Title slide for a tutorial on enhancing photography with storytelling, "episode #149: 5 ways to improve your photos through storytelling," against a backdrop of treetops and sky.

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Episode #149

5 Ways to Improve Your Photos Through Storytelling


UPDATED: August 8, 2023


You’ve already perfected the easy wildlife portraits. Now it’s time to kick your photos up a notch. Dive in to explore the five crucial elements of photography that can turn simple snapshots into emotionally charged storytelling masterpieces.


How to go from bird-on-a-stick snapshot to a storytelling photograph

Have you ever wondered how you can elevate your photographs from simple snapshots to emotionally charged storytelling images? It’s not as complicated as you might think!

It’s all about incorporating five crucial elements: Behavior, Emotion, Contrast, Context, and Light.

The first element, behavior, involves capturing those unique moments and actions that reveal a subject’s character.

The second, emotion, helps create a bond between the viewer and the subject. You can evoke strong feelings by creating images that resonate with human experiences.

For instance, a photo of a ranger saying his final farewell to the last male northern white rhino on earth, not only tells an extinction story but also underscores the deep emotional ties between the protectors and the protected.

Providing context, our third element, means including elements in your picture that tell more about the subject’s surroundings or situation.

A bird nesting in a traffic light, for instance, tells a fascinating story about wildlife adapting to urban environments.

Then, there’s the Fourth element: Contrast. This can be either visual or thematic.

A photograph of a delicate wildflower thriving amidst the harsh rocks of a mountain range tells a compelling story of resilience and survival. Such contrasts make your images more captivating and invite viewers to delve deeper.

Last but not least, Element Five: Lighting.

The use of light can dramatically alter your image’s mood, conveying hope, sadness, resilience, and more. It’s like a supporting character in every photo that can transform the narrative when given the spotlight.

Each of these elements, when thoughtfully applied, can transform your images into compelling visual stories. They invite your viewer to engage with the image, evoke emotions, and connect with the subjects you capture, enabling you to create an impact with your images.

Pop in your earbuds and press play on the episode to dig even deeper into these 5 elements with me.

Remember, every image you capture has the potential to spark a ripple effect of awareness, inspiration, and action.

This is the real power of storytelling through images – not only in crafting beautiful frames but weaving compelling stories within those frames.


Resources Mentioned

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Episode 149: 5 Ways to Improve Your Photos Through Storytelling

Shownotes: ConservationVisuals.com/149

(Digitally transcribed, please forgive any typos)

Jaymi Heimbuch:
[00:00:00] Jaymi Heimbuch: Hey there, and welcome to today's episode of Impact, the Conservation Photography Podcast. Okay. So have you ever been. Just stopped in your tracks by a photo that seemed to speak to you. It's this single image that tells a story so powerful. It feels like you've read an entire novel in the 10 seconds that you've been staring at it.

[00:00:22] Jaymi Heimbuch: My guess is you've had this experience. I mean, you're a photographer listening to a photography podcast, so I'm guessing you've had this experience and you may also be wondering how to create photos like that of your own. Well, you are in the right place today because today's episode is, All about that.

[00:00:39] Jaymi Heimbuch: Leveling up your photos from a bird on a stick to a story in a frame. Now I want you to think about that iconic image, the Afghan girl by Steve McCury. I'm sure that you have seen it in your life. It is the photo of a young woman who's piercing green eyes stopped millions of people in their tracks [00:01:00] and told the world about the plight of refugees. Or consider the heart wrenching image of the Vulture and the Little Girl by Kevin Carter. That image that brought global attention to the devastating famine in the Sudan. These are not just photographs.

[00:01:17] Jaymi Heimbuch: They are narratives frozen in time. They're powerful enough to move hearts and minds to have people take action. Now, imagine bringing that kind of storytelling power to your own wildlife and nature shots. What if that picture of a bird on a branch could tell a story about its threatened local habitat, or consider a photo of a fox playing in your backyard that could spark a conversation about urban encroachment in wildlife territories. So in this episode, we're breaking down how you can use elements like light and composition and perspective to turn your photos into these compelling narratives. To go from snapshot, [00:02:00] or what I call bird on a stick to a composition that unveils an entire story and really gets people thinking. We're gonna explore ways to capture images that don't just showcase nature's beauty, but also highlight what's happening for the subject in that frame. So when you first start out in photography, whether it is wildlife or nature photography, it's really common to focus on what we call bird on a stick photos. These are those standalone moments in time. Often portraits of wildlife. And while they can be very stunningly beautiful portraits, .

[00:02:36] Jaymi Heimbuch: They're sort of what you would picture as, you know, a poster on a wall or something that's. Honestly really easy to just glance at and scroll past. On a platform like Instagram, they might get you those likes on Instagram, but they don't necessarily engage the viewer beyond that initial Wow, that's pretty factor.

