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How to Use Pictures to Tell a Story

Updated on November 13, 2012
drmiddlebrook profile image

Dr. Middlebrook is a self-publishing expert, author (pen name Beax Rivers), online course developer, and former university professor.

As an author/publisher, it takes time, effort, thought, and even deliberation to pick the right images to go with your words.
As an author/publisher, it takes time, effort, thought, and even deliberation to pick the right images to go with your words. | Source

As a journalism major (undergrad), I took classes in photojournalism, and even learned my way around the darkroom (yes, back in the day when it was cool to learn how to develop your own pictures!). Years later, I refined my photojournalism skills on different jobs where I served as the chief photographer for events and special work-related occasions.

Nowadays, even though I'm much more committed to being a writer than I am to photography, my training and experience in photojournalism and graphic design has equipped me with a good background for publishing, online and in print. in this article, it is my goal to help anyone who might want or need lessons in the basics, or perhaps a simple "reminder course," about considerations that can help anyone select meaningful and relevant images to illustrate articles or to help tell stories.

Picking Images to Match Words

Articles with photos and other forms of visual images will attract more readers. Readers like visual images, not just because they add interest to a story or article, but also because they help to break up the "grayness" of lines and paragraphs of text. They can also add humor, help to set a tone or express a mood, or simply illustrate and help to explain main points of a story/article.

Most of us look forward to selecting images, photos and/or illustrations to help us convey meaning as we work hard putting together what we plan to publish. We work hard to conceptualize and to provide visual interest for our stories. Why? Because we understand the attention-getting value of visual elements in attracting readers, inviting them to stop; to take a moment of their lives to look at, read, and consider what we've published.

We know that picking the right images to go with our words can produce a brand of enticement that is just not possible with words alone. And, even though we want people to do more than just look at what we've published, we know we have a much better chance of maintaining the interest of busy readers with intriguing, well-used and well-placed visuals.

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There is an old saying that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” What it means is (and please pardon my mixing of metaphors here), even though “the pen is mightier than sword,” images are often mightier than the pen (or the word processor) in telegraphing ideas quickly and accurately. For this reason, in this Hub, I am taking a brief look at five considerations that can help writers select strong visual elements to go along with articles. Some of these include learning how to:

  1. Show and tell. Select images that work well to help express ideas and emotions in ways words can’t.
  2. Choose the right pictures. Select visual elements that can be used to communicate, instantly, what could take hundreds of words to convey.
  3. Use visuals to teach by showing readers exactly how to do something, step by step, in a way that words cannot.
  4. Use images to augment words, helping to convey ideas accurately, leaving no room for the wrong impression to be conveyed or inferred by words alone.
  5. Choose images to provide, instantly, background--a historical foundation to show what once was true, or to provide a visual outlook on what the future might hold.

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1. Show and Tell: Using Visuals and Words, Together

Photographers and photojournalists often use pictures, alone, to tell powerful stories. An enticing assortment of images can be used to convey information, emotions, and ideas that someone feels strongly about. It's possible to present visual images in forceful and/or unsettling ways so that they will leave profound and memorable impressions on viewers. When choosing your images, think about what you want readers to feel and/or experience as they are reading your words. Joy? Sadness? Anger or outrage? Sympathy? Confusion? Thoughtfulness? Keep in mind the emotional tone of your article or story, or what you want readers to feel, as you decide on visual elements.

Pictures can do a lot, not only to help tell a story, but to make a story appear to be something worth telling, and also worth reading. Remember the classroom activity, “Show and Tell,” that our teachers sometimes required us to play in elementary school as an assignment? You had to bring something from home that meant something to you; something that had a story behind it that you knew about and felt was interesting enough to share with your friends and classmates.

Show and Tell was an activity meant to teach us how to prepare and deliver an engaging speech. But I think it was a bit more than that. It was also a good introduction to learning how to capture attention and keep people's interest with something visual as you provided them with information in the form of a story.

