Photo Essay Storytelling Cards

As director of photography for National Geographic Traveler, Dan Westergren is surrounded by a rainbow riot of digitial images daily. For more than two decades, his assignments have taken him everywhere from Mount Killimanjaro to the North Pole (on skis!) to capture some of the world's most intriguing people, places, and experiences. These are his words and images...

Although it is possible to tell a story with a single photograph, it can be difficult to show all the interesting aspects of a destination in one image. This is where the photo essay comes into play.

The key to compelling photographic coverage is variety. For this series of photos taken on the National Geographic Seabird in Alaska's Inside Passage, I started with an image that shows where the mountains meet the sea — a geographic feature that defines the area. We were lucky to find a group of humpback whales as the evening wound down, which added another layer of beauty and complexity to the shot.

Exposure is one of the growing number of online publishing platforms for photo essays or long-form narratives—stories told with a combination of images and text. In this tutorial you'll learn how to create a compelling photo essay with Exposure.

Traditionally, these kinds of stories, albeit a select few, were published as features in magazines or as books. Platforms like Exposure are an increasingly attractive publishing alternative, and a way for photographers to connect with new audiences. With high-quality rendition of photos and videos, proven art direction and design features, and an ability to tap into existing and new social media networks, Exposure, like the other services featured in this series, is an exciting way to showcase and share your work.

The Power of Photo Stories

As I said last time, we all love stories:

"We like stories so much that we’ll even make up a narrative where none exist. We're hard-wired for it: narratives shape information into patterns, making the information easier to understand and remember."

Using stories to share your photography increases your profile as a creative photographer and the value of your photographs. Simply putting photos together into a narrative structure helps also helps people see photography in a brand new context. Stories help families see merit in having not just portraits taken, but also full family sessions that speak to their lived experiences. Many companies can see the possibilities of using storytelling photography to explain their mission, sell their product, or just create a positive feeling.

Creating stories with your images also helps you grow as a photographer. First, there’s the simple benefit of using your photos and giving them a life beyond your hard drive. Granted, there are many ways to publish your photos online, but there’s a extra benefit to doing it with stories. Having to connect and use photos to create an engaging narrative—regardless of how much text you use—demands a different kind of relationship with your photographs.

Trying to put your own photos into a narrative context is a terrific learning exercise, no matter what your experience level. Photos that might not withstand scrutiny when presented alone may become essential parts of a narrative. Conversely, photos that might excel as individual images of merit may not fit a story. The only way you can find these exciting potentials in your pictures is to experiment.

How to Use Photo Story Platforms and Have Your Work Seen

Photography-oriented storytelling platforms like Exposure are helpful in a variety of ways, but one of the most important is just what it says on the tin: they help you get your work into the world in an efficient, good looking, easy-to-use way.

The trick these days isn't getting your work published, it's getting seen. As a platform for photography, in particular, Exposure gives photographers an opportunity to get their work in front of a special audience: photo editors, other photographers, journalists and writers, and online and traditional publishers. These people are tapped-in and hungry for good photo stories. They follow the online publishing platforms and are educated about photography. This is a great audience because it doesn’t need to be convinced of the value of your work if the quality is there.

Exposure also gives you with the opportunity to connect your published story into existing social media. This can help you get your work out to clients, potential clients, and colleagues who may not actively follow the specialized photo publishing platforms but are on other social media platforms. The networking remains the same but what is shared is different. Instead of (or in addition to) keeping portfolios of images on our websites and circulating a few images with posts to social media platforms, we use social media to share a finished product that uses our images.

Exposure is for Photographers

In a previous article, I introduced Atavist, one of the first online publishing platforms for long-form narratives. Atavist grew out of the Atavist Magazine, an online publication that features quality writing supported by images. In contrast, Exposure—an online publishing platform built primarily for photographers—favours quality photographs supported by occasional writing. In fact, one of Exposure’s several topic categories is “My Work,” a collection of “projects, portfolios, and other creative endeavours.” If you’re short on inspiration, just take a wander through the featured works in this category. You’ll find well-known photographers and emerging photographers who should be well-known. You’ll also get a few ideas about how to put your work together for publishing. And if you’re uncertain about the value of using Exposure to keep and get clients, take a wander in the weddings category, or families, or events.

