I wanted to discuss a few issues concerning shooting story sequences. The concept is the classic "photo essay," a story told in pictures and (often, but not always) words. I'm going to use my "Flight Sequence," which was shot casually, inspired by the spectacular light of a storm edge, as the example. I hope the general principles of the issues I'll talk about will be applicable to other photo essays as well.
Some of our readers are, or have been, working photojournalists, so they know a lot more about the subject than I do.
I have long identified myself as a single-image shooter, not a story-sequence shooter. They're not quite the same thing. In a story sequence you're not always looking for the "best" shot of a shooting sequence. As an example, take my shot #4:
I had two other candidates for that shot, either of which might work better as standalone images:
In the sequence as I built it, though (and I'm not claiming my choice is necessarily "right" or "best," of course), the point of that picture is to give a sense of the plane trundling along out on the runway, and the visual interest is in the colors of the striping and lettering. I thought the extra elements in this case distracted from the main point of the picture in the sequence, so I chose the quieter picture to convey what I wanted that picture to convey.
And as for the wing shadow and the plane, well, those elements are better represented in other shots in the sequence anyway. Even if you have strong elements, to overuse them detracts from their drama.
The point is that the best picture for the "flow" of a story sequence might not be the strongest single image of every shot setup. Another good example of this is shot #7:
I'm very happy with this shot as part of the sequence, because it perfectly does what I wanted it to do, which is to give a sense of the plane rising above the clouds into the blindingly bright sunlight. It's perfect for that. But of course it's not a terribly strong single image of cloud formations with a plane wing...I've seen plenty that are better. So this is an example of how a picture that functions ideally in a sequence might not be the greatest picture if it were seen alone.
The essential problem
The biggest problem with shooting in essay-style is that it's very difficult to maintain a high level of photographic quality across a number of shots that are functioning as storytelling—which can be quite distinct from the issue of picture quality. Photographs that are visually strong and photographs whose meaning is essential to the narrative sequence aren't always opposing parameters, but in real shooting they don't always intersect ideally either. That's why National Geographic photographers—like Jim Richardson, who hangs out here at TOP sometimes—work so hard to truly cover a story, and why they shoot so much. With the number of photographs that can go into the magazine severely limited, each one has to be optimal visually yet also needs to ideally serve its function in the flow of the narrative the editors want. The last thing picture editors want to deal with is needing a particular photograph for the flow of the narrative they're constructing and not having a strong enough shot that serves the purpose.
But the two needs or impulses tend to conflict, and, with access difficult and sometimes perilous, or time constraints in place, sometimes photographers have to use what they get. It's nearly impossible to construct a whole photo essay with uniform high quality across all the pictures unless you work really hard at it. Photography just doesn't seem to want to work that way—sometimes things work and sometimes they don't. Even the great Cartier-Bresson, covering Mahatma Gandhi's funeral, had to use a few rather substandard photographs because they were essential to the story he was telling and they were all he got. (Legend has it that at one point he handed his camera to a boy in a tree and asked him to take some pictures of the crowd from the higher vantage point.)
You also can't use all the good photographs you get. In my Flight Sequence, the first two pictures overlap a bit. The function they serve is for setup—plane's on the ground at the gate and the weather's still rainy and stormy. Both pictures tell the same story, basically. The reason I used them both is that the first picture is more dramatic, and shows the clearing storm, and it also puts me (the observer/photographer/author) in a plane, which the second one doesn't necessarily do (you could be looking at raindrops on the terminal window, for instance). So what does the second one do? Well, a lot of the shots will have the small blurry areas that we understand instantly are out-of-focus water droplets on a window we're shooting through, but I wanted to establish clearly that that's my viewpoint...I'm stuck in the plane seat and the window has water one it, and I'm constrained by that. It helps especially in shot #3, where the few water-droplet-blobs might be unexplained to non-photographer viewers otherwise. (And there's nothing in shot #3, if you saw it alone, to indicate that it was shot through a plane window.)
