Tell stories

Even in the smallest ways, you can tell stories, and even in snapshots there is thought, Like tonight, as I walked to class. I shot a little four-image story.

First, the all-important overview “establishing shot”:

Shows where we are going. Namely Sheridan College, where I teach several photography courses. I used the “Sunny Sixteen Rule” to set the camera without using the light meter. Partely overcast at 7pm, that is about 3 stops down from sunny at noon. So, 400 ISO, 1/400 sec, f/5.6 (5.6 being three stops down from “sunny” 16).

Then, let’s add some depth, some 3D, and at the same time let’s tell the viewer where we are:

Showing depth? That’s done by using “close-far”. A close-by object very close to you, with the background showing far away. That shows us there is depth in the photo; that it is not flat, in other words.

That being done, now let’s use a nice curve, a converging one at that, to imply that we are going in, by showing “the path”:

And now that we are there, let’s see the class, during a break:

Again, nice S-curves lead the viewer’s eye into the photo. Focused on the person closest to us. Using the Rule of Thirds.

The point? The point is that you can, and should, apply “high rules” to “low snaps”; and that this makes them better. Enjoy!



Event shooting is difficult, because things are not under your control. In addition, there is never enough light; bouncing may be tough; there is not ebnough time.

But it can be done, and it can be done well. Especially if you remember you are a storyteller.

You start with an establishing shot. This sets the scene for “where”.

Then you proceed to the “what”…

Then the “why”, “when”, and “how”.


As you see, plenty of detail, plenty of the event, plenty of “background” (the “B-roll” you hear me talking about so often).

In all of this, remember to be roughly chronological; and remember above all to make the viewer work it out. The ideal photo is a photo that makes the viewer take several seconds to tell the story in his or her mind.

The photojournalism story above is already quite good, in just 8 pictures, at working out what is happening. The full shoot consisted of 314 photos. You can imagine that this tells more of the nuance, more of the detail: but in essence, these 8 pictures tell it all (yes, I know, I chose a different person for the post-baptism shot here).



(EDIT): When shooting an event, always shoot a “B-roll” of images, as movie people would call it. In your case, as a still photographer you use your B-roll to help establish “where, why, who, what, and maybe even “when”.

So recent shoots I have done have included the following as shots in the first dozen or so:





This kind of storytelling is essential for a successful shoot.

Tip: To arrange your images, use Lightroom collections, where you can order things the way you like, rather than folders.

Piecing it together

Sunday, I shot a Bat Mitzvah party. Great fun, and wonderful people: this is why I love photography. Happy people celebrating a life event, and I get to shoot it: a privilege, and I get to do it for a living. What’s not to like?

I shot both formal portraits (using a backdrop and two strobes with umbrellas plus two speedlites for hair light and background light) and photojournalistic party shots.

For the latter, I have a few tips.

  • Use a wide or somewhat wide lens. fast if possible. (I used a 16-35 f/2.8 zoom on a 1D MkIV, so that means I get a 22-46mm range).
  • “If it smiles, shoot it”!
  • Compose well. Use off-centre composition. Tilt if necessary or whenever you like (though not, please, in every picture). Do the “close-far” thing (search for it here if you do not know what this means).
  • Camera on manual indoors and A/Av outdoors, and bounce your flash.
  • Shoot detail, too.
  • Often what you do not see tells the story.

The last points are worth belabouring. Like in a good Haiku, not telling the whole story is what makes it interesting. Implying, rather than saying.

Here, for instance, we do not see the girl, and her dad and family are blurred too:

Dad holds a speech for his Bat Mitzvah daughter. Photograph by Michael Willems

Dad holds a speech for his Bat Mitzvah daughter.

But you see the smiles, and you can imagine what is going on. The picture tells a story.

And below, who wrote this? Little sister? The picture asks as many questions as it answers:

Little sister wrote on Bat Mitzvah girl's blackboard, photographed by Michael Willems

Little sister wrote on Bat Mitzvah girl's blackboard

And in the next image, one of my favourite party shots, the drink says fun: the blurred face emphasizes the fun and again, tells a story without telling too much:

Cheers! Girl raises juice glass, photographed by Michael Willems

Cheers! Girl raises juice glass

Another detail shot to not miss: the food.

Fruit, photographed by Michael Willems


Here, during speeches, dad looks at his amused Bat Mitzvah daughter. We do not see who is speaking, even that anyone is speaking, but we can piece it together. Piecing it together is what makes a picture interesting to a viewer.

Speech at Bat Mitzvah, photographed by Michael Willems

Speech at Bat Mitzvah

Of course even in the photojournalistic phase you do some set up shots, like the very last shot I took at the event: mum and daughter.

Bat Mitzvah and mom, photographed by Michael Willems

Bat Mitzvah and mom


(Incidentally, if you want to learn theory and practice of creative use of light, there are still spots available on the advanced lighting course Joseph Marranca and I are putting on on June 26. Click here for the link. )