Because Exposure is primarily for photographers, Exposure has set some clear guidelines on what photographs you can and cannot use. I recommend taking a few minutes to read the guidelines. There aren’t any surprises—basically, upload only your best photos and don’t use or abuse other people’s work—but reading the guidelines will give you a sense of Exposure as a community of photographers and storytellers. The company you keep can be as important as what you publish, so it’s reassuring to read Exposure’s expectations of those who publish on the platform.

One last comment about Exposure before we put a page together: you own everything you upload to Exposure. Your work may be displayed in an Exposure-generated collection or in the weekly email of features, but you will always get credit. That’s their promise. Design features in the platform also help to protect your photos against data scraping and theft.

Publish Your First Story

The biggest impediment to publishing your work is inertia, so take advantage of this tutorial as a prompt to pull something—anything—together and share it. Exposure offers a no frills, free membership (limited to three stories), so you’ll lose nothing by trying and will gain at least experience.

Signing up for, and using Exposure is not complicated. Simply go to the website (exposure.co), sign up, and the big red Create New Story button will appear on your member page. Before you press that button though, take a moment and read Exposure’s quick start guide. Like many online publishing platforms, navigating the services and options requires that you poke around and sort out the platform’s unique layout. (I have yet to find two publishing platforms that are at all similar!) 

On Exposure, you get to the help menu either by going directly to the support website or from the top left of your member page, select Menu > FAQ & Support (in smaller print, toward the bottom of the list). That will open a new page in your browser. Scroll down the page and select Getting Started. That will open a list of articles that cover the basics. (I did say it wasn’t a direct route.)

I won’t repeat a lot of the basic information that’s in Exposure’s quick start guide, but I will cover what you need to get going and point out a few features that you might miss or that might be confusing.

Create the Story

When you select Create New Story from your member page, you’ll be dropped into a design shell. Your options are basic and uncomplicated: you need a title and, optionally, a subtitle, a cover photo, and a category. You do not have any formatting choices at this stage. My tip is to evaluate two things about the photo you will use for the cover photo: composition and density.

1. Composition: Is the photo simple enough that it won’t create visual noise when the story title is added on top? Similarly, will an important part of the photo be obscured or distorted when the story title is added? Having the title run through the middle of a bride’s face, for example, will not earn you any accolades from the bride or potential wedding clients.

2. Density: The title includes an opaque cover overlay that darkens the cover photo. The layer visually forces the photo into serving as a background—its intended purpose at this point. However, if you are using a photo that is already dark, filled with shadows, or under-exposed, the cover overlay will render your photo almost unviewable. If this is the case, consider preparing a version that is a stop or more brighter than originally intended.

You do have the option not to display the cover overlay and titles. At the top of your page, select Options > Hide Cover Overlay & Titles. It will still appear in editing mode, but will be removed for viewers once published. Be sure to select Save Changes after you’ve changed your option. (Other options within that menu have their own Save button. I find that confusing.) The advantage to removing the cover overlay is that your cover photo now displays in its full glory; the disadvantage is that your viewer loses key navigational information.

Add Content

When adding content, you have four choices:

  • Text, which includes a heading and text but no photo
  • Photo group, which includes a heading and text and up to nine photos (up to 15MB each)
  • Single photo, which includes a heading and text and one single photo (also up to 15MB) that will display the full width of the post
  • Embedded content, which includes a heading and text and the ability to embed a link video, audio, or maps

The process for adding content is simple: at the bottom of your screen, under Add to Your Story, click once on the content type you want to add. The content box will be added to the bottom of whatever content you’ve already created. Simply scroll up to the content box and begin adding whatever it was you selected.

I do have some suggestions for working with the content boxes:

Embrace Limited Design Options

Design options for added content are limited and simple. Layouts are fixed and styles are set. That might frustrate the designers among us, but it makes the platform easy to use for those not interested in design with a guaranteed attractive result.

Title and Text Optional

All content boxes include options for adding a title and text. You do not have to add a title or text if you don’t want to. If you don’t, the cues will remain visible while you are editing your story, but they will disappear once you publish. 

Order and Reorder

To change the order of the content boxes, click the chevron on the right of the content box to move the box up or down one position. Click it again to move it one more position.

Captions and Click-Throughs

You can add captions and click-through links to any photo. Once you’ve added the photo to your content, mouse over the photo to display the gear icon. Select the gear icon to access the option to add a caption (at the bottom of the photo) and mouse over the photo again to reveal the option for a click-through link.

