Creative Retouching, Real World Practices

Storytelling In Concept Photography. Part 1: The Power Of Stories

This is the first part of the series of John’s articles on Storytelling in Concept Photography. You can find Part 2 and Part 3 of the series here:

Storytelling in Concept Photography. Part II: The Mechanics Of Storytelling

Storytelling in Concept Photography. Part III : Tools to Develop Your Story


When Julia approached me to write an article for the Retouching Academy blog, I decided I didn’t really want to write another technical tutorial. There are certainly plenty of those available on the net already. Instead, I felt the need to write about my particular style of visual storytelling, not just because I have something relevant to contribute, but because it’s the one aspect of photography that excites me the most.

Although I’m nowhere close to the end of the road, I’d love to share with you what I’ve gathered and learned so far. In this first article of this three part series, we are going to talk about the function and potential of stories in photography. Then, in the next article we will look at some of the most important elements of a good story, and in the last article, we will conclude by talking about some tools to develop the story of a narrative photography project.

And even though the title suggests that this article focuses on conceptual photography, there is much to be gained from understanding the mechanics of storytelling for any genre of photography, because it will strengthen your ability to create depth in your own work and appreciate it in the work of others.

I will illustrate these articles with story-projects I have completed over the last two years, but instead of writing about the technical workflow of these projects, I will show the work progress as a series of images without comments.

For some of these, I also provide links to existing tutorials.

Why Stories?

Why should you care about the story when the end result is a photo, a moment frozen in time? Isn’t it enough that the photo just “looks cool”, “has nice lighting”, etc.?

After all, we are constantly surrounded by imagery that has no apparent story. True. But keep in mind that in the vast majority of encounters with the photos around us, we almost completely ignore them. At best, we consume them and forget them moments later, like fast food.

However, if you are craving for more of a fine dining experience with your own photography, thinking about the story becomes the first and most important step.

Let’s start by talking for a moment about your own “ideal photo experience”. Try to think of a photo that stuck with you for many years and ask yourself why it was able to do so. Often people say: There is just SOMETHING… a certain Je Ne Sais Quoi (borrowed from French “I don’t know what”, aintangible quality that makes something distinctive or attractive – Wiktionary) if they’re a little on the posh side.

The ideal photo just seems to satisfy the viewer on a deeper level. How it does that might vary greatly from viewer to viewer, but I’m sure some of the following reasons will resonate with you.

A photo stays in my memory because:

  • it has an emotional impact on me
  • it compels me to come back to look at it
  • it is beautiful on many levels; for example, it might be challenging and bold, yet subtle and suggestive at the same time
  • it spikes my interest by showing only the tip of an iceberg, yet somehow making me contemplate the iceberg’s entirety; or with a different metaphor, the photo pushes only the first domino of a chain of dominoes that unravels in my head – all by itself
  • it lets me discover new layers / new shades of beauty in the subject matter and, by extension, the world around me
  • it is masterfully done on many levels: emotion, composition, the usage of space, choice of motifs, motion and dynamics, symbolic context, etc.
  • I connect with it and can recognize a part of myself in it

The power of a good book or film is that it lets you get emotionally invested in its protagonist(s). If filmmakers can achieve this with their movies and authors with their books, it goes without saying that photographers can do the same with their images.

And, of course, many have done exactly that – like Adrian Sommeling, Brooke Shaden, Andrew Kufah, Kristy Mitchell, to mention a few.

The Art of Storytelling

The term story in photography has been somewhat diluted and become ambiguous in the last few decades. Especially in fashion photography, where story has become almost an empty buzz word for some photographers.

I’d like to suggest we take a moment and return to the very literal meaning of story and restart from there. Doing so will enable us to create and develop narratives that form a very strong backbone to the photograph’s concept.

But story goes beyond even that. I was baffled to discover that if my story holds up, almost all of the technical decisions would answer themselves or at least receive a good direction in which to search for solutions!

Composition, lighting, choice of clothing, styling and makeup, posing, props, location, everything can be set either to support or add more depth to the story.

I’d like to give you an example by using one of my recent works, “The Seamstress Of Her Own Destiny”, which is the story of a young woman’s inner fight to become a professional flamenco dancer.

Click on the image to enlarge:

Seamstress Of Her Own Destiny

The Story In The “Seamstress Of Her Own Destiny” Artwork

In this photo, you can see a woman frantically sewing a dress that falls on the floor and ends in a sort of vision of herself, as if the vision is part of the dress she is sewing.

The lighting is set deliberately, so we see she’s working at night in a dimly lit room. Her face shows the desperation to have the dress finished and perfect as soon as possible. Moonlight floats in from outside, full of hope. It shines on the body on the left of the photo.

This glowing light represents the outside world, to which the woman aspires to and in which she wants to present herself in the best possible way. All the colors are deliberately chosen to emphasize the story.

The light from the lamp is a sickly green color tone, without warmth or coziness. Whereas the blue moonlight from the left is much softer, gentler, almost caressing the woman on the floor. As another element to support the story, we can see an antique gramophone in the back. It’s an indication of her passion in life – music.

The way it points at her head and hair, it looks a little bit like a factory loudspeaker, urging her to press on. Her pose is telling us so much about her frantic, desperate attempt to finally complete her work, while the pose of the woman on the floor looks almost weightless, no sign of straining in her arms and neck.

She grows like a flower towards the light. The growth motif continues in the background with the vines that lead the eye back to the lamp and thus, the woman on the table. The vines close a visual ellipse but are not present simply for aesthetic reasons.

They close the story circle: Her vision is giving her the strength to pursue her goal.

Closing circles is one of the powerful tools of storytelling that we will talk about in the next part of this series on storytelling in conceptual photography.








A full (technical) tutorial on this project can be found here

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7 thoughts on “Storytelling In Concept Photography. Part 1: The Power Of Stories

  1. Stefan says:

    This is just beautiful!

  2. Vlad Moldovean says:

    thx for sharing this with us!

  3. ScottMTuggle says:

    The way it points at her head and hair, it looks a little bit like a factory loudspeaker, urging her to press on. Her pose is telling us so much about her frantic, desperate attempt to finally complete her work, while the pose of the woman on the floor looks almost weightless, no sign of straining in her arms and neck.

  4. John Flury says:

    Hi Vlad and Stefan, glad to hear you’re enjoying my first post on RA :). I’m very curious to hear what your own approaches and personal experiences are with stories in photography.

    1. Stefan says:

      i just wrote an email to you.

  5. Marc Kuyer says:

    Great shot!nnCan tell you what brand striplight and beautydish you use including the speedring which is attached to the striplight and beautydish? nnI am looking for this for my speedlights.nnnnThanks!

    1. John Flury says:

      Hi Marc, yes gladly. It’s a Lastolite Hotrod Stripbox, it’s not perfect, but great, if you need to travel light. The beautydish is a Sambesi Group beautydish, which I ordered from germany. Also not perfect, but you can disassemble it down to the bowl which, again, is useful for travelling.

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