Read Time: 11 minutes
Gather up a handful of images that seem to go together, and voila! It’s a photo essay, right? Well… no. Though, this is a common misconception.
In reality, a photo essay is much more thoughtful and structured than that. When you take the time to craft one, you’re using skills from all facets of our craft – from composition to curation.
In this guide, you’ll learn what makes a photo essay an amazing project that stretches your skills. You'll also learn exactly how to make one step by step.
What is a photo essay?
A photo essay is a collection of images based around a theme, a topic, a creative approach, or an exploration of an idea. Photo essays balance visual variety with a cohesive style and concept.
What's the difference between a photo essay and a photo story?
The terms photo essay and photo story are often used interchangeably. Even the dictionary definition of “photo essay” includes using images to convey either a theme or a story.
But in my experience, a photo essay and a photo story are two different things. As you delve into the field of visual storytelling, distinguishing between the two helps you to take a purposeful approach to what you’re making.
The differences ultimately lie in the distinctions between theme, topic and story.
Themes are big-picture concepts.
Topics are more specific than themes, but still overarching.
Example: Wild bears of Yellowstone National Park
Stories are specific instances or experiences that happen within, or provide an example for, a topic or theme.
Example: A certain wild bear became habituated to tourists and was relocated to maintain its wildness
Unlike a theme or topic, a story has particular elements that make it a story. They include leading characters, a setting, a narrative arc, conflict, and (usually) resolution.
With that in mind, we can distingush between a photo essay and a photo story.
Themes and Topics vs Stories
A photo essay revolves around a topic, theme, idea, or concept. It visually explores a big-picture something.
This allows a good deal of artistic leeway where a photographer can express their vision, philosophies, opinions, or artistic expression as they create their images.
A photo story is a portfolio of images that illustrate – you guessed it – a story.
Because of this, there are distinct types of images that a photo story uses that add to the understanding, insight, clarity and meaning to the story for viewers. While they can certainly be artistically crafted and visually stunning, photo stories document something happening, and rely on visual variety for capturing the full experience.
A photo essay doesn’t need to have the same level of structured variety that a photo story requires. It can have images that overlap or are similar, as they each explore various aspects of a theme.
Photo essays can be about any topic. If you live in a city, consider using your nature photography to make an essay about the wildlife that lives in your neighborhood.
The role of text with photos
A photo story typically runs alongside text that narrates the story. We're a visual species, and the images help us feel like we are there, experiencing what's happening. So, the images add significant power to the text, but they're often a partner to it.
This isn’t always the case, of course. Sometimes photo stories don’t need or use text. It’s like reading a graphic novel that doesn’t use text. Moving through the different images that build on each other ultimately unveils the narrative.
Photo essays don’t need to rely on text to illuminate the images' theme or topic. The photographer may use captions (or even a text essay), or they may let the images speak for themselves.
Definitions are helpful guidelines (not strict rules)
Some people categorize photo essays as either narrative or thematic. That's essentially just calling photo stories “narrative photo essays” and photo essays “thematic photo essays.”
But, a story is a defined thing, and any writer/editor will tell you themes and topics are not the same as stories. And we use the word “story” in our daily lives as it’s defined. So, it makes far more sense to name the difference between a photo essay and a photo story, and bask in the same clarity writers enjoy.
Photo stories illustrate a particular experience, event, narrative, something that happened or is happening.
Photo essays explore an idea, concept, topic, theme, creative approach, big-picture something.
Both photo essays and photo stories are immensely powerful visual tools. And yes, the differences between them can certainly be blurred, as is always the case with art.
Simply use this distinction as a general guideline, providing extra clarity around what you’re making and why you're making it.
To dig into specific types of images used to create powerful photo stories, check out this training: 6 Must-Have Shots for a Photo Story.
Meanwhile, let’s dig deeper into photo essays.
Photo essays are a chance to try new styles or techniques that stretch your skills and creativity. This image was part of an essay exploring simplicity and shape, and helped me learn new skills in black and white post-processing.
How photo essays improve your photography
Creating photo essays is an amazing antidote if you’ve ever felt a lack of direction or purpose in your photography. Photo essays help build your photographic skills in at least 3 important ways.
