America. Beautifully photographed, the black and white images offer a bleak insight to one of the country’s most difficult times.
“The Vietnam War” by Philip Jones Griffiths – Many artists consider the Griffiths’ photo essay works to be some of the most important records of the war in Vietnam. His photographs and photo essays are particularly well-remembered for going against public opinion and showing the suffering of the “other side,” a novel concept when it came to war photography.
Various American Natural Sites by Ansel Adams – Adams bought the beauty of nature home to millions, photographing the American Southwest and places like Yosemite National Park in a way that made the photos seem huge, imposing, and beautiful.
“Everyday” by Noah Kalina – Is a series of photographs arranged into a video. This photo essay features daily photographs of the artist himself, who began taking capturing the images when he was 19 and continued to do so for six years.
“Signed, X” by Kate Ryan – This is a powerful essay put together to show the long-term effects of sexual violence and assault. It is quite special in the fact that it remains ongoing, with more subjects being added every year.
Common Types of Photo Essays
While photo essays do not have to conform to any specific format or design, there are two “umbrella terms” under which almost all genres of photo essays tend to fall. They are thematic and narrative. In the following section, we’ll give some details about the differences between the two types, and then cover some common genres used by many artists.
Thematic photo essays speak on a specific subject. For instance, there were numerous photo essays put together in the 1930s to capture the ruin of The Great Depression. Though some of these presentations followed specific people or families, they mostly told the “story” of the entire event. There is a lot more freedom with thematic photo essays, and you can utilize numerous locations and subjects. Text is less common with these types of presentations.
Narrative photo essays are much more specific than thematic essays, and they tend to tell a much more direct story. For instance, rather than show a number of scenes from a Great Depression Era town, the photographer might show the daily life of a person living in Dust Bowl America. There are few rules about how broad or narrow the scope needs to be, so photographers have endless creative freedom. These types of works frequently utilize text.
Common Photo Essay Genres
Walk a City – This photo essay is when you schedule a time to walk around a city, neighborhood, or natural site with the sole goal of taking photos. Usually thematic in nature, this type of photo essay allows you to capture a specific place, it’s energy, and its moods and then pass them along to others.
The Relationship Photo Essay – The interaction between families and loved ones if often a fascinating topic for a photo essay. This photo essay genre, in particular, gives photographers an excellent opportunity to capture complex emotions like love and abstract concepts like friendship. When paired with introspective text, the results can be quite stunning.
The Timelapse Photo Essay – The goal of a transformation photo essay is to capture the way a subject changes over time. Some people take years or even decades putting together these types of essays, with subjects ranging from people to buildings to trees to particular areas of a city.
Going Behind the Scenes – Many people are fascinated by what goes on behind the scenes of big events. Providing the photographer can get access; they can tell a very unique and compelling story to their viewers with this photo essay.
Photo Essay of a Special Event – There are always events and occasions going on that would make an interesting subject for a photo essay. Ideas for this photo essay include concerts, block parties, graduations, marches, and protests. Images from some of the latter were integral to the popularity of photo essays.
The Daily Life Photo Essay – This type of photo essay often focus on a single subject and attempt to show “a day in the life” of that person or object through the photographs. This type of photo essay can be quite powerful depending on the subject matter and can invoke a lot of feelings in the people who view them.
Photo Essay Ideas and Examples
One of the best ways to gain a better understanding of photo essays is to view some photo essay examples. If you take the time to study these executions in detail, you’ll see just how photo essays can make you a better photographer and offer you a better “voice” with which to speak to your audience.
Some of these photo essay ideas we’ve already touched on briefly, while others will be completely new to you.
Cover a Protest or March
Some of the best photo essay examples come from marches, protests, and other events associated with movements or socio-political statements. Such events allow you to take pictures of angry, happy, or otherwise empowered individuals in high-energy settings. The photo essay narrative can also be further enhanced by arriving early or staying long after the protest has ended to catch contrasting images.
Photograph a Local Event
Whether you know it or not, there are countless unique and interesting events going on in and around your town this year. Such events provide photographers new opportunities to put together compelling photo essays. From ethnic festivals to historical events to food and beverage celebrations, there are many different ways to capture and celebrate local life.