Text

To make formatting changes to the text, add a hyperlink, or undo any text action, you must first highlight the text you wish to affect. Then the formatting options box will appear. You can also use standard keyboard shortcuts to format text with bold or italics, or to delete text.

Alignment

You can change the text alignment (left, centre, right) by using the align selection to the left of the title, but the change affects everything—text and titles—in the content box. The change does not affect other text boxes. That said, I don’t know why photographers prefer to centre text. Centred text is more difficult to read and will slow your viewer down. It may only be a matter of milliseconds per paragraph, but the added effort will give viewers a reason, even if unconscious, to leave your story without completing it. It’s difficult enough to hold viewers’ attention; don’t give them added reason.

If you like to prepare your content offline and then load it into your online story, be warned that any text formatting or hyperlinks created offline will not be preserved when you add the content to Exposure. Similarly, all paragraph formatting will be removed. This makes some sense given Exposure is committed to photography and not text; however, I found it to be an annoyance. I elected not to bother formatting text before pasting it into Exposure, and when I did paste the text, I pasted it one paragraph at a time so I didn’t have to go looking for where the paragraph break belonged. The Remove Text button removes the complete text content box, including all of its content.

Photo Groups

Selecting Add a photo group, will open your file browser so you can select the image or images you wish to add. You can select up to nine images. If you do not select all nine, you can still add more images to the group by selecting Add New Photos at the top of that image group. However, now you will add the images by dragging and dropping. When done, remember to select I’m Finished for the photos to appear.

You can rearrange the order photos appear in the group by selecting Reorder Photos at the top of the group. That opens a small—and I do mean small—list of image thumbnails. Simply select the image you want to move, drag it, and drop it in its new location. Again, remember to select I’m Finished for your changes to be saved.

Photo groups display the full width of the content but not the full width of the window.You can change how the photos are clustered—the number of rows and the number of photos in each row—but it’s a bit of a game to get what you want. Mouse over the photo you want to change and you’ll see options to Remove Photo or Fill Row. By selecting Fill Row, the photo will move into its own row and spread the full width of the row. If you wanted to move two photos into a shared row, you have to select Fill Row on the second photo, then go back to each photo in its own row and select Unfill Row. Depending upon where the photo is in the set, you may also have to change the order of the photos and repeat some of the steps. As I said, it’s a bit of a game.

Single Photo

Selecting Add a full-width photo opens your file browser so you can select the image you want. If you wish to change the photo for another, select Replace Photo at the top of the image and then, as with photo groups, you are back to dragging and dropping the new image in. Single photos display the full-width of the window. If you want a single image to display only the width of the content, use a photo group but only add one photo.

Embedded Content

Embedded content displays the full width of the window.Exposure allows you to embed content from YouTube, Vimeo, Google Maps, Instagram, or SoundCloud. Simply select the Embed content box from Add to Your Story and follow the directions. However, I found the embed links to be inconsistent. For YouTube, I needed the embed link that YouTube provides, but for Google Maps, I needed the share link, not the embed link. If your content is not embedding, prepare to play around a little with the links.

Publish Your Story

One of my favourite features with Exposure is the ability to plug your story into existing social media networks and embed the story on your own website once you’ve published. To publish your story, simply select the red Publish Story button. You will automatically be taken to the options for sharing your story. If you choose not to share your story but decide later that you would like to, simply select the story on your member page, then select Share at the top right. Your options are all there.

If you decide to use Exposure and you opt for a paid subscription, do take advantage of Exposure’s built-in tracking feature to see how much traffic your stories are getting. In the top left of the window, select Menu > Statistics. The report is comprehensive.

Keep Learning

As photographers, we might not think in words, but we do think in narratives. The online publishing platforms provide photographers with an opportunity to use narrative structures as a way of profiling our work and developing our talent. Using online narrative tools also helps us to get our photos in front of different audiences and present our work to established audiences in new ways.

Exposure is an online publishing platform that has been built with photographers in mind. Photos display beautifully; you can use text or not; and published stories can be linked into your broader social network with ease. Design options are minimal, but the standard design is elegant and uncluttered.

If you know you’d like to try an online publishing platform, but you’re not sure what you need or Exposure doesn’t seem to be the right platform for you, have a look at the other articles in our Photo Essay collection for more suggestions. And if you do publish an online narrative, share the link with us so we can all take a look!

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