1. You become more strategic in creating a body of work
It's easy to get stuck in a rut of photographing whatever pops up in front of you. And when you do, you end up with a collection of stand-alone shots.
These singles may work fine as a print, a quick Instagram post, or an addition to your gallery of shots on your website. But amassing a bunch of one-off shots limits your opportunities as a photographer for everything from exhibits to getting your work published.
Building photo essays pushes you to think strategically about what you photograph, why, and how. You're working toward a particular deliverable – a cohesive visual essay – with the images you create.
This elevates your skills in crafting your photo essay, and in how you curate the rest of your work, from galleries on your website to selecting images to sell as prints.
2. You become more purposeful in your composition skills
Composition is so much more than just following the rule of thirds, golden spirals, or thinking about the angle of light in a shot.
Composition is also about thinking ahead in what you’re trying to accomplish with a photograph – from what you’re saying through it to its emotional impact on a viewer – and where it fits within a larger body of work.
Photo essays push you to think critically about each shot – from coming up with fresh compositions for familiar subjects, to devising surprising compositions to fit within a collection, to creating compositions that expand on what’s already in a photo essay.
You’re pushed beyond creating a single pleasing frame, which leads you to shoot more thoughtfully and proactively than ever.
(Here’s a podcast episode on switching from reactive shooting to proactive shooting.)
3. You develop strong editing and curation skills
Selecting which images stay, and which get left behind is one of the hardest jobs on a photographer’s to-do list. Mostly, it’s because of emotional attachment.
You might think it’s an amazing shot because you know the effort that went into capturing it. Or perhaps when you look at it, you get a twinge of the joy or exhilaration you felt the moment you captured it. There’s also the second-guessing that goes into which of two similar images is the best – which will people like more? So you’re tempted to just show both.
Ultimately, great photographers appear all the more skilled because they only show their best work. That in and of itself is a skill they’ve developed through years of ruthlessly editing their own work.
Because the most powerful photo essays only show a handful of extraordinary images, you’re bound to develop the very same critical skill (and look all the more talented because of it).
Photo essays are also a great stepping stone to creating photo stories. If you’re interested in moving beyond stand-alone shots and building stories, shooting photo essays will get your creative brain limbered up and ready for the adventure of photo stories.
A photo essay exploring the natural history of a favorite species is an exciting opportunity for an in-depth study. For me, that was a photo essay on emotive images of the American dipper (Cinclus mexicanus) as it hunts in streams.
9 Simple steps to create your photo essays
1. Clarify your theme
Choose a theme, topic, or concept you want to explore. Spend some time getting crystal clear on what you want to focus on. It helps to write out a few sentences, or even a few paragraphs noting:
- What you want the essay to be about
- What kinds of images you want to create as part of it
- How you’ll photograph the images
- The style, techniques, or gear you might use to create your images
- What “success” looks like when you’re done with your photo essay
You don’t have to stick to what you write down, of course. It can change during the image creation process. But fleshing your idea out on paper goes a long way in clarifying your photo essay theme and how you’ll go about creating it.
2. Create your images
Grab your camera and head outside!
As you’re photographing your essay, allow yourself some freedom to experiment. Try unusual compositions or techniques that are new to you.
Stretch your style a little, or “try on” the style of other photographers you admire who have photographed similar subjects.
Photo essays are wonderful opportunities to push yourself outside of your comfort zone and grow as a photographer.
Remember that a photo essay is a visually cohesive collection of images that make sense together. So, while you might stretch yourself into new terrain as you shoot, try to keep that approach, style, or strategy consistent.
Don’t be afraid to create lots of images. It’s great to have lots to choose from in the editing process, which comes up next.
3. Pull together your wide edit
Once you’ve created your images, pull together all the images that might make the cut. This could be as many as 40-60 images. Include anything you want to consider for the final essay in the wide edit.
From here, start weeding out images that:
- are weaker in composition or subject matter
- stand out like a sore thumb from the rest of the collection
- Are similar to other stronger images in the collection
It's helpful to review the images at thumbnail size. You make more instinctive decisions and can more easily see the body of work as a whole. If an image is strong even at thumbnail size to stand out from similar frames while also partnering well with other images in the collection, that's a good sign it's strong enough for the essay.
