Q&A: See the Story, Take the Shot vs. Take the Shot, Find the Story

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry 3 Comments


“I continually find that a certain something drew me to an animal / event, but exactly what that something was I didn’t discover until I took a longer and closer look. Which often means that I have to crop and lose sharpness or that I can’t crop at all to tell the story I want to tell.

Below, the story was The Look and its reaction, but it was lost in the original shot. Though brought to the fore in a crop that removed the distracting background and the distended stomach, it was less sharp.  Any advice on how to see the story first, particularly if it is a subtle one, then take the shot? 

Is it simply a matter of experience, which allows one to think on their feet better?”

~ Martha



* * *


Martha, I have always been a big believer in seeing stories before you click the shutter, or watching them unfold and then predicting and picking the shots, rather than going for the spray and pray approach and hoping for the best.

You pretty much answered your own question when you asked whether it has to do with experience and time in the field – yes, it definitely does! – but it is worth exploring the idea of thinking on your feet in a little more detail.

I think the most important thing for you, and that you mention, is that you are drawn to something – a reason – for wanting to create an image.  This is vital and something I always ask people out in the field.  The simple question of “what are you taking a picture of?” when you pick up your camera will get you thinking in the right direction and focus your photographic intent sufficiently for you to not just create another wildlife image but rather something that reflects the story or theme that peeked your interest in the first place.

Our subjects out in the wild are animals, but our images need to be about something more and I love that you have a need to dig deeper.  Even though time out in the field is invaluable, I truly believe that if you watch a scene, really watch a scene out in the wild you will start seeing patters, behaviours and stories unfolding in front of your viewfinder.  Yes, this definitely translates into patience and allowing nature to do it’s thing, but like with anything practise make perfect, and experience will give you the edge in predicting certain moments. That being said, I think there is something more that comes into play.

Ask any photographer whether they would like to tell stories with their images and I would assume the answer will be yes.  Ask these same photographers what they are going to focus on to create these story telling images and I would venture to guess that a great deal of them will answer with some or other technical setting.  The truth is that unless you use a given technical setting creatively, like slowing down your shutter speed or using a shallow depth of field to support your story, you stand the chance of ending up with boring images – sharp yes, but boring.

To tell stories with your images you need to understand, respect and spend time with your subject.  Respect should be a given and spending time purely translates to more time in the field, but let’s look at understanding your subject.  Let’s use your lion scene as the example.

Firstly, think of what words you would use to describe the subject.  Perhaps words like proud, predator and dominant comes to mind. This is then what you should try and show me in your final frame.  Proud could be an image of the male lion standing tall on it’s front legs and staring into the distance.  Predator could be a close up portrait with teeth showing or a yawn perhaps.  Dominance could be shown when one of the animals is standing over another one staring down at him.  Each of these examples will already be more interesting than just a clean lion shot of the animals standing there.  One thing that is hugely important when photographing animals and telling their stories is posture, as the smallest little tilt of the head or flick of an ear can dramatically change the essence of the frame, but we can discuss this in more depth at a later stage.

Now, when you are faced with a scene with two subjects, the stories you tell will more than likely revolve around some kind of interaction or, in this case, tension in the frame. Either something has just happened or is about to happen and this is the holy grail of wildlife photography.  Yes, there are times when the actual moment is great to capture, but leaving a little bit of mystery in the frame allows your viewer to complete the story in their own head, making for a much more engaging image.

In your image you were drawn to the look and rightfully so.  The look is where the connection between the two subjects happen and, if you show it to your viewer, will beg the question as to what happened next.  The reason your story lacks a bit is that the look, the focus, is quite small in the frame.  In order to strengthen this particular story you definitely needed to get closer and place more visual emphasis on the connection between the subjects.  First prize would have been to do this out in the field but if that was not possible, cropping can add more focus to your story.  How much crop is too much?  Well that is a very personal thing and will depend on what your intended goal for the image is – print versus web – but I would personally never crop more than about 20% off the frame for a keeper image.

I am quite sure that you will be able to crop the story to what you shared in the images above and with a bit of TLC you should be able to create a very usable image for online purposes but other than that I think this particular image might have to be shelved and written off as school fees.  If you would like to mail me the original RAW file I can have a crack at processing the image based on your crop.

Back to seeing the story.

Just asking the question and mentioning that after a longer, closer look you find out what you are drawn to already means that you are paying attention to the stories in your images which means you are already better off than before you asked the question.  Use this and look at more of your own images.  Look at them again and again.  Then crop them to strengthen the stories you see and then look at them some more.  It might not be the same as looking at a scene unfold through your viewfinder but it will definitely sharpen up your photographic eye and when you then get back into the field you’ll find it easier to interpret and predict the possible shots that could unfold.

More than this, go and look at other people’s images as well.  People whose images speak to you and that tell you stories.  If you can find images from the specific destination you are heading to thats even better, but don’t compare.  Don’t look at the images and tell yourself how great they are and how crappy yours is.  Don’t.  Just sit back, look at the images and allow your mind to suck up all the elements that make it a great image.  Then go back to your own image and look at them some more but be honest with yourself as to what you did and what you can do differently next time.  Apart from actual time out in the field this is a great way to keep your photographic mind ticking over until you next pick up your camera.

Then, and I think this is where it all kinda comes together, is when you are out in the field don’t just think about the stories you want to tell. Feel them.  It might sound like artsy fartsy bullshit but the more you feel the moments you are photographing, the more you loose yourself in the moment, the more feeling your images will have in the end.  I truly believe this.

Good luck and keep chasing the stories out in nature.  It beats the hell out of just chasing the next sharp image!

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt 

* * *

Gerry’s Links:

Comments 3

  1. Conrad Walker

    Really enjoyed this piece., Gerry, I have so many pictures where I only find the story afterwards and then have to crop the heck out of it!

    1. Post

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *