What Makes a Great Photo Essay?

National Geographic

National Geographic Traveler’s own photo experts share insights on how you can take your skills to the next level and create memorable, powerful, visual narratives.

Build a Story

Your photos need to reflect people, places, and moments in an authentic, meaningful way. Even simple, straightforward stories can unfold in an interesting, unexpected style. For example, remember that life is about movement rather than a sequence of static, posed, still life images. Capture people or wildlife in action—engaged and immersed in the activities, relationships, and landscapes that tell your story. If scenery alone is the star, move through the landscape to convey different perspectives, changes in light, or evolving weather conditions. Develop your theme by learning what makes the person, event, or destination you’re depicting distinctive. Once you have your story angle, your pictures must work to communicate it. You can evaluate your own success as a photographer by how well your theme translates.

Capture a Sense of Place

Each place you visit will have its own particular look, character, and ambience. When your images capture all those qualities, your photo essay reflects not only where you went, but how it felt. It’s important to think and feel, as much as to look—master that and you’ll create images that bring back the sensations you experienced, trigger memories, and capture the emotional complexion of a destination. Arrive with an open mind and take note of first impressions. Where do your eyes go first? What do you notice about the place right away? First impressions are invaluable sparks to creative interpretation. Pretend you have a story assignment with a particular theme. Then figure out the best approach to communicating that concept—whether to use a wide-angle or telephoto lens, which angle best suits it, what light is most appropriate. Techniques are only the tools—making a great photo essay starts with an idea, and the sense of place you want to bring home.

Master the Core Concepts

To shoot a great story, you need grounding in the core principles of photography: composition, lighting, and exposure.


  • Start simple. Define one central point of interest and arrange all elements in your picture to bring clarity to it.
  • Fill the Frame. Find what’s interesting in a picture and fill the frame with it. Don’t be afraid to step in close so your subject is not surrounded by empty space.
  • Rule of Thirds. Keep your subject off center or it could look lifeless. In your mind, divide the picture frame into thirds, horizontally and vertically, overlaying it with a grid of straight lines.


  • Train yourself to notice the source and direction of light in your scene. Is it natural? Artificial? Front light can be dull and lack depth. Top light, the kind that comes from midday sun, is even worse, casting unflattering shadows. Side light is the magic hour—making early in the morning or late in the day ideal times to capture landscapes. Backlight can make for dramatic images as well. Place your subject in the foreground against a sunrise or sunset to achieve a compelling silhouette.


  • Exposure simply refers to how much light you let into your camera and for how long. An image is said to be underexposed if not enough light is allowed in which creates dark shadows. An overexposed image suffers from too much light. Control your exposure by adjusting the aperture (size of lens opening) and shutter speed. A third variable that affects exposure is light sensitivity. You need a high ISO when shooting in low light. But generally, you want to use the lowest ISO setting conditions allow. Don’t forget to consider ambient light level, whether your subject is in motion, and whether you want to use a tripod.

Source: National Geographic

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