How To Make An Effective Photo Essays

Photo essays seem like a daunting undertaking accomplished only by the massively creative unicorns living in our midst. They’re popular among the New York Times and Times of the world. However, you can easily learn how to make a photo essay, too. If done well, a photo essay can put a picture to your purpose and create a personal and emotional experience for your website visitors.

Previously, we talked about the benefits of a photo essay on your nonprofit’s website. Now let’s get into the nitty-gritty process of how to make a photo essay and look at examples along the way. Let’s get started!

Find a Photographer

Before you do anything else, make sure you have a talented someone willing and able to take these awesome photographs. This someone can be a volunteer, staff member, or a professional photographer. Have someone in mind? Great!

Decide on a Message

What do you want to say with this photo essay? The message should be related to your nonprofit’s mission and vision. A good message has the capacity to invoke an emotional response to viewers.

Make a Game Plan

Pinpoint a subject or group of subjects to photograph. Action is great for photo essays, so it’s best if your subjects are doing something. Coordinate a time and place that works for the photographer as well as those being photographed. A photo essay does not need to be done in a day (although it definitely can be). Be sure to let your photographer know the more photos to choose from, the better.

Choose Your Photos

This is where the creative juices really start to flow. All of the photos should address the same message. As you’re choosing which photos to include, keep your core message in mind. Which photos best convey that message? Consider your audience as well, and choose photos that they’ll connect with emotionally. The photo essay tells a story, so be sure to arrange your photos in an order that makes sense for the story.

In this photo essay, Charity: Water tells the story of a school in Nepal that needs access to clean water and receives it. Each photo drives home their message: Everyone should have clean water. Whatever your message is, make sure it hits home in every photo you choose.

Include a Variety of Shots

Varying ranges and angles will add some depth to the photo essay. Wide shots set the scene, giving the viewer an idea of the location and who is involved. Medium shots are usually action- oriented. They give the viewer a better idea of what’s going on. Close-up shots are often among the strongest. They are intimate, focusing on one subject in a tight portrait. Detail shots can be integral to setting the scene. Often, these shots are a close-up of someone’s hands performing an action.

Team Rubicon uses photo essays on their “Story of Team Rubicon” page. They start out with a wide shot, then medium, detail, and close-up. The variation keeps the photos visually interesting, while sticking to the same message in every photo.

Format Your Photos

For a slideshow setup, keep all your photos the same size. Additionally, if you decide to include a border, it should be the same on every photo. A border is not necessary, but it can be useful in certain instances. Write a caption for each photo with a simple explanation of what is going on in the photo.

This New York Times photo essay on refugees uses a border on each of the portraits. The border ties together each of the portraits, taken at different times and in different countries. This method humanizes the crisis by photographing the refugees outside of the refugee camp, so they can be seen as dignified human beings.

Briefly Set the Scene

Your introduction should be short and informative. You definitely want to let your photos tell the story, so only include information that the average visitor would not be able to glean from the photo itself or the caption.

Conclude with a Call to Action

Include the call to action at the end of the photo essay. Appealing for support makes sense after you’ve given your visitors a chance to learn your mission through a photo essay.

So now you know how to make a photo essay for your nonprofit, and you’ve seen some stellar examples. Include your new photo essay on your website. Visitors will have a clear image of who they are helping and will be more likely to turn their emotional connection into support for your nonprofit.

Does your nonprofit use photo essays? Have any other tips on how to make a photo essay? Let us know in the comments below.

In photography's equivalent of the after-life, "no one can hear you scream."

At least let's hope that's the case because, if not, W. Eugene Smith -- the 20th century's master of the photo story -- would be creating a deafening noise. Why? He'd undoubtedly be lamenting having missed the arrival of the Web and its almost unlimited storytelling possibilities.

Imagine his seminal work -- "Nurse Midwife Delivering Baby," "Pittsburgh," "Minamata" -- all with a narrative audio backend. This would not be storytelling squared; but storytelling raised to infinity and beyond.

But, alas, Smith is gone and some of today's modern photographers struggle in the master's wake. Smith was the king of the cumulative effect of the photo essay -- a variety of image types that add up to a greater whole. Today's attempts too often rely on unconnected "moments" shot over and over again.

The tools that are now at our disposal make depth and breath of sound and image possible. While many photojournalists are learning audio storytelling or teaming up with those who do, however, still more have jumped straight to video. In doing so, they're bypassing the need for careful image selection matched with a compelling narrative that's told with care and emotion.

While working as the photo editor of The Washington Post, my boss -- Assistant Managing Editor for Photography Joe Elbert -- also identified this as a problem in need of a solution. Elbert, never one to do things the conventional way, used film to teach how images and sound can work well together. (Watching a Clint Eastwood gun fight unfold in a remote graveyard in "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" can tell you a lot about photography.)

Elbert's interest was not into creating more"garage Kubricks" -- newly minted cinematographers making masterpieces on their laptops -- but rather to help photographers learn to create a series of pictures that tell stories. When combined with audio, these stories would have a depth, grace and fluidity only made possible by our multiplatform world.

Photo essays are a great way of marrying photos with narrative, and so are audio slideshows. Below, I've listed five types of photos that make for strong photo stories. I've also included related examples from an NPR project about the impact of the stimulus bill on a rural health clinic.

Shot one: The scene setter

Where is your story taking place, and what does it look like? Is it a building, a town, an old southwestern graveyard? Place your audience in the action by taking a photo that shows it all.

This image sets the scene for a story about a health clinic in a rural town. John Poole/NPR

Shot two: The medium shot

Let's start to hone in on the spot of your action; the area of the building or town or graveyard where your subjects are. This shot narrows your story's field of view and should bring you closer in.

This photo shows us where the story's source is. John Poole/NPR

Shot three: The portrait

If things go south and you can only come back with one photo, this should be it. Who is your main subject and what does he or she look like? This can be a traditional head and shoulders shot or a wider shot that shows the person's surroundings.

It's always best to take a variety of portrait shots, as photos of your subject will probably be used more than once in a good audio/visual presentation. Also, if your subject is a thing and not a person, capture it. A great series of electron microscope portraits might be just what you need.

From this portrait, we can see what the source -- & his furry companion -- look like. John Poole/NPR

Shot four: Capturing detail

This is the shot that is often forgotten. Detail shots work especially well for transitions, but can have great storytelling potential all their own. What are the pictures on someone's desk? What books are they reading? What's that post card they have tacked to the wall? All of these things tell us a little bit about our subject and are great elements to have in a photo essay or multimedia presentation.

The detail in this photo helps illustrate the topic of the story. John Poole/NPR

Shot five: Capturing action

Action shots show your subject doing something -- ideally the thing you are reporting on. This is the shot some photographers spend an entire shoot trying to perfect, often amounting to the same shot being taken 30 times. Photos of your subject in action are essential in audio/visual pieces, but they are not the only pictures you need. If you get the other four shots and not this one, you'll still have a solid photo essay.

I advise getting the others in the can and then working on this shot. That way, you have a strong foundation to support your story, and your action shots will be the icing on the cake.

Action shots add movement to your story. John Poole/NPR

Four or five pictures might be enough for a photo essay gallery. For audio slideshows or video, however, you'll want multiple options for each of these photo types.

With any luck, and a bit of talent, you'll end up with a photo essay that would do Smith proud.

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