Should a photograph with an interesting composition necessarily have a story to tell? I have been told that if you can't tell a story behind a photograph, it is not worth pressing the shutter button. I have dumped many photographs which had an interesting composition but no story to tell. Even when I shooting, I am guided by my intuition and so-called "composition rules" (rule of thirds, leading lines) but many a times, I don't have a story to tell.

Am I doing it right?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think "a story in a picture" is very subjective thing. You can see a story but others not, or they can see other story. Or sometimes you don't see a story but other one may see something. It is not written text and everybody may have his own interpretation. \$\endgroup\$
    – vladiz
    Nov 4, 2016 at 9:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ You tagged this "street photography". Do you mean to ask this question within that specific genre, or in general? \$\endgroup\$
    – mattdm
    Nov 4, 2016 at 11:44
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    \$\begingroup\$ This doesn't specifically answer your question, so I offer it as a comment. The only real rules in Photography (outside of physics) are the ones you decide to follow. Some people have self-imposed rules that provide them with creative guidance and/or personal style, but even those rules can be more like guidelines. \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2016 at 11:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ If you could always tell a story in 1 picture, comic books would be way shorter in general. \$\endgroup\$
    – Craig H
    Nov 4, 2016 at 14:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ An interesting photograph IS a story told. (A thousand pictures can be drawn from one word.) (Or something like that.) \$\endgroup\$ Nov 4, 2016 at 18:14

9 Answers 9


You can tell a "story" without necessarily creating a "narrative". I think you may be hung up on believing the only form a story can have is to create a narrative.

Some images very clearly create a narrative. Here a young person has been frightened by an older person wearing a mask that is a bit spooky. The body language of both subjects and the facial features of the mask speak in a near universal human language that communicates the narrative.

Does the following image tell a story? If so, what, if any, is the narrative?
fall leaves
For those who have experienced a climate where leaves change colors and fall with the seasons the image might evoke memories of a particular place and time where a similar scene was experienced. At the very least for those viewers the image does tell a more generalized story of sorts: It reminds them that when the days become shorter and the temperatures become cooler the green of summer gives way to the colors of autumn. But for someone who has spent their entire life in a desert or tropical climate that does not experience the four seasons and who has not learned about the four seasons that occur in other parts of the world the image doesn't tell that story.

This is because the story is only implied, rather than being explicitly narrated, in the image. It isn't a narrative in the sense that we aren't really informed of where a particular clump of leaves on a particular tree in a particular place at a specific time became the colors we see. We're not told what color(s) they were before they became the colors in the photo. Rather it is more of a universal symbol for any leaves that change color in the fall.

Beyond that, I'm not sure that I agree that every good photograph must even "tell a story". I think the purpose of the visual arts in general, and photography as a visual art in particular, is to evoke an emotional and/or an intellectual response. It matters not whether a work of art includes a narrative or even a story at all, as long as it invokes a reaction from the viewer.

This image, in and of itself, doesn't create or illustrate a narrative. One would have to really stretch the meaning of the word story to say that it tells a story at all. What it (hopefully) does is allow the viewer to bring their own story to this fairly abstract image of fireworks and give the image meaning that draws from each viewer's own experience. A botanist who cultivates flowers and dandelions may have an entirely different interpretation and reaction than a combat veteran who has survived anti-aircraft flak over Europe during the Second World War. fireworks

On the other hand, if one were to place a title that references an existing cultural or literary narrative beneath the above image then the image could illustrate that existing narrative, at least for those who recognize the reference(s) in the title. Let's call this one "Michael - Lucifer - Gabriel". Now something that was fairly abstract visually has been assigned a meaning and those who recognize the literary reference¹ may began to see a relationship between certain forms in the image and the narrative of Lucifer's fall from heaven.

Whether narrative or not, some works will contain culturally conditioned elements such that the emotional response from most viewers will be similar to most other viewers from the same culture. Other works may be more abstract and invoke different types of responses from different observers based on their own life experiences.

¹ Michael, Lucifer, and Gabriel are the traditional names in the Judeo/Christian tradition given to the three archangels of heaven before one of them, Lucifer, fell and was banished from heaven, along with one third of all of the angels in heaven who followed him, for daring to consider himself as equal to God.

From the comments:

Could you expand on the idea of stories that aren't narrative in nature? The two words are often synonymous, especially in the context of tell a story.

