What is a photo essay?
A photo essay is like a film, except instead of using moving pictures you use still ones. It’s also like an essay, but instead of using paragraphs and grammar you use images and color and photographic technique to argue. Photo essays tell a story with pictures.
You don’t just have to use pictures. You can caption photos individually, or collectively. You can include (or choose not to include) an opening and closing paragraph, quotes from individuals, or almost any kind of written word along with your images.
I went questing and found some examples of photo essays to give you a feel for what they look like and how they can be presented.
Tips and tricks for your photo essay
This section might be better titled “elements and techniques.” Whether you’re taking the photos for your essay or only choosing them from a gallery or off of the Internet, these ideas for choosing photos and arranging them will hopefully help clarify the photo essay process.
- Choose your words wisely. If you choose to use captions or paragraphs explaining some of the concepts in your photos, don’t just throw words on the page. You’ll want the words to emphasize and draw attention to the themes or the narrative you are telling. Don’t cheapen the effect of the photos in your essay by explaining what they’re supposed to do to the viewer. Let the photos do the work; use your words to help tell the story or move the argument.
- Compare and contrast. When you arrange your images, consider how putting similar images side by side and putting contrasting images side by side changes the context of each individual photo. Try contrasting in color, tone, theme, or with any other technique. Some photo essays benefit from having two sections, some photo essays benefit from flipping between two contrasting themes.
- Arrange your photos intentionally. Your photo essay will be read differently depending on how you arrange it. The most common 3 ways I have seen are the presentation style (each picture is its own slide and you cycle through the images so the viewer only sees one picture at a time), essay style (pictures are in chronological order on a page so the viewer sees each image in context with whatever other images are on the page), and collage style (all of the images are placed on one canvas so the viewer sees a total picture made of the many individual images). The narrative (argument) you are trying to present should help you choose your arrangement.
- How many images do you need? The more images you use in your essay, the less each individual photo will stand out. But the sum of a certain kind of image may say more than having just one image like it. It’s better to have more photos to choose from for your photo essay so that you can choose the most poignant (or many poignant) images for your essay.
Most of these tips have been directed towards a writer like me who barely touches a camera except to take pictures for visiting tourists. If you’re the one taking the photos, all I can say is this:
- More content is better than less content. Maybe you didn’t get the perfect shot every time, but having more images to select from allows you more flexibility and creativity in arranging your photo essay.
- Get a second opinion on the images you choose. You’re close to your photos, so you may not always see things the same as a second party. You don’t have to use the second opinion (you’re the artist), but it will help you to see from the viewer’s perspective.
- Edit your photos intentionally. As we established above, you can use your editing skills to make photos more comparable or more contrasting. How you edit your photo can completely change how the image is seen.
How to write a photo essay
(as a photo essay)
Have you ever written (or photographed) a photo essay? Read any cool or moving photo essays? Share your experiences in the comments!