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Finding an angle: telling your story through photos

by Giulio Saggin

When I joined ABC News Online as the National Photo Editor I was asked to produce a ‘how to take photos’ presentation.

Two quotes came to mind – “a photo tells a thousand words” and “a picture shows something, a photo tells a story”. Using these quotes as a guide, it made sense that if a photo did tell a thousand words, i.e. a story, then it would use the same tools as writing.

I began deconstructing photos and realised they were visual stories structured in the same way as written stories. They both used grammar (verbs, especially), including all the necessary information, finding an angle, avoiding messy copy, adding a human element, and the list went on.

Therefore, it made sense to develop a presentation using visual examples to show this. When ABC reporters around Australia viewed my presentation, they loved it. Photography was being translated into a universal language – the written word – and it made perfect sense to them. My presentation wasn’t intended to turn them into photographers. The aim was to give them the basics.

And a few basics can make all the difference. I see many photos – news sites, social media, press releases – that are so close. It’s obvious the person taking the image has made basic errors because they don’t know any better.

This is where my presentation, which has been turned into a book (ebook and hardcover) with over 100 photos, can make a difference. It doesn’t show you all the tricks of the trade but it acts as the first gear in a car. It gets the wheels rolling.

Here are a few tips from my book that will improve your photos:

1. Find an angle
All stories have a point – an angle – otherwise it’s a boring collection of words, written or spoken. We see life at eye level, so photographers try as much as possible to find an angle – crouch, sit, stand on something – to make the point of view more interesting for the viewer. If you can’t move your subject, move yourself.

2. Adding the human element
An interesting story – or press release – has one or more quotes. People make photos more interesting. We, as humans, instinctively react when we see other humans. Rain pouring from the sky during a downpour can look good but someone running through the pouring rain with no umbrella adds interest. We can emphathise – or laugh – because we have all been there.

3. Use exciting copy
The best way to get exciting copy into your visual story is to get your subject doing something. This usually means getting the hands doing something. There is nothing worse than seeing hands hanging by someone’s side.

4. Holding your camera
Smartphones and other hand held devices are primarily designed to be held vertically, so people instinctively turn them around and take a vertical image. Instinct or not, we live in a horizontal world. We scan the horizon ‘left to right’ and not ‘up and down’, the same as a street, a room, a football field, a or a flood. Our TVs and movie screens are horizontal for a reason. A well-taken photo and a well-written story are devoid of useless information. Most vertical images show the relevant visual information in the centre of the frame, with useless information filling the top and bottom of the frame.

All these techniques should be applied to every photo you take. Whether you are on the job, at a party, on holiday, or walking down the street, a photo that tells a story is far more interesting than a picture that merely shows something.

Giulio Saggin is the former photo editor with ABC News Online and author of “You, The Citizen Photographer: Telling Visual Stories”.

Photo caption: Giulio Saggin ‘finds an angle’ while working as a photographer in Edinburgh during the 1990s.