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Design & Style

How to Create a Photo Essay: Step-by-Step Guide With Examples

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 5 min read

Photo essays tell a story in pictures, and there are many different ways to style your own photo essay. With a wide range of topics to explore, a photo essay can be thought-provoking, emotional, funny, unsettling, or all of the above, but mostly, they should be unforgettable.



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What Is a Photo Essay?

A photographic essay is a form of visual storytelling, a way to present a narrative through a series of images. A great photo essay is powerful, able to evoke emotion and understanding without using words. A photo essay delivers a story using a series of photographs and brings the viewer along your narrative journey.

4 Photo Essay Examples

There are plenty of interesting photo essay ideas that offer endless avenues to tell a powerful photo story. Some examples of areas you could cover are:

  1. Day-in-the-life photo essay: These kinds of photo essays tell the story of a day in the life of a particular subject. They can showcase the career of a busy farmer or struggling artist, capture parents’ daily chores and playtime with their children, or memorialize the routine of a star high school athlete. A day-in-the-life photo series can be emotionally evocative, giving viewers an intimate glimpse into the world of another human being.
  2. Historic site photo essay: Taking pictures of historic landmarks offers a variety of different perspectives—the use of unique angles, depths, and lighting. The use of drones and reflections are also useful in your quest to find the ideal vantage point and display a variety of scenes of the same subject.
  3. Behind-the-scenes photo essay: Behind-the-scenes photo essays are great ways to capture what goes into events from start to finish. With this type of photo story, you can see the working parts of a production and how it all moves together in harmony.
  4. Local event photo essay: Local events like fundraisers, art shows, or festivals are great places to document a photography project. Candid photos of people working, performing, or taking in the sights can be compiled into a photo essay along with background objects to help paint a scene.
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4 Tips for Creating a Photo Essay

Creative photography can be fun, sentimental, eye-opening, or gut-wrenching. It can expose a truth or instill a sense of hope. With so many possibilities to share a good photo essay, it’s important to keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Do your research. There may be many types of photo essay topics available, but that doesn’t mean your specific idea hasn’t already been tackled by a professional photographer. Look up the best photo essays that have already been done on your topic to make sure the narrative can be executed in a new and interesting way.
  2. Follow your instincts. Take photos of everything. Overshooting can be helpful for photojournalism. You never know what you’ll need, so the more coverage you have, the better.
  3. Only use the best images. From your lead photo to the final photo, you’re creating a visually vivid story. However, if you use too many images, you risk diluting the impact of your message. Only include the key photos necessary.
  4. Be open-minded. Your project may evolve past its initial concept, and that’s okay. Sometimes a photo essay evolves organically, and your job as a photojournalist is to extract the right narrative from the images you’ve captured—even if it wasn’t the original idea.


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How to Create a Photo Essay in 7 Steps

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In 18 lessons, iconic designer Marc Jacobs teaches you his process for creating innovative, award-winning fashion.

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Before you get started, think about these questions: How are you going to make it all happen? What are the budgetary and schedule issues that you’ll have to overcome to make the assignment work? Once you have those answers, you can start working on a photo essay of your own. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Tell a diverse, confident story. Know what you’re shooting and why. It’s important to figure out what your message is and shoot with a purpose.
  2. Make sure you have a wide variety of images. Getting a multitude of shots during your photoshoot can ensure you’ve covered your bases. You may need a wider angle, a close-up detail shot, or different lighting—you may even decide to steer your photo essay in another direction altogether. With a large collection of images to choose from, photographing everything can give you a wide pool to choose from when compiling your photo series.
  3. Be a ruthless photo editor. Your editing process should be blunt. If a shot is beautiful but won’t work in your essay, don’t use it. However, don’t edit any images on the same day you shoot; it’ll be easier to be objective if you let a little time pass between shooting and editing. Learn Jimmy Chin’s photo editing tips here.
  4. Choose your top 10 images. Once a few days have passed, pick the best 100 photos from your shoot to start with. Then, a day or more later, look at those 100 images and narrow them down to the top 25. Finally, narrow the 25 down to the top 10 images, making sure each photo serves your original concept for the story.
  5. Ask for outside input. Get a trusted, visually sophisticated friend to help you: Give them the top 100 photos and a written description of the overall story, and let them select what they think are the top 10 photos. Compare how their choices align with the 10 photos you selected. Where did they differ? Ask your friend why they chose photos that were different than yours, making sure you listen to what they say without arguing about any of their choices; your job is to listen and understand what they saw in the images, and why they made the choices they did.
  6. Make your final selections. Keeping in mind your discussion with your trusted friend, make your final selections for the 10 best images that tell your story.
  7. Write captions. Your final 10 images can be captioned to help enhance your visual narrative, but it isn’t necessary. If you feel like your images could use some text, add it. However, if you think the images can stand on their own, then you can present them as they are.

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