How To Write Picture Essays

  • 1

    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]

  • 4

    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.

  • 5

    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.

  • 6

    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]

  • There’s something they say about words and pictures, so we won’t belabor this too much. Below you’ll find some of the most eye-catching photographs we ran on the site in the last year. Set aside some time to scroll through each one: They’re an amazing window onto everything that’s happening in the world–from Detroit’s collapse and the economic rise of China and the Middle East, to environmental disasters at home and abroad.

    And then, less seriously, some great photos of those ridiculous fake tree cell phone towers, hilarious examples of what happens when strangers draw your Facebook photos, and a series of the true residents of Portland, who are crazier than anything you’ve seen on Portlandia. You’ll enjoy them all. And if that’s not enough, you can see our favorites from last year here.

    1: Beautifully Mashed-Up Photos Show The Glory And Wreckage Of Detroit

    The “Detroit Now and Then” project artfully combines vintage photos of the city with images of what’s there now, providing a poignant reminder of what the city was, what it is now and–maybe–what it could be again.

    2: “Portraitlandia”: Photos Of Portland’s Most Portland-y Residents

    If Portlandia were a photo series, it would probably look something like Kirk Crippens’s “Portraitlandia,” which features iconic Rose City residents in their natural habitats.

    3: Look At These Chinese Workers Carrying Mind-Blowing Amounts Of Stuff

    11: These Horrifying Photos Show A Destroyed American Landscape That Agriculture Giants Don’t Want You To See

    These aerial images of industrial beef farming operations look less like shots of land and more like a post-apocalyptic nightmare.

    12: These Photos Of Tiny, Futuristic Japanese Apartments Show How Micro Micro-Apartments Can Be

    Micro-apartments are in vogue today. But in Japan, people have been living in the Nakagin Capsule Tower’s 100-square-foot housing for decades.

    Read more of our best stories of the year in these categories: Top stories, infographics, photography, maps, buildings, design, cities, food, transportation, innovative workplaces, bikes, collaborative consumption, energy, crowdfunding, robots, environment, health, education

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