Before you tell a story you have to find the story

[Nikon D5, 85mm ƒ/1.8, ISO 4500, ƒ/4, 1/100]
This is Amar and his father is the Imam in a Mosque we visited in the Balkans. This is all part of our Storytellers Abroad Multimedia Workshop that I am helping lead in the Balkans, which is part of Eastern Europe.

[Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/8, 1/240]
This is our Storytellers Abroad Multimedia Workshop of 12 participants, 4 instructors and one administrative staff person.

We are finding stories where global workers are helping through education the people of the Balkans.

Hopefully this time next week I can show you some of the finished projects.

[Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 6400, ƒ/5, 1/80]
Each day we have a couple hours of class time teaching some of the basics that the students need to do before they go out that day.

Pat Davison who is one of the instructors is talking to the workshop participants about how to conduct a pre-interview where you find the storyline that later will help you with the questions that will make up the video interview.

[Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 800, ƒ/5, 1/100]
This is James Dockery, who is one of the other instructors in our Storytellers Abroad Multimedia Workshop that we are doing in the Balkans. James was photographing the kids and I was off to the side and pulled my camera up and they all quickly posed.

No matter where we go we have our cameras and are learning about the culture. Children quickly run to be in the photos here and let us get to know them.

[Nikon D5, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 1250, ƒ/1.4, 1/100]
We walked to the square in the town at night and everyone is out socializing and drinking their macchiatos.

[Nikon D5, Sigma 35mm ƒ/1.4, ISO 100, ƒ/1.4, 1/400]
This is the Macchiato I was drinking at an Italian restaurant in the Balkans. A Caffé Macchiato or Espresso Macchiato is a shot or two of espresso, with just a small amount of steamed milk that “marks” the espresso, though in some regions, the steamed milk comes first and the espresso makes the mark.

This is a photo from our workshop in Togo, West Africa last year. This is what I will demonstrate this morning for the class. I will be showing them how to conduct an interview where they have a subject and a translator.

The very first night we were in the Balkans we sat down and explained how the next day they were to spend time getting to know their subject. At the end of the day they were to come up with a list of questions that will help tell their subjects story.

Today they are going to conduct those formal interviews which will be the storyline for the multimedia package.

Stay tuned for more experiences from the Storytellers Abroad Workshop in the Balkans this week and even next week.

Mr. Robot appeals to the cerebral audience–Especially visually

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/2.8, 1/125

Rami Malek picked up the Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor for his role in “Mr. Robot.” Malek had the perfect Elliot line to deliver: “Please tell me you’re seeing this too.”

“I play a young man who is, like so many of us, profoundly alienated,” Malek said, which lives with social anxiety disorder and clinical depression in the show. “And the unfortunate thing is I’m not sure how many of us would want to hang out with a guy like Elliot.

“But I want to honor the Elliots, cause there’s a little bit of Elliot in all of us.” Tod Campbell, the director of photography for Mr. Robot, helps make the show visually cerebral. This helps to connect the show to the nerds. For a writer’s concept to truly connect with cinema a director of photography helps to bring out the writer’s moods and tone through the visual. The cinema-photography is writing with light to compliment the words to bring the audience along on the storylines.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 500, ƒ/3.2, 1/60

Campbell’s use of the negative space helps to make the audience’s eyes wonder through the scene. Also by not using a lot of movement within a shot the audience does have time to ponder the surroundings of the actors.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 800, ƒ/3.6, 1/60

Most movies today have more than 50% of the scenes being closeup shots. This technique makes you wonder what is outside the frame to engage the audience.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/2.8, 1/60

Notice here when you go close how you wonder what is beyond the frame.

Fujifilm X-E2, Fuji XF 18-55mm, ISO 400, ƒ/2.8, 1/60

Now going much wider you see what is going on, but your eye wonders much more. In this process you start to write you own visual narrative even more. For me this is a much more cerebral exercise for the audience and if you pause long enough on your visuals the audience will start to take it in. Here is the trailer for Mr. Robot.

I think to appeal to the nerds and deep thinkers you have to give them the content that allows their brains to engage and process the content. Mr. Robot does this not just with the storyline, but the visuals help truly engage the audience in a way that is rarely done within cinema today.

Maybe the biggest reason Mr. Robot is such a big hit is because it is being unconventional. By being different the show’s creators appear to be revolutionary. For me it is a style I grew up on in magazine photojournalism.

Mr. Robot to me proves that the audience is not just ready for much deeper storylines, but craving them. They are tired of the quick sound bite and the simplistic closeup visuals. People are ready to think and enjoy having their brains do some exercise to keep up with the storyline.

Start with the Audience

Fujifilm X-E2, FUJINON XF 18-55mm, 

Have you ever seen the acronym WIIFM? It stands for Whats In It For Me. It is the most important part of telling a story. You must understand who the audience is so you can craft a story that will appeal to their desires.

What’s In It For Me, are without a doubt, the most important five letters in your business writing, your Web site, maybe even in your business success. Always tell people what’s in it for them when they do business with you.