The flow there is a little tight, in other words. Shot #1 and shot #2 are a bit too redundant, a bit too close to each other—they're saying largely the same thing and what each one adds to the other is subtle. This is made a bit more awkward in the transition to shot #3:
Because suddenly we're in sunlight with a clearing sky. That was the whole point of taking the pictures—we were right on the edge of a departing storm system as we taxied toward takeoff, and the light and skies were wonderful—but I would have liked another intermediate shot to add to the sense of the transition of the weather. The jump from #1 to #2 is tight and the jump from #2 to #3 is broad, and it creates a subtle sense of slightly clumsy editing. (Actually it was just that the weather cleared rapidly, but when you're telling a story, inconvenient reality is no excuse!)
"Flow" in image sequences is very important. Generally you want to start strong and end strong, with at least one peak somewhere in the middle, but not every image in between needs to vie with the best ones for attention; just as music is well served by contrasts between loud and soft (that's true of everything from Beethoven to Nirvana), so a story sequence needs "lulls"—quieter transition pictures—as well as the strong central images.
There are a lot of problems with my "flow" in "Flight Sequence." Basically all five of the first pictures are pretty rich images with some visceral appeal, while none of the last five are. (Even though I like #7—the wing and white sky—and #10, the Wisconsin coastline—a lot in the context of the sequence.) My biggest problem in the sequence, in terms of narrative, is that it ends weakly—the weather was gray and rainy and grim in Wisconsin, and I should have gotten a stronger image to convey that. The last image as I've presented the sequence is too indeterminate and undramatic, just not very compelling on any level. Even though the arc of the sequence goes from "sturm und drang" weather in Detroit to "drab and dreary" back home again in Wisconsin, the end of the arc isn't presented as forcefully as the beginning of it, or as it should be. As a consequence the ending sort of peters out rather than coming to a strong close.
At this point, if you haven't seen it already, you might want to read Dave's Featured Comment on the original post. He does this sort of thing much more often than I do, and he happens to be an airline pilot, so some of his pictures are similar (and he's still constrained, although, as he's in the cockpit, a bit less so than I was).
He told us he's evolved from "leaning" on the pictures and counting on them to do all the work, to using only the best shots and filling in the gaps with words. Being a person who leans toward single images rather than sequences generally, that approach appeals to me a lot. If I were following his advice I might use my shots #1, #3, #5, #7, and #10, and then use words in between to construct a subjective feeling-tone for the trip. In my case here, I'd make it very subjective, interjecting my feelings about being in love and returning from visiting my beloved, and really try to put the viewer/reader into my state of mind as I saw what the pictures are showing. I'm not going to do that today but I might attempt it when I'm feeling creative and have time to be more contemplative.
A tech digression...
I was shooting with the Fuji X-T1 camera and the really very wonderful Fujifilm XF 23mm ƒ/1.4 R lens, which is taking its place among the best 35mm-equivalent lenses I've used (and that's my "home" focal length, so I've used a whole lot of them over many years). If you shoot Fuji mirrorless, don't miss that boat.
I can see why Fuji shooters like the file quality, too. It really is kind of addictive*. I'll show you some more shots after Thanksgiving, but consider for now that all the shots in "Flight Sequence" were made through a dirty, scratched-up airplane window. They retain good detail and color and a sense of vividness even so. A strong showing. The files retain highlight detail well, too.
The killer image in this set, by the way, is shot #5:
...It might not stand out in the series as well as the more dramatic shots like #1 or #3, but it's really gorgeous larger when you can see the detail. There are no fewer than 15 airplanes in the picture, including two on the near runway and one—just by luck, I didn't even see it at the time—in the air just barely clearing the horizon. This is the keeper image from all this shooting. I think it's going to be really special as about a 15-inch wide print.
As I said earlier, you can't always use all of your best shots. I did use two ground-from-the-sky shots, but only because #6 is so different from #5; it gives a sense of the changing view of the ground as a plane turns and climbs. But it's quite common and happens quite often in constructing story sequences that you'll find you have a great shot or two that you just don't need in the narrative, that has to be left out. That's life.
