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How to Create an Engaging Photo Essay (with Examples)

Photo essays tell a story in pictures. They're a great way to improve at photography and story-telling skills at once. Learn how to do create a great one.

Learn | Photography Guides | By Ana Mireles

Photography is a medium used to tell stories – sometimes they are told in one picture, sometimes you need a whole series. Those series can be photo essays.

If you’ve never done a photo essay before, or you’re simply struggling to find your next project, this article will be of help. I’ll be showing you what a photo essay is and how to go about doing one.

You’ll also find plenty of photo essay ideas and some famous photo essay examples from recent times that will serve you as inspiration.

If you’re ready to get started, let’s jump right in!

Table of Contents

What is a Photo Essay?

A photo essay is a series of images that share an overarching theme as well as a visual and technical coherence to tell a story. Some people refer to a photo essay as a photo series or a photo story – this often happens in photography competitions.

Photographic history is full of famous photo essays. Think about The Great Depression by Dorothea Lange, Like Brother Like Sister by Wolfgang Tillmans, Gandhi’s funeral by Henri Cartier Bresson, amongst others.

What are the types of photo essay?

Despite popular belief, the type of photo essay doesn’t depend on the type of photography that you do – in other words, journalism, documentary, fine art, or any other photographic genre is not a type of photo essay.

Instead, there are two main types of photo essays: narrative and thematic .

As you have probably already guessed, the thematic one presents images pulled together by a topic – for example, global warming. The images can be about animals and nature as well as natural disasters devastating cities. They can happen all over the world or in the same location, and they can be captured in different moments in time – there’s a lot of flexibility.

A narrative photo essa y, on the other hand, tells the story of a character (human or not), portraying a place or an event. For example, a narrative photo essay on coffee would document the process from the planting and harvesting – to the roasting and grinding until it reaches your morning cup.

What are some of the key elements of a photo essay?

  • Tell a unique story – A unique story doesn’t mean that you have to photograph something that nobody has done before – that would be almost impossible! It means that you should consider what you’re bringing to the table on a particular topic.
  • Put yourself into the work – One of the best ways to make a compelling photo essay is by adding your point of view, which can only be done with your life experiences and the way you see the world.
  • Add depth to the concept – The best photo essays are the ones that go past the obvious and dig deeper in the story, going behind the scenes, or examining a day in the life of the subject matter – that’s what pulls in the spectator.
  • Nail the technique – Even if the concept and the story are the most important part of a photo essay, it won’t have the same success if it’s poorly executed.
  • Build a structure – A photo essay is about telling a thought-provoking story – so, think about it in a narrative way. Which images are going to introduce the topic? Which ones represent a climax? How is it going to end – how do you want the viewer to feel after seeing your photo series?
  • Make strong choices – If you really want to convey an emotion and a unique point of view, you’re going to need to make some hard decisions. Which light are you using? Which lens? How many images will there be in the series? etc., and most importantly for a great photo essay is the why behind those choices.

9 Tips for Creating a Photo Essay

pictorial essay words

Credit: Laura James

1. Choose something you know

To make a good photo essay, you don’t need to travel to an exotic location or document a civil war – I mean, it’s great if you can, but you can start close to home.

Depending on the type of photography you do and the topic you’re looking for in your photographic essay, you can photograph a local event or visit an abandoned building outside your town.

It will be much easier for you to find a unique perspective and tell a better story if you’re already familiar with the subject. Also, consider that you might have to return a few times to the same location to get all the photos you need.

2. Follow your passion

Most photo essays take dedication and passion. If you choose a subject that might be easy, but you’re not really into it – the results won’t be as exciting. Taking photos will always be easier and more fun if you’re covering something you’re passionate about.

3. Take your time

A great photo essay is not done in a few hours. You need to put in the time to research it, conceptualizing it, editing, etc. That’s why I previously recommended following your passion because it takes a lot of dedication, and if you’re not passionate about it – it’s difficult to push through.

4. Write a summary or statement

Photo essays are always accompanied by some text. You can do this in the form of an introduction, write captions for each photo or write it as a conclusion. That’s up to you and how you want to present the work.

5. Learn from the masters

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Making a photographic essay takes a lot of practice and knowledge. A great way to become a better photographer and improve your storytelling skills is by studying the work of others. You can go to art shows, review books and magazines and look at the winners in photo contests – most of the time, there’s a category for photo series.

6. Get a wide variety of photos

Think about a story – a literary one. It usually tells you where the story is happening, who is the main character, and it gives you a few details to make you engage with it, right?

