Storytelling is one of these “magical words”. You apply it to anything and it instantly starts to sound like that great idea we’ve been neglecting for too long.

We got storytelling in UX, storytelling in marketing, storytelling in teaching, storytelling in learning… We even have storytelling for job interviews. I’m not kidding.

How to use stories, nail an interview and land your dream job. All while sitting by the campfire.

However, when you write about “storytelling in… something”, there’s always a trap can run into. That is, repeating the same principles over and over.

“Show, don’t tell”, “Conflict is Everything”, “It’s About What’s Not Said”.

That’s absolutely justified. Principles of storytelling have been known for centuries.
Unfortunately, when it became a buzzword, just like gamification and empathy, we are often inclined to apply the “storytelling pill” to other words from the dictionary, repeat those principles and call it a day.

I’ll try not to.

This article is about storytelling in photography, one of the oldest visual mediums.

Color

“Color, really?”

Yep, back to basics. Color is one of those basic things that can dramatically affect what story your photo tells. Just like composition, lighting, perspective, and any other fundamental art disciplines.

Why the emphasis on the color, then? That’s easy. We live in a time when the whole mood of the picture can be changed via one click of a button. Instagram filters, mobile photo presets, desktop graphic editors. We alter the color all the time.

But here’s a thing. You change your color – you change your story.

The left bottom city is too cold for me. I’d prefer the top left. Earlybird looks like an afterlife.

Mostly, we want our photos to look cool. And it turns out, we can change the whole meaning behind the photo simply by manipulating its color scheme.

There’s even a whole book, If It’s Purple, Someone’s Gonna Die, that tells us about it.

For example, the yellow color is the color we identify with the sun. But also with warning and caution signs. Both of these things grab our attention. Almost provoke us. You’d be surprised, but the book states that a yellow environment produces anxiety. Bright yellow in large quantities can be very hard on the eyes.

You know, if you look long enough at this photo, you start to hate everything. Made via Icons8 Photo Creator

Failed cleaning commercial example. You probably don’t want to buy this.

“People in the doldrums
believe yellow is light and sunny and will cheer them up. But yellow creates
anxiety and makes you more stressed out. . . . In yellow’s presence, you’ll
be more apt to lose your temper.”

Carlton Wagner, Wagner Institute for Color
Research, in the August 1990 issue of Woman

Green is the color of fresh vegetables and… spoiled meat. It signals at the same time freshness, vitality, food, danger, toxicity, and poison.

When we’re in nature, its green presence gives us the idea of freshness, eternity. Yet, when associated with human bodies, however, it signals an illness.

Moral? Because of its ambivalent nature, you should always decide what “type” of green to use in every particular photo of yours. Because, frankly, you’re one green tint filter away from a healthy image to an ill one.

Photo from Moose

And it’s the same way with every color: orange, purple, blue. So the next time you apply a filter to your photos before publishing them on IG or elsewhere to make them look cool, remember: the story has just changed.

A Series of Images

You might think that slideshows, photo albums, and PP presentations are a dying medium for storytelling. It’s all about stories and vines now. Well, partially, that’s true.

I’d argue because even one photo can tell a story so intense any Hollywood flick would be jealous.

CREDIT: US NAVY

And yet, series are reborn, reshaped. Instagram sliders, landing pages with infinite scrolling, twitter feeds. They’re all, essentially, a series of photos.

And a series always tells a story differently from a single-frame image.

You see, a single image borrows context from its surroundings. Like the photo above, it’s published in this blog, and the blog and this article give it context.

However, if I were to publish a series of pictures, they would create a context for themselves.


Photo series via Icons8 Photo Creator

Pretty sure this series may come off as both a happy babysitter or a terrible mother story. The key is: your brain tries to connect these photos together, not these photos and the article. A single photo would borrow more context from its surroundings: the blog, the article, the politics of your country, anything… More on a context in the next section.

This is just how our brain works: it constantly looks for new connections and meanings. When your landing page has a single photo, the viewer borrows the context from its surroundings.

When there’s a series, the brain starts to connect the dots between the images themselves.

That’s why every time you upload a collection of photos to your social profile or design a new landing page or onboarding sequence, bear in mind how differently we perceive a single image versus a series of images.

Context

I already touched lightly on the topic of context, but we can go much deeper.

The thing is, sometimes we can control the context for our photos. Sometimes we can’t.

You’ve probably seen this photo before:

Image Credit: Eddie Adams, Vietnam War

What you probably didn’t know is that the photographer who took this photo, Eddie Adams, (who also won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for it) later regretted the impact the photograph made. The public explicitly sympathized with a man being shot, yet the man with the pistol was the Chief of National Police who claimed that this man was responsible for killing his own fellow citizens.

The public, however, destroyed the Chief’s reputation, career, which also badly affected his family. All because of the anti-war movement context that was the predominant rhetoric during the time this picture was made. To this day, the “why” of the photo is still unclear.

In our time context changes the meaning of photos dramatically. Photo captions in your blog, Instagram comments to the post, landing page copy – everything impacts how out photos are perceived.

Sadly, you can’t control the context every time. However, from a business perspective, you often can. After all, you’re the one responsible for the captions and the copy.

Two Stories

Have you ever played Imaginarium? I played it with my friends recently. Basically, my goal was to take one picture and, without showing it to my friends, come up with some abstract words that describe it.

So I picked this picture and said “loneliness”. Then my friends, who also had a bunch of their own pictures, each put a picture (secretly) that also could mean “loneliness” in the pile.

After that, all the pictures were mixed and the goal was to guess which picture was mine out of all of them.

Sometimes the group guesses it right and sometimes they don’t. But when they pick the correct picture, their explanation is always different. I thought my picture meant “loneliness” because it is dark and the guy is alone. Well, guess what. One of my friends told me it’s loneliness because there was just one whale in the sky.

Moral of the story: there are always two stories your photo tells: the story you intended to tell and the one the viewer created for themselves.

In this article, color, context, and series were described in the context of how your photos will be perceived overall and what story do they tell.

There are many more factors. Too many.

That doesn’t mean that you should make your stories too simple to be understood by others. They’ll come off as boring cliches or, worse, stock.

Oh my…

Nah. Sometimes your viewers will see your story. Sometimes they won’t. But you can make sure that at least your story is interesting.

Photo made via Icons8 Photo Creator

About the author: Andrew started at Icons8 as a usability specialist, conducting interviews and usability surveys. He desperately wanted to share his findings with our professional community and started writing insightful and funny (sometimes both) stories for our blog.

Title image made with Photo Creator

Check the advanced techniques of making photo collages, explore the basic principles of visual storytelling and learn how to create catchy title images for your content