And a response from another user:

An image is usually only showing a moment. Unless it depicts the story as it unfolds and shows the "action", it doesn't narrate the story. It might show you a particular slice in time of the story. Your imagination and other sources of information create the story, but the image alone is rarely telling it all.

I think the distinction between "narrative" as a subset of the more general "story" is somewhere in between the two poles expressed in the two comments cited. One extreme sees "narrative" and "story" as having near identical meaning. The other sees "narrative" as applicable only when everything in the story is visually made explicit.

In reality it seems to me to be more of a gradual continuum. In much the same way that we use the concept of depth of field there may not be a clear cut "line" that divides a more complete and explicitly expressed "narrative" from a more general "story" that depends on the observer to fill in the details with their own experience. The three examples I've added above move from more explicit narrative to more generalized "story". In any case I think we would all pretty well agree that all narratives are also stories, but perhaps not all stories are narratives, at least not explicitly so with regard to the visual arts.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Upvote for "the purpose ... is to evoke an emotional and/or an intellectual response". \$\endgroup\$
    – Craig H
    Nov 4, 2016 at 14:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you expand on the idea of stories that aren't narrative in nature? The two words are often synonymous, especially in the context of tell a story. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleb
    Nov 4, 2016 at 19:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Caleb an image is usually only showing a moment. Unless it depicts the story as it unfolds and shows the "action", it doesn't narrate the story. It might show you a particular slice in time of the story. Your imagination and other sources of information create the story, but the image alone is rarely telling it all. \$\endgroup\$
    – null
    Nov 4, 2016 at 21:10

This question has been tagged under "composition" and "Street-Photography", so I'll keep that in mind with my answer.

The purpose of photography depends on the type of photography. It ranges in extremes from being used to document a scene or subjects to being used as an art form.

Under the visual arts umbrella, photography is about invoking an emotional response, not necessarily to "tell a story". You can accomplish both in a photograph, but the primary purpose is to invoke an emotional response. In street photography, you can very well accomplish both, but invoking or interesting line patterns can and do invoke emotional responses.

Honestly, because as an art form, photography is so subjective and relative to the viewer, let your own instincts guide you.



If you're studying photojournalism, then of course your goal should be to capture stories in your photographs. But photographs can be so abstract that the viewer can't even tell what the subject is, let alone what (if anything) is happening. A photograph can state a fact or inspire a question, neither of which is really the same as telling a story.

To put it another way, to say that every good photograph must tell a story is to expand the meaning of story so much that it's no longer a useful idea. Here's a photo of mine that tells a story, IMO:


There's a lot going on here: runner sliding into home plate, pitcher ready to catch the ball just thrown by the catcher, batter walking off after a sacrifice bunt, on-deck batter watching the action, umpire ready to call the play. Even though the photo is just a moment in time, there's a lot for the viewer to take in and piece together. Contrast that with a still life or an abstract photo which might have beautiful colors arranged in a pleasing way, or just a collection of interesting textures: there's still plenty to look at and enjoy, but it's not a story in any meaningful way that's similar to the photo above.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That photo does a good job of illustrating how subjective the idea of telling a story is. To someone who understands baseball it tells a story: to me, knowing virtually nothing about baseball, it's at best "Some people fell over". \$\endgroup\$ Nov 5, 2016 at 6:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @PeterTaylor: "people in heavy protective gear and weapons falling over in the park" \$\endgroup\$
    – smci
    Nov 6, 2016 at 0:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's much easier to see the ball in the larger version, and that helps. \$\endgroup\$
    – Caleb
    Nov 6, 2016 at 1:20

Answering to the point, Not necessarily composition would narrate a story... if you concentrate on just the composition!

Street photography might just be colorful. If it is a well maintained street. or maybe the infrastructure is stunning. it might also tell the story of people who built it, who maintain it or who are just using it. and the colors would say the story.

It applies to the other kinds of streets too.. If you have taken a photo of a street where poor ones live, it would again speak its story.

In also depends on the mindset of the photographer who clicked, as framing the perfect shot is a very important aspect, the one who clicks might not be aware of the story, since he may not be very familiar with the place. But the pic says it all to the one who walks the same street every night after work, had a nice time with his loved one, had a fight or has spent months together building the infrastructure and planning the same. and to the people who live by.

i am talking only about the picture of the street. street photography includes a wide variety of pictures with another set of stories to tell.