The same thing happens with a visual story in a photo essay – you can do some wide-angle shots to establish the scenes and some close-ups to show the details. Make a shot list to ensure you cover all the different angles.

Some of your pictures should guide the viewer in, while others are more climatic and regard the experience they are taking out of your photos.

7. Follow a consistent look

Both in style and aesthetics, all the images in your series need to be coherent. You can achieve this in different ways, from the choice of lighting, the mood, the post-processing, etc.

8. Be self-critical

Once you have all the photos, make sure you edit them with a good dose of self-criticism. Not all the pictures that you took belong in the photo essay. Choose only the best ones and make sure they tell the full story.

9. Ask for constructive feedback

Often, when we’re working on a photo essay project for a long time, everything makes perfect sense in our heads. However, someone outside the project might not be getting the idea. It’s important that you get honest and constructive criticism to improve your photography.

How to Create a Photo Essay in 5 Steps

pictorial essay words

Credit: Quang Nguyen Vinh

1. Choose your topic

This is the first step that you need to take to decide if your photo essay is going to be narrative or thematic. Then, choose what is it going to be about?

Ideally, it should be something that you’re interested in, that you have something to say about it, and it can connect with other people.

2. Research your topic

To tell a good story about something, you need to be familiar with that something. This is especially true when you want to go deeper and make a compelling photo essay. Day in the life photo essays are a popular choice, since often, these can be performed with friends and family, whom you already should know well.

3. Plan your photoshoot

Depending on what you’re photographing, this step can be very different from one project to the next. For a fine art project, you might need to find a location, props, models, a shot list, etc., while a documentary photo essay is about planning the best time to do the photos, what gear to bring with you, finding a local guide, etc.

Every photo essay will need different planning, so before taking pictures, put in the required time to get things right.

4. Experiment

It’s one thing to plan your photo shoot and having a shot list that you have to get, or else the photo essay won’t be complete. It’s another thing to miss out on some amazing photo opportunities that you couldn’t foresee.

So, be prepared but also stay open-minded and experiment with different settings, different perspectives, etc.

5. Make a final selection

Editing your work can be one of the hardest parts of doing a photo essay. Sometimes we can be overly critical, and others, we get attached to bad photos because we put a lot of effort into them or we had a great time doing them.

Try to be as objective as possible, don’t be afraid to ask for opinions and make various revisions before settling down on a final cut.

7 Photo Essay Topics, Ideas & Examples

pictorial essay words

Credit: Michelle Leman

  • Architectural photo essay

Using architecture as your main subject, there are tons of photo essay ideas that you can do. For some inspiration, you can check out the work of Francisco Marin – who was trained as an architect and then turned to photography to “explore a different way to perceive things”.

You can also lookup Luisa Lambri. Amongst her series, you’ll find many photo essay examples in which architecture is the subject she uses to explore the relationship between photography and space.

  • Process and transformation photo essay

This is one of the best photo essay topics for beginners because the story tells itself. Pick something that has a beginning and an end, for example, pregnancy, the metamorphosis of a butterfly, the life-cycle of a plant, etc.

Keep in mind that these topics are linear and give you an easy way into the narrative flow – however, it might be difficult to find an interesting perspective and a unique point of view.

  • A day in the life of ‘X’ photo essay

There are tons of interesting photo essay ideas in this category – you can follow around a celebrity, a worker, your child, etc. You don’t even have to do it about a human subject – think about doing a photo essay about a day in the life of a racing horse, for example – find something that’s interesting for you.

  • Time passing by photo essay

It can be a natural site or a landmark photo essay – whatever is close to you will work best as you’ll need to come back multiple times to capture time passing by. For example, how this place changes throughout the seasons or maybe even over the years.

A fun option if you live with family is to document a birthday party each year, seeing how the subject changes over time. This can be combined with a transformation essay or sorts, documenting the changes in interpersonal relationships over time.

  • Travel photo essay

Do you want to make the jump from tourist snapshots into a travel photo essay? Research the place you’re going to be travelling to. Then, choose a topic.

If you’re having trouble with how to do this, check out any travel magazine – National Geographic, for example. They won’t do a generic article about Texas – they do an article about the beach life on the Texas Gulf Coast and another one about the diverse flavors of Texas.

The more specific you get, the deeper you can go with the story.

  • Socio-political issues photo essay

This is one of the most popular photo essay examples – it falls under the category of photojournalism or documental photography. They are usually thematic, although it’s also possible to do a narrative one.

