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The Photo Essay – A Recipe for Success

The photo essay provides the photojournalist or documentary photographer with a way to tell a story in a series of images, sometimes alongside captions and/or a more substantial article.

The ability to successfully create a photo essay allows you to tell the story in a more comprehensive way than would be the case with a single image. This provides the viewer with more information, the editor with more choice and more confidence in your ability to explore possible future assignments better than many of your competition.

The photo essay recipe that I’ve tried to follow over the years contains images that can be described as follows:

Canon 5D camera and Canon 70-210mm f2.8 IS lens with Canon 2X Extender

Canon 5D camera and Canon 70-210mm f2.8 IS lens with Canon 2X Extender

The Establishing / Opening Shot

The aim of this image is to introduce and entice the viewer into the event, story or theme explore. It’s helpful if your subject mater is either a vista or an iconic symbol as it provides the viewer with a way into the story by putting them in a particular place and time (eg. San Francisco during the Gold Rush or Life in Central Victoria, 2009) and encourages them to further explore the people and location depicted. Ultimately, you’re working to establish a particular atmosphere, mood or feeling (eg. tranquility, nostalgia, stress, frenetic pace) by which your event, story or theme (rural versus city life, tourism, spirituality, environment, etc) can be successfully explored throughout the essay.

While the opening shot may include a signpost, the image will need to be visually interesting rather than just informative. The use of a wide-angle lens, up close, can add extra emphasize to the signpost without removing it from its surroundings. Alternatively, a telephoto lens used in conjunction with a shallow Depth of Field (DOF)  can make an old sign stand out from an otherwise distracting background. Shooting from a relatively high (birds eye) or low (worms eye) point of view can also add visual potency to your image.

Canon 5D camera with Canon 85mm f1.2 Aspherical lens

Canon 5D camera with Canon 85mm f1.2 Aspherical L series USM lens


There are of course many ways to photograph people. In this case we can define a ‘people-based’ image as having one or more persons as the key element of the image. Examples could include formal portraits, candid portraits, individuals, couples, group shots, etc. In the case of a photo essay you can use your people photograph to explore the event, story or theme depicted and how people (characters, consumers, workers, migrants, children, old folk, etc) interact with each other. 

In the case of the above formal portrait I utilized an aperture of f1.2 to produce the extremely shallow Depth of Field (DOF) that separates the subject from an otherwise distracting (repeating horizontal lines) background. By asking him to tilt his head on the side a subtle dynamic was added to the image which I believe also suggests his quizical nature.

Canon 5D camera and Canon 85mm f1.2 L series USM lens

Canon 5D Mark II camera and Canon 24-105mm f4 L series USM lens

Action / Activity

This image often deals with clichés (people tasting wine, picking grapes, riding motor bikes, kissing babies, etc) and is best executed with dynamic images that explore the many activities and facets associated with human activity, festivals and rituals. The key theme or idea explored throughout the story (eg. loneliness of the long distance runner, hardships associated with drought) works best when the image illustrates notions such as hardship, wealth, elation, disappointment, love or loss.

As action is an essential element in this image you should consider whether fast or slow shutter speeds will best convey the action and the mood you want to explore. 

Canon 5D camera and Canon 180mm f3.5 Macro lens

Canon 5D camera and Canon 180mm f3.5 Macro L series USM lens

Detail Shot

This image directly illustrates a key aspect associated with the essay. It’s a close-up shot of an essential element to the essay that can both convey and illustrate the photographer’s / editors view. A photo essay on a local winery could feature a detail shot of a wine bottle label, either on it’s own or, for example, positioned on a wooden barrel alongside grapes and a half full glass of red wine. Similarly a photo essay on farming might feature a detail shot of old, work-ravaged hands.

Your detail shot can be relatively straightforward and objective or, alternatively, more abstract and subjective. A story on a local abstract painter might feature a close-up of a paint palette where the palette, at the end of a day’s work, might begin to resemble one of their paintings. Ultimately your detail shot needs to illustrate and explore the particular craft, art, sport, trade, religious practice, etc relevant to the town or individual depicted.

