10 Photo Essay Tips & Tricks

Grand prize - webThis past year, the Leadership Network hosted a quarterly Photo Essay Contest. According to their press release:

“The goal of the contest is to collect photo essays featuring large, Protestant congregations. The idea of compiling photo essays, rather than single photos, was inspired by various news outlets’ use of the medium.”

“In our organization we hear tons of great stories of what God is doing in various cities, but we rarely get to see pictures. Pictures can tell a story just as well, if not better, than words alone,” says Stephanie Jackson, publications manager for Leadership Network. “We think photographers can offer a fresh and unique, visual perspective of the vibrancy and life happening in churches around the world,” Jackson adds. More>>

Our church takes an annual trip to Mexico in December and I decided this would be the perfect opportunity to get some great pictures. This was my first photo essay and I figured worst case scenario, by entering I would learn something. This entry ended up winning 2nd place (2nd Quarter).

Bringing Light & Power To Mexico

Encouraged from the positive response from my first try, and having been reinvigorated after my visit to the Evangelical Press Association,  I decided to enter again, this time featuring our Micah House after school program. This won 2nd Place (4th Quarter) and the “People’s Choice Award” GRAND PRIZE.

Micah House Makes A Difference

Entering these contests was a great exercise and fun to do. Winning was icing on the cake. Through the process of putting these together I learned a few things that I found helpful.

10 Photo Essay Tips & Tricks

  1. Know the story you want to tell first – With the Mexico trip essay, I wasn’t sure what approach I was going to take. This made it much more difficult to create with the story photos we had. With Micah House, I outlined the story first, then went to take the shots I knew I needed. This was much simpler.
  2. It’s nice not to be rushed – Deadlines are a helpful motivator, but putting together a photo essay is not something to be rushed. Give yourself a few weeks. With Mexico, all the photos were taken in one day. With Micah House I had 6 photo shoots over 3 weeks. Taking the photos is only the beginning. Plan on spending at least twice that amount on the rest of the project.
  3. Don’t be afraid to partner – You don’t have to take all the pictures yourself. With Mexico there were two of us that entered the contest. With Micah House I was aware of photos that I wanted to include to make the story stronger. Ask permission and give them photo credit. Most people will be happy to help you.
  4.  Sometimes you need to direct the shot you want to take – A photos essay isn’t necessarily photojournalism where you are just documenting what you see. You have flexibility to direct the outcome to get what you need.
  5. Editing is where the real work happens –  This is can be a time consuming process. With both essays, we had over 1,000 photos to sort through to end up with about 20. Always be thinking, which photos are “strongest” and which photos will help you tell the story.
  6. Color correct for consistency – When you have multiple cameras, locations and times of day, etc., it’s easy to have your essay look disjointed. You don’t want the change to be a distraction. One person should be in charge of color correcting so there is a similar look for the entire essay.
  7. Have people who are passionate about your topic help write the essay – Typically the photographer takes the lead on a photo essay. But don’t forget the essay part. A photo essay is BOTH show and tell. For Mexico I enlisted Jeff & Kathi McNair, friends and nationally known leaders in disability ministries. For Micah House, I had Program Coordinator Dianna Lawson help me by sharing her favorite parts about the people and program. In both cases we sat down for several hours reviewing the photos and writing down potential captions.
  8. Editors are your friend – Like any involved project, at some point you will stop looking at it objectively. Remember, editing is a team sport. You need outside help to give you perspective and to insure you tell the best story possible. Grammar, spelling, sentence structure and narrative all count to the judges.
  9. Know your deadlines – I had assumed the 4th quarter deadline ended at the end of June. It wasn’t until I re-read the contest application, that I realized it was due a few days earlier! Fortunately, I had worked ahead and had most things ready. I would have felt terrible to have gone through all that work to have missed the chance to submit my entry.
  10. Have fun and know (regardless of the results) you have made a helpful contribution – I have found that most churches and nonprofits do not have many good photos of their people and programs. The worst case scenario of making a photo essay is you will have quality photos to share that they can use on the web, annual reports, giving appeals, public seminars etc. Best case scenario you might win and give your organization some additional well deserved attention.
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