Depending on your topic of interest, you can choose topics that involve nature – for example, document the effects of global warming. Another idea is to photograph protests or make an education photo essay.

It doesn’t have to be a big global issue; you can choose something specific to your community – are there too many stray dogs? Make a photo essay about a local animal shelter. The topics are endless.

  • Behind the scenes photo essay

A behind-the-scenes always make for a good photo story – people are curious to know what happens and how everything comes together before a show.

Depending on your own interests, this can be a photo essay about a fashion show, a theatre play, a concert, and so on. You’ll probably need to get some permissions, though, not only to shoot but also to showcase or publish those images.

4 Best Photo Essays in Recent times

Now that you know all the techniques about it, it might be helpful to look at some photo essay examples to see how you can put the concept into practice. Here are some famous photo essays from recent times to give you some inspiration.

Habibi by Antonio Faccilongo

This photo essay wan the World Press Photo Story of the Year in 2021. Faccilongo explores a very big conflict from a very specific and intimate point of view – how the Israeli-Palestinian war affects the families.

He chose to use a square format because it allows him to give order to things and eliminate unnecessary elements in his pictures.

With this long-term photo essay, he wanted to highlight the sense of absence and melancholy women and families feel towards their husbands away at war.

The project then became a book edited by Sarah Leen and the graphics of Ramon Pez.

pictorial essay words

Picture This: New Orleans by Mary Ellen Mark

The last assignment before her passing, Mary Ellen Mark travelled to New Orleans to register the city after a decade after Hurricane Katrina.

The images of the project “bring to life the rebirth and resilience of the people at the heart of this tale”, – says CNNMoney, commissioner of the work.

Each survivor of the hurricane has a story, and Mary Ellen Mark was there to record it. Some of them have heartbreaking stories about everything they had to leave behind.

Others have a story of hope – like Sam and Ben, two eight-year-olds born from frozen embryos kept in a hospital that lost power supply during the hurricane, yet they managed to survive.

pictorial essay words

Selfie by Cindy Sherman

Cindy Sherman is an American photographer whose work is mainly done through self-portraits. With them, she explores the concept of identity, gender stereotypes, as well as visual and cultural codes.

One of her latest photo essays was a collaboration with W Magazine entitled Selfie. In it, the author explores the concept of planned candid photos (‘plandid’).

The work was made for Instagram, as the platform is well known for the conflict between the ‘real self’ and the one people present online. Sherman started using Facetune, Perfect365 and YouCam to alter her appearance on selfies – in Photoshop, you can modify everything, but these apps were designed specifically to “make things prettier”- she says, and that’s what she wants to explore in this photo essay.

Tokyo Compression by Michael Wolf

Michael Wolf has an interest in the broad-gauge topic Life in Cities. From there, many photo essays have been derived – amongst them – Tokyo Compression .

He was horrified by the way people in Tokyo are forced to move to the suburbs because of the high prices of the city. Therefore, they are required to make long commutes facing 1,5 hours of train to start their 8+ hour workday followed by another 1,5 hours to get back home.

To portray this way of life, he photographed the people inside the train pressed against the windows looking exhausted, angry or simply absent due to this way of life.

You can visit his website to see other photo essays that revolve around the topic of life in megacities.

Final Words

It’s not easy to make photo essays, so don’t expect to be great at it right from your first project.

Start off small by choosing a specific subject that’s interesting to you –  that will come from an honest place, and it will be a great practice for some bigger projects along the line.

Whether you like to shoot still life or you’re a travel photographer, I hope these photo essay tips and photo essay examples can help you get started and grow in your photography.

Let us know which topics you are working on right now – we’ll love to hear from you!

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Ana Mireles is a Mexican researcher that specializes in photography and communications for the arts and culture sector.

Penelope G. To Ana Mireles Such a well written and helpful article for an writer who wants to inclue photo essay in her memoir. Thank you. I will get to work on this new skill. Penelope G.

Herman Krieger Photo essays in black and white

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How to Make a Photo Essay

Last Updated: September 27, 2023 Fact Checked

This article was co-authored by Heather Gallagher . Heather Gallagher is a Photojournalist & Photographer based in Austin, Texas. She runs her own photography studio named "Heather Gallagher Photography" which was voted Austin's Best Family Photographer and top 3 Birth Photographers in 2017, 2018, and 2019. Heather specializes in family Photojournalism and has over 15 years of experience documenting individuals, families, and businesses all over the world. Her clients include Delta Airlines, Oracle, Texas Monthly, and her work has been featured in The Washington Post and The Austin American Statesman. She is a member of the International Association of Professional Birth Photographers (IAPBP). There are 11 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page. This article has been fact-checked, ensuring the accuracy of any cited facts and confirming the authority of its sources. This article has been viewed 287,000 times.