"Show and Tell" often inspired the bringing to class of family photos, making the story an easy one to tell and to illustrate.
"Show and Tell" often inspired the bringing to class of family photos, making the story an easy one to tell and to illustrate. | Source

"Show and Tell" was a good lesson in learning how to connect with an audience by using an interesting visual element that you made more interesting by choosing appropriate words to tell about the item. If you did your assignment well, you, your item, and your story--for several minutes--remained the center of attention in the classroom. You were able to use words and a visual element, together, to keep your audience captivated and wanting to hear the whole story about the item you were holding in your hands.

By showing and telling, you were able to capture and keep the attention and interest of an audience in ways that would not have been possible if you'd been standing in front of the class using words alone. Having that item in your hand, turning and examining it from different angles, kept eyes riveted to your visual lure as your words revealed its secrets.

What can we take away from "Show and Tell" to help us express ideas through pictures/visuals as we share our words with readers? We can:

  • Make sure there is something in a photo/visual to grab the attention of the viewer.
  • Make sure to include visual and/or typographical focal points to lead viewers into the photo.
  • Make sure photos are carefully "framed" or cropped, to bring attention to what you are trying to say.
  • Make sure photos/visuals match the content and the context (tone, place, character, intended meaning) of what you are trying to say.

Visuals can help to set the tone or mood of a story/article. Emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, frustration or fear, can be vividly or subtly illustrated.
Visuals can help to set the tone or mood of a story/article. Emotions, such as happiness, sadness, anger, frustration or fear, can be vividly or subtly illustrated. | Source

2. The Right Pictures

Sometimes, the right visual elements are those that simply illustrate what your words are saying. At other times, however, instead of simply "illustrating" what is being said in a story or an article, photos/visual elements need to go a bit beyond what the words are saying.

Sometimes you might need to give more thought to how pictures/visual elements might be used to explore, on a deeper level, the ideas, feelings, and experiences you're presenting through your story/article. An article on the daily life of a homeless person, for example, could use photos taken by following one or several homeless people for a day, or, the article could not include any pictures of homeless people--at all. Instead, it could include pictures of what a homeless person or a homeless family with children might see or encounter as they go about a daily routine, from dawn to nightfall.

Perhaps an interesting theme is present throughout an article or story. What photos or visual elements might be used to explore the theme a bit further? Are there different takes on a theme that might add visual interest, intrigue, or further insight into the topic of the story or article?

An article on "Kids Making Pizza at Home" could start with a photo of kids going out for pizza, to see how its made by the "pros."
An article on "Kids Making Pizza at Home" could start with a photo of kids going out for pizza, to see how its made by the "pros." | Source
Another photo might show kids at home, rolling dough to make homemade pizza.
Another photo might show kids at home, rolling dough to make homemade pizza. | Source
Among other images, a pic of kids making the sauce would add interest to the story.
Among other images, a pic of kids making the sauce would add interest to the story. | Source
Dad helping to slice the final results could provide a great visual ending to a great article.
Dad helping to slice the final results could provide a great visual ending to a great article. | Source

3. Thoughts on Selecting "How-To" Pictures/Visuals

When illustrating how to do something, your pictures/visuals will have to send clear messages. The worst thing you can do when explaining, for someone who wants to find out how to do a particular thing, is to talk to them as if they already know how to do it. If they did, there's a good chance they would not be reading a "how-to" article about whatever you're trying to explain. Therefore, it is best to begin at the beginning of the process, take nothing for granted, and make no assumptions.

If you're taking the photos yourself (or having someone else take them for you), be sure to publish/print them in the sequence of the step-by-step instructions. Add explanatory text as captions when displaying your photos.

Try to remember what it felt like when you were learning the same process you're now trying to teach someone else about. Are there things you might need to tell them that could help them gain a greater understanding of the process that, technically, are not part of the actual instructions? Provide any necessary background, and if there might be a photo you could use to help clarify, add it. Do your best to fill in any gaps so that your instructions are as clear to your reader/learner, as they are to you.

When you're putting the pictures together with your words, consider the order as you are arranging elements. Pay special attention to which photos you publish with your story. Be careful to keep those that illustrate your points well, and leave out the ones that are really needed. Not all the pictures you take will be needed, and those accompanying your how-to article should relay the process you're talking about completely, visually. Be sure to arrange or present photos in such a way that tells your story logically and step-by-step as you choose visuals that will make your readers want to stay with your article to the very end.

