Example essay

How to Create a Photo Essay

Photo essay, also called photo essay or photo essay, is a powerful way for photographers to tell a story with their images. If you’re interested in creating your own photo story, this article will walk you through the process, from finding a story to shoot to the basics of creating your first visual story.


What is a photo report?

A photo report visually tells a story. Much like the genre you read, photojournalism offers a comprehensive rendering of a subject or situation using a carefully crafted and curated series of images. Photo stories have a theme, and each image backs up that general theme which is defined in the title of the photo story and is sometimes supported by text.

From documentary to narrative to essay, photo reports are designed to move their audience, to inspire a certain action, awareness or emotion. Photo Stories is not just a collection of cool photos. They must use their visual power to capture viewers’ attention and remain unforgettable.

History of photo reporting

In the past, that is to say before 1948, magazines published photo reports that were very different from what we know today. They were staged, pre-conceived by an editor, not a truthful observation of life. Along came a photographer named W. Eugene Smith, who worked for Life magazine.

Deciding to follow a country doctor for six weeks, he put together material for a photo essay that really showed what it was like to be in that doctor’s shoes, always on the move to help his scattered patients. Smith’s piece,”country doctorsnapped fellow photographers out of their scripted stupor and revolutionized the way photographers report what they see.

W. Eugene Smith’s landmark “Country Doctor” photo essay that was published in Life magazine.

From then on, photojournalism came to life and an audience through the lens of legends such as Robert Capa, Dorothea Lange, David “Chim” Seymour, Gordon Parks, Werner Bischof and Henri Cartier-Bresson. The Vietnam War provided many examples of photographic reportage as depicted by Philip Jones Griffiths, Catherine Leroy and many others.

More recently, photographic reports have found a solid place in line thanks to the ease of publishing a series of photos digitally compared to printing. Lynsey Addario, Peter Essick and Adam Ferguson represent some of the photographers pushing visual storytelling today.

Photo by Dorothée Lange
March 1937. Photo by Dorothea Lange.

Ways to Find Photo Stories and Themes

Photo reports exist everywhere, in the midst of everyday life and in the fray of the news. A good place to start developing a photo story is to choose a general theme.

Topics that interest you

The best expression comes from the heart, so why not choose a topic that interests you. Maybe it’s a social issue, an environmental issue, or just something that interests you. Find what moves you and share it with the world.

Personal experiences

The more you have lived, the more you have to say. It doesn’t necessarily mean age, it can also refer to experiences big and small. If you know a subject better than anyone, like what it’s like to recover from a car accident, you’re an expert on the subject and therefore have a story to tell. Also think about the things you read, see, or watch, such as news or history, and incorporate them into your search for a story.

Solution of the problem

Problems abound in the world. But so are the solutions. Photojournalists can present one or the other, or both. Examine something wrong with society and show why it is a problem. Or find a problem that has been solved and show the struggle it took to get there. Better yet, take your time to film your story – sometimes it can take years – and document how a wrong is righted.

day in the life

One of the most popular formats, daily photo stories present microcosms of life that relate to the bigger picture. Along the same lines, behind-the-scenes photo stories show viewers what other people’s lives are really like, especially in difficult or out-of-reach situations. Events are another simple yet powerful theme for documenting and telling stories with a camera.

A photo of Gordon Parks
Harlem Newsboy by Gordon Parks, 1943.

Types of photo reports

Most photo stories are about people. If it’s something like the environment, for example, the photo story can showcase the people involved. Either way, the hard-hitting photo essay will viscerally present the challenges and dilemmas of the human condition.

There are three general types of photo stories.

Narrative story

The story deals with complications and their resolution, problems and solutions. If there seems to be no resolution, at least the struggle to find one can provide material for a photo essay. Some sort of narrative thread needs to push the story through from beginning to middle to end, just like what you see in a good movie.

A good story also requires action, which in this case must be visual. Good stories turn the pages, whether it’s a tale by Kerouac or a series of photos showing the difficulties of single parenthood. Adventure stories are a good example of photographic narrative storytelling.


The term “photo report” is usually used interchangeably with “photo report”, but some photographers argue that there are subtle differences between the two. The essay type of a photo story involves an opinion, they argue. The tests make a point. They are the opposite of factual news. A photo story makes the case for something, like showing the danger and consequences of illegal fireworks or advocating for the preservation of a forest.


Documentaries, on the other hand, lack opinion. Their purpose is to inform without adding judgment. Documentaries present the facts and let the viewers decide. They illustrate something happening, but they don’t always include a narrative story or a hard-nosed approach. Historic places, current events, and unique lifestyles always make for great documentary photography.

Ottuk, Kyrgyzstan in March 2017. Photo by Konrad Lembcke and licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

How to Create a Photo Essay

Several elements come into play when writing a photo report. Once you’ve found a theme, it’s time to give your project a name. While filming, jot down any titles that come to mind. Think of the headline as a magazine title that explains in a nutshell what the whole story is about.

Choose your photos according to whether or not they relate to the title of the photo report. Reject photos that are not. If your collection seems to suggest a different angle, a different title, don’t be afraid to rename it. Sometimes stories develop organically. But if your title doesn’t pull together and define your selection of photos, it may be too vague. Do not rush. Identify the theme, take the photos and the photo report will take shape.

Pictures of Werner Bischof
A picture frame by Werner Bischof. Photo by Dutch Simba and licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Certain techniques make it possible to tell the photo report.


A photo report is made up of a variety of views, angles and focal lengths. While masters like Henri Cartier-Bresson could capture a photo story with just one prime lens, in his case a 50mm, the rest of us are wise to rely on multiple focal lengths. Much like what you see in movies, a story is told with wide shots that set the scene, medium shots that tell the story, and close-ups that reveal character and emotion.

Unique angles make viewers curious and interested, and they break the monotony of standard photography. Consider working in black and white in your photo story. Photo reporting lends itself well to reporting exclusively in monochrome, as captions since W. Eugene Smith demonstrate.

Visual consistency

The idea of ​​a photo report is to create a whole, not a bunch of random parts. Think gestalt. Images should interact with each other. Repetition helps achieve this goal. Recurring themes, moods, styles, people, things, and perspectives help unify a project, even if the photos tell different parts of the story.

Fare, Huahine, French Polynesia – After-school play interrupted by the capture and release of a stingray. Pictures by Scott Williams and licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


Text can increase the impact of a photo story. A picture is worth a thousand words, but it doesn’t always replace them. Captions can be as short as a full sentence, as long as a paragraph, or longer. Be sure to take notes in case you want to add captions. Some photo stories, however, work just fine without words.

Tell a story as a photographer

Few photographic genres have moved people as much as photojournalism. Since its inception, the art of visual storytelling has captivated audiences. Photo stories show viewers things they’ve never seen, spurred the masses to action, and inspired video documentaries. Today, photo stories retain their power and place, thanks in part to the internet. Every photographer should experiment with a photo essay or two.

The method of creating a photo story is simple yet complicated, just like life. Particular attention should be paid to the selection of images, the choice of the title and the shooting techniques. But follow these guidelines and the photo stories will come. Look for issues and experiences that inspire you and go and photograph them with the intention of telling a complete story. The world of viewers will thank you.

Picture credits: The header photo shows the May 13, 1957 article in LIFE magazine titled “Vietnam’s Tough Miracle Man.” Archive photos of Depositphotos

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