How to edit sequences
In editing sequences it's best by far to use your visual intelligence rather than your logical mind. By "visual intelligence" I mean you do the work by looking hard rather than thinking hard. If you're doing a sequence seriously, the best way is to make medium-sized physical workprints that you can lay out in or pin up in a line, so that it's easy to shuffle pictures in and out and change positions. As you get practiced at sequence editing you naturally start to take shortcuts, but it's the most effective way to proceed. As with many things in photography, you just have to see what it looks like before you decide if it works or not. Your eye makes the decisions, you might say.
There's a knack to putting yourself in the place of someone who doesn't know the story, too. For starters, ask yourself what the pictures really are saying, and try to imagine you don't know any of the background that you actually know. This is somewhat trivial with a sequence like mine because the story is so simple (take off, travel, land), but with subtler stories it gets both more difficult and more crucial. And that's where words can help more and more, too.
And visual intelligence sometimes takes time. Snap judgments aren't always the correct or best judgments. As you look at pictures over hours or days, your visual intelligence works to sort out what's really effective versus what's not quite working...even if you think it should be working. Amateurs are lucky, in that they don't have to shortchange this process because of deadlines. Value your opportunity if you have the luxury. Avoid the shortcuts if you can.
These are only a few of the major issues in picture editing, which is really what we're talking about here. It's often an advantage to have a different person as your picture editor, but it's also a big advantage for the photographer to do his or her own editing, for the simple and obvious reason that knowing the story you want to tell can inform how you go about the shooting in the first place.
For starters, it helps to know you're actually working on a sequence as you shoot! "Flight Sequence" was ex post facto...as I shot I just kept going because I liked the light, and only later did I get the idea to show the pictures as a (relatively simple) narrative. I can't say I would have done better if I'd had a sequence in mind from the start...well, actually I take that back: the ending of the sequence would almost certainly have been stronger had I been working more purposefully. I would have known I needed a strong ending and would have been working a lot harder to get it.
Putting it together was good practice, though.
...And S. loved it, and that's what's most important to me, in this case. :-)
(Thanks to Dave at Photos4u2c and several other commenters)
*With the caveat that, in my experience, lens quality affects our subjective impression of sensor quality.
Original contents copyright 2014 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Dave Levingston: "I cut my teeth on photo essays. The newspaper I started working for when I was 16 ran full-page essays several times a week. I learned to edit and lay them out before I had really mastered the Nikon F and Lunasix meter.
"Looking at your sequence it occurred to me that there really is a distinction between a sequence and a photo essay. I think yours falls somewhere between. But, the thing that really struck me is what is missing. Layout. Layout seems to be lost now in the digital world. In the old days of ink on paper we arranged the photos and presented them in different sizes to emphasize, de-emphasize and lead the viewer through the story. LIFE magazine did that, but Look magazine was probably the best at it ever.
"Now every photo is presented at the same size and in just a lineal way, one after another. It seems to me that this makes it harder to construct a really good photo essay. Just a thought/observation. Time marches on and the media have changed. Something's lost and something's gained...."
Euan Forrester: "Great post! I've been wrestling for years with these issues in the small number of long-term projects I've been working on, and seeing the agony of the process laid out so clearly was definitely reassuring. And, especially, the difficulties are really clearly laid out with an imperfect example, as opposed to something highly polished.
"Even after years of working on a single story, I can't get all the photos to the same level of visual quality. And trying to edit primarily for visual quality (or visual qualities, like common colours or shapes or whatever between adjacent photos) has resulted, for me anyway, in edits that are a bit dismaying in that they don't at all tell the story I've been going for.
"The last spanner in the works when editing is the advice 'be less literal' which I keep hearing in the back of my head after seeing it preached by David Alan Harvey and others. It's yet another level of difficulty and complexity to telling the story you want.
"One thing I've tried that's helped me a bit is that when I go out on a particular day I try to make a mini-story out of it, just to keep in practice. This is in addition to shooting for the bigger story, and sometimes of course the two can be at odds as well. My single-day stories often end up being pretty literal, but at least it's something."