Visit an Abandoned Site or Building
Old homes and historical sites are rich with detail and can sometimes appear dilapidated, overgrown by weeds, or broken down by time. These qualities make them a dynamic and exciting subject. Many great photo essay examples of abandoned homes use a mix of far-away shots, close-ups, weird angles, and unique lighting. Such techniques help set a mood that the audience can feel through the photographs.
Chronicle a Pregnancy
Few photo essay topics could be more personal than telling the story of a pregnancy. Though it can require some preparation and will take a lot of time, the results of an essay like this are usually extremely emotionally-charged and touching. In some cases, photographers will continue the project as the child grows as well.
Capture Seasonal or Time Changes
Time-lapse photography is very compelling to most viewers. What they do in a few hours, however, others are doing over months, years, and even decades. If you know of an exciting landscape or scene, you can try to capture the same image in Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall, and put that all together into one photo series.
Alternatively, you can photograph something being lost or ravaged by time or weather. The subject can be as simple as the wall of an old building or as complex as an old house in the woods being taken over by nature. As always, there are countless transformation-based photo essay examples from which you can draw inspiration.
Photograph Animals or Pets
If you have a favorite animal (or one that you know very little about), you might want to arrange a way to see the animal up close and tell its story through images. You can take photos like this in a zoo or the animal’s natural habitat, depending on the type of animal you choose. Pets are another great topic and are among the most popular subjects for many photographers.
Show Body Positive Themes
So much of modern photography is about showing the best looking, prettiest, or sexiest people at all times. Choosing a photo essay theme like body positivity, however, allows you to film a wide range of interesting-looking people from all walks of life.
Such a theme doesn’t just apply to women either, as there is beauty to be found everywhere. As a photo essay photographer, it’s your job to find it!
Bring Social Issues to Life
Some of the most impactful social essay examples are those where the photographer chooses to focus on social issues. From discrimination to domestic violence to the injustices of the prison system, there are many ways that a creative photographer can highlight what’s wrong with the world. When paired with compelling subjects and some basic text, these photo essays can be incredibly powerful.
Photograph Style and Fashion
If you live in or know of a particularly stylish locale or area, you can put together an excellent thematic photo essay by capturing impromptu shots of well-dressed people as they pass by. As with culture, style is easily identifiable and is as unifying as it is divisive. Great photo essay examples include people who’ve covered fashion sub-genres from all over the world, like urban hip hop or Japanese Visual Kei.
Photograph Native Cultures and Traditions
If you’ve ever opened up a copy of National Geographic, you’ve probably seen photo essay examples that fit this category. To many, the traditions, dress, religious ceremonies, and celebrations of native peoples and foreign cultures can be utterly captivating. For travel photographers, this is considered one of the best ways to tell a story with or without text.
Photograph Unique Lifestyles
People all over the world are embracing society’s changes in different ways. People are living in vans or in “tiny houses,” people are living in the woods miles away from everyone else, and others are growing food on self-sustaining farms. Some of the best photo essay examples have been born out of these new, inspiring movements.
Photograph Humanitarian Efforts or Charity
Humanitarian efforts by groups like Habitat for Humanity, the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders can invoke a powerful response through even the simplest of photos. While it can be hard to put yourself in a position to get the images, there are countless photo essay examples to serve as inspiration for your project.
How to Create a Show-Stopping Photo Essay
There is no singular way to approach a photo essay. As it is, ultimately, and artistic expression of the photographer, there is no right, wrong, good, or bad. However, like all stories, some tell them well and those who do not. Luckily, as with all things, practice does make perfect. Below, we’ve listed some basic steps outlining how to create a photo essay
Steps to Creating a Photo Essay
Choose Your Topic – While some photo essayists will be able to “happen upon” a story and turn it into something compelling, most will want to choose their topics ahead of time. While the genres listed above should provide a great starting place, it’s essential to understand that topics can cover any event or occasion and any span of time
Do Some Research – The next step to creating a photo essay is to do some basic research. Examples could include learning the history of the area you’re shooting or the background of the person you photograph. If you’re photographing a new event, consider learning the story behind it. Doing so will give you ideas on what to look for when you’re shooting.
Make a Storyboard – Storyboards are incredibly useful tools when you’re still in the process of deciding what story you want to tell. By laying out your ideas shot by shot, or even doing rough illustrations of what you’re trying to capture, you can prepare before you head out to take your photos.
This process is especially important if you have little to no control over your chosen subject. People who are participating in a march or protest, for instance, aren’t going to wait for you to get in position before offering up the perfect shot. You need to know what you’re looking for and be prepared to get it.
