How to Tell a Story With Your Photos

Examples of Wide, Medium and Close-up Shots by Kim Olson

I didn’t mind school so much. Some people hated it, but as long as it was a mildly interesting subject I thought it wasn’t so bad learning new things. Even today, when I no longer have to go to school, I still enjoy taking classes now and then.

When I was living in San Francisco, one of the larger art schools in the area, the Academy of Art, was offering free mini-courses to pretty much anyone who wanted to take them. They ran for about 4 weeks with 1 class per week and you could choose from a variety of artsy classes. I’m pretty much a still photographer through and through, but I thought it’d be fun to take an introduction to film class.

I’d never done anything with film before so I found it really interesting. I’ve been so used to seeing the world as a still photographer that it was nice to see the ways in which shooting film differs. But there were also quite a few similarities.

One of the techniques that was similar is the way filmmakers utilize shot lists to help them make sure they don’t miss any angles. And from a storytelling standpoint, it definitely helps to fully depict a subject and its environment by using different types of shots.

What you want to think of is how you want to introduce your viewer to your subject. So with each shot, you slowly lead them into your scene, showing them a narrower and narrower view, and finally focus in on your main subject(s).

Let’s talk about what each of these shot types accomplishes and why you may want to use each one.

The Establishing or Wide Shot

When you first start to watch a movie, you may or may not have noticed that it often begins with an overview type of shot, perhaps an aerial view of a city, an entire city block or the exterior of a home.

This initial shot gives the viewer an introduction into the story. It lays the foundation for what’s to come and gives them a little bit of information on how the story is about to proceed.

This initial shot is called an Establishing or Wide Shot and it typically encompasses the entire scene. For this you’d generally use a wide-angle lens, roughly 15-35mm.

Wide (or Establishing) Shot of a Wedding Ceremony in Mexico by Kim Olson

Wide (or Establishing) Shot of a Wedding Ceremony in Mexico by Kim Olson

Medium to Full Shot

After the establishing shot – which gives the viewer a sense of place – we come to the Medium or Full Shot.

From the wide-angle shot above, we now zoom in considerably and put much more of our focus on the subject(s). There’s no longer any doubt as to what we want our viewers to pay attention to.

These shots typically include anywhere from a full-body to a head-to-knee shot view (if the subject is a person). They also call the medium shot the “cowboy shot,” because in the old western days, the medium shot would include enough of the cowboy so that the viewer sees the cowboy’s gun.

For Medium to Full Shots, you’ll probably want to use a lens that’s considered a “normal” lens, or one that gives you a regular view of the world. For a full-frame body, that would be somewhere around 35-50mm.

Medium shot of a Wedding Ceremony in Mexico by Kim Olson

Medium shot of a Wedding Ceremony in Mexico by Kim Olson

The Close-Up Shots

And finally we come to the Close-Up Shots.

There are a few different ways to capture the close-up shots. The extreme close-up shots dramatically cut off the head and show only the eyes and mouth. There’s also the more subtle close-up shots that cut the person off about mid torso.

Any way you choose to frame your close up, it’ll still be very intimate and bring the viewer into the scene almost as if they’re part of it.

This shot is usually where you’d utilize a telephoto lens, zooming in to include primarily the person’s head.

Close-up Shot of Bride & Groom Sharing a Moment at their Wedding by Kim Olson

Close-up Shot of Bride & Groom Sharing a Moment at their Wedding by Kim Olson

Putting it Together

When you think about a scene in terms of the broad, wide-angle view; the medium, regular view; and the zoomed-in, close-up view, I think you’ll have a set of images that portray your subject and its environment in a well-rounded way.

By getting three very different shots, you do a better job of telling the story and each one will have a unique feel.

It also helps if you’re ever feeling stuck creatively and aren’t sure how to capture your subject. By using these 3 general types of shots as guidelines, you can do your best to capture each one in turn.

Weekly Challenge

Now it’s your turn to give it a try!

First start by paying attention to how the pros do it. The next time you turn on the TV or watch a movie, notice how the story gets told through the cinematography.

Does a scene typically start out with a wide, establishing shot, moving then to a medium or close-up? How many different types of shots are they using to tell the story of each scene?

Now that you’ve studied some examples, it’s time to shoot your own stuff.

Choose a subject or two (it doesn’t have to be a person – it can be a landmark, a still-life object, etc.) and focus on getting these three shots for each subject:

  • Establishing or Wide Shot – wide-angle view
  • Medium or Full Shot – “standard” view
  • Close-up Shot – zoomed-in view

Have fun and let your creativity loose. Good luck!

Share Your Photos

Once you’ve gone out to play and have sorted through your images, feel free to come back here and share what you captured.

Simply leave a comment below with a link to your image and we can go check it out.

Did you find that you like shooting a particular type of shot more than another? Or do you find that you prefer a sequence of images over just a single image?

, , , ,

2 Responses to How to Tell a Story With Your Photos

  1. Wanda February 5, 2013 at 9:22 pm #

    Thanks for this tip — I’ll be using it when I take pictures, and also when I plan my layouts for digital scrapbooks.

    • Kim February 6, 2013 at 12:46 pm #

      You’re welcome, Wanda! I’ve found that keeping in mind these different angles has been really helpful in improving my compositions and variety of images. Hopefully you’ll find that, too!