[00:02:55] Jaymi Heimbuch: As you progress in your journey as a photographer, you learn to [00:03:00] infuse more storytelling into your images Because of course, you know, our goal in photography is to continually evolve and grow as a storyteller, not just someone who's capable of clicking a camera, but to really tell stories and frames.

[00:03:13] Jaymi Heimbuch: So infusing your images with storytelling elements to take them beyond that. Static. Very pretty but obvious shot and into something that tells a visual story that draws people in. That is really how you evolve as a skilled photographer. And in conservation photography, our ultimate aim is to become also a changemaker, someone who can maximize the storytelling potential of every image and build portfolios of these storytelling images that then spark action and create impact.

[00:03:45] Jaymi Heimbuch: So if you want your images to resonate with viewers on a deeper level, and if you want to really evolve as a photographer, you're gonna be focusing on infusing your images. With storytelling elements, and I have five [00:04:00] elements that you can use to help take your photos from that static bird on a stick to highly engaging.

[00:04:07] Jaymi Heimbuch: Here are those five elements. One by one element, one is behavior. Behavior can change everything about an image, like even the hint of a behavior can completely shift the interest in a photo and turn it from this picture of something to a photograph about something. Behavior shots can depict the subject maybe in engaging in some form of activity that is really characteristic or unique to them. So for instance, imagine capturing this mother bear teaching her cubs how to fish.

[00:04:41] Jaymi Heimbuch: So instead of just a portrait of a bear, you're actually showcasing an intimate moment in their lives and again, even the hint of behavior can make a photo go from kinda eh, to really epic, right? A great example of this is actually the winning image from the [00:05:00] 2020 big picture natural World photo competition. It's a photo of a hair that is curled in this ball, and it's been napping in a snow flurry just long enough to form this crust of ice across its body and in the shot the hair is.

[00:05:15] Jaymi Heimbuch: Just waking up and starting to uncurl with this icy shell, breaking apart . I'm gonna link to the image in the show notes so that you can go see it. But it is a behavior so subtle, so simple and so powerfully storytelling about the hair's life in that moment and this tough little animal, and what it really takes to live in an environment like this.

[00:05:40] Jaymi Heimbuch: So if there's one thing that you focus on to level up on your photos, behavior is a really good one to zero in on. But that is not the only thing that you can focus on to make a big shift. Element number two is emotion. Evoking emotion in your viewers is one of the [00:06:00] strongest ways to make your images resonate.

[00:06:02] Jaymi Heimbuch: And you can do this by looking for surprises, moments that break an expectation. So for instance, a photograph of a group of penguins huddled all together against the cold, and then. One of them is kind of peeking out with this curious expression. That's something that can bring a smile to someone's face, you know, creating this connection between the viewer and the subject through that kind of surprise of we see this, this wall of cold penguins all huddled together, and then there's one that's just peeking out and that little surprise can create this connection between the viewer and the subject. Or you can bring emotion into your images by simply leaning into what's happening and really tapping fully into empathy. So imagine a photo of a herd of elephants that are mourning, they're dead, they're.

[00:06:49] Jaymi Heimbuch: Touching the bones with their trunks. That can really evoke the strong feeling of sadness because we can relate to that grief. It's not just a behavior, it's a story about an [00:07:00] emotion that we understand and it's expressed in a behavior. You know, think about that very famous photo now, the Last Goodbye by Amy.

[00:07:09] Jaymi Heimbuch: It's an image that captures this poignant moment of a ranger saying goodbye to Sudan. The last male, northern white rhino on earth, and it's moments before he passes away. You know, the photo not only tells a story of extinction, but also emphasizes this deep emotional bond between the ranger and the animal that they're protecting. So that's element number two, emotion Element number three that can help your stories jump from simple snapshot into a really storytelling narrative is context. Providing context means including elements that tell more about the subjects in environment or a situation. So let's take a really classic example. Let's take a picture of a single polar bear. A polar bear portrait might not be as impactful as a [00:08:00] photograph of that polar bear on a tiny ice float surrounded by water, which tells this larger story about climate change and its effect on the species. So instead of taking a portrait of the animal, we zoom out and provide context of what that animal is living in and living through. Another example would be like a bird nesting in a traffic light. So it's not just a zoomed in portrait of a bird on a nest, it's now giving context of where that bird is nesting, and that can tell a story about wildlife adapting to urban environments.

[00:08:34] Jaymi Heimbuch: Another example of this happening from the big picture competition. I don't know why these images are popping into my head right now, but there we have it. It's the winner from 2021, Joanne MacArthur's. Photo of this mother kangaroo with a Joey poking out of her pouch and they're standing in a burned eucalyptus plantation.

[00:08:54] Jaymi Heimbuch: Now if we were looking at the kangaroo and her Joey alone, it could be any old picture of any old [00:09:00] kangaroo mama and her baby standing there, but that context of this burned plantation around them instantly adds the story of what these animals are going through as drought and wildfire take hold of this country context.