Get the Right Images – If you have a shot list or storyboard, you’ll be well-prepared to take on your photo essay. Make sure you give yourself enough time (where applicable) and take plenty of photos, so you have a lot from which to choose. It would also be a good idea to explore the area, show up early, and stay late. You never know when an idea might strike you.
Assemble Your Story – Once you develop or organize your photos on your computer, you need to choose the pictures that tell the most compelling story or stories. You might also find some great images that don’t fit your story. These can still find a place in your portfolio, however, or perhaps a completely different photo essay you create later.
Depending on the type of photographer you are, you might choose to crop or digitally edit some of your photos to enhance the emotions they invoke. Doing so is completely at your discretion, but worth considering if you feel you can improve upon the naked image.
Photo Essay Tips and Tricks
Before you approach the art of photo essaying for the first time, you might want to consider with these photo essay examples some techniques, tips, and tricks that can make your session more fun and your final results more interesting. Below, we’ve compiled a list of some of the best advice we could find on the subject of photo essays.
Experiment All You Want
You can, and should, plan your topic and your theme with as much attention to detail as possible. That said, some of the best photo essay examples come to us from photographers that got caught up in the moment and decided to experiment in different ways. Ideas for experimentation include the following:
Angles – Citizen Kane is still revered today for the unique, dramatic angles used in the film. Though that was a motion picture and not photography, the same basic principles still apply. Don’t be afraid to photograph some different angles to see how they bring your subject to life in different ways.
Color – Some images have more gravitas in black in white or sepia tone. You can say the same for images that use color in an engaging, dynamic way. You always have room to experiment with color, both before and after the shoot.
Contrast – Dark and light, happy and sad, rich and poor – contrast is an instantly recognizable form of tension that you can easily include in your photo essay. In some cases, you can plan for dramatic contrasts. In other cases, you simply need to keep your eyes open.
Exposure Settings – You can play with light in terms of exposure as well, setting a number of different moods in the resulting photos. Some photographers even do random double exposures to create completely original images.
Filters – There are endless post-production options available to photographers, particularly if they use digital cameras. Using different programs and apps, you can completely alter the look and feel of your image, changing it from warm to cool or altering dozens of different settings.
Take More Photos Than You Need
If you’re using traditional film instead of a digital camera, you’re going to want to stock up. Getting the right shots for a photo essay usually involves taking hundreds of images that will end up in the rubbish bin. Taking extra pictures you won’t use is just the nature of the photography process. Luckily, there’s nothing better than coming home to realize that you managed to capture that one, perfect photograph.
Set the Scene
You’re not just telling a story to your audience – you’re writing it as well. If the scene you want to capture doesn’t have the look you want, don’t be afraid to move things around until it does. While this doesn’t often apply to photographing events that you have no control over, you shouldn’t be afraid to take a second to make an OK shot a great shot.
Capture Now, Edit Later
Editing, cropping, and digital effects can add a lot of drama and artistic flair to your photos. That said, you shouldn’t waste time on a shoot, thinking about how you can edit it later. Instead, make sure you’re capturing everything that you want and not missing out on any unique pictures. If you need to make changes later, you’ll have plenty of time!
Make It Fun
As photographers, we know that taking pictures is part art, part skill, and part performance. If you want to perform at your best, you need to loosen up and have fun. Again, you’ll want to plan for your topic as best as you can, but don’t be afraid to lose yourself in the experience. Once you let yourself relax, both the ideas and the opportunities will manifest.
It’s All in The Details
When someone puts out an essay photo for an audience, that work usually gets analyzed with great attention to detail. You need to apply this same level of scrutiny to the shots you choose to include in your photo essay. If something is out of place or (in the case of historical work) out of time, you can bet the audience will notice.
Consider Adding Text
While it isn’t necessary, some presentations will be made more powerful by the addition of text. This is especially true of images that have an interesting background story that can’t be conveyed through the image alone. If you don’t feel up to the task of writing content, consider partnering with another artist and allowing them tor bring your work to life.
The world is waiting to tell us story after story. Through photo essays, we can capture the elements of those stories and create a narrative that can invoke a variety of emotions in our audience.
No matter the type of cameras we choose, the techniques we embrace, or the topics we select, what really matters is that the photos say something about the people, objects, and events that make our world wonderful.