Whether you take your own pictures, or use photos/images produced by others, visual elements can add fun, interest, and creativity to articles and stories.
Whether you take your own pictures, or use photos/images produced by others, visual elements can add fun, interest, and creativity to articles and stories. | Source

4. Using Images to Clarify Words/Meaning

Just as words are used to explain or to tell readers more about a particular picture/visual, pictures/visuals can be used to help clarify the meaning behind words. Exactly what are you trying to say? What is the point of the article or story? What do you want your readers to know? Are your words making clear your main points? Or, does your article need strong visual elements to go along with the narrative?

Not every article will need pictures as visuals. If you’re writing a piece that needs to be explained using statistical information or data on economic trends, you might use charts and graphs as your primary visual elements. But, if your article is a product review, you would want to use pictures to show the item you're reviewing from several angles, giving your reader a good idea of what they can expect to see if/when they decide to order it online, or look for it at a retail outlet.

The major point or theme of what you're saying should be the focus of any photos or major visual elements. Look at what you've written. How many points are you conveying with your words? Is there a main point? Or, are you telling a story with many different points?

If you're making several points, then you're probably going to need several images to help the reader "see what you're saying." Don't make them work too hard to try to figure out what you're trying to say. Include images to support the content of your message(s), and you'll leave less room for doubt about points you're trying to convey.

Photos and captions can provide background for articles/stories. This is a photo of  the first automobile in Japan, a Panhard. Published in "La France Automobile" in 1898.
Photos and captions can provide background for articles/stories. This is a photo of the first automobile in Japan, a Panhard. Published in "La France Automobile" in 1898. | Source

5. Using Images to Provide Background

Is there something your audience might need to know that is not explained in your article? Perhaps there is a need for an image to add explanatory background to your story, something to provide "perspective" for the reader. For example, the photo above might be used to add historical background/interest to an article taking a look at the ten most popular automobiles in Japan over the last decade.

Images can be used to accompany articles and stories to bring in missing pieces of the whole story. The words in your article might begin at a point in time far beyond some important piece of history that can add interest for readers when offered as a photo-and-caption. If you have, or if you find, an interesting photograph that contains "backstory" for your main topic, publishing it along with your article or story could bring more intrigue and interest to the narrative.

Wrap Up

While pictures can be used, alone, to effectively tell captivating visual stories, using pictures and words working together can be a powerful and thought-provoking way to convey information or to tell a story.

Photos and illustrations should be captivating and/or interesting enough to command and hold reader attention. And, while adding captions to your visual images can provide needed or additional information and explanation for your story/article, the images should also be meaningful when viewed alone. That is, the purpose of the images you use should be clear, and your readers should "get" why they are there, without having to read the captions.

In conclusion, the photos or visual elements you pick should provide support and illumination for your words. First, they should help attract, and next, to entice and move the reader through your story/article, illustrating, emphasizing and connecting with main points, while seamlessly and intimately relating to your major points, and to your readers.

© 2012 Sallie B Middlebrook PhD

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    • Deltachord profile image

      Deltachord 4 years ago from United States

      Very useful article... full of good examples.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you so much Deltachord. Glad you found some good examples.

    • trusouldj profile image

      trusouldj 4 years ago from Indiana

      Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 4 years ago from Texas, USA

      You are very welcome, trusouldj. Hope something I said will be of help to you in some way.

    • kerlund74 profile image

      kerlund74 3 years ago from Sweden

      Interesting hub:) The image is often the first thing you look at in an article so this is really important to know about.

    • drmiddlebrook profile image
      Author

      Sallie B Middlebrook PhD 3 years ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you so much kerlud74, for the visit and comments. You're right. We're "visually" oriented, so images have the power to pull us in, to capture our interest in a way nothing else can. That's why it's so important for us to give much thought to the images we publish along with our articles here on Hub Pages, and anywhere else we might publish.

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