Canon 5D camera and Canon 24mm f1.4 L series lens

Canon 5D camera and Canon 24mm f1.4 L series Aspherical lens

Environmental Portrait

A particularly descriptive form of portraiture the environmental portrait illustrates an individual within one of the following environments:

  • Their place of residence (home)
  • Their place of work
  • Their place of play (including sport, hobbies, nightlife, etc)
  • Their place of worship, spiritual or health-related (Thai-Chi) activity

An alternative would be their place of adventure. For instance a Japanese tourist in front of a western war memorial, Uluru in Central Australia or at the Vatican. Similarly an Australian, English, Dutch or USA citizen in front of a Japanese war memorial,  Shinto Shrine or in front of Mount Fuji. 

The environmental portrait provides a degree of personality to the essay. Its success is dependent, at least in part, on the relationship between the photographer and the subject. This interactive connection is then extended to a relationship between the viewer and the subject and the viewer and the photographer. They say you are what you eat. I believe you are what you photograph and how you decide to photograph. You can tell a lot about the photographer (e.g. compassionate picture maker, or uncaring picture taker), as a person, by looking at their pictures.

As the photo essay is so well suited to commercial photojournalism the environmental portrait is usually most successful when it contains strong eye contact. You therefore need to stand close enough to the subject, and have them look directly towards the camera, so that their eyes are clearly visible in the resulting image.

The possible exception to this is when the subject is an artist, poet, adventurer, mystic, etc, and is pictured looking out of the frame to suggest that their thoughts, vision or destiny lies outside the confines of the world in which they are pictured. With the frame, the boundaries of your viewfinder, acting as a metaphor for the world in which your subject exists, we can say that they literally live their life beyond the boundaries of the frame.

The challenge with the environmental portrait is to produce a portrait and, at the same time, illustrate their surroundings. Standing around one and a half meters from your subject and employing a mild wide-angle lens, such as the (effective) 35mm focal length, will allow you to portray the subject, relatively close-up, in a way that places them within their environment (eg. a wine maker, with glass in hand and wine barrels in the background). Elements or props (paint brush and/or palette, wine glass) can be held by the subject to add a sense of 3-dimensional space and identify the subject as belonging to the environment in which they are pictured. 

Leica M6 camera and Leica 21mm f2.8 Elmarit Lens

Leica M6 camera and Leica 21mm f2.8 Elmarit Aspherical Lens

Closing Shot

Sometimes similar in construction to the opening or establishing shot, the closing shot serves to bring a sense of closure to the story. Particularly emotive imagery can influence the viewer’s response and, as such, could be considered as a way to express your or your editors opinion.

For the photographer with little more than discovery on their minds, the construction of a photo essay can help form your own initial impressions into a more substantial and, possibly, more compassionate point of view. Intuition and a sense of discovery can lead one away from the often narrow boundaries of our own day-to-day existence towards a greater understanding of life outside our own experience and a more life-affirming world view.

© Copyright All Rights Reserved

Glenn Guy, Blue Sky Photography


10 Responses

  1. Hi Glenn,
    Thanks for the article and email. I found it very informative. Keep on the good job!

  2. Hi Trang,

    Thanks for the feedback. Feel free to pop by regularly. I try to post an article or photo every day.

    All the best,


  3. Hi Glenn,

    Thanks very much for this very informative and inspiring post. (Personally I love the sight of those beautiful birds.)

    I wish you’d also write about personalities of photographers reflected from what and how they photograph. I 100% agree with you that “you are what you photograph and how you decide to photograph.” =)

    Again, many thanks!

  4. Thanks Glenn great info, it was worth the wait 🙂

    I look forward to shooting my first COMPLETE photo essay shortly


  5. Hi Joel,

    Thanks for the feedback. It’s very much appreciated.


  6. Hey Melisa,

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment on my site. I’II try to write more about our motivations and intentions and how our personality goes into and comes out of our photography.

    All the best,


  7. Thanks so much for this… I will attempt it for Friday’s class!


  8. Hi Yhudis,

    Glad you like my article on the photo essay. I look forward to seeing the results from your own essay.

    All the best,


  9. Hi Glenn- thanks for the great blog – really informative with beautiful illustrative photos.
    A question for you – do you know of a WordPress theme that allows you to publish NY Times style photo essay – where you can view several related pop up photos in a row with captions?
    Best, Christine

  10. Hi Christine,

    Thanks so much for your kind words. I live in Australia and, as a consequence, have never seen a copy of the NY Times. I’ve never even felt the need to check it out online. So sorry, but I haven’t a clue what it looks like, though I understand its bigger than Texas.

    You can scroll through the various wordpress themes to select the one you like. Alternatively send them an email directly.

    All the best from the Land of OZ (Aus),


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