[00:09:15] Jaymi Heimbuch: Completely shifted that shot into something that was a snapshot of a standard portrait of a kangaroo and her baby, and turned it into something deeply storytelling, deeply powerful, something that makes us really wake up to what's going on. Now you can actually hear Joanne talk about that image in episode 81 when she did an interview with us here on the podcast. I'll link to that in the show notes. Now that's context onto element number four, which is contrast. Contrast can be visual or it could be thematic. So visually, so. A brightly colored frog against a dark leafy background that can create this really striking image that can also provide [00:10:00] perspective on scale. You know, a tiny frog in a big jungle, or thematically a photograph of maybe like a delicate wild flower growing amidst these really harsh rocks of a mountain range that can tell the story of.

[00:10:14] Jaymi Heimbuch: Resilience and survival and adaptation of something that seems so delicate in this pretty harsh environment. These contrasts can make your images much more interesting and invite viewers to think a lot more deeply about what's going on, because that contrast can be very surprising, very interesting, or engaging.

[00:10:32] Jaymi Heimbuch: And again, tell a story about the subject because of that surprise. So that's element number four, and find the element number five is lighting. The use of light can dramatically alter the mood of your image, , You can use light to capture hope, sadness, fear, resilience. Light is basically a supporting character in every photo, and so when we let it really come into [00:11:00] the stage really own, its uh, like role as a character in a photo.

[00:11:05] Jaymi Heimbuch: It can transform the entire image and what it is that you're trying to do with that image. So, for example, think of a forest that's photographed in this foggy, muted morning light, and that can create the sense of mystery and intrigue that really draws your viewer into the scene versus that same forest photographed in, you know, harsh, mid daylight or even that same forest photographed in.

[00:11:29] Jaymi Heimbuch: Rich golden afternoon light. You know, the foggy, muted morning light can be mysterious and intriguing, whereas that rich golden hour light Can be hopeful and warm and nurturing. So light completely changes how we interpret an image and the story that's being told about the subjects. Or let's think about owls. Think about a barn owl that is perched on a tree branch that's illuminated by that soft glow of the [00:12:00] moon. Now that cool moonlight accentuates that owl's mystique.

[00:12:04] Jaymi Heimbuch: It captures its nocturnal nature. It adds depth to the story of this really amazing Raptor species, right? As we think about the moonlight that is wrapping around that bird, or maybe lighting its edges while keeping its front shadowed and kind of mysterious, we think more about the environment and the behavior of that species.

[00:12:26] Jaymi Heimbuch: There's story there. It's not just a portrait of an owl. It is a story about that owl. So there are five elements of photography that you can use, that you can lean into to transform a very plain, static snapshot into an amazing storytelling image. They are behavior, emotion, contrast, context, and light.

[00:12:51] Jaymi Heimbuch: And each of these elements when you really apply them thoughtfully, can transform your images from these simple pictures of [00:13:00] something or what I call bird on a stick shots to compelling visual stories about something they invite your viewer in to engage with the image, to ask questions, to feel emotions, to connect with the subjects that you capture.

[00:13:13] Jaymi Heimbuch: So as you dig into your conservation photography journey, really aim to move from those standalone shots. Into building portfolios of these storytelling images. That is the first big step in really being able to make an impact with your images. Because those storytelling shots allow for a deeper engagement, a deeper conversation.

[00:13:36] Jaymi Heimbuch: They make room to spark awareness and inspire viewers, and that is where making change can happen.

[00:13:42] Jaymi Heimbuch: And that's because every image that you capture that has that storytelling connection, has the potential to ignite a domino effect. It can lead to this ripple effect of awareness. Inspiration and action. People become aware of something through your [00:14:00] image. They become inspired because of that new awareness, and it leads them into action.

[00:14:05] Jaymi Heimbuch: And that is the true power of storytelling through images. It's not just capturing beautiful frames, but in telling these compelling stories inside those frames that spark all of this reaction. Now if you wanna jumpstart in going from one storytelling photo into a fully fledged photo story, I recommend my mini course.

[00:14:25] Jaymi Heimbuch: Six must have shots for a photo story. It gives you the foundations that you really need to start making those storytelling images, and you can walk through. Different types of images that you can make that together, create a full photo story. Now, you can check that out@conservationvisuals.com slash six shots.

[00:14:46] Jaymi Heimbuch: The number six and the word shots, or the link is in this show notes, so you can just simply scroll down from where you're listening and find the link there. All right. I hope that you found this episode inspiring and helpful. And remember, [00:15:00] even if you lean into just one or two of these five elements, behavior, emotion, contrast, context, and light, even if you lean into just one or two, you will see a dramatic difference in the stories that your photos tell.

[00:15:16] Jaymi Heimbuch: All right. I hope that you are excited to pick up your camera and run outside to play with these ideas. Have fun out there, and meanwhile, I'll talk to you next week.


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