Photo essays are an increasingly popular medium for journalists, bloggers, and advertisers alike. Whether you’re trying to show the emotional impact of a current news story or share your hobby with friends and family, images can capture your topic in a personal, emotional, and interesting way. Creating a photo essay can be as easy as choosing a topic, getting your images, and organizing the essay.

Things You Should Know

  • Reflect long and hard on your topic, considering your audience, current events, and whether to go for a thematic or narrative approach.
  • Create an outline, including your focus image, establishing shot, clincher, and other image details.
  • When you finally take your photos, remember to take more photos than you think you need and don't be afraid to let the project change as you create it.

Finding Your Topic

Step 1 Review current events.

  • Offer a photo essay of your place of business as a training tool.
  • Use a photo essay about your business as a sales or social tool by publishing it on your website or social media page.
  • Create a how to photo essay to help others learn about your hobby, so they can take it up as well. [4] X Research source

Step 4 Select an interesting subject.

  • Thematic subjects are big ideas including things like local gun laws, at-risk youth, or welcoming home soldiers.
  • Narrative essays can include a day in the life, how to tutorials, or progression series that show changes over time such as tracking a building project.
  • If you have been given a commission or specific publication to work with, you may need to choose a topic that will fit a thematic or narrative approach as outlined by the publication. Make sure you are aware of any publication guidelines in advance.

Organizing Your Shoot

Step 1 Get permission.

  • Consider how difficult it will be to get permission to photograph your subjects. If you already have relationships established, it will be easier. If not, allow for extra time to get permission and/or waivers.
  • Schools, daycares, and other places with kids typically have more regulations on who can be photographed and for what purposes. You’ll usually need to get parental approval, in addition to permission from those in charge. [7] X Research source

Step 2 Research your subject.

  • Consider doing interviews with people involved prior to the shoot. Ask things like, “What’s the most interesting thing you do during this event?” or “How long have you been involved with this organization?”
  • These interviews are also a great opportunity to ask for permission and get waivers.
  • If you’re going to visit a job site, charitable event, or other large group activity, ask the person or persons in charge to explain what you’re doing to everyone before you arrive. [8] X Research source

Step 3 Create an outline.

Capturing Your Images

Step 1 Check the light.

  • Many new photographers stay away from high ISO shots because they allow more light through producing a “busy” image. However, these images are often easier to edit later as there’s more information to work with. [11] X Research source
  • If it’s very bright in your location or you’ve set up artificial lighting, a low ISO is likely adequate, For darker areas, you’ll likely need to use a higher ISO.
  • If you need one second to capture an image with a base ISO of 100, you’ll need one eighth of a second to capture with an ISO of 800. [13] X Research source

Step 2 Consider composition.

  • Even snapping candid shots, which you may need to capture quickly, take a few moments to think about how objects are placed to make the most impact.
  • Always think about how the main subject’s surroundings play into the overall image, and try to create different levels and points of interest.
  • You can change composition as part of the editing process in some cases, so if you can’t line up the shot just right, don’t let it deter you from capturing the image you want. [14] X Research source

Step 3 Take more photos than you need.

Organizing the Essay

Step 1 Exclude photos you don’t need.

  • If you’re doing a day in the life photo essay about a frustrated person working in an office, an image of that person struggling to open the front door against the wind might be an apt focus shot.
  • If your essay is about the process of building a home, your focus image may be something like a contractor and architect looking at blue prints with the framed up home in the background.
  • If your essay is about a family reunion, the focus image may be a funny shot of the whole family making faces, pretending to be fighting, or a serious photo of the family posed together. Capture whatever seems natural for the family. [18] X Research source

Step 3 Categorize your remaining photos.

  • Regardless of essay type, you’ll need a focus image to grab attention.
  • Use an overall shot to give context to your essay. Where is it, when is it happening, who’s involved, what’s going on, and why should someone be interested? The five “W’s” of journalism are a great way to determine what your overall shot should capture.
  • Find your final image. This should be something provocative that asks your viewer to think about the topic.
  • Between the focus and overall shot and ending image, include a series of images that move the viewer from the lead-in shots to its result. Use images that build in intensity or draw the viewers further into the essay.