4. Post-process your images for a cohesive look
Now it’s time to post-process the images. Use whatever editing software you’re comfortable with to polish your images.
Again, a photo essay has a cohesive visual look. If you use presets, filters, or other tools, use them across all the images.
5. Finalize your selection
It’s time to make the tough decisions. Select only the strongest for your photo essay from your group of images.
Each image should be strong enough to stand on its own and make sense as part of the whole group.
Many photo essays range from 8-12 images. But of course, it varies based on the essay. The number of images you have in your final photo essay is up to you.
Remember, less is more. A photo essay is most powerful when each image deserves to be included.
6. Put your images in a purposeful order
Create a visual flow with your images. Decide which image is first, and build from there. Use compositions, colors, and subject matter to decide which image goes next, then next, then next in the order.
Think of it like music: notes are arranged in a way that builds energy, or slows it down, surprise listeners with a new refrain, or drop into a familiar chorus. How the notes are ordered creates emotional arcs for listeners.
How you order your images is similar.
Think of the experience a viewer will have as they look at one image, then the next, and the next. Order your images so they create the experience you want your audience to have.
7. Get feedback
The best photographers make space for feedback, even when it’s tough to hear. Your work benefits from not just hearing feedback, but listening to it and applying what you learn from it.
Show your photo essay to people who have different sensibilities or tastes. Friends, family members, fellow photographers – anyone you trust to give you honest feedback.
Watch their reactions and hear what they say about what they’re seeing. Use their feedback to guide you in the next step.
8. Refine, revise, and finalize
Let your photo essay marinate for a little while. Take a day or two away from it. Then use your freshened eyes and the feedback you received from the previous step to refine your essay.
Swap out any selects you might want to change and reorder the images if needed.
9. Add captions
Even if you don’t plan on displaying captions with your images, captioning your images is a great practice to get into. It gives context, story, and important information to each image. And, more than likely, you will want to use these captions at some point when you share your photo essay, which we dive into later in this article.
Add captions to the image files using Lightroom, Bridge, or other software programs.
Create a document, such as a Google or Word doc, with captions for each image.
In your captions, share a bit about the story behind the image, or the creation process. Add whatever makes sense to share that provides a greater understanding of the image and its purpose.
Photo essays allow you to explore deliberate style choices, such as a focus on shapes, patterns, textures, and lines. Since each photo is part of a larger essay, it encourages you to be bold with choices you might not otherwise make.
5 Examples of amazing nature photo essays
1. “How The Water Shapes Us” from the Nature Conservancy
This gorgeous essay, crafted with the work of multiple photographers, explores the people and places within the Mississippi River basin. Through the images, we gain a sense of how the water influences life from the headwater all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Notice how each photographer is tasked with the same theme, yet approaches it with their own distinct style and vision. It is a wonderful example of the sheer level of visual variety you can have while maintaining a consistent style or theme.
2. “A Cyclist on the English Landscape” from New York Times’ The World Through A Lens series
This photo essay is a series of self-portraits by travel photographer Roff Smith while “stuck” at home during the pandemic. As he peddled the roads making portraits, the project evolved into a “celebration of traveling at home”. It’s a great example of how visually consistent you can be inside a theme while making each image completely unique.
3. “Vermont, Dressed In Snow” from New York Times’ The World Through A Lens series
This essay by aerial photographer Caleb Kenna uses a very common photo essay theme: snow. Because all images are aerial photographs, there’s a consistency to them. Yet, the compositions are utterly unique from one another. It’s a great example of keeping viewers surprised as they move from one image to the next while still maintaining a clear focus on the theme.
4. “Starling-Studded Skies” from bioGraphic Magazine
This beautiful essay is by Kathryn Cooper, a physicist trained in bioinformatics, and a talented photographer. She used a 19th century photographic technique, chronophotography, to create images that give us a look at the art and science of starling murmurations. She states: “I’m interested in the transient moments when chaos briefly changes to order, and thousands of individual bodies appear to move as one.” This essay is a great example of deep exploration of a concept using a specific photographic technique.
