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. First of all let's look at the four basic types of photo essay.
Event photo essays: this type of photo essay centres around an event, usually a news type event such as earthquakes and so on but could be smaller scale
such as a local wedding. May be linear but not necessarily.
Time sequence photo essays: any linear sequence of events such as news events come in to this category. The time span can be one day day or one year or even
a decade or two or longer.
Location photo essays: these can be done locally or when travelling and are usually thematic rather than linear.
Idea photo essays: this can be a series of photographs around a more abstract idea such as love, health, hope, poverty and so on.
No Dogs Allowed (Photo: Anne Darling)
Suggested Guidelines for Creating Photo Essays
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.
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.
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.
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.
Including detail shots such as the one of the soft toy help to give a visual balance to your sequence of photographs.
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
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.
Don't be afraid to leave white space occassionally 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.
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 panoramics made of two shots fitted together. This not only gives variety to the
page layouts but it also lends impact to the story.
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.
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.
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.
Look for a series of books using the words "documentary photography" with the Amazon search box to find books that will deepen your understanding
of the photo essay.
More Photo Essay Ideas
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 1
Although the photographs don't necessarily need any text with them, you need good captions. Be aware though, the captions are not there to tell the story, they are
there to offer the facts. The photo must tell the story. There is a difference. Captions are short by their very nature so you need to learn how to be concise while
putting across the information you want.
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 2
Although variety is important in your photos, if it is longish, say 15 photos or more, then you need to give it a structure otherwise visually it just becomes a
series of one photo after the other.
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 3
Not all photo essays are linear. You can pick a theme and show a variety of aspects around that theme but even though the pictures won't be sequential they must
still make sense to your reader. So the order of the photos is important.
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 4
When you edit down from say 50 photographs to 10 photographs, be ruthless. Often we are attached to certain photographs that have for example a powerful composition
but it may just be the case that the photo in question doesn't really fit in with the sequence. It can be hard sometimes to spot this. It isn't always the most emotional
pictures that need to go in, your audience also needs information so try to balance the two.
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 5
Study the photo essays of great photographers - this is the best way to learn. One of the best documentary
photographers today is Mary Ellen Mark. Two great books by Mark are The Photo Essay,
which contains photographs of famine victims in Ethiopia, the white ruling-class of Zimbabwe after
its government was ousted, and, probably her most famous series, prostitutes along Bombay's Falkland Road.
In an interview that forms
the book's text, she describes her working process and her commitment to the craft,
especially to her subjects. "I photograph people who are the victims of society, because I
care about them," she says. Mark's pictures are impressive and shocking - in a word, they
are art, though they also raise issues concerning exploitation of human misery. Mark's
photographs emphasize the humanity of her subjects - "I immediately try to make a relationship
with the people I'm photographing" - which renders her pictures all the more emotionally
engaging to viewers. (From Publishers Weekly - Copyright 1990 Reed Business Information, Inc)
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 6
Learn to critique your own work. Criticizing Photographs
Terry Barrett is designed to do just that. Barrett helps both beginning and advanced students of photography
better develop and articulate thoughtful criticism.
Organized around the major activities
of criticism (describing, interpreting, evaluating, and theorizing), the book
provides a clear framework and vocabulary for students' critical skill development.
offers a broad discussion of digital images, and a chapter on studio critiques and writing
about photographs, plus examples of student writing and critique.
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 7
Keep up-to-date with photo essays online - visit Time.com
for more great examples.
Photo Essay Ideas: No. 8
Making a photo essay is a chance for you to add another level of creativity to your images. It's virtually an art form in itself. You are the editor, and you have total
control over what goes in and what doesn't. So my final tip is to be creative and, more importantly, have fun!