Photo Essay Ideas

Are you looking for photo essay ideas or want to know how to create photo essays similar to those in magazines? Just follow the guidelines below and you will be making your own photo essays in no time.

Before we get started, you need to decided which of the four basic types of photo essay you are looking to create:


1. Event Photo Essays

This type of photo essay centres around an event, usually a news type event such as an earthquake and so on but could be smaller scale such as a local wedding. Also, it could be quite linear (for example, following chronological events within the bigger event) but not always.

2. Time Sequence Photo Essays

 Any linear sequence of events such as a news event comes into this category. The time span can be one day day or one year or even a decade or two or longer.

3. Location Photo Essays

These can be done locally or when travelling and are usually thematic  rather than linear. 

4. Idea Photo Essays

This can be a series of photographs around a more abstract idea such as love, health, hope, poverty and so on.

Above: No Dogs Allowed by Anne Darling

Suggested Guidelines for Creating Your Own Essay

A photo essay is something designed for publication, either in print or on the internet. The guidelines below are based on the idea of an article presented as a series of two-page  spreads as you might find in a newspaper or a magazine.

The guidelines refer to a photo essay I created from photographs by a Chinese photographer called Li Jin who visited Sichuan after the earthquake in 2008. Click on the link to open the photo essay then click where it says "Sichuan: the Aftermath" in red, just below the image. This will open the photo essay in another tab. Now read on below.

  1. The title sums up your essay - it should be short and to the point. The first word is called 'the information word' and it is the most important. Here, the title is just three words long but it sums up the essay. Don't waste words.

  2. The cover of the essay is the first photo the viewer sees. It sums up the story in one shot. Here we see a woman in a dark and dingy communal wash house, all alone, attempting to create order in her life. The mainly monochromatic composition has strong lines, both diagonal and vertical, and the yellow and pale blue colour stands out well. We sense immediately this women's plight.

  3. The next photograph sets the scene straight away. There are no people in the photo which gives it a poignancy especially when coupled with the soft toy in the foreground. I used another photograph of just the soft toy on its own in close-up to close the story which gives a feeling of completeness (page 47) and also put the toy opposite a smiling girl holding a beautiful flower - a symbol of hope, important as on the last page there is a charity plea for money to help children who were orphaned in the disaster.

  4. Including detail shots such as the one of the soft toy help to give a visual balance to your sequence of photographs.

  5. A photo essay such as this is slightly complex to lay out as nearly all the images go together in pairs. This means you have to be careful the left hand page doesn't visually compete with the right hand page. Look at pages 36-37 for example. The left hand page is simple in composition with just one close up portrait. The right hand page is more complex, it is a group shot with the girl in the middle of the page. I have repeated this format on the next two pages, 38-39, where there is a nurse on the left hand page and a group shot of the nurse in action on the right hand page. There are other pages where I've used this format. Have a look through the rest of the essay to find them.

  6. Don't be afraid to leave white space occasionally as in pages 12-13 or any other way that you can think. Be creative! White space can help to break up a rhythm that is in danger of becoming monotonous.

  7. Most of the first half of the essay sets the scene with shots of the damage the earthquake did to buildings. There are a couple of people shots which are important otherwise it would be too 'dry'. Also, I've included two double page spreads which are panoramas made of two shots fitted together. This not only gives variety to the page layouts but it also lends impact to the story.

  8. The inside back cover is the only image in black and white. I used black and white here as it is a picture of a memorial to the Chinese people who died in the disaster and black and white emphasises the sadness and sense of loss. The image itself gives a feeling of completeness to the photo essay.

  9. A photo essay can be any number of photos. Try to aim for 10-12 for your first essay but you could start with as few as six.

  10. Make a first selection of about 50 photos or more (no more than 100). Print them out (not too big!) and spread them all out on the dining room table. Then make a second choice, whittling it down to about 20. Shuffle them around, try different combinations. What is most fascinating about creating a photo essay is the creative process and how you find new combinations and juxtapositions that enhance your initial work.

Follow the link to read Part 2 of this article which contains Photo-Essay Tips and ideas to get you inspired.

› Photo Essay Ideas

Top of Page


Master Photographic Composition

Master the Art of Photographic Composition

Subscribe to my Photography Newsletter

* indicates required

PAID ENDORSEMENT DISCLOSURE: I'm an affiliate with Amazon.com. If you use Amazon and would like to help me earn a little money to enable me to keep providing excellent content, click the link to browse through some great photography books. You do not have to buy a book, but I'll receive a small commission on anything you do buy on Amazon within 24 hours. Thanks for your support!