Photo Story Vs Photo Essay Ideas

What is the difference between a picture story and a photo essay?

This came up while working with a photographer earlier this week. I suggested he work on both stories and essays. The difference between the two wasn’t immediately clear to him and this has come up in scores of situations over the years, especially in classrooms, so I thought it was talking about here.

A lot of people say a picture story has a beginning, middle and end whereas a photo essay doesn’t necessarily. Not exactly. I’d say a picture story tends to be about one place or person or situation whereas an essay tends to be about one type or aspect of many places, things or people.

Regardless, each type of story requires the same thing: A thread that holds them together. The thread can, and should, vary widely from one story or essay to the next. You could make pictures of a thousand guys with beards but not have a cohesive body of work unless something other than beards makes the images relate to each other, for instance. Or you could follow one person’s life for years and still not have a set of pictures that tell a story if you’ve not had a narrative in mind.

A way of saying this is that you could make a bunch of threads and work very hard to do so. But that doesn’t mean those threads make a tapestry. 

Why is it important to work on both stories and essays? On the one hand, having both in your portfolio makes you a more attractive hire. On another, each requires a different set of skills and mind set. Together they push what you can achieve, they help you reach a potential you might not otherwise.

Working on picture stories tends to require immense personal skills. Being able to stay in a setting for great lengths of time isn’t easy. The subject has to want you there and getting to that point isn’t a clear path. The story changes, life gets complicated, you have to adjust and reinterpret - it’s like knitting a sweater for someone while you’re in a boxing match. And it’s not like that at all.

Essays, on the other hand, require a clarity of seeing. You define the point of view entirely, often by connecting seemingly unrelated objects, occurrences or times. They require diligence and persistence that is different from a story.

Then there are topics that require both approaches. You can do individual picture stories that combine like an essay to deal with a larger topic than one person or place might reveal. Eugene Richards'Americans We and others he has done come to mind as some of the best examples of this approach.

In the end, both forms tell a story. You’ve just gotten there by different paths. The more paths we follow in this photographic life, the richer we become.

And might I say that I’m sorry for the nearly two weeks of silence on this blog. A trip back home to Nebraska, selling our house and buying another, working with several photographers and taking on two multi-part assignments myself didn’t leave time for writing. I missed it.

Robert Capa, W. Eugene Smith, Henri Cartier Bresson, James Natchway. If you've heard of even one of these names, and even if you haven't, you've probably experienced photojournalism at it's finest. When you're dealing with a big issue and not just an event, a long form, multiple-image project is a great way to tell the story. In this tutorial, I'll take you through the steps to choosing and following through on a long-term documentary photo project, also known as photo story or essay.

Getting Started

The first thing logical step in starting a project is choosing your subject. The most important rule of long-term projects is to choose a subject that you are interested in. You cannot expect your audience to care about a topic that you yourself don't care about. So when you start your search, first choose a broad topic that you want to learn more about.

You also want it to be something that other people want/need to know about. Examples of this might be homelessness, a pandemic disease like HIV/AIDS or obesity, or something lighter like the Punk-Rock subculture or extreme athletes. The first three photos in this tutorial are from a project about a child with autism.

The Project Levels

The hardest thing for me when doing a project is maintaining focus. Therefore, I've developed a theory. For me there are four levels of projects. This is a system I use with myself and students to help narrow down topics and keep the subject of the project clearly defined.

Level One: A Broad Topic Project

Once you've decided on a topic, your first instinct might be to dive right in and cover the entirety of it. This usually ends in biting off more than you can chew. This isn't to say that a project covering something big like homelessness can't be achieved, but would take many years. And a large topic project like that is usually just made up of smaller parts and pieces. These smaller pieces are usually Level Two, Three and Four projects placed together.

Level Two: The Specific Topic Project

For one of my first projects, I was really interested in religion. So I wanted to do a project that touched on that. Religion is a huge topic that would take a two or three lifetimes to document in any good way. So I had to narrow it down a bit.

First I looked at what I had access to. I was in a relatively small town in the state of Kentucky in the U.S. So the main religion in the area was Christianity. The city had about 60,000 people living there, and at least 20 different Christian churches there. And they were all very different, so the topic of Christianity was still too broad.

So then I started to think about interesting topics within Christianity. Because I had access to the college organizations and there was a nearby Catholic elementary school, I decided to do a project on how young are indoctrinated and grow with their faith.

The photos you've been seeing here, are from that project. I wanted to “follow" children as the grew, but as I had a limited time, I photographed different children of all ages. I went to a couple different Christian schools, spend time with a youth group and followed the activities of national college organization called Campus Crusade for Christ.

I consider this project a photo essay. It covers a big topic using photos of many different people in many different places. The final presentation was around 20 photos.

Let me emphasize that this information won't be found in any textbooks. I've made up these terms. So if you talk to another photojournalist, don't say “I'm working on a Level Two project about Childhood Christianity," because they won't have a clue what you're talking about. Maybe one day, my theories about photojournalism will be that important and well-known, but not yet!

Level Three: A Location Project

The next level of project is another type that I believe should be avoided. It is the dreaded Location Project. These projects seem easy when you think about them. You just hang out in one place. If you choose an interested place, then things should meet interesting people and see interesting things.

Though I don't recommend it as a stand alone piece, this type of project can also be used to tell the story of a larger issue. So it could be worked into a Level One project or even as a small part of a level two project. If you're doing a piece of HIV/AIDS, doing a short piece on a unique clinic might work well.

The reason these projects rarely work is that they are extremely confining. While you may get some good photos that sum up what is happening at the location, you'll quickly run out of backgrounds. Also, mainly the same things occur over and over again at any given place, so photos can often times get a little redundant.