View it here (Note: must be viewed on desktop)
5. “These Scrappy Photos Capture the Action-Packed World Beneath a Bird Feeder” from Audubon Magazine
This photo essay from conservation photographer Carla Rhodes explores the wildlife that takes advantage of the bounty of food waiting under bird feeders. Using remote camera photography, Rhodes gives viewers a unique ground-level perspective and captures moments that make us feel like we’re in conversation with friends in the Hundred Acre Woods. This essay is a great example of how perspective, personality, and chance can all come into play as you explore both an idea and a technique.
25 Ideas for creative photo essays you can make
The possibilities for photo essays are truly endless – from the concepts you explore to the techniques you use and styles you apply.
Choose an idea, hone your unique perspective on it, then start applying the 9 simple steps from above.
- The life of a plant or animal (your favorite species, a species living in your yard, etc)
- The many shapes of a single species (a tree species, a bird species, etc)
- How a place changes over time
- The various moods of a place
- A conservation issue you care about
- Math in nature
- Urban nature
- Seasonal changes
- Your yard as a space for nature
- Shifting climate and its impacts
- Human impacts on environments
- Elements: Water, wind, fire, earth
- Day in the life (of a person, a place, a stream, a tree…)
- Outdoor recreation (birding, kayaking, hiking, naturalist journaling…)
- Wildlife rehabilitation
- Lunar cycles
- Sunlight and shadows
- Your local watershed
As you zero in on a photo essay theme, consider two things: what most excites you about an idea, and what about it pushes you out of your comfort zone. The heady mix of joy and challenge will ensure you stick with it.
Your photo essay is ready for the world! Decide how you’d like to make an impact with your work. You might use one or several of the options below.
1. Share it on your website
Create a gallery or a scrollytelling page on your website. This is a great way to drive traffic to your website where people can peruse your photo essay and the rest of the photography you have.
Putting it on your website and optimizing your images for SEO helps you build organic traffic and potentially be discovered by a broader audience, including photo editors.
2. Create a scrollytelling web page
If you enjoy the experience of immersive visual experiences, consider making one using your essay. And no, you don’t have to be a whiz at code to make it happen.
Shorthand helps you build web pages with scrollytelling techniques that make a big impression on viewers. Their free plan allows you to publish 3 essays or stories.
3. Create a Medium post
If you don’t have a website and want to keep things simple, a post on Medium is a great option.
Though it’s known for being a platform for bloggers, it’s also possible to add images to a post for a simple scroll.
And, because readers can discover and share posts, it’s a good place for your photos to get the attention of people who might not otherwise come across it.
4. Share it on Instagram
Instagram has changed a lot over the last couple of years, but it’s still a place for photographers to share their work thoughtfully.
There are at least 3 great ways to share your photo essay on the platform.
– Create a single post for each image. Add a caption. Publish one post per day until the full essay is on your feed. Share each post via Instagram Stories to bring more attention and interaction to your photo essay.
– Create a carousel post. You can add up 10 photos to a carousel post, so you may need to create two of them for your full photo essay. Or you might create a series of carousel posts using 3-4 images in each.
– Create a Reel featuring your images as a video. The algorithm heavily favors reels, so turning your photo essay into a video experience can get it out to a larger audience.
I ran a “create a reel” challenge in my membership community. One member created a reel with her still images around a serious conservation issue. It gathered a ton of attention and landed her opportunities to share her message through YouTube and podcast interviews and publishing opportunities. Watch it here.
5. Exhibit it locally
Reach out to local galleries, cafes, pubs, or even the public library to see if they’re interested in hanging your photo essay for display. Many local businesses and organizations happily support the work of local artists.
6. Pitch your photo essay to publications
One of the best ways to reach an audience with your work is to get it published. Find publications that are a great fit for the theme and style of your photo essay, then pitch your essay for consideration. You gain a fantastic opportunity to share your work widely and can earn a paycheck at the same time.
Remember that if you want to get your photo essay published, you may want to hold back from sharing it publicly before you pitch it to publications.