Photo Masterclass: Ami Vitale on How to be a Good Storyteller

Storytelling is different from making a set of beautiful images.  
Photo: Ami Vitale
Photo: Ami Vitale

These images are part of a story I shot on the Pushkar Mela in Rajasthan.

Travel photography is not about travel. It is about being intimate with cultures, people, and environments. It is as much about humanity as about location. Learn as much as you can about the culture and place before taking your camera out. Know why and what you want to convey with your images. When I am working with people I ensure they are comfortable with me as a photographer. I spend lots of time before I begin shooting, explaining what I’m doing, gaining trust and acceptance. It’s never okay to be surreptitious or secretive. Remember that anyone can take a picture, but it takes a good storyteller to be a great photographer. And that always takes time.

Photo: Ami Vitale

Photo: Ami Vitale

1. Although I spent a couple of days with 13-year-old Subita Devi and her family, we were never alone. She was constantly surrounded by hundreds of digital cameras. Subita told me how de-humanising the impact of eager tourists and their cameras were on her. She said this made her feel “like an animal”. No one had even said “namaste” to her. She was like the prize in the hunt for a good image. If some of the people who surrounded Subita had spent even a few hours with her, learning a bit more about her life, they would have had a story, not just images. Here Subita is carrying one of my cameras; she wanted to learn about it. I printed copies of these portraits and gave them to Subita. I find this leaves a good memento—it’s the least we can do when people open their lives to us.

Photo: Ami Vitale

Photo: Ami Vitale

2. Composition is as important as good light and good access. I like to frame things and look for layers of activity. I’m always paying as much attention to what is in the background as to what is in the foreground. It’s easy to get attracted to one thing in your frame and forget about everything else—like poles sticking out of people’s heads, or cutting off limbs. The era of film taught us about crafting a story within your frame, before you even fire the shutter. Limited by the number of shots, we waited before blowing our film. It was not about one amazing, accidental image, but rather a tapestry of great and complex stories we could tell.

3. Light is very important. Wake up at least one hour before sunrise and stay for an hour after the sun sets for really magical images. This image was shot before dawn. Scout locations and be ready when the light is perfect. If it’s cloudy, try again the next day. I love using natural light and find that if I pay attention, I don’t really need a flash most of the time. I also think in most rural settings, the spark of a flash can destroy the mood and spontaneity of the moment. I also love breaking all the rules they teach you in photo school. For example, they say never shoot into the light. You can bracket if you are in doubt about which exposure is correct, but experiment and break all the rules. One important tip is to always try to still be there after all the tourists have left.

Photo: Ami Vitale

Photo: Ami Vitale

4. Storytelling is different from making a set of beautiful images. They must work together to create a storyline and a rich understanding of a place and culture. Include establishing shots, portraits, detail shots that reveal elements of the culture, intimacy between people, or people and landscape. Show that you accessed unusual moments readers may not know. Access is the hardest part of good photography, and requires empathy, sensitivity and research. “Clicking” is ten percent of the job. The rest is planning, research, editing, negotiating, and finding unique ways to tell stories. The trick is to gently gain access to places others cannot get to, and the secret to this is to know your subject better than anyone else.

Appeared in the August 2012 issue as “Storytelling”.

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    Ami Vitale is an award-winning photographer and film-maker whose work has appeared in publications across the world. Vitale is a contract photographer with National Geographic magazine and frequently conducts workshops in the Americas, Europe and Asia.

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