As it's said Photos are memories, every pic has a story! You need not dump any pic just because it doesn't say anything to you. it might, to someone else.


I have been told that if you can't tell a story behind a photograph, it is not worth pressing the shutter button.

Trust your intuition and if you feel you should hit the shutter button, do it. Decide later if the picture has any emotions to share.

Should a photograph with an interesting composition necessarily have a story to tell?

I think it depends on definition of "story". Photograph can be nearly abstract and I don't think abstract art has a story - they surely convey some message to the viewer, but message is not the same thing as story, I think.

Am I doing it right?

You are doing it right if your photograph has an emotional impact on a viewer other than you.


"Story" is a fun word to work with. It's a linguistic concept that proves useful in many many environments.

If I were to translate "every interesting photograph has a story" into the kind of linguistic jargon I am comfortable with, I'd suggest that the thing which makes a photograph interesting is that it leads the viewer to play out a story in their own mind. The key there is the idea of it playing out. You have a very static medium, as a photographer. Once you hit that shutter, the picture never changes. However, the "interesting" photos don't feel static. You almost feel like there's motion inside of you as you look at them. I believe that is what they are trying to capture when they say "every interesting photograph has a story." It's not that you've got a story embedded in the scene so much as the viewer begins their own little story, if for nothing but a brief moment, when they look at the picture. Its the thing which defines the difference between a picture that you simply walk past and a picture that you pause and try to let it all soak in.

I think the purpose of telling new photographers "every interesting photograph has a story" is to give you a hint as to how to refine your art. It's very hard to explain what makes a person feel like there is a story in a picture. However, it is very easy to feel it. The suggestion is to try to make the pictures tell a story to you, because then it is more likely that that picture will touch some common thread in all of our lives and tell a story to the viewer. It's intentionally nebulous. It's not like lighting or polarizer tricks where we can say "you do X to get result Y." It's something you have to explore on your own, and find your own approach. The allusions to "stories" are merely an effective word choice to capture a very nuanced concept in a very short sentence.

For me, as an amateur who thinks they know more than they really know, my test for an "interesting" picture taken by the professionals is if I feel the motion of a story unfolding in my mind while I look at it. Sometimes that's easy. Some pictures have human emotion baked into them, such as the strain on a runner's face as they sprint the last 5 feet before the finish line. Other pictures are more subtle. I can look at a picture of El Capitan or the Teton mountains shot by Ansel Adams and feel movement. In that case, it's not the rabid energy of a few seconds of a race, but the slow purposeful movement of geologic time. In my entire lifetime, the captain will not budge so far as to shift the picture a single crystal of silver halide. And yet, somehow I feel it's movement.

In either case, the picture itself is static. It's just a bunch pigments on a page organized in a very particular arrangement. The life and movement is created in my own mind, borrowing from my past experiences. The truly evocative pictures are just that... they evoke something living inside of you that you did not know was there.


Ideally, there should be something of interest that the eye is drawn to in your compositions.

I have a relative who likes painting. She is fond of landscapes but she doesn't like doing people or animals. Her work is nicely composed and the eye is drawn to the centre of the paintings, where there is -- nothing. I have never had the heart to tell her and we have some of her work hanging on our walls.

As for always telling a story? I don't think so, but it's great if your photos are intriguing.

Join a photography club if you can find one. You will see lots of other people's work and get feedback on your own.


Two Answers

  1. Maybe more attention to subject would improve your photos. Maybe not. The idea is that depending on context it could be constructive critique.

  2. It's your photograph. If someone thinks photographs should tell a story, they can jolly well get their own camera and make them.

My advice, try telling some stories and see what happens. Maybe your photos get better. Maybe they get worse. Probably, you'll learn something. Which is why I'm not telling you not to try it.


Well, I don't think you need to "tell a story", but you should have some "idea" what to shoot.

For example consider a pile of tourists taking shots in one specific direction. Should you also do, because all the others do?

Or should you first try to "see" what's there? Sometimes you see something, but when looking through the viewfinder you see something different (not what you wanted to see). Probably then it's time to decide whether to take a shot that is "not what you saw", or not to take the shot.

The worst thing to happen is when you are reviewing your shots and you say to yourself: "I have no idea why I took that shot"


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