Step 5 Ask for feedback.

  • If the images aren’t telling the story, ask your friends to look at your other photos and ask, “I wanted this image to make this point. You got a different idea. Would any of these images make this point to you more clearly?”
  • If the others like the images you’ve chosen, you may still want to ask them to look at your other photos and tell you if they think any of the images you didn’t include should be added in. They may see something you missed. [20] X Research source

Step 6 Add text.

  • If you're commissioned to add photos to an essay, you should make sure images reflect the written word, but also add emotion and context the writing could not capture. For example, an essay on poverty may include an image of a child and parent living on the street could capture more emotional context.
  • Captions should only include information the viewer could not derive from the photo itself. For instance, you can include a date, the subject’s name, or a statistic relevant to your subject in the caption.
  • If you choose not to have any text or just a title and some introductory and/or closing words, make sure you convey all necessary information succinctly. [21] X Research source

Expert Q&A

Heather Gallagher

  • Be creative with your topics. However, something as simple as "things I like" will suffice so long as you stay creative. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
  • Make sure you're familiar with your camera. It will make the photo composition a lot easier. Thanks Helpful 0 Not Helpful 0
  • Don't get discouraged. It may take several tries to get the desired results in your photos. Thanks Helpful 1 Not Helpful 0

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  • ↑ http://digital-photography-school.com/5-photo-essay-tips/
  • ↑ Heather Gallagher. Professional Photojournalist & Photographer. Expert Interview. 8 April 2020.
  • ↑ http://improvephotography.com/30816/10-ideas-creative-photo-essays/
  • ↑ http://www.apogeephoto.com/how-to-create-a-photo-essay/
  • ↑ https://petapixel.com/how-to-create-a-photo-essay/
  • ↑ http://photo.journalism.cuny.edu/week-5/
  • ↑ http://clickitupanotch.com/2010/12/creating-a-photo-essay/
  • ↑ https://photographylife.com/what-is-iso-in-photography
  • ↑ https://wiredimpact.com/blog/how-to-make-a-photo-essay-nonprofit/
  • ↑ http://digital-photography-school.com/5-tips-for-creating-a-photo-essay-with-a-purpose/
  • ↑ https://www.format.com/magazine/resources/photography/how-to-make-photo-essay-examples

About This Article

Heather Gallagher

To make a photo essay, start by selecting a subject that is easy to capture and that inspires you, like a friend or a family pet. Then, decide if you want to present your photo essay as thematic, which shows specific examples of a big idea, or narrative, with a beginning, middle, and end. Next, create an outline of your essay to determine which photos you’ll need, like an establishing shot. Finally, take your photos, select which images you want to use in your essay, and organize them according to your theme before adding text to explain the essay. To learn how to capture the best images, keep scrolling! Did this summary help you? Yes No

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  1. Exploring the Picture Essay: Tips, Best Practices, and Examples

    Exploring the Picture Essay: Tips, Best Practices, and Examples. April 18, 2023. Words by Jeff Cardello. A picture essay lets you harness the power of images to tell stories, evoke emotions, and convey a sense of place, time, and perspective. Picture essays drop viewers right into the action, letting them see things through the camera’s lens ...

  2. Photo Essay

    It is a powerful way to convey messages without the need for many words. Here is a format to guide you in creating an effective photo essay: 1. Choose a Compelling Topic. Select a subject that you are passionate about or that you find intriguing. Ensure the topic has a clear narrative that can be expressed visually.

  3. How to Create an Engaging Photo Essay (+ Examples)

    3. Take your time. A great photo essay is not done in a few hours. You need to put in the time to research it, conceptualizing it, editing, etc. That’s why I previously recommended following your passion because it takes a lot of dedication, and if you’re not passionate about it – it’s difficult to push through. 4.

  4. How to Make a Photo Essay (with Pictures)

    7. Include a clincher. This image may not be apparent to you in the beginning, but most photographers say they know it when they see it. It’s an image that wraps up the essay for the viewer. This image should say “the end,” give a call to action, or show the end result of a day in the life or how to sequence.

  5. How to Create a Photo Essay in 9 Steps (with Examples)

    Choose an idea, hone your unique perspective on it, then start applying the 9 simple steps from above. The life of a plant or animal (your favorite species, a species living in your yard, etc) The many shapes of a single species (a tree species, a bird species, etc) How a place changes over time.