How To Make A Photo Essay

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    Get permission. If you plan to publish, you’ll need signed waivers from all of your subjects. Even if you don’t plan to publish with a commercial organization but intend to use the images for a personal blog or website, it is polite to ask for permission in advance. If you’re planning to photograph children, always ask their parent’s permission. Make it easy and comfortable for subjects to decline being photographed.
    • Consider how difficult it will be to get permission to photograph your subjects. If you already have relationships established, it will be easier. If not, allow for extra time to get permission and/or waivers.
    • Schools, daycares, and other places with kids typically have more regulations on who can be photographed and for what purposes. You’ll usually need to get parental approval, in addition to permission from those in charge.[7]
  • 2

    Research your subject. Before you arrive, conduct online searches, read the website of the topic you select, and make phone calls or send emails to find out more. The better you understand your subject before the day of the shoot, the more prepared you’ll be to take images that truly capture the essence of the subject matter.
    • Consider doing interviews with people involved prior to the shoot. Ask things like, “What’s the most interesting thing you do during this event?” or “How long have you been involved with this organization?”
    • These interviews are also a great opportunity to ask for permission and get waivers.
    • If you’re going to visit a job site, charitable event, or other large group activity, ask the person or persons in charge to explain what you’re doing to everyone before you arrive.[8]
  • 3

    Create an outline. Once you have your subject and permission to shoot, take a few moments to sketch out an idea of what photos you’ll need. Most essays need a variety of images to showcase the various aspects of the topic. You’ll want to include at least a signature photo, establishing shot, several detail shots, and a “clincher” photo at the end.[9]

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    Choose a focus image. Sometimes referred to as signature photos, these should be images that capture the heart of your subject. Think of famous photos like the “Migrant Mother” image by Dorothea Lange, capturing a woman and her children during the Great Depression. This photo has become synonymous with the Great Depression in the US.

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    Take an establishing shot. This should be a wide-angle image of the overall story. If you’re shooting a day of work at an office, an image of a line of workers entering the building at the beginning of the day could be used as an establishing shot.

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    Plan out detail images. These shots should include a variety of portraits, close up shots of specific actions, and interactions. For instance, you could include a portrait of your “main character,” for an essay on a day at the office, typing on a computer. You could also include interaction images of the character leading a meeting with others or talking over coffee in the break room. Close ups can include things like images of your subject’s hands as she types or detailed shots of her computer screen.

  • 7

    Include a clincher. This image may not be apparent to you in the beginning, but most photographers say they know it when they see it. It’s an image that wraps up the essay for the viewer. This image should say “the end,” give a call to action, or show the end result of a day in the life or how to sequence.[10]

  • Photo essays are an awesome way to get messages across and have become even more important in today’s world since society is much more visual than they are textual. Traditionally, they were a fundamental tool for newspapers, but as time went on, websites and magazines started to use them to illustrate points and to inform. Today, they’re used even more so and in different ways of story telling. We did one a while back, but they can be far more developed than this and usually are.

    Get the Idea

    Well first off, you need an idea. There has to be some sort of purpose and reason that spurs the creation of whatever your photo essay will be about. It’s best if this reason affects other people or can be related to by others.

    Photographers get ideas from various things like social problems, which are a big one for many photojournalists and for people that genuinely want to change or fix a problem. They can, however, be applied to other aspects of life, too, such as the creation of an awesome pastry or chronicling an athlete as they work through a struggle.

    Get a solid idea first and then start to build on it.

    Consider The Purpose

    Here is the big part: the purpose. What exactly is the purpose of your photo essay? More over, why should someone pay attention to it or care about it?

    In general, there are five different ways that photo essays can work:

    Inform: this is a photo essay that works on telling a story to someone about an important event of some sort. Some great examples are the photo essays that came out of the Boston Bombing.

    Entertain: Other photo essays can be used to entertain masses. This usually elicits some sort of emotion or response from the person. One of the biggest and most popular examples is images of cats.

    Inspire: Photo essays that inspire look to get someone to care about a subject to the point where they actually take some sort of action.

    Satiate: Indeed, there are photo essays out there that pretty much just satiate a human need. When I was a paparazzo, I learned about this from the agencies I worked for. Some people just like to look at images of specific things. It’s much more common than we all think.

    Educate: The last type of photo essay looks to teach the viewer about something. The short essay we did on lens maintenance is an example of this type of essay.

    Once you figure out what kind of an essay you want to do, you’ll need to figure out how you’re going to achieve that goal through your images. These goals should be kept in mind even after you’re done shooting and deep into the editing process.

    Make a Plan and Execute

    After you have an idea, you have to figure out how you’re going to go about actually executing it. This may require travel, partnering up with other folks, or setting up something right at home. You’ll have to get a plan in action to actually accomplish your goals.

    When you’re finishing making the plan, go ahead and go shoot. But keep in mind that your mind may be changed halfway through the project and you’ll get another idea of some sort–your plan may change and you’ll need to check it against your original goals.


    You’re almost done. When you’re all done shooting (or as you’re in the process of shooting), go through the images and make selections of the best ones that suit your goals. Images don’t need to be in chronological order necessarily. They just need to tell a story.


    Lastly, you’ll most likely want to pitch your photo essay. In your pitch, consider the fact that an Editor or gatekeeper of some sort is on limited time. You’ll need to find a way to make them care about the project within a short amount of time and get them to maybe click links or page through your work. Here’s where you need to bundle the project and make it all about them. Each pitch to individuals should be tailored accordingly, and you should never make the same pitch twice.

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