The photos you've been seeing in this section are from a Location Project I completed on an after school learning center. I learned my lesson. The few photos you see here are really about all that's needed to educate the viewer on what happens there. Not quiet enough variety to warrant a long-term, big project.

Level Four: A Personality Project

The final level is the Personality Project. This is a series of photos that attempts to tell the story of a specific person or very small group of people. I think this type of project is a great approach to many topics. It allows the audience to make an emotional connection with the individual. We like seeing inside other people's lives.

And like Level Two and Three projects, this type of project can be used to tell the story of a larger issue. For example, the photos you are seeing in this section are from a project I did on a single mother and daughter who has cerebral palsy. The goal of the project was to tell the story of raising a disabled child through the eyes of one family. The basic ideas extrapolate out to everyone in that situation.

I think of these projects as photo stories as opposed to photo essays. In these projects, you'll be spending a lot of time with the subjects. You'll follow them through their daily lives, and it can become a hard balancing act to not get too involved with your subject and at the same time allow them to trust you. But we'll dive deeper into that later.

The last thing about Personality Projects that's important to remember is that while you're trying to tell a larger story through the story of an individual, the planning stage is where that type of thinking needs to end. Once you've found a subject, concentrate on their unique story. And don't let your preconceived notions affect how you tell the story.

Levels Summary

So let's run through a quick example. Let's say for instance, that you are interested in Indian Religion. A Level One project would be just that. A project on the religions of India, in order to be successful, it could take many many years. And it could also be made up of many smaller projects.

A Level Two project on Indian Religions would be on a more focused topic like Jainism, a single faith within Indian, and possible narrowed even further to focus on Jains in the United States, like the photos you're seeing in this section. This type of project would involve photographing many different people in different locations to tell an overall and complete story.

A Level Three project centered on Jainism might be about a temple or meeting place. These types of projects should generally be avoided unless they are being used as a small part of a Level One project because of their limiting nature.

A Level Four project with this same theme would be about a single Jain person or family. The project would be centered around the personalities and personal stories of your subject.

Compassion vs. Bias

Now that you've determined what your broad approach will be to your project, you'll need to consider ethics. Photojournalism and documentary photography have rules of ethics. You don't pose photos (unless the image is obviously a portrait). You don't manipulate scenes or exploit your subjects. But there are also generalized ethical principles that apply to how you treat your subjects.

Caring For Your Subject

If you spend enough time with anyone, you will undoubtedly have some feelings toward them. You may discover you really like them or you may disagree with their lifestyle. Regardless of whether the feelings are good or bad, you're not there to judge. You're there to document.

You need to be concerned with how your work will affect their life. If you think the impact of work will harm them in some way, then you need to weigh that cost against the benefit of having the story be made public. Ask yourself who it will help? But mostly, be a human, be compassionate, let them know that you care whether they live or die.

Try to understand their situation. It will make your story much better. And if you make your intentions clear, your subjects will trust you and let you into their lives.

Remaining Neutral

Being compassionate does not mean slanting your story to make the subject appear to be something or someone they are not. It also means you should extremely careful about helping your subject by giving them anything.

By becoming a big part of their life, you are altering their story and becoming an acting force in what happens. The story is no longer just about them. I'm telling you to withhold food from a starving man, just remember consider the implications of intervening.

Image Variety

A large factor in making your photo essay or story interesting will be how much visual variety the images have. If all of your photos look the same, your piece will be boring. So use a wide array of lenses and angles. Make use of wide scene-setting shots to show the audience the environment.

Also don't forget about close-up detail photos that might add to the story. Another hint is compare the size of the subject's face in your images. If the faces are all the same size, you might want to consider using different lens, shooting at a different distance or cropping to have more variety.

The Flow of Images

The images in an essay or a story usually appear in an order. You'll want to determine what image appears first and which appears lasts. Sometimes the images might flow chronologically. But you can also make your images flow using juxtaposition so the images play off of each other.

Sometimes simply finding images with similar shapes can be enough to keep the story moving along. This process can be tricky, but making out small low-quality prints can help you to physically move things around and visualize the final look.


Captioning a photo is pretty standard. You want to answer the questions, who, what, where, when and why. Ideally they are one or two sentences. For your project, you'll want to make sure you aren't being redundant. If three photos in a row are from the same location, you don't need to answer the “where" question every time.

It's best to write the captions for your project in one document and read it separately from the photos. They should read like a story as well. Be careful to just restate what's going on in the photo. If someone is using a drill, don't say “Joe Smith uses a drill." Go deeper. You might say, “Joe Smith drills into an old piece of oak," or “Joe Smith's wife saved two dollars a week for year to purchase a drill for her husband." Make your captions apply to the story.


There are many ways that photo stories and essay can be presented to the public. The internet offers many different formats of photo galleries and slideshow. So if you're publishing the project or your own site, browse the internet for free plug-ins and code.

If you'll be printing your project, I'm a big advocate of using online printing services due to their cost effectiveness. Basically, you'll want to be able to show your work to someone who is in a position to publish it, so make sure it's tidy and, if it's online, that it works on a variety or web browser and operating systems.

Getting Published

If your story is well photographed and covers and interesting topic, there are a variety of places that you can pitch your piece. Your local newspaper is a great place to start. If you live in the U.S. in a medium to large-sized city, don't forget about the AAN (Association of Alternative Newsweeklies). Most big cities in the U.S. have a weekly paper that is part of this network.

If you're looking for non-traditional media, there are two great websites that publish photo essays. The first is JPG: Magazine, which takes the best content that's submitted to its site and publishes a print magazine.

The second is Vewd, which has an interesting profit sharing model for its contributors.

Now that you've read this tutorial, you should be able to impress even the most shrewd editor - well, as long as your pictures are good enough. But that's what the rest of this site is for! So keep reading, and get started on that project.


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