You’re just 5 steps away from learning how to create strong storytelling portraits that are sure to inspire. Read along and learn how!

I’m sure you’ve encountered it before. That one photograph so visually striking that it stopped you in your tracks. Maybe it was a bold use of color or the powerful emotions it evoked that made you pause to admire it. Regardless of what exactly drew you in, I can promise you this, its “wow!” factor had everything to do with the depth of story woven into it.

Here, we share 5 steps to creating strong storytelling portraits that are sure to inspire.

mother and daughter reading

Step 1: Find Your Story

Before you begin capturing portraits, you must first determine what story you are going to tell. We love referring to this pre-shoot process as finding your “why.” Essentially, defining your purpose for creating.

To help you do this, you’ll want to grab a pen and a notepad and spend some time jotting down your thoughts and fleshing out your photo story idea. Ask yourself questions like:

What is the overarching narrative?

Who will be my subject?

What physical setting will I be shooting in?

What emotion(s) do I want to provoke?

What gear will I need to use to bring my idea to life?

Having a clear picture (pun totally intended) in mind of what you want to accomplish prior to creating not only helps you plan in a practical sense but largely affects the overall success of your photo story. Renowned writer, Susan Sontag once noted in her essay On Photography, “the image must exist in the photographer’s mind before the negative is exposed”.

girl with red hair

Step 2: Connect With Your Subject

This second step is all about teamwork! In order to achieve a strong visual narrative, you’ll need to forge a connection with your subject, the person you’re photographing, by providing creative direction.

Prior to shoot day, take some time to chat with your model and clearly communicate your vision for the portrait you’ll be creating together.

Let’s say that your goal is to make a dazzling, 1920’s-style portrait that captures the glamour and allure of the time period. By sharing these details with them upfront, your model will have more time to think through the concept and get into character, which will ultimately yield the best results.

Step 3: Consider Composition

Think of composition as the secret sauce of a storytelling image. It brings together all the ingredients (or elements) of a story and presents them in an eye-catching and visually interesting way. For this reason, you’ll want to carefully consider the way you frame your portrait as it will drastically influence the way viewers interpret your visual narrative.

For guidance, it’s always best to lean on the good ol’ rule of thirds. Put simply, this theory states that the human eye is naturally drawn to intersection points that exist when an image is split into thirds.

By placing your subject on these intersection points, you’ll produce a more visually appealing and balanced image. AKA, a solid composition.

You’ll also want to ensure that the elements you include in your portrait are absolutely essential in telling your story. Otherwise, your composition runs the risk of becoming cluttered and can distract the viewer from the main idea being showcased. Legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese spoke to this idea best in saying that “cinema [the art of visual storytelling] is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.”

We couldn’t agree more.

girl with red hair

Step 4: Establish Your Environment

In many ways, the setting of an image sets the tone of an image and has the power to inform your story. It’s one of the most impactful visual signals that guide a viewer on the journey of unpacking a story and principally serves as the backdrop of your portrait.

When shooting a narrative-driven portrait, or what some photographers like to call “environmental portraits,” it’s necessary to select a background that isn’t just attractive to the eye but places your subject in context.

For example, let’s imagine that you’re shooting a Little Mermaid-themed portrait (who doesn’t love Disney!) and want to illustrate Ariel’s desire to escape the ocean and live on dry land.

To achieve this, you’d probably incorporate water or the ocean into the frame, but would likely never use a verdant landscape as a backdrop. This is because while the former background can be used as a tool to further your narrative, the latter option is totally unrelated to your story.

But establishing your environment is about so much more than just finding a setting, it’s also about the props and other elements that surround it. Get creative with what items you can incorporate into your image for a portrait that will make a viewer go “ooh” and “ahh”. As an added tip, consider designing an abstract set and shooting with a wide-angle lens to capture all of those stunning details.

mother and daughter

Step 5: Master the Magic of Emotion

This final step is arguably the most important and acts as the bow that ties every other piece of your storytelling portrait together. The masterstroke of a powerful photo story mostly lies in the feeling it emits and the emotions it stirs up in a viewer.

As you create, make sure that you are taking advantage of every element in the frame to tell your story in a thought-provoking way. Consider the color palette you employ and how this affects your image.

Pay attention to your subject’s body language and don’t be afraid to ask them to adjust their pose so you can get exactly what you need. Ask yourself if their facial expression is consistent with the theme of your story. Lean into every detail and perform quality control until you reach your desired result.

Regardless of how spot on your portrait may be in a technical sense, it must also possess a strong emotional weight if it’s to reach your viewer.

Get Started Creating

Now that you know exactly how, go out there and pursue your storytelling portrait dreams!

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