If you try to reach everyone you will likely appeal to no-one.

Nikon D5, Sigma 24-105mm f/4 DG OS HSM Art Lens, ISO 32000, ƒ/9, 1/100
Think of you talking one-on-one with someone in your audience. You need to have them in mind before you even pick your story that you are going to work on.
For there to be a story we have these basic four things:
  1. Subject 
  2. They WANT something
  3. They overcome obstacles
  4. To get it
The audience wants something to. They want to make a good story part of their story. This is often where the audience in a call to action is able to be the helper for the subject to attain their wants.
When I am teaching Missions Multimedia Storytelling Workshop the hardest part of the learning for the student, by the way which is their obstacle, has less to do about learning to use the gear. The real struggle is understanding the storyline.
They must toss out so much because it isn’t engaging the audience. 
I get the deer in the headlights look over and over from students when they are showing me their work and I ask why should I care?
They are crafting a story that they are interested in and not one for the audience.
In the hero’s journey storytelling model discovered by Joseph Campbell and modified by Chris Vogler there is a meeting of the mentor usually in Act 1. The mentor can be the role of the audience when it comes to the call to action for helping the subject attain their goal.
The keys to a good storyteller is understanding that the Audience, Subject and even you as a storyteller all have a storyline. The key to the successful story is when the Audience, Subject and even you as a storyteller all are able to get what they want.
If your story seems to be stuck check and see which of the storylines [Audience, Subject, Storyteller] is having problems.
One of the key things to evaluate is to constantly be asking how does this help us achieve our WANTS/GOAL. If it doesn’t look at cutting it out.

Summary of my teaching points I had for Lisbon Multimedia Workshop

I just returned a week ago from Lisbon, Portugal where I was teaching a Storytelling Workshop with Jeff Raymond of ABWE and James Dockery, coordinating editor for ESPN.
Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 800, ƒ/9, 1.3 sec
I taught the students the elements of a storyline, which then they used as they interviewed their subjects.
I have written a blog on storyline and breaking down each of these components if you want to know more about it here.
You can then break down this storyline into a shot list, which all the students worked on to put together their multimedia package.
  • Opener: Sets the scene for the story
  • Decisive moment: The one moment that can by itself tell the story
  • Details: Besides being like visual candy to the story, help often with transitions–especially in multimedia packages
  • Sequences: give a little variety to a situation
  • High overall shot: Gives a good perspective to how the elements all fit together
  • Closer: Besides the classic shot of the cowboy riding off into the sunset there are other visual ways to help bring the story to a close
  • Portraits: These photos are great for introducing the characters of the story

Before they even started we had them tell us who the audience is for the story. We want them to reach into the audience and pull on the experiences of that “specific” audience.

When I was telling the story on the coffee cooperative I was keeping the audience broad. I could have easily just targeted the Presbyterian Church who gave money to support the missionary who was instrumental in funding the cooperative. I could have also targeted the Catholic Church because they too had a role in starting the cooperative.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 12800, ƒ/2.8, 1/50

I chose to keep it broad enough, but yet I had those audiences in mind. I told the story with those people who are concerned about immigration and looking for a solution. The story was to establish the conflict of illegal immigration with the resolution being the cooperative. 

I have worked on stories for mission organizations many times through the years. The goal of those stories was to get the audience to: Give; Go; or Pray for missions. 
Who, What, Where, Why, When & How
In Journalism 101 the five Ws and H are taught as the questions whose answers are considered basic in information-gathering. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.
Before the formal interview each person was interviewed to gather and determine the story. If you didn’t do this you would be editing forever your project.
B-roll is the supplemental or alternative footage intercut with the main shot in an interview. People are generally not going to sit and watch a person talking in a video for very long. This is why you shoot lot of B-roll so you can show this while the subject is talking.
Our students quickly discovered the story needed to revolve around the now and not the past or future or you couldn’t shoot much B-roll. 
Here is a photo of me doing an interview in Lisbon.

photo by Jeff Raymond
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PhotogenX DTS
In a couple weeks I am teaching another Visual Storytelling Workshop in Kona, Hawaii. I will be teaching students Visual Storytelling before they head out for coverages around the world: orphanage in Cambodia; poor in India; working with prostitutes in Thailand; and finally coverage on the street children in the Philippines. Go here to read more about the program.
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Lisbon, Portugal Scene Setters

Nikon D4, 28-300mm, ISO 800, ƒ/9, 1.3 sec

Who, What, WHERE, Why, When & How

In Journalism 101 the five Ws and H are taught as the questions whose answers are considered basic in information-gathering. Importantly, none of these questions can be answered with a simple “yes” or “no”.

Last week while teaching Multi-Media Storytelling Workshop in Lisbon, Portugal we covered getting images that help give context for their stories.

Below here are some possible scene setters that help address the WHERE for the storyline.

When you examine the Five Ws and H most of those questions can be captured visually. The adage “A picture is worth a thousand words” refers to the notion that a complex idea can be conveyed with just a single still image. It also aptly characterizes one of the main goals of visualization, namely making it possible to absorb large amounts of data quickly.

This is why visual storytelling can be extremely powerful. You can get across a lot of information to the audience in a very short period of time.

While one image can capture “WHERE” a series of photos in a multimedia can do even more. Depending on the sequence, some music and the human voice can pull you even deeper into the context of the story.

Fuji X-E2, 18-55mm, ISO 200, ƒ/13, 1/180

Here is a photo of Nazaré, Portugal where I am at Sítio (an old village, on top of a cliff) overlooking Praia (along the beach). This is how you as a tourist give context.  Shoot too tight and you could be anywhere in the world. Don’t make that mistake or you could have just stayed home and taken photos in your backyard.


Context photos are difficult when you use a shallow depth-of-field. Compare these two photos with where changing the aperture to gave a greater depth-of-field.

Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 200, ƒ/3.7, 1/1000

Fuji X-E2, 55-200mm, ISO 640, ƒ/10, 1/500

Wide Angle Lens

Personally I prefer to get close with a wide angle verses using a longer telephoto lens, but here in these photos it does work.

Nikon D4, 14-24mm, ISO 100, ƒ/8, 1/500

Remember when you travel and you want to take establishing shots that capture where you were and not just photos of you that could have been taken anywhere.

Is your life as a photographer a good story? Here is how to make it better.

To be the subject of a story that is compelling requires the subject to be called to a task that is outside their comfort zone. It is necessary for the subject’s survival and to the benefit of others.

Donald Miller is a best-selling American author and public speaker based in Portland, Oregon. He writes a great deal about storyline on his blog here  Miller says that a story is a sense-making device. A good story brings about clarity whereas our normal lives seem disjointed.

Miller uses the parallel of music and how it parallels story. Sounds are just noise until they are put into a form. That form transforms the noise into music. A storyline is no different to Miller. The author has put together a series of events so as to be told through a set form.

This is the basic formula that not only Miller uses to tell many stories but movies like the Hunger Games and Star Wars used.

The very first thing that takes place for a character in a story is a conflict must happen or you will lose the audience.

When you are just enjoying your life and you are doing everything to keep some normalcy into your life this is a sure sign of a boring story.

Here in this sports photo of a quarterback being pursued by what looks like most of the defense and no one between them you have all the makings of the story, minus the ending. The character has a problem of getting tackled. He has trained up to now in practices and with a coaching staff to prepare for this moment. All this is implied with the school team uniform. The task is simple move the ball forward to keep the ball for your team or make a touchdown. The outcome is either a comedy or tragedy.

This is John Howard Griffin transformed as a black man while he was doing the research for his book Black Like Me. Sitting beside Griffin is the photographer Don Rutledge who followed him documenting his trials as a black man in the south. This was done in 1959 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement.

John Howard Griffin walking down street in New Orleans.

The two of them traveling together through the deep south for the book was extremely dangerous. Paul Guihard was a French journalist covering the Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the 1960s. He was murdered in rioting at the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford after James Meredith attempted to enroll at the all-white school. He was shot in the back at almost point-blank range by an unknown assailant near the Lyceum building. Guihard’s case was closed without success and never re-investigated. In his last dispatch made the very same day, he had written “The Civil War has never ended.”

Just taking on this project was a story in itself. Not only was Griffin a character in the story, Don Rutledge was also being transformed through the coverage.

I remember Don trying out new camera systems that would stretch him to learn the new system and in doing so it stretched his photography. He was always putting himself in new situations to capture new stories. By the end of his career he had traveled into more than 150+ countries of the world.


Some of the best stories are not the ones that are the big hit on New York Times best books or the blockbusters in Hollywood. The best stories are the ones that are most clearly told.

You see our lives are like run on sentences. What we do throughout our days are often not a great sequence for a story. It is quite disjointed.

A great story starts by establishing the hero of the story and the problem they face going forward.

The best way for you to grow is to get out of your comfort zone.

I am not qualified

Too often you will turn down great opportunities because you feel ill equipped. Hey that is the problem facing Luke Skywalker. He will go off and meet Yoda to train and have him help him with a game plan.

I bought this Dodge Viper model for $12 and then spent time lighting an all black car to make it interesting. This was my way of challenging myself for a day in the studio.

Find a problem

Step One—The first thing to grow as a photographer is to find a problem. maybe it is a story that is difficult or maybe it is getting a photo of something from an angle no one has done before. Whatever it is you need to have a problem you need to tackle.

Step Two—Find a guide to help you. This means you either find resources through reading, videos or maybe find someone who can teach you. Most likely the guide you look to will be someone who has been there and done that.

Step Three—Make an action plan on how you will go forward to deal with your problem.

Step Four—Take action. Don’t procrastinate. Go and get your feet wet.

Step Five—Evaluate yourself. Was this a comedy or tragedy? It is a good story either way and you will learn something from it that will equip you to go forward.